“Who’s in charge?” was the type of question I kept getting asked as I dated my girlfriend, a young woman and an aspiring pastor. I had been raised with a complementarian worldview but had never been directly confronted with its implications until I started to dissent. Suddenly, friends and family were concerned that I was abandoning my “God-ordained headship” in my relationship. Someone even asked me, “If you get in an argument and you can’t compromise, who will decide what to do?”
As I was forced to think about this issue, I realized several things. First, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to have the “trump card” authority over this woman, or any woman. Second, this young woman was about the most empowered person I’d met. The gifts God had given her challenged my preconceived ideas of womanhood. Third, I didn’t think that God’s plan for marriage as mutual submission (Eph. 5:21-23) also included the clause that one partner in the marriage would always get their way. Finally, I read the texts that were often cited to make this argument. The most surprising thing I learned was that I couldn’t find a single text that said husbands are the ones who take on the role of decision-maker for the family. Instead, it seemed that the notion that “someone has to be in charge” was another preconception I’d acquired regarding marriage. And, given the explicit statements about equality in the Bible, it was an idea I couldn’t accept biblically.
But I still needed to figure it out. How do you make decisions in an egalitarian marriage? Rebecca Groothuis, in her book Good News for Women, provided one biblically sound alternative to hierarchy. One point in particular struck me: “[E]veryone always wants to know…who will make the final decision in a marriage if no one person is in charge? The simple answer is, that husband and wife together will make all the decisions that affect them both” (184).
The statement seemed so radical to me, because my concept of marriage had been wrapped in a worldview that supported hierarchy. Yet here, finally, was a vision for marriage that made sense of the texts. In an egalitarian marriage, decisions are made mutually: when there is an important decision about which partners disagree, they prayerfully approach the issue after much reflection, with an eye toward the desires and needs of their partner. If a decision needs to be made immediately, Groothuis suggests that “whoever will be most affected by the decision or is best qualified to make an informed decision should probably carry the most weight…” (184). The informed partner is not using their authority to trump the other, but rather the less-informed partner defers to the one who is better able to make the judgment. The image that results is an egalitarian marriage which takes into account all the biblical data. No one is “in charge”; both partners submit.
As for that young aspiring pastor: she’s my wife, and she’s at seminary, studying away.