How we live out submission and leadership in our marriage

weddingEvery congregation should have the right to work out their ways of living out the Christian faith. I firmly believe that. No one can come from Belgium and tell believers in Bolivia how to take the Lord’s Supper. Or in the case of what we’ve been discussing, how to put into practice the Bible’s teachings about men and women.

In the same way, I believe every marriage is different. Yet I think every marriage is strongest when the husband is making an effort to be the spiritual leader of his family.

So what does that look like in real life? I can only answer in our case. Carolina and I have been married for 25 years. Yesterday I was trying to analyze our decision-making process and checked with Carolina to see if I was remembering right. I asked her if she could remember a time when I put my foot down and decreed what the final decision was. She almost laughed and said no. We make our decisions together. I can’t imagine doing it differently.

But she feels that I am the spiritual leader and that I should be. I see that leadership played out in many ways. I once heard Glenn Owen, in a Herald of Truth workshop, say that Ephesians 5 tells us that when sacrifices are to be made, it’s the dad that is to make them. That has stuck with me and been one of the guiding principles of how I seek to lead my family. I think leadership is about setting a spiritual tone to the things that we do, about ensuring that we are on the right spiritual path.

It also means that my wife looks to me for spiritual guidance. Don’t get me wrong… Carolina is a very strong person spiritually. You can view her testimony on the Hope For Life website and note that quickly. But she doesn’t want to lead her husband. She wants to know that she can count on me to move us toward spirituality, rather than having to drag me in that direction.

In practice, I would guess that our marriage looks a lot like those who feel that Ephesians 5 stops in verse 21. But the difference is the attitude with which we approach it: I with an attitude of sacrificial leadership, Carolina with an attitude of submission… submission out of strength, not out of weakness.

22 thoughts on “How we live out submission and leadership in our marriage

  1. Wendy Cayless

    What if the husband is a jerk and has no right to be spiritual leader? I have a friend who is in an abusive marriage. But, being a traditional Christian, she believes she has to submit to her husband. She has far more spirituality than he ever will have. But the church perpetuates the teaching that she should submit to him. And she continues to do so, putting herself and her children at risk
    What makes a man inherently spiritually the leader? Testosterone? His genitalia? I just don’t get it.

  2. Tim Archer Post author

    I have taught and still teach that a woman is to submit to the man who is living out Ephesians 5. It’s a two-way street.

    Grace and peace,

  3. Wendy Cayless

    And who decides if he is living out Ephesians 5? This guy puts on a very good act for the church. No one sees the abuse that occurs behind closed doors. As far as the church is concerned, this friend is the one at fault for wanting to leave.

  4. Tim Archer Post author

    I get it. But let’s remember that it’s NOT just faulty theology in that case. The church is full of horror stories. I don’t know any church leaders that can’t tell you a handful that have happened to them. Preachers’ wives. Preachers’ kids. Kids that grew up in the church.

    You don’t know of any marriages with an egalitarian viewpoint where abuse is present. That doesn’t mean that such don’t exist. Right? And there’s probably some abuse in the ones that you know; as you pointed out, people can put on a good act. And probably some of the abuse is perpetrated by women toward men. It happens.

    We can’t judge God nor the church nor any doctrine by the actions of imperfect people who follow them imperfectly.

  5. Kaitlin

    I’m more of a lurker, I realize, but I’ve been really interested in this conversation. As a newly married woman, my husband and I strive to keep God at the center of our lives.

    You said, “But she doesn’t want to lead her husband. She wants to know that she can count on me to move us toward spirituality, rather than having to drag me in that direction.”

    It sounds like you and your wife have a great relationship, focused on God. Isn’t it possible, though, that her “submission” is just as much “leading” as your “leading” is just as much “submission.” That’s what makes it mutual.

    I don’t want to speak for your marriage, but I know that in mine, I don’t want to “drag” my husband anywhere, and vice versa. He shouldn’t be the final authority on my spiritual life. That’s the role of God.

    I think that’s what egalitarian means. Mutually edifying, building, and living together for Christ. I don’t see this as being counter-biblical.

    Ephesians 5, taking it at face-value, even says, “Husbands love your wives as you love yourselves.”

    Do you see yourself as a leader? Do you love that about yourself? Do you see any leadership skills in your wife? Do you love that about her?

    Would you say that you are responsible for your wife’s salvation? That’s not rhetorical; I’m honestly curious. I don’t understand the complementarian argument, since I feel it usually ends in circular reasoning. I hope you can clarify.


