Christian Marriage: Difference and Mutual Submission


I am writing this article to put forward an argument for mutual submission in marriage. I affirm that men and women are ontologically different from one another in complementary ways, but their differences do not justify a hierarchy in marriage. Before I dive in, I want to be clear about the following things:

  • I could very well be wrong. I don’t think I am (obviously), but I don’t hold so tightly to this belief that I deny that I could very well be incorrect. I am open to changing my mind if compelled to do so by sound exegesis.
  • I am committed to unity and affirm the old maxim: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” I believe the issue of how the sexes relate to one another in marriage is a really clear example of adiaphora, those things over which faithful Christians can disagree. Indeed, I think about Christian theology of being made up of concentric circles.
    • There are few things in the center, but those things are essential for being Christian (things like the Trinity, the Resurrection, Christ’s return, atonement, etc).
    • On the circle immediately out from the center I would place very important doctrines that divide the majors branches of Christianity from each other (things like justification by faith alone, authority of church leaders, veneration of the saints, substitutionary atonement etc).
    • On the circle immediately out from there I would place important doctrines (the kind that can separate Protestant denominations from each other), but that do not necessarily have to (things like the nature of the sacraments, ecclesiology, soteriology, inerrancy, etc).
    • And finally, on the outer circle, I would place those doctrines which I see as interesting, but largely irrelevant to the life of the Christian (things like a specific eschatological system, covenant theology vs dispensational theology, use of instruments in worship, bible translation, frequency of communion, etc).
  • I would place the roles of men and women in marriage in the third circle. I believe it is important, but I don’t believe it is essential or necessarily has to divide churches or members of churches.
  • My marriage is a mutualist marriage. What I mean by that is that neither of us has any more authority than another, but the work together (mutually) according to our different giftings to fulfill God’s purpose for our marriage and our family. We are not interested in “equality” (we understand the importance of hierarchical relationships generally and the problems with a modern attitude that insists on its rights). Rather, our desire, and what we think is the biblical desire, is for mutuality. We very much believe in the differences between men and women, God-given differences, that work together in mutual ways in marriage and society to accomplish God’s ends.
  • Finally, I have close to no interest in persuading other Christians of my position, and I am certainly not interested in militating against the leadership of my own church. I believe what I believe, but I am not an evangelist for it.

