Can a husband and wife have equal authority in a marriage?
The 19th century Methodist commentator Adam Clarke wrote, about Adam and Eve:
... at their creation both were formed with equal rights, and the woman had probably as much right to rule as the man; but subjection to the will of her husband is one part of her curse; (from Clarke's commentary on Genesis 3:16)
Is Adam Clarke's suggestion possible? Marriage and the family certainly preceded the Fall (Gen. 2:23-24). Did Eve live for some period of time in a pre-Fall marriage where she could oppose Adam's will and go her own way? Was there ever a pre-Fall period of equal authority "to rule" in a marriage?
Family egalitarianism? Family democracy?
No. The family is a unit. There will always be decisions which affect the family as a unit, which can only be decided one way or another: to act, or to refuse to act; to move, or to refuse to move. Between two lawful options, there is no "neutral" or "default" position which overrides all the others.
Biblical law recognizes this, by explicitly giving a veto power to the husband, even on personal vows to YHWH:
6 “If she has a husband, while her vows are on her, or the rash utterance of her lips with which she has bound her soul, 7 and her husband hears it, and says nothing to her in the day that he hears it; then her vows shall stand, and her pledges with which she has bound her soul shall stand. 8 But if her husband forbids her in the day that he hears it, then he makes void her vow which is on her and the rash utterance of her lips, with which she has bound her soul. YHWH will forgive her. Numbers 30:6-8WEB
The "Who has abandoned whom?" Scenario
The impossibility of equal authority in marriage can be demonstrated by the following modern, but realistic, scenario:
A father wants to move his family to a different location. Let's stipulate, to simplify the discussion, that he intends the move for the good of the family (maybe a long-term economic gain from a better job opportunity or less expensive housing or cost of living; maybe better Christian community).
The wife, however, refuses to move. She is happy where she is.
There are discussions, but neither spouse changes their mind.
At some point, the husband decides to proceed with the move. The furnishings are packed; the moving van arrives, is loaded, and leaves.
The husband says to the kids, "Get in the car, kids, we're leaving now." The husband says to his wife, "Honey, I respect that you disagree about this, but I am called to lead the family. I want you to continue as my covenant helper. There is a place in the car for you. It pains me that you do not want to follow my lead on this decision, but obviously, I could never force you to go anywhere."
The wife refuses to join the rest of the family in the car. The husband then gets in the car and leaves.
The clear issue in the above scenario is: "Who is in charge of the family?" This is an inescapable question. Here are some others, based upon the above scenario.
Ethical/judicial questions for discussion
- Did the husband sin? If so, how did he sin, and on what scriptural basis do you make this judgment?
- Did the wife sin? If so, how did she sin, and on what scriptural basis do you make this judgment?
- Did the husband abandon his wife? Note that abandonment can be grounds for divorce, according to 1 Cor. 7:15.
- Did the wife abandon her husband? Note that abandonment can be grounds for divorce, according to 1 Cor. 7:15.
- When the father told his kids to get in the car, were they obligated to obey him (cf. Eph. 6:1)? If not, please give scriptural justification why not.
- If the wife countermanded the order of her husband, and told the kids, "Don't get in the car, kids. Stay here," are they obligated to obey her and disobey their father, or vice versa? Please back up your answer with scripture.
- When he left with the children, did the father commit the crime of kidnapping? Note that under Biblical law, kidnapping is a mandatory death penalty.
- If the kids refused to obey the father, does he have the Biblical authority to force them to go?
- If the father does end up forcing the kids to go, is he guilty of kidnapping and thus subject to the mandatory death penalty?
- Does the wife have the Biblical authority to call the police (let's assume this scenario takes place in a modern "Western" country, like the United States or Britain) to prevent the husband from leaving with the kids? Or would she be sinning if she does this? Please provide scriptural justification for your answer, either way.