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Misunderstood Mutuality: Responding to Ronald W. Pierce and Elizabeth A. Kay, “Mutuality in Marriage and Singleness”

June 22, 2023

Ronald Pierce and Elizabeth Kay have penned a chapter on 1 Corinthians 7:1-40 that they believe fills an important gap in the “evangelical gender debate” (108). They argue that this text is “Paul’s sweeping call” for Christians to practice “mutuality in marriage and singleness” (108). They argue that both egalitarians and complementarians have “neglected” this text, even though Paul’s instructions in this chapter are “three times longer than any gender-related passage in his other letters” (109).

Pierce and Kay contend that this passage, perhaps more than any other in Paul’s writings, demonstrates his commitment to “mutuality” between the sexes. They never define mutuality in this chapter, but earlier chapters essentially treat “mutuality” as another way of describing the egalitarian view.[1] Throughout chapter 6, Pierce and Kay appear to be using the term in the same way — as a synonym for egalitarianism. At the very least, they believe that the mutuality between male and female in 1 Corinthians 7 provides the “seed ideas” for Paul’s fully developed egalitarian views (110).[2]


Pierce and Kay contend that 1 Corinthians 7 reveals Paul’s commitment to mutuality both in marriage and in singleness, and this commitment is summed up in twelve principles:

Principles of Mutuality in Marriage (1 Cor. 7:1-16)

1. Fidelity in marriage: Each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband (1 Cor 7:2).

2. Spousal obligations: The husband should give to his wife sexual intimacy, and likewise the wife also to her husband (1 Cor 7:3).

3. Yielding authority: Neither the wife nor the husband has authority over their own body — that goes to the other (1 Cor 7:4).

4. Consent for abstinence: Do not deprive one another, except consensually and for a limited time of focused prayer, then come together again to avoid temptation (1 Cor 7:5).

5. Loss of a spouse through death: It is good for widowers and widows to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, let them remarry (1 Cor 7:8‑9).

6. Initiating divorce with a believing spouse: The wife should not separate from her husband, and the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Cor 7:10‑11).

7. Initiating divorce with an unbelieving spouse: If any brother has a nonbelieving wife who consents to stay in the marriage, he should not divorce her. If any woman has an unbelieving husband who consents to stay in the marriage, she should not divorce him (1 Cor 7:12‑13).

8. Sanctification of a nonbelieving spouse: The nonbelieving husband is made holy because of the believing wife, and the nonbelieving wife is made holy because of the believing brother. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy (1 Cor 7:14).

9. Responsibility when the nonbelieving spouse leaves: If the nonbeliever leaves, let it be so. In such cases a brother or sister is not bound. God has called you to peace (1 Cor 7:15).

10. Salvation of a nonbelieving spouse: How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Cor 7:16)

Principles of Mutuality in Singleness (1 Cor. 7:25-40)

11. Thinking carefully before marriage: In view of the present distress it is good for a man or woman to remain as they are — single or married (1 Cor 7:26‑28a).

12. Ministry and spiritual calling: Those who choose to marry — men or women — will face worldly problems, as well as distractions from undivided devotion to Christ (1 Cor 7:28b, 32‑34).

In all of these ways, Pierce and Kay argue that Paul treats male and female equally — meaning that his instructions to men and women in various married or non-married arrangements are basically equal and not so much sex-specific. Thus they conclude that 1 Corinthians 7 “paints a portrait of the beauty of mutuality in intimate, personal relationships — sexual or not, and whether one remains single or chooses to marry” (124-25). Mutuality, therefore, applies not merely to the marital ideal depicted in the Garden of Eden but also to those who wish to remain single and celibate — including those who are same-sex attracted and who wish to enter into “intimate, nonerotic relationships” with other same-sex attracted people in the church. On this point, Pierce and Kay refer explicitly to the idea of covenanted, celibate partnerships that Wesley Hill commends in his book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (125).[3] Apparently, the “mutuality” that heterosexual couples enjoy in marriage can also be experienced by same-sex attracted couples within a celibate, covenanted “spiritual friendship.”