Biblical Texts

  • If verbal plenary inspiration is true (which I affirm absolutely) then the specific words used in the bible were providentially included by God. It is thus very important to understand the meaning and function of the Greek and Hebrew words that are relevant to this topic.
  • There are two places in the New Testament where the term “head” is used to describe how men and women relate. The first is 1 Corinthians 11 and the second is Ephesians 5.
    • 1 Corinthians 11:3 reads “But I want you to realize that the head (kephalē) of every man (anēr) is Christ, and the head of the woman (gynē) is man, and the head (kephalē) of Christ is God.”
      • Anēr and gynē, like their equivalents in many languages (like German) mean both man/woman and husband/wife. Since none of the rest of this passage is about marriage, and since the passage is primarily focused on the way men and women ought to behave during worship, we can assume that man/woman is the sense being used here.
      • Kephalē almost certainly means “origin” in this passage since that makes much better since of Paul’s argument than “leader” since understanding it to mean “leader” would make Christ ontologically inferior to the Father, which is heretical.
        • Further, this is the sense understood by many of the early church fathers in their commentaries on 1 Corinthians.
          • In his letter De Synodis, Athanasius (296-373), bishop of Alexandria, quoted from the First Creed of Sirmium which states: “For the Son is the Head, namely the beginning of all: and God is the Head, namely the beginning of Christ . . .”
          • John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407) was adamant that “head” doesn’t mean “leader” in 1 Corinthians 11:3. He said that if we take “head” with the sense of governing, the passage won’t make sense and it will lead to false ideas about Jesus Christ, which is his primary concern. (Homily 26 on First Corinthians)
          • Cyril (376-444), Archbishop of Alexandria, in De Recta Fide ad Pulcheriam et Eudociam wrote: “Therefore of our race he [Adam] became first head, which is source, and was of the earth and earthy. Since Christ was named the second Adam, he has been placed as head, which is source, of those who through Him have been formed anew unto Him unto immor­tality through sanctification in the Spirit. Therefore he himself our source, which is head, has appeared as a human being. Yet he, though God by nature, has himself a generating head, the heavenly Father, and he himself, though God according to his nature, yet being the Word, was begotten of him. Because head means source, he establishes the truth for those who are wavering in their mind that man is the head of woman, for she was taken out of him. Therefore as God according to his nature, the one Christ and Son and Lord has as his head the heavenly Fa­ther, having himself become our head because he is of the same stock according to the flesh.” (Patrologia Graeca 76, pp.1336-1420.)
        • In 1 Cor. 11:3, Christ is not head for or of the church, his body, but he is the head of every man. This text is made of three highly organized phrases: the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Christians will sometimes treat the word head in this text as carrying all of the English meanings for head in order to obtain this hierarchical order: God is head over Christ–Christ is head over man–man is head over woman. And thus, we have a hierarchy: God>Jesus>Man>Woman. In 1 Cor. 11:3, Paul is not structuring a hierarchy, though he knows exactly how to do so in perfect descending order (see 12:28, for example). In keeping with the theme developed in the immediate context, Paul is reflecting on the traditional importance of origination. The sequence that links the three phrases is not hierarchy but chronology. At creation, Christ was the source of the life of Adam (“by him all things were created” Col. 1:16). In turn, man was the source of life to the woman as she was taken from him. Then, God gave life to the Son as he came into the world for the incarnation. When the biblical sequence of the three phrases is not tampered with, the consistent meaning of head in this verse is that of a provider, not a leader.
    • Ephesians 5: 21-33 are as follows: “21 Submit (hypotassō) to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head (kephalē) of the wife as Christ is the head (kephalē) of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for his body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
      • Hypotassō is only in verse 21, not in verse 22. The implication is that the rest of Paul’s marriage discourse ought to be understood as a description of mutual submission. That is, a description of the way that the wife submits to her husband (like the church does to the Lord) and the way the husband submits to his wife (like Christ does to the Church).
      • Kephalē, like in the 1 Corinthians passage, has the meaning of “origin” or “source.” We know this is the meaning for a few reasons:
        • First, every other use of kephalē in the New Testament means “source.” Basic hermeneutics would have us assume that the same author uses the same word in the same way, especially in the same letter, unless there is good reason to think otherwise. If that is the case, the evidence below should be compelling. We have already discussed 1 Corinthians 11:3. The other passages follow:
          • Eph. 1:22-23. The context for this text is the exaltation of the supremacy of Christ in his enthronement. However, in relation to the church, Christ is described a being appointed as head for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. The New Testament never has Christ as the head above the church. Rather, like here, it is for the church. As head, Christ provides the church with fullness. He enables the church’s growth. His function is that a of a servant who meets the needs of others, not of an authoritarian leader.
          • Eph. 4:15-16. Christ is the head from whom the whole body grows and builds itself up. The head, in this context, provides growth for the rest of the body. Being the head is thus not about having authority, but is about safeguarding and providing for others.
          • Col. 1:18-19. Christ is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead. Through his blood, shed on the cross, all things are reconciled to God. In this section, where Christ’s supremacy is celebrated, his headship is still not connected to authority. Rather, he remains the source of life for the church because of the reconciliation he created through his death and resurrection. Again, Christ is a servant.
          • Col. 2:19. Christ is the head from whom the whole body grows. Like in previous passages, the head is the source of growth, not control. Christ as head to the church is the source of its life and development.
        • Second, the descriptions of the way in which Christ is the head of the Church are the ways in which he instantiates the church. As head, Christ is the source of the church. He is prior to her. While he is her Lord, that is not the point Paul is making in this passage. The husband is the head of the wife in that he gives her life in a way akin to the way Christ gives life to the church, namely by laying down his life for hers. The relationship between Christ as head and church as body is not hierarchical, it is linear or generative or chronological. Thus, we can say that in Eph. 5:23, the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which is the Savior. As head of the church, Christ saves the church. If head had meant authority, then Paul would have used Jesus’s other major title “Lord.” But instead, he chooses to use “Savior,” which is the role of a servant and not specifically the role of the leader or authority.
        • Third, if Paul had wanted to make the point that the husband was the authority over his wife, he had a dozen or more Greek words at his disposal that unequivocally meant “leader” or “ruler.” Instead, he chose to use a koine Greek word that never means ruler or leader, but only “source.” There are dozens of references in the New Testament to leaders of all kinds: religious leaders, community leaders, military leaders, governmental leaders, patriarchal leaders, and church leaders. Never is anyone of them designated as head. A number of other titles is used (episkopos, presbuteros), but head is conspicuously absent from the list. The obvious explanation is, of course, that head did not mean “leader” in koine Greek.
  • Often those who argue for hierarchy in marriage will appeal to the creation narrative. They will argue that there is male authority over the female in the order of creation itself, not just after the fall. However, it is my belief that complete mutuality existed prior to the Fall and that the Fall introduces hierarchy into marriage.
    • In Genesis 1:26ff there is no indication of hierarchy in the creation of humans. In verse 27, God creates mankind in his image; male and female he created them. He gives “them” dominion over the earth. Nowhere in chapter 1 does Adam have any kind of authority over Eve. He doesn’t even have chronological priority.
    • In Genesis 2:4ff God creates man (ä·däm’) and places him the garden. He later declares that it is not good for man (ä·däm’) to be alone, so he creates a “suitable helper (`ezer)” for him. In Hebrew, `ezer does not have the connotation of subordinate or inferior. Rather, a helper is one who does for you what you can’t do for yourself. God is one such helper (Deut 33, Psalm 20, Psalm 70, etc). The only other possible indication of a pre-fall hierarchy would be the order of creation. That is, since man was created first, he must have a higher authority than woman. However, chronological priority has never been the basis in scripture for claims to authority. In fact, the FINAL act of creation is humanity, and clearly humans are higher in the order of creation than anything else. Furthermore, the Old Testament is filled with instances of younger sons having authority over their older siblings. Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers, David over his brothers, etc. It is only after the fall that we begin to see hierarchy.
    • In Genesis 3:16 we see the first indication of hierarchy, and this hierarchy is a direct result of the fall. Eve’s desire will be for (or against; Hebrew prepositions are notoriously difficult) her husband, but he will rule over her. Like other aspects of the curse, this aspect is reversed in Christ. And it is mutual submission, as expressed in Ephesians 5, that I find to be the reversal of this curse.

