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Published Date: January 31, 2005

Published Date: January 31, 2005

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A Fresh Perspective on Submission and Authority in Marriage

There is a serious problem with the institution of marriage in the United States. Statistically, about half of all those who currently marry can be predicted to divorce within seven years. Many marriages, and particularly Christian marriages, do not seem to last. They fall short of God’s ideal that marriage should be permanent as long as the two partners live. A 2001 national study conducted by Barna Research Group highlights this reality. The enclosed chart summarizes divorce rates among various Christian church denominations.1

Barna says that 33% of born again adult Christians have experienced a divorce. That statistic is comparable to non-born again adults. Also “more than 90% of the born again adults who have been divorced experienced that divorce after they accepted Christ, not before.”2

According to Barna, these results raise “questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families.” They challenge “the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriage.”3 Dallas therapist, Dr. Roy Austin, agrees with Barna’s findings. He states that fundamentalist or evangelical couples base their marriages on “very irrational and unrealistic principles,” and he adds that problems occur when some men, as head of the household, become “cruel dictators” who “expect their wives to become servants.”4

But, churches have an ethical responsibility to promote healthy marriages. To fulfill this responsibility churches must have a clear understanding of the Scriptural basis that the permanency of marriage is God’s will. Beyond this, they must recognize the social, economic, and ethical implications of promoting healthy marriages. Churches can benefit from exploring existing empirical data on marriage and the input of professional marriage and family therapists. finally, churches need a fresh perspective on submission and authority in general and in marriages in particular.

Permanency of Marriage Is God’s Will

Old Testament Basis

In Genesis 2:24, the man leaves his father and mother and clings or cleaves to his wife. To cling or cleave means to be devoted to faithfully, as in “but you are to cling to the Lord your God” (Josh. 23.8). The word, “cleave,” is an old English word meaning “keeping the troth.” This means that the husband and wife are to count on each other, give their utmost, share deeply from inside, and stick together through thick and thin.5 Thus, marriage is viewed as a lifelong commitment where the two become one flesh. They share an intimate relationship based on love, fidelity, mutual respect, and trust. Marriage is also viewed as a lasting covenant relationship. The prophet Malachi warns the husband not to be “faithless to the wife of his youth as she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (Mal. 2:14). According to God, marriage is intended to endure: “For I hate divorce says the Lord, the God of Israel” (Mal. 2:16).

New Testament Basis

In Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus responds to a question from the Pharisees regarding the circumstances under which a man can divorce his wife. After quoting Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24, Jesus states: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 19.6; Mark 10:9). Christ is stating that it is God’s intention that marriage is to be a lasting covenant and that God opposes divorce. Scripture uses marriage as a metaphor to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:23, 31-32). In this regard, marriage is viewed as an inseparable union. In 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul provides advice concerning the authority that each marriage partner has over the other’s body (vv. 3-4) and that a Christian couple should not divorce (vv. 10-11). Also, the writer of Hebrews states: “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled” (Heb. 13:4). To be held in honor means that marriage is viewed as precious, of great worth, highly respected, and priceless. Both Testaments emphasize that marriage is a life-long commitment which is valued by the entire community.

While permanency of marriage is God’s will, there are cases in which divorce is justified. For example, in Matthew 19:9 Christ suggests that immorality, or unfaithfulness, is a valid reason for divorce, however, other reasons may exist. Physically abusive behavior leading to injury of the spouse or children appears to be a valid reason for divorce, particularly when such behavior continues with no indication of a willingness to change (see Mal. 2:14-16). Whenever a marriage breaks down beyond any hope of restoration, churches should respond in the spirit of grace and forgiveness.

Other Reasons To Promote Equality in Marriages

Apart from Scripture, there are social, economic, and ethical reasons why churches should be involved in promoting marriages based on equality. For example, marriage carries with it certain legal ramifications, rights, and obligations under our present judicial system. When marriages fail, there are emotional and monetary costs. These impact not only the individuals involved and any dependent children but also affect the body of Christ and society at large.

Divorce has significant detrimental effects on a child’s performance in school, including emotional or behavioral problems and an increased risk of accidental injury and poisoning.6 Sexual and physical abuse are prevalent in our society and Christian marriages are no exception. Such abuse can occur in any marriage. For example, one pastor tells how a Christian woman felt obligated to obey her husband “by engaging in sex with him and another woman at the same time.” Obviously for her, being in God’s will meant being submissive to her husband. The pastor counseled that she should have disobeyed her husband, but that she was still to remain under his authority.7 Not understanding the limits of biblical submission brings great pain and continued suffering to Christian relationships, marriages and to women in particular.

