Marriage as Submission?

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John Piper, “Marriage as Submission? Response from John Piper,” The Standard 74:2 (February 1984): 30. This was a response to Alvera and Berekely Micklesen, “Equal Authority, Equal Responsibility,” The Standard 74:2 (February 1984): 26, 28–29.

Amen to the sexual mutuality of 1 Corinthians 7:4! Wife and husband have rights over each other’s bodies. Each owes the other the “debt” (v. 3) of sexual satisfaction. If she wants intercourse and he is too tired, he ought to give it anyway, and she ought not to demand it. As one flesh they pursue their own joy in the joy of the other (Eph. 5:28–30). Mutual “agreement” (v. 5) is the goal. Therefore, I don’t espouse “one-way submission.”

But for me, all this shapes the special role of male leadership while, for the Mickelsens, it shatters this role. I say Christ redeems the unique leadership of the husband; they say Christ rejects it.

They argue that the wife’s submission in Ephesians 5:22 is defined by the mutual submission of all Christians in verse 21, so that it can’t involve anything unique which all Christians can’t do to each other (e.g., obedience). There are three reasons why this argument doesn’t hold.

  1. Paul makes explicit the difference in the way the wife and husband submit to each other. The wife submits as the church; the husband submits as Christ. She is compared to the body; he is compared to the head. If Paul shared the Mickelsens’ view of a mutuality with no uniquely male or female expressions, I don’t see why he would have used the Christ/church analogy. It would be helpful to hear the Mickelsens say something positive about how wives are more like the church and husbands are more like Christ.

  2. Paul (1 Cor. 16:16) and Peter (1 Peter 5:6) and the writer to the Hebrews (13:17) give some church leaders an authority to which other nonleaders are “to be subject” or “obey.” Do the Mickelsens think the call for mutuality negates these different roles? Is the role of an elder indistinguishable form a non-elder because they submit to each other in love?

  3. If the call for mutual submission introduces the relationship of husband and wife, so it does the relation of parent/child (Eph. 6:1–4). But are there no unique ways in which parents or children submit to each other? With regard to 1 Peter 3:1–6, not much is left when the Mickelsens are done. The spirit which Peter calls “very precious to God” (v. 4) they call “the custom of the land.” For Peter, Sarah’s obedience is exemplary; for the Mickelsens, it is a mere “custom of the Hebrews,” because “nowhere . . . does the Mosaic law say that women are to be in subjection to [their husbands].” Does this contradict peter’s intention, and Paul’s, when he said, “Let them be subject, as the law says” (1 Cor. 14:34)?