The Beauty of Mutuality

So, if it is true that mutuality in marriage is taught by the scriptures, what are the implications for theology? For our experience of the world? In this section I want to paint a more holistic picture, based on the biblical data, of a Christian marriage built on mutuality rather than hierarchy.

  • First, one central aspect of what it means to be human is to recognize that there are differences at the heart of the creation. When God created the cosmos, he did so via a series of divisions. The waters above from those below, the land from the sea, livestock from wild animals, birds from fish, and male and female. The masculine and the feminine are ontological categories that built into the cosmos. The initiating, leading, pushing masculine and the receiving, supporting, and nurturing feminine. God has designed men and women to function in different and complementary ways. Men and women become most truly themselves when they operate within the design of God.
  • Second, the different commands given to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 suggests particular struggles that each sex faces in the marriage relationship. Paul begins by commanding women to be subject in everything to their husbands. That is, to willingly submit their own desires and interests to the desires and interests of their husbands. And we can understand why. The first human sin is Eve’s decision to disobey God and then tempt her husband to do the same. It was her desire to control her husband, at least in part, that resulted in the fall. The antidote is thus submission in all things to her husband. On the other hand, the first sin of Adam is passivity. He fails to correct Eve when she tempts him. And then, when God asked what happened, he blames his wife for his own failures. The antidote to this passivity, to this failure to take responsibility, is to require that he take the ultimate responsibility in pouring out his life for her sake.
  • Third, though it is true that wives are to be subject in everything to their husbands, husbands are not commanded to seize authority over their wives. If the model is Christ and the Church, then wives (like the Church) are wooed to their husband by his love and sacrifice and not by his control. Christ does not compel us to love or obey him, and neither ought the husband. Indeed, like Christ, the husband ought to humble himself. As Paul has it in Philippians,