Mutual Submission versus Unilateral Subjection in Ephesians 5

Submitting yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21) represents a horizontal interaction that takes place between believers. Some feel it is difficult to comprehend and live out. Why? Because I believe “submission” is often misunderstood and misapplied. first of all, submitting is not a command. Submission is passive in nature and results only within the context of being continually filled (saturated) with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18). Second, submission is mutual and applicable to all believers in Christ (Eph. 5:21). This means that submission applies to both husbands and wives equally (Eph. 5:22). Third, submission is not something you do to someone but is something you receive from someone. It is not an action to be attained but an attitude of the heart to be maintained.

The Greek word, hupotassō, is often translated as “submitting to” or “being subject” in Ephesians 5:21-22. However, this Greek word has more than one use and a range of meaning that is quite different from what is commonly understood today. Hupotassō actually has two uses: military and non-military. The military has a connotation of being “subject to” or “to obey,” as if you are under someone’s command. Most contemporary people would probably think of this meaning. However, the non-military use means “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.”8 In ancient papyri the word, hupotassō, commonly meant to “support,” “append,” or “uphold.”9

Some Bible translations recognize that hupotassō has more than one use. For example, The Message Bible translates Ephesians 5:21 as “be courteously reverent.” The New Century Version translates hupotassō as “cooperate” rather than “submit” in 1 Timothy 2:11 and 3:4. Andrew and Judith Lester, authors of It Takes Two: The Joy of Intimate Marriage, suggest a better translation is “be supportive of,” “tend to the needs of,” or “respect the needs and desires of.”10

In the context of Ephesians 5:18-23, Christians are cooperating, supporting, upholding, and respecting one another as one result of being filled with the Holy Spirit. There are some compelling reasons why this makes sense. Verse 21 states one: because of our reverence for Christ. Christ is our example. Did Jesus Christ come as a military commander to rule and give orders over his Church? No! In fact, Christ warns us not to exercise authority over anyone (Matt. 20:25-27; Luke 22:25-27). Jesus came as a servant to give his life for us. Next, maintaining an attitude of mutual cooperation and support reduces disunity and promotes harmony in the Church. This is how the members of the body of Christ are supposed to relate to one another. And that fulfills God’s desire for us to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in the church (Eph. 4:3) and in our marriages as well. Also, the church is referred to as the body of Christ. Picture the physical body. How do the various members, the hand, brain, heart, lungs, feet work? They cooperate and work together to support the entire system. In the same way, we, as members of the body of Christ, need and must support one another. finally, why would Scripture command Christians to be filled with the Spirit in order to be subject to, follow orders, or be under someone’s authority? A person does not need to be filled with God’s Spirit to follow orders, for even nonbelievers demonstrate this ability, when they “submit to,” or obey, their superiors.

The phrase, “wives, to your own husband, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22), expands this relationship of mutual support to include the marriage relationship. Unfortunately, Bible translators elect to present verse 22 as a new sentence with an added verbal command, such as: “Wives, be subject” (NRSV, NASB, REB); “submit” (NIV, NKVJ); “submit yourselves” (DNT, KJV, ISV); “yield” (NCV); “will submit” (NLT); “must submit” (TLB) “to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” This is regrettable, because there is no verb in the Greek text. No command is given that solely wives are to submit to their husbands. Only a few translations use italics or brackets as a way to indicate that the words, be subject, etc., are not found in the best Greek manuscripts. In addition, verse 22 is not even a separate sentence. It is a phrase, a continuation of verse 21, that must be understood in light of the context of verses 18-23, which is really one long sentence in the Greek.11 Wives or husbands are not commanded to submit to, be ruled or dominated by their spouses. Both are meant to cooperate and support one another in the spirit of love and unity.

Authority: Who Really Has It?

Scripture tells us that both husband and wife have exousiazō, meaning “authority” over each other. In fact, the only place Scripture uses the common Greek word meaning authority, exousia, in relation to a husband and wife, is found in 1 Corinthians 7:4. This deals with the couple’s sexual responsibility to each other.

