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Heath Lambert, “Breaking the Marital Impasse: How Authority and Submission Work When Spouses Disagree” JBMW 15.2

November 15, 2010

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Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling
Boyce College
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Louisville, Kentucky

Ted and Elizabeth had been members of a church I pastored for many years. Both lived committed Christian lives and were integrally involved in ministry for our congregation. One morning Elizabeth requested a meeting with me to discuss a "very difficult" issue in their marriage. I met with her and Ted that afternoon. As we talked it became clear that the problem concerned Elizabeth's leadership of our church's preschool ministry. Elizabeth loved the work, but life in their home was crazy. Ted was forced to work longer hours at work, their family was growing, and another ministry they shared in the church was quickly multiplying. Ted did not believe it was wise for Elizabeth to continue to supervise the preschoolers. They had been discussing this issue for weeks, but could not agree on a course of action. Finally, Ted "put his foot down" and made the final decision. Elizabeth would have to resign from the ministry. Elizabeth was stunned, angry, and hurt. In her anger she told him she would never quit. After 24 hours of conflict, Elizabeth called me for help.

How should complementarians evaluate this situation? With regard to the issues of headship and authority in marriage, biblically responsible complementarians have been faithful to articulate that wives must not submit to their husbands when to do so would lead them into sin. That qualification is good and biblical.1 It does not, however, answer all of the questions. What about the kinds of situations where the black and white of sin and righteousness blend into the muted gray of ambiguity?What would wise, biblical counsel sound like in real-life situations where conservative Christian spouses disagree about the nature of submission and the parameters of marital authority? What is a wife to do when she feels uncomfortable submitting to her husband in an area, but cannot quote "chapter and verse" that it is a sin. Any faithful pastor can attest that these are the kinds of issues that couples face every day as they try to work out a complementarian structure of marriage in the context of real life. How can Christians striving to be faithful to the biblical teaching on authority and submission in marriage work through these issues?

Steven Tracy raises these same concerns in his article, "What Does ‘Submit in Everything' Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission," in a 2008 issue of Trinity Journal.2 Tracy calls himself a non-egalitarian because he disagrees with egalitarians by seeing legitimate authority in the marriage relationship, but disagrees with complementarians for-he says-not thinking carefully enough about how to protect women from the sinful abuses of authority in marriage. In his article, Tracy explains six parameters of submission. Tracy seeks to protect women from husbandly abuses of authority by saying that a wife should not submit to her husband when, (1) obedience to him would violate a biblical principle (not just a biblical state­ment); (2) obedience to him would compromise her relationship with Christ; (3) obedience to him would violate her conscience; (4) obedience to him would compromise the care, nurture, and protec­tion of her children; (5) obedience to him would enable (facilitate) her husband's sin; (6) obedience to him would constitute submission to physical,sexual, or emotional abuse.

With regard to our couple, Ted and Eliza­beth,Tracy's principles would seem to indicate that Elizabeth does not have to submit to her husband in this area. He is seeking to "dictate" her relation­ship with Christ.3 Ted might be trying to make a wise decision for his family. He may even be doing it out of love for his wife, but he has overstepped his authority.

Tracy makes a good point about the need to have a strategy to work through the interplay between authority and submission in complex marital matters. unfortunately, there are a num­ber of problems with his individual parameters. I have outlined some of these in a previous article.4 In addition to the issues detailed in that article,there are a number of other problems with Tracy's approach. While the goal of Tracy's article is to lay out six qualifications to headship and submission,his approach effectively describes six categories in which a wife knows, prima facie, that she does not have to submit to her husband. Sometimes this is okay. For example a wife can know, in advance, that she does not have to submit to her husband when it involves sin. Many of Tracy's categories are con­crete examples of this principle (e.g., violations of conscience, facilitating sin, enduring abuse). Most of Tracy's principles, however, are much more harmful to those desiring to embrace the Bible's teaching on authority and submission.