Jesus “being in very nature God,​ ​did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;​ ​rather, he made himself nothing​ ​by taking the very nature of a servant,​ ​being made in human likeness​. ​And being found in appearance as a man,​ ​he humbled himself​ ​by becoming obedient to death​–​even death on a cross!”

  • That is, for the husband to truly relate to his wife as Christ does to the church means for him to be a servant, to make himself nothing.
  • Fourth, though it is true that husbands are enjoined to love their wives as Christ loved the church and to lay down their lives for her, the wife is not entitled to manipulate or coerce this love out of her husband. She is to be subject in all things to her husband. This includes her heart and her mind. If her husband is not doing a great job of laying down his life for her, she does not have the right to trick or manipulate him into doing so.
  • Fifth, marriage is covenant, yes, but a covenant not between the husband and wife, but between the couple and God. Indeed, the governing principle of mutual submission out of reverence for Christ shines quite clearly in its insistence that Christ is the authority in the marriage. In fact, the only section of the New Testament that even addresses how a married couple makes decisions comes down decidedly on the side of mutual agreement (1 Corinthians 7:5). Mutual agreement in marriage allows for the sanctification of individuals who would otherwise retreat to their corners and insist on their own way or else, perhaps, would result in the husband trump card being played and the reluctant submission of the wife. Where hierarchy tends to be very concerned about things like “who makes the ultimate decision when both parties disagree,” a mutual marriage puts greater trust in the Holy Spirit to work through the hearts of husband and wife as they pull together, equally yoked.

The Problems with Hierarchy

  • Insisting on a hierarchical view of marriage distorts the message of scripture and allows the imposition of a non-biblical schema to be imposed on the the Bible. If done often enough on a wide enough variety of issues, such an approach can lead to a devaluing of the inerrancy of scripture and its authority for our lives while privileging cultural norms.
  • Insisting on a hierarchical view of marriage is an unnecessary stumbling block placed before potential Christians. Nothing cultural should be passed off as necessary for the sake of following the Gospel. The Gospel is offensive enough; we ought not increase its offense by going further than the Bible itself teaches. A hierarchical marriage may very well work for some couples or be appropriate in some cultures (though I’m skeptical that it is ever what is best), but it most certainly ought not be imposed on Christians as a matter of obedience.
  • Insisting on a hierarchical view of marriage can lead to poisonous marriages that do not reflect the image painted by Paul in Ephesians 5. If a Christian man believes that he ultimately has authority over his wife to make decisions, and that this authority is granted to him by God, then pride can easily creep into his heart. But there is nothing special about maleness that grants one unique authority. That is the language of the world (who is the greatest?) and not the language of the kingdom.
  • Insisting on a hierarchical view marriage can lead to the suppression of giftings given to women by the Holy Spirit. A wife with a gift for discernment or stewardship may find her gifts less valuable in a hierarchical marriage where possessing those things can be a point of pride for men.
  • Insisting on a hierarchical marriage may lead children to have a distorted understanding of the image of God. God created male and female both equally in his image. Though no complementarian theologian I have read has ever argued differently, I know from speaking to women who were raised in hierarchical homes that the devaluing of women as image bearers and the overvaluing of men can be the result.