Furthermore, one could argue that the wife is the real “master” of the home since she is to “oikodespotein” (or “rule”). Widows, for example, are to “manage their homes,” or “the household,” in 1 Timothy 5:14 (ISV, NCV, NIV, NKVJ, NRSV). They are to “rule the house” (AVS, DBY). The Greek verb, oikodespoteō, is one of the strongest terms used to express exercising authority in relation to the home. It literally means “to be master (or head) of the house; to rule a household, manage family affairs.”12 The noun, oikodespotēs, is variously translated either as “master,” “owner,” “head of the house,” or “head of the household” (Matt. 21:33; 24:43; Luke 12:39; 13:25; 14:21). Thus, Scripture may be as easily interpreted as affirming that wives “rule” the home. They are the house-despots!

Christians should remember that the real spiritual “head” of the home is Jesus Christ alone, in whom all authority rests (Matt. 28:18). The point is that marriage was never meant to be a struggle over power or who is “in charge.” Rather, the male and female are meant to exist in a covenant commitment in which the “two become one” through mutual love and support (hupotassō).

Does the “Head” Metaphor Mean Authority?

Some people abuse or misconstrue the concept of authority. Gender hierarchicalists claim that, when the man or husband is referred to as the “head” of a woman or his wife, this means that he is “in charge” over her (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23). They miss the biblical call to husbands, who are commanded to love their wives sacrificially (Eph. 5.25). Husbands are not commanded to be in authority over their wives. Even some early Greek Church exegetes and theologians tell us that the “head” (kephalē) metaphor means “source of life, origin,” not authority. Here are some examples:

  • Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (ad 376-444), commenting on 1 Corinthians 11:3, defines the head metaphor as source: “Thus we say that the kephaleo of every man is Christ, because he was excellently made through him. And the kephaleo of woman is man, because she was taken from his flesh. Likewise the kephaleo of Christ is God, because he is from him according to nature.”13
  • Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia in Cilicia (ad 350-428), interprets the metaphor as “source or origin of life.” He “held that just as Christ was considered head of all who had been born anew in Him, so the woman has man as her head ‘since she had taken her being from him.’”14
  • John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople (ad 347-407), commenting on 1 Corinthians 11:3, said the head metaphor does not mean that one has authority over another or one is under subjection to another. He wrote: “For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection, as thou sayest, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master.”15

Churches have ample reasons to encourage marriage based on equality. These marriages benefit all family members and the body of Christ. Promoting healthy relationships and eliminating unhealthy attitudes about marriage should be a top priority. But what do healthy marriage relationships look like? Where do we find the answer? Marriage is defined from two divergent theological viewpoints.

Defining Marriage Relationships: Egalitarian vs. Traditional

The New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology defines marriage as a copartnership of equality where “neither may lord it over the other.”16 This represents an egalitarian view of marriage. Egalitarian marriages are described as mutual partnerships without forced roles and are characterized by a high degree of intimacy. In contrast, a hierarchical view of marriage has distinct roles with the husband in a position of authority over the wife.

Complementarians claim their view “should find an echo in every human heart.”17 The root problem in marriage, they say, “is the unwillingness of each to accept the role for which he or she was designed.”18 If these statements were true, then marriages based on hierarchical relationships should be the happiest and most intimate of all marriages and have the lowest divorce rate. Yet, born-again evangelical Christians have a high divorce rate.

Both views of marriage have been argued by scholars from a biblical perspective for years and this debate will probably continue into the future. However, the relevant and immediate issue for the church and the parties involved is recognizing which relationship is most biblical and results in a happier, healthier, more intimate, long term, and permanent marriage. Is this not what God really desires for our lives? Discovering this key represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the church. Churches will need to examine their biblical presuppositions, assess the biblical and sociological evidence, and consider any necessary change.

Promoting healthy marriages may require that some churches look beyond current understanding of how marriages should function and discover how healthy biblical marriages really do function. Egalitarian professionals who work within the field of marriage and family therapy, sociologists, researchers, and demographers provide this necessary insight and empirical data.

Some scientists have concluded that marriages based on egalitarian concepts of equality, shared power, and leadership are the happiest of all marriages. Their research may affirm the egalitarian view of Scripture.

