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It’s not usually the kind of TV show that I would watch, but as a single mum seeking to be wise with my finances, I started watching Netflix’s How to Get Rich. Among the participants seeking financial guidance, were a couple named Matt and Amani. The couple had been married for six years and had two small children. She was in sales and earned a healthy income. He was an electrical engineer but had become a stay-at-home dad. Because he did not work, Amani gave Matt no say in financial decisions. She earned the money, she had the authority over it.

It was shocking for me to see such blatant authoritarianism in a relationship. Although, I wondered, perhaps it was especially shocking to me because my read was that it was a woman emasculating her husband? Would I be that appalled if it were the man expressing authoritarianism over his wife? How about if it were a Christian man? I hope I would be unimpressed and a little disgusted, not only because of the belittling manner but also because it gives a window into a potentially even more worrying demeanour of the heart and larger pattern of behaviour.[1]

But I suspect some of us would gloss over it if it were the behaviour of the man. We might see it as expected, even a bit normal. Some Christians might see it as simply an expression of an accepted functional distinction between men and women in the domestic sphere. Or this might be the assumption of the world when looking in at what they perceive as traditional patriarchy.

I am a complementarian and I am comfortable with the biblical basis for my convictions, including: the created order, as seen established and upended in Genesis 1–3;[2] that none of the twelve disciples Jesus chose were women;[3] and Peter and Paul’s teachings in 1 Peter 3, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5:21-33. As such, a through-line can be drawn from creation to a pastoral outworking in Christian marriage and church leadership. “Simply put”, write Jane Tooher and Graham Beynon, “complementarianism is the belief that God made men and women equal and distinctive: equal in value and dignity, and distinctive in certain responsibilities and roles.”[4]

In a broken world though, applied theology can always be better. Sometimes distinction has been pushed further than the Bible’s teaching. As sinners on a journey of sanctification, entangled in the world, in a particular social context, we must always be assessing ourselves, assessing our assumptions and assessing the assumptions of the world around us. All of those assumptions underlie the pattern of our behaviours and relationships.

 

False Assumption 1: Male Headship Includes Financial Authority

The Bible speaks about male headship but does not speak to many specifics of the domestic sphere.[5] It does not say, for example, that in the event of divorce, the children must go to the father. It does not say that whoever earns the money, retains the power. It is possible that much of what we might think, or subconsciously believe, about this is inherited from our cultural context, rather than Scripture.

Throughout history men have often been seen as “the head of the family” in some sense.[6] But men have never been the only providers; women have always worked in one way or another, not only as an extension to the domestic sphere, but also outside of immediate family duties.[7] It is important to remember that divisions between home and work, and the central importance of money, have not been consistent over the centuries and millennia. Markedly, in the last fifty years or so, social, economic and technology changes, together with the advocacy of the feminist movement, have opened up even more varied employment opportunities and independence to women in countries like Australia. One salary is increasingly no longer enough to keep a family, with children afloat. The picture has started to change yet again.[8]

And yet throughout history social, legal and economic frameworks have often been rigid and disadvantageous to women in one way or another. In recent Western history, this has included a woman’s inability to inherit property and titles, a woman’s own property becoming her husband’s upon their marriage, the expectation that a woman leave her job in the event of her pregnancy, and the tendency of not paying a woman the same as her male counterpart for the same work.

Nevertheless, there is no teaching in Scripture regarding the husband’s ultimate financial authority. Financial authority should not be simply assumed by the husband on the basis of biblical teaching about the relationship between husbands and wives discussed above. Of course a husband (or wife) might have more responsibility in the domestic finances by joint decision. But that is not the same as assuming financial authority to be a right. As Christians, our ideas of biblical headship can sometimes be associated, because of cultural precedent, with financial authority. And this authority can so easily be twisted, intentionally or unintentionally into dominance.