  6. Tim Archer Post author

    Hi Kaitlin,

    Thanks for stepping out of lurkdom and leaving a comment. I’ll do my best to answer.

    I think that much of this seems circular because it is a symbiotic relationship. Paul compares it to the relationship of Jesus and the Father. Jesus submits to his father, yet is exalted by him. Jesus was equal to God, yet will “be made subject to him” (1 Cor 15:28).

    A truly complementarian relationship will have each part of the union complementing the other part. Mutually edifying, building, and living together for Christ, as you so aptly said. You don’t have to be egalitarian to have that. To borrow Paul’s thought from Ephesians 4:16, just as the body grows when each part does what corresponds to it, so a relationship is healthiest when the two parts DON’T try to be the same, yet each seeks the good of the other.

    As for responsibility for salvation, that’s a tough one. In a way, no one is responsible for any else’s salvation. (and we can play the “trump card” and say that Jesus is/was responsible for our salvation) Yet I think about what Hebrews says about leaders:

    “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17)

    There is a sense in which I will have to give an account for my family and their salvation. I think Adam failed Eve even before he took a bite of the forbidden fruit. I think he had a responsibility that he did not live up to. That’s why God called him to give an account for what had happened before asking the woman.

    Hope those ramblings make some sense!

    Grace and peace,

  7. Kaitlin

    Thank you for your response!

    Another question: After studying this subject, do you feel people who live out their marriages in an egalitarian fashion (i.e. mutually submitting to God and to each other, making decisions jointly, equally participating in servant-leadership) are acting with or against God’s ultimate vision for marriage?

    I’ve had trouble equating Jesus’ submission to God with the woman’s submission to man. I do understand that’s how Paul frames it, but I believe we need to be careful when comparing men to God and then acting as if women are secondary (but still “just as important!”). That just doesn’t make sense to me.

    Here’s the real question, I guess (I’m full of them).

    What do you see the major difference is in a woman that lives her life “egalitarian” versus a woman who lives her life “complementarian”? How does that play out?

    Also, if you think that a woman’s role is different than a man’s, when it comes to formal leadership and decision making, at what age does a woman need to stop “leading” her sons?

    Thank you for taking the time to answer these.

  8. Tim Archer Post author


    I don’t know that egalitarian marriages have anything inherently harmful in them. That’s a good question. I do see a woman-dominated marriage as harmful, if only because it goes against what I see in Scripture.

    I know that some see women as secondary. I don’t, even though I know my views don’t fit popular culture. I still believe that we underestimate the power of the roles that have been given to women. I argue that one of the most powerful roles in the world is that of mother. Not being a prophet nor a son of a prophet, I still predict that society will see a pendulum shift where more women will ask for the possibility of focusing on that role without being forced into the workplace. I understand the need for the current push to make equal access to jobs a reality; I merely feel that we will see a backlash.

    [Please feel honored: I’m treating you as a truth-seeker with whom I can be honest rather than an agenda-pusher with whom I have to choose my words carefully. I’m waiting to see which one will jump in and blast me for all this]

    As for your real question, that’s another tough one. How do the two lifestyles contrast? Let me tell you why that’s hard to answer. The other day I posted a link to an article by Wade Tannenhill (who is an egalitarian, if I remember correctly). He pointed out that some of the least submissive women out there take a hardline traditional view of the role of women. That is, they would never stand up and speak in the assembly, but they have no reservations about publicly criticizing the preacher, elders, and everyone else they can think of. So I’m not sure that it’s easy to say how a woman would live differently according to the views held.

    Regarding children, I don’t know that there’s a hard line that can be drawn. Some would say puberty, but that seems too young to me. I guess there comes a time when children are independent, making their own choices about church, etc. For some, that happens when they leave home. For others, it happens before. But that would seem an appropriate time.


  9. Kaitlin

    Thanks again, Tim. I blog (off and on) and I know it can be difficult conversing with people you don’t see. There’s not an inherent relationship to these types of discussions, and that makes these dangerous waters to wade. Thank you for taking time to wade them with me.

    I am an egalitarian, church of Christ woman, who feels called to preach and lead in my church. I say that so you know where I am coming from (though I don’t quite want to be pigeon-holed or labeled). I hope this is a semi-safe space to say this in.

    I agree with you about a woman-dominated marriage, as well as a man-dominated marriage. Luckily, God did not create our marriages to rely on domination. (Or, at least, I hope He didn’t.)

    I also believe it is a powerful role being a mother. I know others have brought this up, but I think of some very close friends who have been unable to mother due to several circumstances (illness, miscarriage, singleness, and widowhood.) (I don’t know if widowhood is a word.)