While there may be some points in this chapter that would be relatively uncontroversial, Pierce and Kay fail to present a coherent case for “mutuality” that would be a defeater of the Bible’s overall complementarian teaching. In other words, their case for egalitarian “mutuality within marriage” cannot be sustained by their argument. There are several reasons for this.

First, most of the twelve principles enumerated above do not address the actual differences between egalitarians and complementarians when it comes to marriage. The heart of the dispute between egalitarians and complementarians concerns what it means that God calls the husband to be the head of his wife and the wife to be the helper to her husband (e.g. Gen. 2:18, 20; 1 Cor 11:3, 8-9; Eph 5:23). Complementarians see headship as referring to God’s calling on a husband to sacrificially lead, provide, and protect his wife, and they see helpership as God’s calling on a wife to assist her husband in the creation mandate and to affirm his leadership in that task. Egalitarians, on the contrary, see headship and helpership simply as two different ways of referring to the equality between male and female roles.

But Kay and Pierce do not address this difference in most of the principles enumerated in this chapter. On this point, they appear to be confusing Paul’s giving the same instructions to both men and women with the idea that Paul means to erase the distinct callings that God puts upon a husband and a wife. For example, the fact that God calls husbands and wives to meet their conjugal duties (principles 1 and 2), not to initiate divorce with a believing spouse (principle 6), not to initiate divorce with an unbelieving spouse (principle 7), to sanctify their unbelieving spouse (principle 8), etc. is no grounds for egalitarian mutuality. God addresses both husband and wife in such commands because they are both his image-bearers and they both are fellow-heirs of the grace of life and thus they are both personally responsible to keep the terms of the marriage covenant. But that mutual responsibility doesn’t nullify the headship/helpership relationship that Paul specifies elsewhere in 1 Corinthians and in his other letters.

To put this in concrete terms: If all the faculty members at my college receive an email from the President instructing us to turn our grades in on time, he’s doing so to inform us of our duty as members of the faculty. But our mutual duty as faculty members doesn’t erase the fact that I still have to report to my Dean, who is also a faculty member. Such a conclusion would be absurd, and yet that is the very logic that Pierce and Kay are pressing in the majority of their principles of mutuality in marriage.

Second, their comments on “authority” are the most salient to the dispute between complementarians and egalitarians, but their exposition is flawed at numerous points. Pierce and Kay point out that 1 Corinthians 7:4 is the “only biblical text that directly and explicitly addresses the question of ‘authority’ (exousia) in marriage — and here it is clearly mutual” (113). They argue that because a husband and wife exercise mutual authority over one another’s bodies, this verse is “more important in the gender-role debate than most have been inclined to acknowledge. Paul’s point is that neither spouse should claim authority even over their own body. Instead, each should yield that authority to the other” (113-14). They argue further, “Such a radical call to yield authority in marital intimacy could possibly serve as a paradigm for surrendering authority in other areas of marriage, since it is the only explicit statement regarding authority in marriage in Scripture” (114).

While Pierce and Kay recognize that Paul narrowly applies this “authority” language to conjugal rights, they nevertheless attempt to draw wide-ranging implications for the egalitarian-complementarian debate. But these are implications that Paul himself would not recognize. In this very letter, Paul is going to spell out that the husband is the head of the wife (1 Cor 11:3). In spite of the authors’ protestations to the contrary, Paul’s teaching on headship in 1 Cor 11:3 has everything to do with a husband’s authority in the marriage relationship. Likewise, Paul’s instructions to women to keep silent in the assembly are also based on his understanding of the husband as the head of his wife.[4] Pierce and Kay are simply mistaken when they claim that 1 Corinthians 7:4 is the “only explicit statement in all of Scripture about authority (exousia) within marriage” (115). The only way their argument could possibly work is if the Greek word exousia were the only term that Paul uses to denote the concept of authority in marriage. We know that Paul uses a range of terms to denote authority and leadership in marriage, and it’s an absurd reduction to limit the discussion to the appearance of exousia in 1 Corinthians 7:4.