Ultimately, as I stated in the introduction, I don’t think this in-house debate among Christians should rise to the center of our concerns. I think it is important for any marriage to have a clear sense of purpose and design, and I think hierarchical marriage provides that purpose to many. On the other hand, I see the success of hierarchical marriage relationships as God choosing to work through that model even if it isn’t his ultimate desire. I see hierarchical Christian marriage as a product of sin (the curse in Genesis 3) and the least troubling of a number of gender and sexual deviations. What follows below is an excerpt from an article I wrote titled “Addressing the Transgender Phenomenon: a Christian Response” and it weaves together, I think, a holistic vision of God’s design:

In the Genesis account of creation, we are told that God made a good world. And this good world was good, in large part, because it was rightly ordered. God’s creation of light to separate the darkness or his creation of the expanse between the waters above and the waters above or his creation of habitats and then of animals and plants to populate those habitats all speak to a grand-orderer, one who organized the universe to work according to his design. Furthermore, the predictability of nature through science (particularly in physics) and the laws of logic and of math all point to a designer God who is interested in organizing all things according to his purposes. Things work in Genesis before the Fall because they comply with God’s good design.

When God creates humanity, he does so by creating (like in almost every species) physical complementarity. Humanity, properly understood, is both male and female. And, according to the Bible, male and female both project the image of God. God is pictured as both a conquering king and a nursing mother. In equal measure, the image of God sits on men and women. And, in particular, it is in marriage that men and women best project the image of God. This mutual complementarity of marriage was the original design, but this design was marred by the Fall. This idea is prevalent throughout the scriptures. God uses the metaphor of marriage to describe his relationship to Israel, and he understands Israel’s sins as infidelity.

When Adam and Eve fell in Genesis 3, one aspect of the curse that they were stuck with was that men would rule over their wives. This ruling over, this hierarchical claim to essential authority, is based on the differences between men and women (men in general are stronger than women in general) and is our first example of the philosophical claim that Might makes Right. It is the woman’s dependency on protection while she is vulnerable (giving birth, nurturing children) that allows the man to take advantage of her and rule over her. All of human history has seen this cursed patriarchal system play out.

Not only was male domination of women one aspect of the Fall (a domination that marred the beautiful design of God by unbalancing it), but so were other aspects of sexuality that also contribute to marring God’s beautiful design. In a fallen world, we expect men to try to dominate women. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to see men wanting to have more than one wife or men and women both wanting to participate in sex with more than just one person at a time or men and women who do not remain sexually faithful to their spouses or men and women who have sex before marriage or men and women who have sex with animals or with family members or just by themselves. If we expect the above deviations, we should also expect men to begin to desire other men instead of desiring women, and we would expect women to desire other women instead of men (Paul discusses this in Romans 1). We should also expect men who do not desire to remain men but want to be women and vice versa. In all of these cases, we see a destabilizing of God’s good design.

But, in Jesus Christ, this curse is reversed. In Ephesians 5, husbands and wives are enjoined to submit to one another. No longer will men rule over their wives, but they will sacrifice themselves for them. No longer will women cling to their husbands out of necessity, but now they will respect them. Paul’s teachings on marriage make it clear that in the Kingdom of God, the curse is reversed. There is nothing in the order of creation that requires a hierarchical marriage. In fact, such a hierarchical marriage is a product of sin. In Jesus Christ, women and men will remain faithful to their spouses and will not seek out animals or family members or orgies or people of the same sex, and neither will they seek to transcend the male or female natures that God gave them. While in all of these cases people may truly feel a sexual attraction to things they should not be attracted to or, in the case of gender dysphoria the severe sense that one is in the wrong body, such feelings are fallen and must be given over to Christ. He does not promise to take them away now–not in this fallen world. But in the world to come, all things will be restored. Paul says that the real purpose of marriage is to showcase the mystery of Christ’s relationship with the Church. Marriage between one man and one woman, with male and female being ontological categories, is essential to Paul’s picture of how Christ saves us; it is essential to understand the restoration that comes in Christ.

Part of living in the already but not yet is experiencing the tragedy of a suffering world. Cancer, natural disaster, and deviant desires are all part of the human condition. The overwhelming truth of the human experience is that things don’t work the way that they are supposed to work. The answer is not blessing people who pursue what ought not be pursued. The answer is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

* * *

I am indebted to a couple of articles for some of my insights. Here they are:

I Believe in Male Headship

Kephalē and Male Headship in Paul’s Letters

5 Myths of Male Headship