    My question here would be: What do you see the role of a father being? Is a mother more important than a father? Especially since God calls himself our Father, I wonder why we focus so much on this motherhood and not as much on fatherhood. In fact, Christ calls us to be mothers and fathers to orphans and friends to widows. I’m not sure that this is mutually exclusive to gender.

    If the role of a father is just as powerful as the role of a mother, what does that mean for leadership? Can a man be a father and a leader in his home? Can a man be a father and a leader in the church? If so, can a woman be a mother and a leader in her home? Can a woman be a mother and leader in her church?

    Just wondering how that fits in. Please don’t feel I’m criticizing, just working it out from my worldview.

    My other question to bounce off your last answer: Can a mother lead an adult single daughter, but not an adult single son? Or do they become autonomous once reaching that point of independence? If this is true, does a single woman have an independent faith UNTIL she gets married, where then her husband assumes some responsibility for her faith? (I have single friends who I know would be interested in the answer.)

    Again, my intent is not to trap or malign. I just want to know where you’re coming from.

    Grace and peace,

  10. Tim Archer Post author

    Mothers and fathers have very different relationships with their children. Recognizing that universals are impossible to find and exceptions abound, we have to remember that women have a 9-month head start, followed by the special bonding time that is breastfeeding. God has given to women an incredible opportunity to shape and mold these young lives. I’ve heard studies cited that said that the majority of moral values a child develops are largely in place by age 6.

    Fathers are important, but can never play the role that mothers play. They too have a role in the lives of their children, but I believe that it is a different one. I read an article today in The Atlantic talking about the differences:

    As for leadership/responsibility for another’s faith, let me point out that none of that negates each individual’s responsibility for their own spiritual life. The church has a responsibility to me, but should it not live up to that responsibility, I’m still accountable for who I am. So the question about the single woman really doesn’t make much sense. She’s always responsible for herself, just as a Christian doesn’t lose responsibility for themself when joining a church.

    Grace and peace,

  11. JTB

    hi Tim,

    I’m popping in to say I’ve enjoyed this exchange with Kaitlin–very interesting thread to catch up on.

    Also, this paragraph from you caught my eye:

    “A truly complementarian relationship will have each part of the union complementing the other part. Mutually edifying, building, and living together for Christ, as you so aptly said. You don’t have to be egalitarian to have that. To borrow Paul’s thought from Ephesians 4:16, just as the body grows when each part does what corresponds to it, so a relationship is healthiest when the two parts DON’T try to be the same, yet each seeks the good of the other.”

    What I find so intriguing here is that I agree with this all of this–and yet I am (as you of course already know) do not hold to “complementarian” notions of gender! So I think that this tells us a couple of helpful things, dialectically. First, I also do not think that healthy relationships between people are relationships where people are “trying to be the same.” Feminism is often caricatured as a denial of difference, but the best of feminist thought in fact honors difference. It seems to me that for us to be able to do the work of “seeking the good of the other,” we must be free in Christ to honor the differences in ourselves and able in Christ to see the differences of the others whose good we seek.

    So this brings me to the second helpful thing, which is I think where we must rock-bottom diverge: I find complementarian notions of gender to be difference-denying in ways that ignore who human beings, both men and women, actually are–and who they can be, clothed in Christ, gifted with the Spirit and called by God into service.

    I submit this for your review–I’m still trying to understand the nuts and bolts of what complementarianism means to you and why you hold to it, so if my analysis here of where we agree and disagree is incorrect, please do let me know.

  12. Tim Archer Post author

    I find complementarian notions of gender to be difference-denying in ways that ignore who human beings, both men and women, actually are–and who they can be, clothed in Christ, gifted with the Spirit and called by God into service.

    JTB, I’d love to respond, but I’m not sure I’m getting it. You’re saying that complementarians deny the difference between who people are and who they are when gifted by the Spirit?

    Obviously, I don’t agree with that. Something I want to discuss in a later post is something that I think very important: I believe that believers in the first century were as transformed by the Spirit as we are. Gifted by the Spirit.

    So did the Spirit lead men to stifle the gifts of Spirit-filled women because of cultural concerns? Or did the Spirit wait until culture changed before gifting women for roles the culture wouldn’t accept?

    My view is that the Spirit is much bigger than human culture and able to form a Christian community within any culture that transcends that culture. If he chose to use males to lead for centuries before the coming of Christ* and chose males to lead during Christ’s ministry and chose males to lead the church after Christ’s ascension, isn’t it quite possible that he had a plan in all of that? Even if we don’t understand all of the whys?