 

False Assumption 2: Headship Is the Same as Dominance

Biblical male headship in marriage, however, is not the same as male dominance in marriage. By dominance, here, I mean taking control of something by force. Dominance can be aggressive. But it can also be subtle. It can include harsh words and threats, but it can also include calm, even kind-sounding words. Both can be controlling, resistant to compromise, deaf to discussion and intolerant of criticism.

Biblical headship in marriage ought to be gentle. I say this because men must model themselves on the Lord Jesus (Eph 5:25–30). Jesus held all the power and all the strength and yet voluntarily limited himself for the sake of the world (Php 2:5–11). Husbands are to be the kinds of head that a wife can willingly submit to. Jesus did not bring the church to himself by dominance, aggression or coercion, but by love and self-sacrifice.[9] A demeanour of controlling dominance in the domestic sphere is, in fact, a sign of unwillingness to submit to God. As Canon Sandy Grant said to Eternity magazine:

male headship is only properly expressed in loving sacrifice and a concern to nurture, provide and protect (Ephesians 5:28–29). And loving submission is a loyalty that respects and leaves room for a husband’s initiative in the above (Ephesians 5:33).[10]

Biblical headship in marriage must also respect the wife’s individual dignity as a child of God. Ephesians 5 says:

Christ loved the church [including both the husband and the wife] 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. (verses 25–27)

Our heavenly Father calls both husband and wife to repentance and faith, seals both with the promised Holy Spirit; he commands both to put off the old self and put on the new, to live a life worthy of the calling they have received; he equips both for works of service, for speaking the truth in love to build up the body of Christ, to shine like a light in a dark world; he provides both with the full armour of God. The fundamental reality of shared faith and calling should challenge husbands to work in partnership with their wives, not simply rule over them.

We all live in a specific cultural context, so we will always need to work out biblical instruction amidst these existing social patterns and legal frameworks. However, we should not be uncritically influenced by the world but apply our theology within the world. This means we can allow our theology to soften and even transform harsher cultural realities, strengthen a loving and honouring spousal relationship and together glorify and serve God.

 

False Assumption 3: Headship Does not Allow for Collaborative Partnership

We see the pastoral outworking in marriage of the created functional difference between the sexes in Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3. Many people, understandably, can’t get past the word “submission”. This is one of the areas where the spousal relationship has the potential to be weakened, and God to be miscommunicated to the world. But if a man recognises his wife as a co-heir in Christ (1 Pet 3:7) and acts as head with love and sacrifice, as he is exhorted to in these passages, he is living the behaviour modelled to him by Christ. He is opening the door for his wife to meet him with submission. Not submission forced or rigidly imposed through domination, but submission freely given because her husband is being a man to whom a wife can voluntarily submit.

Understood in this way, the biblical teaching promotes a collaborative partnership. In practice, in the area of finances, the husband might take primary carriage of the family finances because he is good at it, not because it is his right, while the wife is aware of the financial plan and operates within it. But if they are operating as a partnership, this topic can be freely discussed, assessed and revised by them together as a couple. This is not a case of what the wife is “allowed to do” but a married couple working together. It might equally reflect God’s created distinction if the wife were the one to take primary carriage of the family finances. Either scenario should be applied in a wise and godly manner and does not imply some kind of defeminising or emasculating.

 

False Assumption 4: Marital Authority Comes from Monetary Disparity

In a complementarian house, there is a belief in Christlike male headship, but that is not based on monetary disparity. Basing authority on monetary disparity implies that we believe this determines what someone is worth. We do not see a difference in value in Genesis 1 nor in passages that talk explicitly about finances in marriage.[11] As with all good things, we can lose sight of where our authority comes from and taint those good things with the folly of the world.

 

It was shocking for me to see Amani exhibiting financial domination in How to Get Rich. It should be shocking. And it should also be shocking that too often this kind of domination is to some extent expected in a husband, but unseemly in a wife. I would argue that, based on headship as it is described in Scripture, it is unseemly in a husband as well.


