Can a wife’s authority be overruled?
The often quoted book complementarian book Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanwood (1991), devotes entire chapters to passages like Ephesians 5:21-33, 1 Corinthians 11:3-16. Colossians 3:18-18, and 1 Peter 3:1-7. But the ONLY text in the Bible that actually uses the word “authority” in the context of marriage, 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, is given no consideration. Likewise, in John Piper’s book What’s the Difference? Manhood and Womanhood Defined by the Bible (2001) there are two lists of verses dealing with marriage provided, but 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 is not even included (see pages 21,66).
It is certainly interesting that the only place were the Bible gives the husband and wife authority over the other is missing in the sections dealing with authority and submission in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. RBMW is produced by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). In CBMW’s book there is only one short reference to 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 in the overview section under question #46. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood says:
Neither husband nor wife is given more rights over the body of the other. And when some suspension of sexual activity is contemplated, Paul repudiates unilaterial decision making by the wife or the husband. “Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time” (v. 5)
What are the implications of this text for the leadership of the husband? Do the call for mutual yielding to sexual need and the renunciation of unilateral planning nullify the husband’s responsibility for general leadership in the marriage? We don’t think so. But this text definitely shapes that leadership and gives added Biblical guidance for how to work it out. It makes it clear that leadership will not involve selfish unilateral choices. He will always strive for the ideal of agreement. He will take into the account the truth that her sexual needs and desires carry the same weight as his own in developing the pattern of their intimacy.
So while neither the husband nor the wife has “more rights” over the body of their spouse, apparently 1 Cor. 7:5 still includes the husband’s leadership by “shaping” that leadership, according to CBMW. The door is apparently not closed to the husband’s unilateral choice as long as it is not “selfish unilateral choices”. It is apparent that CBMW allows the husband’s “leadership” that is “shaped” in 1 Cor. 7:5 to still override his wife’s will as he considers her needs but takes his leadership “responsibility” to take out his male trump card out if there is a disagreement. The question should be asked whether 1 Cor. 7:5 mentions any leadership responsibilities at all for the man? It is an amazing thing for CBMW to be able to pull out a “leadership” role even in a passage that is clear that the decision must be made by both in agreement. No pulling out the male entitlement card is even hinted at in this passage.
Wade Burleson then quotes from Jon Zens regarding the rule for times of temporary separation that forbids the husband from overruling his wife:
First, 1 Cor.7:1-5 is the only place in the NT where the word “authority” (Greek, exousia) is used with reference to marriage. But it is not the authority of the husband over the wife, or vice versa, that is in view, but rather a mutual authority over each other’s body. 1 Corinthians 7:4 states that the wife has authority over her husband’s body. One would think that this would be a hard pill to swallow for those who see “authority” as resting only in the husband’s headship.
Second, Paul states that a couple cannot separate from one another physically unless there is mutual consent (Greek,symphonou). Both parties must agree to the separation or it doesn’t happen. The husband cannot override the wife’s differing viewpoint.
John Piper suggests that “mature masculinity accepts the burden of the final say in disagreements between husband and wife, but does not presume to use it in every instance” (p.32). The problem with a dogmatic statement like this is that it will allow for no exceptions. But 1 Corinthians 7:5 contradicts Piper’s maxim. If the wife disagrees with a physical separation, the husbandcannot overrule his wife with the “final choice” (p.33). Such separation can occur only if both husband and wife are in“symphony” (unity) about such an action.
Now if mutual consent applies in an important issue like physical separation from one another for a period of time, wouldn’t it seem proper that coming to one-mindedness would be the broad model for decision-making in a healthy marriage? Piper feels that “in a good marriage decision-making is focused on the husband, but is not unilateral” (p.32). In light of 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 I would suggest that decision-making should focus on finding the Lord’s mind together. Over the years the good ideas, solutions to problems and answers to dilemmas will flow from both husband and the wife as they seek the Lord as a couple for “symphony.”
1 Corinthians 7:5 throws a wrench into the works for those who would include the husband’s “final say” in male headship. Paul teaches that unless the couple can agree on a course of action, it cannot be executed. I suggest that this revelation invites us to re-examine what the husband’s headship really entails (cf. Gordon D. Fee, “1 Corinthians 7:1-7 Revisited,” Paul & the Corinthians: Studies On A Community in Conflict, Trevor J. Burke/J. Keith Elliott, eds., Brill, 2003, pp.197-213).
I appreciate Jon Zen’s words about the husband’s obligation not to overrule his wife’s will in this important passage. Dr. Zens has been very supportive to my own ministry and he recommends and sells my DVD set Women in Ministry Silenced or Set Free?
What do you think? Is there a “leadership role” for the husband in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 as CBMW claims?