Kelly Ladd Bishop

Exploring issues of faith, culture, and spirituality with a focus on women in the church and world

How Can a Marriage Work if No One is in Charge?

How Can a Marriage Work if No One is in Charge?

I was sitting towards the back of a large lecture hall in a seminary class on Paul. The professor stood at the front of the class and said, “I understand that there are many different views on this subject, I’m going to share my personal understanding with you.” He was talking about the roles of men and women in marriage. He went on to say that a husband has authority over a wife in a marriage. Then he carefully explained that this authority was only to be used in a loving and gracious way, and practically speaking it will probably only come into play when there is a decision that just can’t be made mutually. He stated, “In all my years of marriage…” and I was sure he was going to say that this had never actually happened. Instead he said, “this has only happened maybe four or five times.” He was a young man, with young children, and had run into four or five situations where he and his wife couldn’t agree, so he got to make the final decision, simply because he was a man.

I puzzled over this for a while. What situations would these be? Why would there ever be a reason to dismiss his wife’s opinion, and make a final decision against her will? I found it hard to believe that this would work on any issue of significance. I could imagine it might possibly work if they were arguing over pizza toppings…

Sometime later, an acquaintance of mine made the same argument. He said that, generally, in his marriage, decisions are made together. But if ever there is an important decision they can’t agree on, he makes the final call as leader of the household. His examples of situations where this rule might apply were, “which house to buy, what city to live in, or how many children to have.” I was flabbergasted. He was actually saying that if his wife disagreed with him on which house to live in or how many children they should have, that he would get the final say. This was a much bigger deal than pepperoni or pineapple on your pizza. These were life altering decisions that he would make, knowingly going against his wife’s wishes, because he is a man, and gets the final say.

I argued that marriage is a union, and decisions have to be made together. He told me that someone has to lead.

Other than Jesus, he’s wrong. Marriage doesn’t need a leader. Marriage is a partnership. Marriage is a union. Marriage is two people becoming one, sharing life, journeying together, building each other up, urging each other on in the race, forgiving each other, showing each other grace, learning together, growing together, and leaning into Christ together. There might be times in a marriage where one partner defers to the other on a decision that is more important to the other, or on a decision about which the other has more knowledge. This could be a husband deferring to a wife, or a wife deferring to a husband. But on any life altering decision, if a mutual agreement can’t be made, then nothing should happen. Don’t move forward. Seek counsel. Don’t pull an authority card and move forward against the wishes of your spouse.

I can’t imagine willingly walking into a life-long relationship knowing that, if we disagreed on something major, I would automatically be out-voted. That’s a soul squashing, hopeless kind of life! I can imagine the enormous amount of damage that could be done by this kind of thinking.

Besides being impractical and unhealthy, there is nothing biblical about the view that the man gets the final say in decision making in a marriage. So being unbiblical, and impractical, I think we can throw that idea right out the window.

In a healthy marriage, decisions are made together. This includes which roles people will play. A healthy marriage might look very traditional, with a wife at home, and a husband working. A healthy marriage could also be one where both partners work full-time, or a husband stays home. A healthy marriage might divide household activities evenly, or the majority may fall to one spouse or the other. A healthy marriage might have many children, or no children. A healthy marriage might choose homeschooling, or public schooling, or private schooling. There is no one set structure for a household in a marriage of equality.

When decisions are made together, and a couple chooses roles and responsibilities together, they lean into their gifts and strengths, and set up the best-case scenarios for success and satisfaction. When decisions are made together, no one feels out-voted. And when decisions are made together, they are owned together. There is shared responsibility.

Along with the impractical and unbiblical idea that the husband gets the final say, comes the idea that the husband carries the ultimate responsibility for whatever decisions are made.

Husbands – I release you from this responsibility, because it was never yours. Wives are adults (or they better be!) and women are just as responsible for their decisions as men are. When you share the power and authority, you share the responsibility and the consequences. This is how a union works. This is marriage. Wives gladly bear the burden of their decisions right along side their husbands, and husbands gladly share the responsibility of making decisions with their wives.

Some people I have run across have expressed complete confusion over how a marriage can work when no single person is in charge. I confess, I am completely confused about how a marriage can work when one person is in charge. That’s not the way it was designed, it’s no way to build trust, or unity, and it’s completely unnecessary.

You married a partner with whom to share your life. So share. All of it. Go ahead, it just might be fantastic.

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4 thoughts on “How Can a Marriage Work if No One is in Charge?

  1. Good comments, thank you.

    My wife and I have been married for 47 years and we both grew up in churches that in today’s language would be called complementarian. We are among the many couples who have somehow managed to never come to a head-butting difference of opinion. Over time we developed, quite by accident, principles we follow on decision making. We pretty much only saw these principles when we looked back at them.

    First and foremost the vast majority of decisions are made mutually. This is not a “rule” but has always tacitly been a goal.

    If agreement does not happen easily several decision factors seem to automatically come into play. Who is the most knowledgeable on this issue? Who is going to be most effected by it? Who feels the strongest about the result; who is more emotionally invested? Usually, if these do not produce agreement, we tend to table any decision,although this is extremely rare. If a decision is important is it not likely that God is capable of telling both of us?

    Finally there is the joy you can find in seeing the other happy with the conclusion. Frankly we think this surpasses any satisfaction that might come from getting your way. I guess you can say that we have over the years become accidental egalitarians and we could not be more pleased.

    1. That’s great Tom, thanks for sharing! I find that a lot of people become accidental egalitarians, because it really does work best.

      1. Yes! Replying to both Tom and Kelly. We have been married 25 years and could also say we “somehow managed to never come to a head-butting difference of opinion. Over time we developed, quite by accident, principles we follow on decision making.” And our “method” is similar, with questions such as Tom offers.
        Yes, I think there are many accidental egalitarians out there. Even some complementarians, I’ve heard them describe their marriage – and it sure sounds egalitarian in how it plays out!

        1. Yes! I agree Laura. I think some complementarians aren’t being totally honest with themselves about how their marriages work.

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