[1] By this I mean behaviour that could range from unhelpful (behaviours that are trust-eroding or build a foundation for conflict) through to inappropriate (attitudes and behaviours that are belittling and potentially bullying). While I am not saying that all expressions of this behaviour is what our legal system considers to be family violence, it is important to understand that some of it certainly is. Family violence is defined in the Family Law Act 1975 as violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family. Financial abuse is included as an example of family violence and defined in section 4AB(2)(g) and (h) as “unreasonably denying the family member the financial autonomy that he or she would otherwise have had;” or “unreasonably withholding financial support needed to meet the reasonable living expenses of the family member, or his or her child, at a time when the family member is entirely or predominantly dependent on the person for financial support.”

[2] Adam was tasked with keeping and passing on the command to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16–17) before Eve was created. As the Fall played out, while Adam joined Eve in the sin of eating from the tree, Adam was cursed as well (which, if he had not sinned, would be odd). He failed in his responsibility to keep and pass on the command that the LORD God had given him. God’s response suggests that Adam was derelict in a duty. Kathleen Nielson, Women and God, 40–42.

[3] Jesus certainly had female followers and he amplified their roles and significance in that cultural context. Still, none of these female disciples were tasked with the same apostolic teaching role as the Twelve. Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 118.

[4] Graham Beynon and Jane Tooher, Embracing Complementarianism, 9.

[5] For a review of the equal-and-different functional difference of women, how far it extends and how it should be biblically applied, I would highly recommend Claire Smith’s excellent God’s Good Design and Kathleen Nielson’s Women and God.

[6] This role took on various terms throughout history including paterfamilias (literally, father of the family) in ancient Roman law, that afforded the husband all legal authority and ownership rights.

[7] We see this in the ancient text Proverbs 31. More recent, comparatively, there is documentation of girls being apprenticed to various occupations from the late mediaeval period. During the Industrial Revolution, rural workers, whose occupations had been an extension of the domestic sphere and family unit, migrated to the towns. During this period, one salary was not enough to keep a family and women worked in a much larger array or occupations outside of the home and away from the family unit. Commonly only women of status were afforded the privilege of staying at home. From the post-war boom years of the 1950s, a larger proportion of women increasingly stayed at home. One salary was often enough for the household to function and there was a concurrent celebration through advertising in mass media of the housewife. Our Western pattern of the modern stay-at-home mum was really solidified in that era.

[8] From 1991 to 2016, 33% of mums were stay-at-home, decreasing to 27% in 2016. Over that same period, the proportion of both parents working increased from 52% to 61% and the proportion of stay-at-home dads remained relatively stable at 4 to 5%. In working households in Australia, generally speaking, about 1 in 3 will have a stay-at-home mum, compared to about 1 in 20 stay-at-home dads. See https://aifs.gov.au/research/facts-and-figures/work-and-family.

[9] John Stott noted that Jesus’ “love and self-sacrifice were not an idle display, but purposive. And his purpose was not to impose an alien identity upon the church, but to free her from the spots and wrinkles which mar her beauty and to display her in her true glory. The Christian husband is to have a similar concern. His headship will never be used to suppress his wife. He longs to see her liberated from everything which spoils her true feminine identity and growing towards that ‘glory’, that perfection of fulfilled personhood which will be the final destiny of all those whom Christ redeems.” John Stott, The Message of Ephesians: Being a Christian. The Bible Speaks Today accessed via https://johnstott.org/bible_studies/28-january-2017/.

[10] Anne Lim, “‘Male Headship can be dangerous for women’ says Julia Baird” in Eternity, April 26th 2017, accessed at https://www.eternitynews.com.au/in-depth/male-headship-can-be-dangerous-for-women-says-julia-baird/

[11] Proverbs 31 “the heart of her husband trusts in her” (verse 11) and “her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her” (verse 28).

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