What is a husband’s authority over his wife?

I received a question from a church member, asking about the difference between complementarianism and egalitarianism in a marriage. Complementarianism is the view that husbands and wives have complementary roles in marriage, that husbands should lovingly lead their wives, and wives should willingly submit to their husbands in all things lawful. Egalitarianism is the view that husbands and wives have equal authority in a marriage and they should submit to one another equally and in the same way.

This has turned into a contentious question for a variety of reasons. In recent years, there has been an increase in awareness of spousal abuse. That has led many to conclude that all “power differentials” in marriage make abuse inevitable. More and more, we live in an egalitarian culture that values the individual above all, insisting that each individual must be equal to every other individual. Critical theory, or cultural Marxism, views the whole world through the lens of “the oppressed” and “the oppressor.” In cultural Marxism, the oppressor is the one with power and the oppressed are those without power. The solution to oppression, on this view, is to put those without power into power. So any view that says, “Wives submit to your husbands” (Col 3:18), is viewed as oppressive.

But God created men and women equally in His image, which means they have equal value. But though they have equal value, men and women are also different. God ordained marriage as the institution in which one man and one woman form a covenant of companionship for God’s glory, which is also the divinely sanctioned structure for bearing, nurturing and rearing children. God knows how men and women best function in relation to one another in marriage, and He knows what arrangement is best suited for bearing and rearing children. And if God says that husbands should love, serve, and lead their wives, and wives should love, serve and submit to their own husbands in the Lord, then to upend this, or change it, is actually misusing another person in marriage.

Ephesians 5:22-24 says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”

In all of this, I believe one question that needs careful definition is, “What is a husband’s authority over his wife?”

1. A husband has no authority to ask his wife to break God’s law.

A wife may not submit to her husband, if he tells her to disobey the law of God. The Apostles said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This applies to obvious violations of God’s law, such as lying, stealing, murder, etc.

But husbands should also take care not to rob their wives of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is an application of the first commandment, in which God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). Christian liberty means “Where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15). In other words, God’s law is the sufficient standard of righteousness, and sin is defined as a violation of God’s law (not man’s law, per se). God gives Christians the liberty under His law to do what they believe is wise, informed by their consciences, shaped by His good Word. A husband may sometimes have to make a judgment call in an area where his wife disagrees with him, but a husband must never become his wife’s conscience or ask his wife to do things that violate her conscience. When a husband robs his wife of Christian liberty, he is usurping God’s authority.

2. A husband grows in the wise use of his authority by diligently studying God’s Word.

A husband can only be a skilled leader, if he is a diligent student of the Word of God. God commanded that every king of Israel should “read in it all the days of his life” (Deut 17:19). God told Joshua, the great leader of Israel, “The book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do all that is written in it” (Josh 1:8). If a husband does not study the good Word of God to learn more of the Lord Jesus, he will not have the knowledge or the skill to lead his wife faithfully, and his whole household will suffer.

There is no shortcut here. Husbands, you need to learn the Word of God thoroughly and how to read and understand the Scriptures properly. Learn how the Bible fits together in terms of its covenantal structure with Christ at the center, and know the distinction and relationship between the law and the gospel, so that you can operate out of the Bible’s own framework in your leadership. As you learn the Scriptures, you will see how it all points to Jesus, and all wisdom for leadership is in Him.

I also recommend studying the Reformed confessions and catechisms as an aid to understanding the Scriptures. The confessions provide a summary of biblical sound doctrine, which can serve you as you read the Word of God. As a Reformed Baptist, I particularly recommend the Second London Baptist Confession and the Baptist Catechism. As you faithfully become more and more like Christ and obey His teachings in your leadership, you will become wise (Heb 5:14). Then your wife and your household will be blessed to be under your authority.

3. A husband is required to exercise his authority as one who lives a humble, loving, and godly life.

Before a husband can lead others, he has to learn to lead himself. How can he manage his household, if he can’t even manage himself? Husbands, therefore, must sit at the feet of the Lord Jesus and learn from Him. They need to learn how the streams of sin run in their own hearts so that they can mortify them by grace and grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. They need to learn how to apply Christ to themselves, to grow in communion with Christ, and to become more like Him.

Husbands should speak much of Christ to their wives and minster the gospel to them. When their wives are discouraged, they should remind them of Christ’s very precious promises. They should always aim to reflect the love, gentleness, patience and goodness of Christ in everything they do, forgiving as they have been forgiven, and loving as they have been loved.

Husbands need to repent faithfully of their sins. Husbands should be known in their homes for gracious and sincere repentance. They should take the lead in confessing sin, humbly asking for forgiveness, and growing in obedience to the good law of God. Husbands must be leaders in submitting to Christ’s headship and living under His authority.

Husbands must “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel” (1 Pet 3:7). They may never lead with a proud and domineering spirit, but only with great respect, love, humility, grace, and wisdom.

4. A husband should exercise authority over his wife by service.

Jesus teaches that all Christians in authority, including husbands, are to be servant leaders. He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25-28).

The goal of a husband’s authority is the good of his wife, where “good” is defined by God’s Word. Everything he does to lead and manage his home should be aimed at serving his wife, first, and then his children, to the glory of God, never himself. He should never use his authority to serve himself. Only a selfish and oppressive husband uses his authority for his personal gain.

