Complementarians confidently assert that husbands are the God-ordained leaders of their families. As leaders, they have the right and responsibility to make final decisions in the home. I will refer to this husbandly right as the “last word clause.”
The “last word clause” is usually derived from verses naming the husband as the head of the wife or verses that command the wife to submit to her husband. But interpreting these passages as granting husbands greater authority in marriage than wives undermines the basic equality of all believers found in Scripture.
In the New Testament, husbands are clearly told to love their wives. By contrast, they are never told to lead their wives. With this in mind, let’s consider what 1 Corinthians 13, perhaps the most specific passage on the topic, tell us about the nature of love.
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge; it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (I Corinthians 13:4-9).
These verses weaken the common complementarian interpretation of what Paul means when he commands husbands to love their wives.
In verse 5, we learn that love “does not seek its own.” The Greek word here for “seek” means “strive after” or “require or demand.” The husband is not to “require or demand” that his wife submit to his will. This definition of love threatens the “last word clause.”
Verse 9 deals another blow to complementarian doctrine: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (emphasis mine). Are husbands somehow excluded from “we”? I think not.
Husbands do not know the fullness of God’s will in every situation. They should seek answers jointly with their wives rather than clinging to a pride-based “right” to make the final call. After all, we all lack in some knowledge. That’s why we need each other.
Let’s look at 1 Peter 3:5-7. Verse 6 is commonly quoted by complementarians because, read at face value, it seems to suggest that wives should obey their husbands. However, I am drawing attention to verse 7 because it addresses husbands and gives them a command. The passage reads:
“For in the manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him Lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror. Husbands, likewise, dwell with them in understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:5-7).
Disclaimer: The reference to the wife as the weaker vessel has been dealt with in context by other egalitarians, so I won’t be dealing with it in my exegesis today. Search the phrase “weaker vessel” on CBE’s website for helpful resources on this topic.
We have examined the husband’s admonition to love his wife; now let us look at the directive to honor her. What does it mean to honor another? This word appears forty-three times in the New Testament. It sometimes speaks of the monetary price for a physical item (Matt 27:6, 9; Acts 4:34, 5:2-3, 7:16, 19:19; 1 Co 6:20, 7:23; Col 2:23). More often, it speaks of a deep respect and awe ascribed to God (1 Ti 1:17, 6:16; Heb 2:7 & 9; 3:3; 1 Pe 1:7, 2:7; 2 Pe 1:17; Rev 4:9 & 11, 5:12-13, 7:12, 19:1) or a highly valued status ascribed to a certain person (Jhn 4:44; Acts 28:10; Rom 2:7 & 10, 9:21, 12:10, 13:7; 1 Co 12:23-24; 1 Th 4:4; 1 Ti 5:17, 6:1; 2 Ti 2:20-21; Heb 5:4; 1 Pet 3:7; Rev 21:24-26).
Among the Strong Encyclopedia’s definitions for the word are “esteem (literally of the highest degree)” and “deference, reverence.” Deference is closely related to the term “submit,” and reverence is very similar to the command to the wife to respect her husband. Strange how similar the directives are when examined closely, eh?
Can you honor someone while rejecting their input and authority and refusing to place yourself under their advice and convictions?
Nothing in this command gives husbands the right to pull any sort of “rank” and disregard their wives’ conviction and input. For all the emphasis given to the word “submit” when applied to wives (though it is applied to all believers), I would argue that the word “honor” is at least as clear as the word “submit” in commanding spouses to place the other above themselves.
And God takes it a step further. Not only are husbands to honor their wives, but God actually applies a consequence to men if they don’t. Their prayers will be hindered. God made men accountable to listen to and learn from women.
Since men were already in positions of power in that society, it would have been easy for them to get around this command. No one could make them honor their wives if they chose not to listen to Paul’s command. By contrast, wives could be forced to submit to their husbands, and could even face civil action if they did not, since many of the legal codes at the time required female submission.
Because of the cultural power difference between men and women, Paul’s command is all the more revolutionary. It is husbands who are being asked to do something radically counter-cultural. When husbands are commanded to love and honor their wives in Scripture, they are being asked to mutually submit alongside them.
Paul’s command to wives to submit very likely protected women from harm that would have resulted from openly rebelling in a patriarchal context. A wife who did not submit would have faced considerable trouble in her daily life. But to the men who had no social or legal requirement to submit, God himself says, “I will hold you accountable; to me you will answer.” Truly, with God there is no partiality.
God levels the playing field and ensures that it stays level.
A wife is not being honored or loved if her input is not seen as equally valuable, viable, and vital for her family’s well-being. A husband who expects his wife to submit, but refuses to do likewise fails to love and honor her.
God does not place one adult family member over another, giving men’s viewpoints and convictions precedent over women’s. Neither does God ask women to ignore their own gifts for spiritual discernment for the sake of maintaining the privilege of men.
Each believer is told to stand on God’s will and wait for his word. This command is never qualified for women. They are never told to stand on God’s will unless their husbands disagree. The command that husbands love and honor their wives certainly entails esteeming them as equals not only in value but also in function—respecting their gifts for spiritual discernment, wisdom, leadership, and decision-making.
I pray that the “last word clause” has truly had its last word.