Review of Empirical Marriage Data

Drs. Alan Booth and Paul Amato, Pennsylvania State sociologists and demographers, suggest that egalitarian marriages are happy marriages. They interviewed and followed the lives of two thousand men and women and some of their children over a twenty-year period between 1980 and 2000. The subject individuals were personally contacted six times each year during the twenty-year study. In the year 2000, at the conclusion of their twenty-year study, the research team interviewed an entirely new random sample of 2,100 married couples. Amato explains, “So we can look at two different kinds of changes: how individual marriages change over time, and how the population of married couples has changed between 1980 and 2000.” Dr. Amato concluded: “Equality is good for a marriage. It’s good for both husbands and wives. If the wife goes from a patriarchal marriage to an egalitarian one, she’ll be much happier, much less likely to look for a way out. And in the long run, the husbands are happier too. “

While some hierarchicalists may argue that wives working leads to divorce, Dr. Booth refutes this notion. Based on the results of this long term study, he says emphatically that “women working does not cause divorce.”19

Dr. David H. Olson, Professor Emeritus, Family Social Science, University of Minnesota, compiled a national survey based on 21,501 married couples using a comprehensive marital assessment tool called ENRICH. This national survey, published in the year 2000, represents one of the largest and most comprehensive analyses of marital strengths and stumbling blocks. Couples were asked to complete 30 background questions and 165 specific questions that focused on 20 significant marital issues. This survey identified the top ten strengths of happy marriages and the top ten stumbling blocks for married couples. Olson claims that, by using these top ten strengths, it is possible to discriminate between happy and unhappy marriages with 93% accuracy.

Another important discovery was the growing importance of an equal role sharing marriage. Most of the couples (81%) where both spouses perceived the relationship as egalitarian were happily married, while most of the couples (82%) where both spouses perceived their relationship as traditional were mainly unhappy.20

This means that only 18% of hierarchical marriages were reported as happy. In relation to intimacy 98% of happy couples feel very close to each other, while only 27% of unhappy couples felt the same. The inability to share leadership equally (couple inflexibility) was reportedly the top stumbling block to a happy marriage.

Drs. Pepper Schwartz and Philip Blumstein, University of Washington sociologists, published the results of a decade long research study in 1983. Their extensive survey of 15,000 American couples revealed that “equality and shared power” significantly contributed to happiness and was the reason couples chose to stay married. Conversely, “the inequality experienced by women was a primary cause of unhappiness leading to the break up of marriages.”21

Ashton Applewhite, author of Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, addresses the personal and sociopolitical aspects of marriage. Citing a 1995 survey of 4,000 women, she notes that women in egalitarian marriages are by far the happiest. Stephanie von Hirschberg, senior editor of the New Woman survey, writes that sharing power and responsibility “seems to be crucial to a woman’s happiness in marriage.”22

Dr. Diana R. Garland, Professor and Chair of the School of Social Work and Director of the Center for Family and Community Ministries at Baylor University, discusses marriage relationships in her book, Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide. She points out that research conducted in the mid-twentieth century revealed the following: Wives, in traditional marriages, suffered significantly more depression and other mental disorders than men, working married women, and unmarried women. In traditional marriages, wives had been beaten at “a rate of more than 300 percent higher than for egalitarian marriages (Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz 1980).” Garland notes that violence is more likely to occur in homes where the husband has all the power and makes all the decisions than in homes where spouses share decision making.

Garland cites numerous studies since the 1950s that have consistently revealed that egalitarian couples “are more satisfied with their marriages than those in traditional relationships (Bean, Curtis and Marcum 1977; Blood and Wolfe 1960; Centers, Raven and Rodrigues 1971; Locke and Karlsson 1952; Michel 1967).”23

Dr. Howard Clinebell, Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Psychology and Counseling, Claremont School of Theology, and author of Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counseling, characterizes a healthy marriage as one evidenced by mutual care and support that allows for the growth and fulfillment of each person’s God-given potentialities. Clinebell writes in 1984 that, based on personal experience, he and his wife, Dr. Charlotte Ellen, “can attest to the fact that an egalitarian marriage is potentially more fulfilling for the woman and the man.”24 Conversely, Clinebell states, “Sexism is a central cause of diminished and destructive marriages.”25

Summary of Empirical Marriage Data

Extensive studies have been undertaken by marriage and family professionals, sociologists, and demographers. Over the last fifty years these studies reveal that significant numbers of marriages that share power and authority are happier than those where authority rests in one spouse.