Tracy has the best of intentions, but ultimately his principles demonstrate a failure to think bibli­cally and carefully about how to engage complex situations. This is the case for a number of reasons. First, ministry in thorny situations within marriage is necessarily specific.Tracy,however,provides gen­eral answers to particular questions. In this way,Tracy's parameters are too simplistic to engage the complex issues he raises. Second, the goal of Tracy's parameters are to lay down six specific examples where a wife knows-up front-that she does not have to submit to her husband. There are so many problems with this. one is that it does not match the tenor of Scripture's teaching. The Bible empha­sizes the requirement of a wife to submit to her hus­band, but also includes instruction qualifying this emphasis to regulate abuses by sinful people in a sinful world.Tracy's article,on the other hand,does the opposite and emphasizes the qualifications to authority. Another problem is that the approach does not rightly understand the sinful tendencies of women (and all people!) to resist authority. A final problem is that it answers a matter before hearing it, and so is bound to end in folly and shame (Prov 18:13). Wise spouses (and the ministers who help them) will always want to hear a matter carefully,and not decide a complicated issue before all the details have been uncovered. For most of the last ten years I have been doing marriage counseling,and I do not think Tracy's approach will help cou­ples think biblically about the matters he addresses.

I want to do more here, however, than just throw rocks. Like Tracy, I also want to protect women from abuse. The question to pose here is:Can we establish a better way? A wife must never follow her husband into sin, but what about the more complicated matters when a wife is unsure? Here, I wish to do what I did not have space to do in my previous article and explain what I pray is a more biblical alternative to the proposals Tracy outlines.

What we need is a strategy that avoids leading women to say "no" up front, but instead encourages all involved to think through complex issues in a careful way. I would propose five guidelines to help couples and the ministers who counsel them think through these issues. Don't expect easy answers here. Life in a sinful world with two sinful peo­ple will always be complex. Instead, expect bibli­cal guidelines to help navigate our thinking, and provide a framework to help both members in the marriage relationship avoid sin by thinking care­fully about the issues of authority and submission.5

Guideline #1: A wife must submit to her husband in all areas except sinful ones.

We must start here. The command for wives to submit to their husbands "in everything"is given emphatic attention in the Scriptures, and so must be given emphatic attention in our marriages (Eph 5:22). The Bible goes on to note that there are qualifications to every human authority (e.g., Acts 5:29). This means that in a sinful world, we will want to have a way to work through exceptions, but we should not begin with exceptions.6 A husband's loving authority extends to all areas of the wife's life and is meant to serve her, protect her, and be a cata­lyst for her growth in Christ-likeness. Any effort to work through challenging issues in headship and submission must begin with this clear principle.

Guideline #2: The distinction between "during the day," and "the end of the day."

My wife and I are committed to a comple­mentarian vision for our home. I want to lovingly lead our home, and Lauren wants to submit to my authority. We believe that my loving leader­ship involves listening to the thoughts, ideas, and suggestions of my wife. I trust my wife. She is one of the brightest and most insightful people I have ever met in my life. one of the reasons I married her is because of the profound gift of wisdom she has received from the Lord. But sometimes we dis­agree. Because this is true, we need to talk about those things that we see differently. "During the day" is the phrase we use to refer to the decision making process."During the day"we talk and listen to one another. We ask questions, express concerns,and push-back on what the other one is thinking."During the day" is the time when a husband lis­tens to his wife ( Jas 1:19), seeks to lovingly serve her (1 Cor 13:5), and live understandably with her (1 Pet 3:7).7

"The end of the day" is the phrase we use to refer to the actual decision as it is made. At "the end of the day" I am the one responsible before God to make a decision that suits the best interests of our family. I know that, and Lauren knows that. At "the end of the day"there have been times when Lauren and I have disagreed regardless of what happened "during the day." At that point, with great sobriety,I exercise authority, and Lauren engages in the act of submission saying, "Honey, the Lord has made you responsible for our home. I think you have lis­tened to me, and understood me. I would make a different choice, but I am happy to support your decision on this matter."8

Guideline #3: A wife is also a sister in Christ to her husband.

