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Marriage and the balance of power

Couple show their wedding rings
Less 'me versus you' and more about 'us'?

In any intimate relationship, particularly marriage, there can be an imbalance of power. This imbalance—when in the hands of less-than perfect people (that’s all of us)—can easily lead to the home-destroying evils of emotional, verbal and physical abuse or neglect. This is why it is so important for us to understand and practice what the Bible says about roles within relationships.

It is often thought that in a marriage, the man should adopt the more powerful role and the woman the more submissive, but the reverse situation, where the woman holds the balance of power, is also common (and more frequent than some might expect). An imbalance of power might outwork itself in the wife or the husband being particularly lazy, verbally abusive, manipulative, nagging, disrespectful or even violent.

Cases of partner-to-partner violence are so serious in New Zealand that over a recent five-year period, 45 women were killed by their partners (or ex-partners) and three men at the hands of their female partners. On top of this, men killed 26 children under their care and women killed 15 children over this same period (source: New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse). Studies also show that Christian families are not immune to internal violence either, with many families living a double life of ‘everything is fine’ on Sundays and fear and anger from Monday to Saturday.

These figures, of course, are just the tip of a very large iceberg of unhappy and ultimately unholy relationships, which often stem from a misuse of power. So, let’s dive into the Word and see how we can protect and restore our marriages and families by getting this power balance right.


The idea that ‘the man of the household’ is boss is ingrained in European, Maori and Pacific Island ancestry. And even in today’s, supposedly politically-correct world it is still very much there. However, as early as the second page of your Bible you’ll find that this picture isn’t exactly the one God intended.

Genesis 2:24 says, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.’ Note those last two words, one flesh. Godly marriage is not supposed to be a situation where two parties wrestle for their own share of the power. Rather, the idea of being ‘one in flesh’ is that your desires become those of your spouse and vice versa; their needs become your needs and your body becomes their body (not literally, of course—I imagine that would be a very awkward operation!).

God is so excited about this idea of becoming ‘one’ in marriage that he chose it as the main way of explaining the relationship between himself and the Church (us). This means that many of the truths about maintaining a good relationship with God are also true for maintaining a healthy marriage. So when we hear Paul saying, ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20), we are given a clear indication of what exactly is involved in this mystery of two people becoming one: it requires the dying of those two originally separate lives and the beginning of one life. In marriage, there is no longer any ‘me’ and ‘them’, only ‘us’.

Later, in Galatians (3:28), Paul further emphasises this oneness we have when people come together in Christ: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ This principle of oneness, through dying to self (or turning from self-centredness), needs to be the foundation of any marriage.

Ask Yourself: Do my thoughts, words and actions make it clear that oneness with my partner is my default position?

Taking up your cross

Remember those ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bracelets? Ever been confused over exactly what Jesus would do in your situation? Well, Paul, in Ephesians 5, gives us a very helpful guide, with particular relevance to marriage.

The first few verses exhort us to ‘Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ Again, Paul emphasises the need to give up our own lives for others (this is what it means when people talk about ‘taking up their cross’ or ‘dying to self’) in order to achieve oneness.

In the second half of Ephesians 5 Paul focuses on marriage. To lead into this section he emphasises again, ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (v21). Before talking about individual roles within marriage, Paul wanted to ram home this all-important point that oneness is achieved through mutual submission. Both the husband and the wife are to become imitators of Jesus on the cross, laying down their lives for each other. This is the only way that oneness can be achieved—if you’re constantly self-seeking, you’ll just end up pulling away from your spouse.

Ask Yourself: Today, what opportunities do I have to demonstrate Christ’s love to my partner by laying down my own life for him or her? 

Unique roles

The following passage from Ephesians 5:22-30 gives individual-ised instructions for husbands and wives:

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.

In regards to women, people have made a pretty big deal of this passage, saying that it confirms the wife’s role as one of submission to the husband’s headship. And Paul seems to make a similar point in 1 Corinthians 11:3 when he says, ‘the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man.’ However, the interpretation of such passages is often misguided.

Firstly, we should note that Paul’s call for wives to submit in Ephesians 5:22 is simply a repeat of the universal call to mutual submission made a verse earlier. So the husband is also expected to submit ‘in everything’. Secondly, this use of ‘everything’ needs to be read in the context of the man also submitting to Christ. As such, it’s hard to interpret Paul as condoning wives’ blind submission to abusive husbands. For while a woman’s humility and submission may inspire her husband to also submit (to her and to Christ), there is a point where her safety (and her children’s) comes first (God calls us to be a sacrifice, not a victim).

Finally, the Greek word in 1 Corinthians 11:3 for ‘head’ is kephale, which means ‘source’ or ‘beginning’ (in the way you refer to the head of a river). So Paul is not stating a position of power (the man over the woman), but primarily signalling a responsibility of provision and initiation on behalf of the man. Just as God supplies our needs for love, belonging and spiritual direction, so the husband is urged to be the initiator of love, affection, (his own) submission and spiritual conviction—all the important provisions that will keep a marriage healthy.

Yes, there is a unique call upon men for leadership within marriage; however, it’s not so much of a privileged position as one requiring an extra devotion to servanthood and sacrifice. Jesus’ views on leadership emphasise this point:

‘… whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:43-45).

This all paints a picture of the godly husband being on his knees for his family, constantly putting their needs ahead of his own. Nothing could be further from the over-powering and force-fuelled model of male ‘headship’ that many of us have grown up with. Just think what would happen if all husbands started ‘taking the lead’ in their marriages by being the first to serve, sacrifice and submit to their partners (and to God).

Ask Yourself: Women—Am I submitting in everything? Men—Am I leading the way in how I submit and serve my wife and God?

Holiness vs. happiness

All this talk about submission and servanthood can sound very unromantic—hardly the happily-ever-after model we see in the movies and hope for on our wedding day. But ask anyone who has been married longer than a year and they’ll confirm that marriage and love takes a lot of hard work and humility. Christian writer Gary Thomas puts it very well when he says that marriage is not so much about creating happiness but about fostering holiness.

Bible teaching like ‘Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33) and ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ (Leviticus 11:44) place holiness as one of our top priorities in life. On top of this, we also read that forgiving others is a key (perhaps the key) to the daily practising of this holiness (read Matthew 18:21-35, Matthew 5:24, Mark 11:25, Colossians 3:13 and Hebrews 12:14). And that is where marriage (a.k.a. mutual submission) comes in as the ultimate breeding ground for holiness through a commitment to daily (even hourly) forgiveness of our partners.

Gary Thomas points out that we need to approach marriage knowing that our partner will slip up (‘We all stumble in many ways’—James 3:2; see also Romans 3:23) and therefore, to place the pursuit of our holiness (through forgiveness) ahead of our pursuit of happiness.

Ask Yourself: When my spouse disappoints me, do I see it as an opportunity to forgive, or merely a hindrance to my own happiness?

Looking to Jesus

The example of God submitting to us by sending his Son to die on the cross and, through this, the ultimate display of his power in the forgiveness of sins, provides us with a wonderful picture of how to approach the power balance within marriage. It’s about oneness through submission and dying to self, leadership through servanthood, and holiness through forgiveness.

Pray: God, help us to love and submit to our partners, just like you love and lay down your life for each of us.

By Hayden Shearman (from War Cry, 20 November 2010, p12-13)