In this way, a husband sets an example of love. A faithful husband leads by example. When a faithful wife sees her husband serving Christ, loving others, and living his life for God’s glory, she will want to follow him. He won’t even have to ask her to follow. She will see his example of service, and she will want to follow him because she respects what he is doing.

But more than that, when a husband faithfully uses his authority for his wife’s good, and his wife benefits from it, a godly wife will become more and more convinced of his wisdom. The more she believes that her husband is wise, the more inclined she will be to trust him.

Consider the relationship between a doctor and a patient. How does the doctor exercise authority over his patient? It isn’t by power or rule. A doctor has authority over his patient because the patient believes that the doctor is wise to treat his illness. The doctor serves the patient, and the patient believes the doctor is able to do good. So, when the doctor gives a prescription, the patient follows it because the patient believes his doctor is serving him. That’s how servant leadership works.

5. A husband may exercise authority over his wife both by directing and recompensing.

God tells wives to submit to their husbands “in everything” (Eph 5:24). That means God gives husbands the authority to manage the whole home. And they have authority to direct, or command, their wives to that end. When a husband directs his wife, it should never be for selfish gain, but only for the good of his wife, out of love for her, for the good of the home as a whole, and for the glory of God. There may be times when a wife does not like or agree with her husband’s direction, but if he is not asking her to sin, she must submit to him. The following discussion of directing and recompensing comes mostly from the Puritan, William Whately, via Joel Beeke and James A. LaBell in Living in a Godly Marriage.

Directing. Whately says that a husband should only very rarely direct, or command, his wife. He wrote, “A garment that comes upon a man’s back every day will soon be threadbare; so will a man’s authority be worn out with overmuch use. Wherefore, let it be kept in, till due occasions of using it do call it forth.” The vast majority of the time, husbands will not need to give any directions to their wives at all.

But husbands need to remember two things when directing their wives.

First, God gave your wife to be your helper. Thus, you shouldn’t micromanage her. If you’re micromanaging your wife, then you are doing her job for her. What’s the point of having a helper, if you’re going to control her like a robot? Rather, you should allow her to use her gifts and skills to serve in the way the Lord made her. Delegate and allow her to accomplish her work in her way. It will not be the way you would do things because she is not you, and that is a good thing. Micromanaging also strips your wife of liberty and violates the first commandment. It is wrong.

Second, when you give directions, you must take your wife’s temperament and ease into account. People are different and have different capacities; so, you need to think about how God made your wife, and be careful not to put a heavy burden on her. Make it as easy as possible. And when you give directions always do so with gentleness and humility in love, open to reason.

Recompensing. Recompensing involves two things: first, commendation; second, correction.

First, you should commend your wife frequently. Work hard to notice when she does good works that honor the Lord. Proverbs 31 says that the woman’s husband praises her for her good works (28-29). She can only know that you approve of what she is doing, if you tell her. You should praise her warmly, with love and affection in your heart, never coldly.

Second, you need to correct your wife when she sins. Now, it’s true that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8). And it is a man’s glory to overlook an offense (Prov 19:11). You should always overlook quirks and minor offenses.

But a faithful husband will not leave his wife in her sin. If a wife’s sin creates a barrier in the marriage, if it is a high-handed sin, if it is sin that is actively causing her harm, or if it is a pattern of sin, the husband is responsible to confront it. This includes the sin of refusing to submit to her husband (Col 3:18-19). Matthew 18:15 says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” If he does not listen, Matthew 18:16 says, “take one or two others along with you.” And if he still does not listen, Matthew 18:17 says, “Tell it to the church.” This is the pattern husbands are to use when confronting their wives.

6. A husband may never force, coerce, intimidate, or manipulate his wife to submit to his authority.

When husbands speak to their wives, they must avoid all harshness and severity. They should always join their authority to meekness, humility and love. Sometimes a wife resists her husband’s authority, and he sinfully tries to enforce his authority by yelling, using harsh and sinful speech, slamming doors, etc. Some sinfully use cold tactics of manipulation, false blame, constant grinding debate, etc. But all of these are terrible sins. They are a form of spousal abuse.

A wife will respond the best when her husband approaches her with humility, love, gentleness, and quietness. If she does not respond, a husband should confront her as discussed above. And if she still does not respond, he may get outside help from his pastors and the church. But he may never try to coerce his wife’s submission.

If a husband sins in this way against his wife, the wife should make sure she is safe, and talk with someone who will help her, and hold him accountable. Ideally, she would be able to go to her pastors and seek help from them and the church. If a husband ever hits his wife or otherwise assaults her, she should contact the authorities because he has committed a crime. A wife must never submit to abuse. She should flee from abuse and get help from outside authorities.

Conclusion

The Bible teaches that there is an order in the home. Egalitarianism is a cultural idol and contrary to Scripture. Authoritarianism is an oppressive sin, which the Word of God forbids. Husbands are to love their wives and lead them as servants, exercising authority in love. Wives are to submit to their husbands in everything lawful. This is the structure God has established in the home for the good of husbands and wives and for the flourishing of children and society as a whole.