In Christian marriage, the spousal relation­ship is not the only one that characterizes the involvement of a man and wife. For Christians, a wife is married to her brother in Christ. All the passages in Scripture about marriage are relevant to a Christian wife, but all the passages about walk­ing with a brother in the Lord are also relevant to her.9 This means a wife will not be a good sister in Christ if she engages in behavior that tends to lead her husband into sin (Rom 14:23), or if she avoids rebuking her husband in his sin (Luke 17:3; Gal 6:1-2).10 one of God's greatest gifts to me is a sis­ter in Christ who sees me more closely than anyone else and, so, is equipped to point out sin in my life that nobody else sees. Marital submission does not mean that a wife ceases to be a fellow Christian along with her husband. Likewise, marital author­ity does not insulate a man from being helped in his sanctification by his wife. Because a wife is called to submit to her husband she will need to think about how to engage her husband in a respectful way, but she must not avoid it all together. If a husband sins against his wife "during the day" she should talk to him about it and rebuke him with respect.

Guideline #4: A husband is not the only authority to whom his wife is accountable.

The Bible teaches triadic authority. That is to say that the sovereign God mediates his authority through three institutions: the family, the church,and the state.11 This means that, in addition to her husband, a wife should also submit to the author­ity of her church leadership (Heb 13:17), and the civil authorities (Rom 13:1). Headship in marriage occurs in the context of authority in other areas of a woman's life as well.This guideline protects women in two ways. First, it protects them from a poten­tial sinful abuse of a husband's authority by giv­ing a woman other authorities to whom she may appeal. Second, it protects the woman from a sinful autonomy that seeks to spurn a husband's author­ity merely to do whatever she wants.12 Whenever it becomes necessary for a woman to avoid submit­ting to her husband she should never do this for reasons motivated by selfish ambition ( Jas 3:16).Instead, it should flow from a desire to be submis­sive to some authority (ultimately the authority of the Lord as he mediates his sovereignty through the church or the state).

What this means very practically is that if a husband is sinning against his wife and will not heed her rebuke, a wife has a responsibility to report her husband's sin to the pastors in her church (Matt 18:15-20). A wife also may report illegal conduct to the police. A husband should not expect his wife to submit to his demands to keep a sinful matter between the two of them. In such a situation, the Bible prescribes other authorities to whom a woman must submit as a Christian, and a citizen.

Guideline #5: Wise ministry engages both the husband and the wife in marriage.

Tracy's parameters only address the woman in the marital equation. This is a problem for two reasons. First, it is one-sided when marriage is,by definition, two-sided. Second, it runs the risk of short-circuiting what God wants to do in the woman's life as he sanctifies her. These two prob­lems will tend to encourage a sinful autonomy as women seek to decide, automatically and on their own, when they will and will not submit to their husbands. This is not wise or realistic. In real life,couples need help sorting through issues when the previous guidelines have been observed but have not led to a solution. This means that wise pastoral counsel will engage both members of marriage and seek to discern how each can serve the other and grow in the grace of sanctification. A wise bibli­cal counselor will not deal only with women and say, "You must submit," or "You must not submit."Neither will a wise minister deal only with the man and say, "You must assert your God-given author­ity as the head." No. Good ministry listens to and engages both parties, understanding that husbands and wives may each sin as they work out the details of authority and submission.

The biblical call for husbands to lead and wives to submit will require couples to navigate numerous potential difficulties that are part of life in this sinful world. As couples seek, by grace, to do this there is a logical progression to each of the guidelines presented here. A wife should be will­ing to submit to her husband (guideline #1), but a couple should expect to discuss issues and sort out difficulties as they live life together as husband and wife (guideline #2). As they do this, however,sin can and will happen. When sin happens wives should understand that the call to submit does not neutralize their call to engage their husband's sin (guideline #3). often, couples will be able to resolve difficulties at this point without going any further. If they cannot, however, a wife does have the right and responsibility to report unrepentant sin to other authorities to whom she is accountable and receive help from them (guideline #4). once involved, church authorities in particular should expect to deal with a complex rather than a simplis­tic situation. They should expect to see sin on both sides and be equipped to minister to each member of the marriage so that each grows in grace to look more like Christ (guideline #5).

How can Christians use these principles to help real couples like Ted and Elizabeth? With regard to guideline #1, it is clear that Elizabeth's involvement in the preschool ministry does fall within the radius of Ted's role as the leader of their home. Ted is Elizabeth's spiritual leader (Eph 5:26-27). Also her involvement in the ministry is having serious consequences for their relationship as a couple, for Elizabeth's work as a mom, and in their other ministries together. Ted would be a poor leader indeed if he did not help his wife think through an issue of such importance in her life and their life together.