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

    *Yes, there were exceptions at times when the men weren’t living up to what they were supposed to, but none of that changes what the norm was.

  13. JTB

    Tim, I really appreciate the way you hang in there with me.

    I mean that I think complementarianism is difference-denying, full stop–not between Spirit gifted and not Spirit gifted, but in the way it presumes Men are always This and Women are always That. That’s not what I observe of myself, of my spouse, of my kids and their friends, of the people around me generally. That’s not what I observe of the Spirit-led and gifted men and women around me in my church, in my friendships and mentors and spiritual leaders. What gender you are isn’t predictive or determinative of the things we’ve been taught, both by culture and in church, of who and what people are or can be. So complementarian notions of gender seem difference-denying, rather than difference honoring, because they actively ignore the ways men and women both don’t fit those definitions of gender and the roles those definitions put forward as definitive.

    I also believe that God’s Spirit is much larger and fuller than human culture and human restrictions–including those restrictions of our own church traditions, doctrine and practices. I also don’t think we are any different than the first-century Christians in the realization of the promise of the gift of the Spirit’s presence in our lives–I don’t make any arguments regarding cultural Progress (shudder) or somehow being wiser or better than those who have lived in the past. Maybe that is an argument other people make (?), but it is not one I’ve made or alluded to here. So it seems to me that yes, the biblical text gives us narratives of God gifting the Spirit to all sorts, including women, and I’m not sure why these must be read as exceptions.

    Well, I digress. But I do feel like we’ve uncovered a fundamental point of divergence, which is that I think honoring differences between us means necessarily moving away from complementarianism.

  14. Kaitlin

    Hey Tim!

    I guess I didn’t word that last paragraph as well as I could have. Let me try again. (And, hopefully, I won’t chase too many rabbits in this thread.)

    I don’t think the church has done a good job responding to its single members. We are great at family programs, Mother’s Day Out, Father’s Day sermons, etc., but seem to ignore the large group of people without a spouse.

    I was single for 26 years before getting married (and I realize that’s still relatively young) and I have single female friends. Their experience in the church is full of heartache and frustration. I don’t attribute this solely to the complementarian view of our churches, but it plays a big part.

    Here’s what I mean:

    As a married woman, if I subscribe to a complementary view of marriage and the church, I will submit to my husband and he will lead me with grace and love. I will be a mother and he will lead our family as the spiritual head. This, in essence, is the greatest calling that God has planned, and I will be fulfilled in that because it is biblical.

    As a single woman, if I subscribe to a complementary view of marriage and the church, whom do I submit to? What is my calling? Is it to be trained to be a mother until I get married? Is it to sit quietly in submission until a husband comes knocking?

    I know that’s the extreme, but this is how my friends feel. How do we address that as a church? How would you respond to that?

    Thank you for the Atlantic article. I’m interested to read it when I get a chance.

    I like that JTB brought up our similarities. I’m glad we all agree that we should live our lives for Christ! What a beautiful common thread we share, even when we disagree on a lot of other stuff. :)

    As far as the Spirit goes, what a great mystery! The Spirit always seems to be doing things that surprise us, moving in ways that astound and, at times, make us uncomfortable. I think this is the beauty of our awesome God. I also think there’s a strong biblical case for the Spirit gifting women in the Bible (before it was culturally acceptable). Just look at Deborah, Mary, Priscilla, and countless other women who broke out of their cultural norms to speak for God.

    What do we say to the women who “feel led” by the Spirit to break out of the norm? How do we respond to them? Is it always that they’re “misled” or could it be that the Spirit really is speaking to them?

    I talk too much! :) Thank you for listening.

  15. Tim Archer Post author

    Actually, I think we’ve discovered another fundamental divergence. This is NOT a “you don’t believe the Bible” accusation. This is a “we see things very differently in the Bible” comment:

    I can’t help but see the divergences from male leadership as an exception. We have the Deborahs and Huldahs, Athaliahs and Jezebels, Ruths and Esthers in the Old Testament, but I’m not certain how anyone can not see them as an exception to the general practice. Or are you assuming there are numerous unnamed female judges in the Old Testament?

    When Jesus chose twelve apostles, they were all men. Women had prominent roles in Jesus’ ministry, yet the Twelve were male. When Jesus left, he placed them in a position of authority in the church. We see in Acts 1 that there were a large number of women among the gathered disciples. Yet when it came time to select someone else to round out the Twelve, it was two men who were nominated. Others came to prominence in Jerusalem over time, particularly James, yet we continue to find males leading the church.