Pierce and Kay aren’t the only egalitarians to mistake this verse for a prescription of egalitarian gender roles within marriage.[5] Nevertheless, that is not at all what Paul has in mind here. Rather, he is concerned narrowly with the mutual obligation that husband and wife have to one another in terms of physical intimacy. We know this not only because of Paul’s teaching elsewhere on gender roles, but also because Paul’s words focus on the use of each spouse’s “body” in the conjugal act. Verse 4 says that husbands and wives must relinquish to each other the right of control over their bodies. His words are not grounds for one spouse to demand of the other, “you owe me.” They are grounds for each spouse to voluntarily say to the other, “I owe you.”[6] Thus the “authority” that Paul speaks about refers narrowly to the mutual conjugal rights that each spouse owes to the other. It is not a generalized principle designed to nullify headship and helpership.

Third, Pierce and Kay erroneously extend the “mutuality” of marriage to singles and especially to covenanted partnership between same-sex attracted couples. The mutuality that Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 7:1-6 refers narrowly to the conjugal union between husband and wife. It requires a marriage covenant and the complementary differences between male and female reproductive structures. Indeed, it requires the regular and repeated union of these reproductive structures in the conjugal act. For singles to engage in this kind of “mutuality” would be for them to participate in fornication. The same goes for same-sex attracted couples. And there is no indication that Paul had in mind singles when spelling out the mutual obligations of sexual relations within marriage. When Pierce and Kay extend “mutuality” to singles, they are making a hermeneutical move that cannot be justified by Paul’s words. Indeed, they are making a move that Paul would most likely forbid.


Pierce and Kay have written an interesting chapter that makes the common egalitarian argument for mutuality within marriage. But ultimately, their argument fails to convince. It turns the mutual obligations of marriage into a defeater of Paul’s teaching elsewhere about headship and helpership. It illegitimately reduces Paul’s teaching about authority within marriage to a single word in 1 Corinthians 7:4. And it extends Paul’s teaching about mutual conjugal rights within marriage to singles. These are not conclusions that Paul himself ever reached, and neither should we.

Denny Burk is President of CBMW and professor of biblical studies at Boyce College.

[1] E.g., In chapter 2, Mary Conway treats “mutuality” as the egalitarian ideal represented in the Garden of Eden that was destroyed by “male domination” after the fall (pp. 47, 52).

[2] Pierce and Kay take the concept of “seed ideas” from the trajectory hermeneutic of William Webb, who argues that Bible doesn’t give us the ultimate ethic concerning gender relations but only establishes a trajectory that modern readers have to trace out for themselves. A frequent criticism of Webb’s trajectory hermeneutic is that it calls for a trajectory which may not even have its full realization within the Bible, thus rendering the New Testament’s own moral witness inferior to our own applications. For two critical review of Webb’s work, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “William J. Webb’s 𝑆𝑙𝑎𝑣𝑒𝑠, 𝑊𝑜𝑚𝑒𝑛 & 𝐻𝑜𝑚𝑜𝑠𝑒𝑥𝑢𝑎𝑙𝑠: A Review Article,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 6, no. 1 (2002): 46–64; Wayne A Grudem, “Should We Move beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 2 (2004): 299–346. Grudem observes, “Webb’s entire system is based on an assumption that the moral commands of the NT represent only a temporary ethical system for that time, and that we should use Webb’s “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” to move beyond those ethical teachings to a ‘better ethic’ (p. 32) that is closer to the ‘ultimate ethic’ God wants us to adopt” (p. 337).

[3] Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015).

[4] Denny Burk, “Must Women Be Silent in Churches? (1 Corinthians 14:34),” 9Marks Journal, December 2019, 98–104.

[5] E.g., Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1997), 116.

[6] Although I disagree with his interpretation of this text at numerous points, this particular turn of phrase comes from Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 280.

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