Ted and Elizabeth wisely took time to discuss this issue of the things that happened "during the day" as Ted and Elizabeth discussed,was that Elizabeth began to sense that Ted was not really listening to her. She was aware that he had made up his mind before they talked. She discussed this issue with him, but he never really engaged the matter before making the decision that she must quit. Ted and Elizabeth thus made a fleeting and failed attempt at guidelines #2 and #3.

That is when guideline #4 kicked in and Eliz­abeth sought help from her pastor. She was right to do this because as a believer she is under pastoral authority as well as husbandly authority. She also had grounds because she believed she needed help in engaging a sin issue with her husband.

Ministry to this couple began at guideline #5. As I spoke with Ted and Elizabeth it became clear that they were both right, and they were both wrong. Ted was correct that he had authority to make a decision regarding Elizabeth's ministry commitments that were doing damage to her and her family and needed to be streamlined. He was incorrect in the way he executed his leadership. In fact, Ted had not listened to his wife. He did not shepherd her well. Repentance for Ted meant con­fessing that he had been quick to speak and slow to listen, and that he had been unloving in demanding his own way, thus violating the law of love.

on the other hand, Elizabeth was correct that her husband had treated her in an unloving way, but was wrong in that she used his sin as a legal loop­hole to squirm out of submission. She approached the decision about her ministry as an exercise in personal autonomy, rather than glad-hearted sub­mission to authority. For her, repentance meant learning to put off an arrogant spirit and trust God who gives authority for our protection and sancti­fication. At the end of the day, Ted and Elizabeth each repented to God and each other for their sin,and agreed that Elizabeth should submit to Ted's leadership on this matter.That is exactly what hap­pened, and both still believe they made the right decision.

This is one example.13 I hope it is enough to show that in marriage we need more than facile answers to complex problems. My goal is that the principles here will not only protect women from sinful treatment in their marriages, but also from a sinful rejection of authority. I hope the guidelines here form a framework that is complex, careful, and biblical enough to measure up to the many compli­cated difficulties of marriage in a sinful world.


1The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the only true King and Lord of life to whom all lesser authorities must ultimately submit (Col 1:15-20; Acts 5:29; Exod 1:15-21) and complementarians have consistently noted this truth. In fact, from the earliest days, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has condemned abuse as a "cruel use of power." Complementarians have addressed this issue with crystalline clarity saying, "We believe that abuse is sin. It is destructive and evil. Abuse is the hallmark of the devil and is in direct opposition to the purposes of God. Abuse ought not to be tolerated in the Christian community." See "CBMW Issues Abuse Statement," CBMW News 1, no. 1 (August 1995): 3.

2Steven R.Tracy,"What Does ‘Submit in Everything'Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission," Trinity Journal 29 (2008): 285-312.Tracy's concerns in this article are noble.He says,"The abuse of authority and the dilemma of submission are partic­ularly acute since even the more extreme forms of male abuse of power are common" (287). He is afraid that, "Many of the ugly sit­uations that thousands of Christian women continually deal with are completely ignored in the non-egalitarian literature, leaving Christian women to fend for themselves when seeking to discern what obedience to Scripture looks like in their real world" (287).of particular importance to him is his concern that, "Virtually none of the non-egalitarian marriage literature relates marital sub­mission to the specific behaviors that pornography has influenced men to request or demand from their wives or to the way pornog­raphy programs men to demean and objectify women" (289). I share Tracy's concern to protect women but believe it is possible to be more faithful to the Bible's teaching regarding how to do it.

3Ibid., 307. Tracy elaborates on what it means for a husband to dic­tate his wife's relationship with Christ when he says, "Modern Christian wives must recognize that their first allegiance is to Christ. Their husband is neither their priest nor their lord. While most non-egalitarians would agree that a husband's leadership includes taking the initiative to help his family grow spiritually, we must also affirm that a wife is responsible to nurture her own spiri­tual life."

4Heath Lambert,"A Lack of Balance: A Review of Steven R.Tracy,‘What Does "Submit in Everything" Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission,'" The Journal for Biblical Man­hood and Womanhood 15, no. 1 (2010): 51-54.