    Women had important ministries in the early church, yet both the biblical record and historical record support the idea that the elders in the early churches were men.

    That’s why I see the idea of women taking the leading role among God’s people in biblical times as an exception. Which is why I see my question about the Spirit’s presence in the early church an important one, in my view.

    Thanks for modeling civil discourse. Blessings.

  16. Tim Archer Post author

    Hi Kaitlin,

    Just as a point of reference, I’m in my 50s, even though that sounds older than I like to admit! I’ve been in churches of Christ all of my life. I’ve seen changes, seen other changes that should have happened, seen lots of good and bad. It’s not easy for me to pigeon-hole myself well within our brotherhood; I seem to be conservative on some things, liberal on others, and just plain confused on some.

    I think we’ve made mistakes concerning women. We have allowed, as Wendy has pointed out, some men to behave in ungodly ways toward their wives, forcing the women to take it or leave the church. We’ve told women they could prepare the potlucks and tend the nursery and to stay out of the men’s way. Not all of us and not everywhere, but such things have taken place.

    Yet I don’t think it’s a binary system, which is why I find the whole egalitarian/complementarian designation unhelpful. (And I don’t think that either you or Jen are claiming that this is an all or nothing issue) There’s a wide spectrum of views, there’s a wide spectrum of ways to allow women to use their gifts, and there’s a wide spectrum of ways for males to lead without shoving women back into the kitchen or the nursery.

    My fear, with my prehistoric awareness of how the church tends to operate, is that this will be yet another time where the church is pushed to leap from one end of the pendulum swing to the other.

    Let’s find ways to empower and use women, married and single, letting them explore their gifts. Let’s take a step, then pause and listen for the Spirit’s leading. Then another step, or maybe even a step back. Let’s take a long view of history, finding our place in the stream of the people of God that goes back thousands of years, not merely our place in an American church that tends to look back a few decades.

    OK, now I’m wandering down bunny trails. I’ll post this anyway. Maybe some will make sense. Thanks again for interacting.

  17. JTB

    Tim, that’s very fair. I think we do read the text very differently on this, and I’m not at all alarmed for that to be pointed out–and thanks for taking such care in so doing. I really do love the Bible. :)

    One contributing difference to the hermeneutical divergence is probably that I don’t assume that the models or examples in the text as we encounter it are necessarily wholly positive. This means a pretty definitive break with the traditional CofC “pattern” hermeneutic, since searching for the pattern means first presuming that a complete and positive pattern is there to begin with. Since I don’t think we’re fundamentally different from the first century folks in terms of spiritual maturity, giftedness or understanding, I figure they got things right and got things wrong pretty much the same as we do now, and so not all examples and models are salutary. That’s not really too radical except when it means a difference of opinion about practices that I perceive as harmful that I grew up being taught, and accepting, as part of the salutary “biblical pattern,” among which, of course, is male spiritual headship. So that all makes sense to me as part of what undergirds our differences of belief on this.

    I also do–though I’ve never really articulated this before your question–think that there were probably tons of women doing all sorts of things that go unrecorded in the biblical text, just like surely there were tons of other male leaders doing all sorts of things that have gone unrecorded in the canon. That’s not anything to build a big case on or anything, but it does throw light on why I don’t think basing a norm on majority male versus minority female examples of political/religious/formal/recognized leadership is particularly helpful. There are all sorts of possible explanations for why there are fewer women named as formal leaders in the biblical texts that have nothing to do with God choosing on principle not to make women spiritual leaders–just like there are lots of explanations for why there is a minority of women engineers that in no way imply that women are bad or inherently unsuited to engineering. (I know that is a kind of a random example, but because I do theology and science I am constantly fascinated by the parallels in discussions of the lack of women in STEM and the absence of women in theology/philosophy and the silencing/exclusion of women in CofC.)

    time for lunch!

  18. Alabama John

    Please let me butt in here as a bystander.
    Sometimes we, when discussing men and womens roles should stand back, stop quoting and just look at nature. God created it when He did us and set its and our order as He wanted it after all.
    Males have roles different from females in nature and both accept them as they work out for the betterment of both.
    When we, as nature would, get in trouble is when we for any reason cross up the lines nature draws. We humans seem to be the only ones God created that continue to try to make this crossing and it never works long.
    Females have their position like in a Pride of lions. males rule, have the beautiful long black mane, but the real work is done by the females and if it wasn’t for them, the males would suffer and starve.
    We’ll never be equal, so, lets each just try to do the best we can to serve our God given position whether its being a female or male and all will be peaceful again in nature and the Church of Christ.

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