This research suggests the following: first, it effectively challenges hierarchicalists’ notion that sharing authority destabilizes marriage. Second, it suggests that hierarchy actually destabilizes and leads to the demise of marriage. Third, it provides evidence that suggests egalitarian marriages produce healthy, happy, intimate, and stable marriage relationships.

Implications for Church and Society

Dr. Clinebell notes that in our educational process children need to be raised free of sexism.26 This should be a goal for all churches as well. Churches need to realize that healthy marriages do not happen in a vacuum. Developing healthy relationships is dependent on having a proper attitude and respect for members of the opposite sex. This process begins at an early age. Churches can implement educational and participatory opportunities where members are able to develop free from class, gender, or racial prejudices. These principles benefit everyone: those who marry and those who remain single.

Concluding Remarks

Churches can become a motivating force for healing and change. They have a responsibility to promote healthy marital relationships. Strong and healthy marriages are built on loving and equal relationships. Marriage relationships grow best and flourish within the context of egalitarian ideals. The biblical material compels us to embrace this reality and psychology seems to echo the point. Theologians may continue to debate this reality, but the data has already spoken. Christians should hear what the Holy Spirit is saying and live in the full redemptive life of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

What a great injustice and tragedy that so many Christian marriages end in divorce and many who remain together live in unhappy marriages. Numerous reasons are offered: some blame “no fault” divorce, economics, and stress from living and coping in a materialistic society. People point fingers at something or someone else. Yet, the root cause is always sin and deception.


  1. The Barna Group, “Denomination” [doc. on-line]; available from Page=Topic&TopicID=16; accessed 12 April 2004.
  2. Forrest Boyd, “Reflections by Forrest Boyd” [doc. on line]; available from; accessed 1 June 2004.
  3., “U.S. Divorce Rates: For various faith groups, age groups, & geographic areas” [doc. on-line]; available from; accessed 5 Nov. 2003.
  4. The Dallas Morning News, “Dumbfounded by Divorce” [doc. on-line]; available from; accessed 5 Nov. 2003.
  5. J. H. Olthuis, “Marriage,” in New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology, eds. David J. Atkinson and David H. field (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1995), 565-66.
  6. Diana R. Garland, Family Ministry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 543.
  7. Douglas J. Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 429.
  8. “Thayers Greek Lexicon,” GRAMCORD for Windows; CD-ROM (Vancouver, Wash.: The GRAMCORD Institute, 1999): 5293.
  9. Ann Nyland, “Papyri, Women, and Word Meaning in the New Testament,” Priscilla Papers 17, no. 4 (Fall 2003): 6.
  10. Andrew D. Lester and Judith L. Lester, It Takes Two: The Joy of Intimate Marriage (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 126.
  11. Gordon D. Fee, “The Cultural Context of Ephesians 5:18– 6:9,” Priscilla Papers 16,1 (Winter 2002): 3.
  12. Thayers Greek Lexicon: 3616-17.
  13. Manfred T. Brauch, F. F. Bruce, Peter H. Davids and Peter H. Kaiser, Jr., “Head of the Woman is Man? (1 Corinthians 11:3),” Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), electronic edition.
  14. Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on 1 Corinthians (Migne PG 66.888C).
  15. Chrysostom, Homily XXVI” [doc. on-line]; available from 2_746336; accessed April 18, 2004.
  16. J. H. Olthuis, “Marriage,” in New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology, 565-66.
  17. Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, “The Danvers Statement,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 478.
  18. Robertson McQuilkin, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1995), 270.
  19. Nancy Marie Brown, “Happy Marriages,” Penn State Research [doc. on-line] available from; accessed 7 Nov. 2003.
  20. David H. Olson and Amy K. Olson, Empowering Couples: Building on Your Strengths (Minneapolis: Life Innovations, Inc. 2000), 72. Also available from
  21. Lester and Lester, It Takes Two, 120.
  22. Ashton Applewhite, “Making Relationships Work Better” [doc. on-line]; available from; accessed 7 Nov. 2003.
  23. Diana R. Garland, Family Ministry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 200-01.
  24. Howard Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counseling: Resources for the Ministry of Healing & Growth (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), 244-50.
  25. Howard Clinebell, Growth Counseling for Marriage Enrichment, Pre-Marriage and the Early Years (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 24.
  26. Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counseling, 293.