5Setting up such guidelines to direct persons in particular situations is the same project that other complementarians have commended.See Wayne Grudem, "But What Should Women Do in Church?" CBMW News 1, no. 2 (November 1995): 4. There, he says, "We must simply recognize the fact that God in his wisdom has given us a Bible which specifies many principles for conduct, and does give some specific examples of application. But by its very nature the Bible cannot speak in specific detail to the thousands, and even millions of real life situations that people will encounter through­out the centuries."

6In his article Tracy is critical of the work of Mary Kassian. He quotes her saying, "Practically, there may be situations in which submission to authority is limited. However, these situations are few and far between. our focus should be on humility and obedi­ence to authority in all circumstances. Submission may indeed have limits, but these limits are the exception rather than the rule.obedience to God generally means obedience to those in author­ity over us" (Mary Kassian, Women, Creation, and the Fall [Win­chester, IL: Crossway, 1990]), 38). He then comments on the prevalence of abuse against women and says in light of that fact that, "Kassian's presupposition, that submission to authority need not be qualified since situations requiring such a need are exceed­ingly rare, is utterly divorced from reality" (Tracy, "What Does ‘Submit in Everything'Really Mean?,"287).In fairness to Kassian, however,Tracy's interaction with her work is unfair.First of all, she did not say that submission "need not be qualified." She admits that such a qualification is necessary within the very quote he ref­erences. Secondly, in the very same section as the one Tracy quotes Kassian is clear that persons should appeal to God as supreme authority when a human authority contradicts his own (See Kas­sian, Women, Creation, and the Fall, 37-38). She does the same thing again later in the book when she agrees with Tracy's position that women should flee abusive situations (Ibid., 69). Tracy, there­fore, mischaracterizes Kassian's position who, I think, is making essentially the same point as the one here. There are situations where a husband's authority is qualified. We should think those through carefully. We should not begin with those exceptions,however, because they prove the rule.

7See Tracy,"What Does ‘Submit in Everything'Really Mean?,"306,308.Tracy is rightly concerned that a woman not submit in an area that she believes might be sinful.Though he is imprecise in how he deals with this (see, Lambert, "A Lack of Balance," 53), the Bible does teach that it is a sin to violate one's conscience (Rom 14:23).The guideline here embraces that biblical theme, and improves upon Tracy's parameters by not throwing off submission up front.It also gives couples an opportunity to think through confusing and controversial matters. A husband should not demand that a wife violate her conscience, but should minister to her and sort through her concerns "during the day."

8It should be noted that there will be times when the necessity of a quick decision precludes the kind of deliberation that is necessary in this guideline.Though this is true most decisions in marriage do afford the kind of time this takes. When husbands and wives prac­tice leadership and submission during these routine times, it makes it possible to approach the unique times when a decision must be made quickly from a standpoint of trust.

9Martha Peace gets at this same idea when she encourages wives to "Submit to and participate in the process of mutual sanctification"with her husband. The role of wife does not exempt a wife from being used by God to make her husband more like Christ. See The Excellent Wife (Bemidji, MN: Focus, 1999), 36-44.

10Tracy, "What Does ‘Submit in Everything' Really Mean?," 309.Tracy is correct that a wife must not enable or facilitate the sin of her husband.

11Christians have consistently taught that each of these three institu­tions are ordained by God and have endemic authority. Among many possible sources see David Clyde Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 166-69; J. L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano, 1990), 83; 263-66; 273-74; John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today (Philippsburg, NJ: P&R, 1993), 191-94.

12Tracy,"What Does ‘Submit in Everything'Really Mean?,"306-12. One of the problems with Tracy's parameters is that it makes a woman an authority unto herself. Because we are aware both of God's love for authority and the rebellious search for autonomy in our own hearts, all Christians should be concerned about this.Whereas Tracy's parameters encourage the flight from authority,the guideline here encourages the embrace of other authorities to balance abuses of power.

13The example here is relatively tame as marriage problems go. The guidelines here can also be used in the more extreme problems like abuse in marriage or complex sexual matters. For example, a wife who believes she is being asked to submit to sexual practices that she is uncomfortable with should appeal to her husband to discuss the matter "during the day." If he refuses or will not answer her objections, she should seek help from outside authority.

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