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Volume 9, Issue 2: Husbandry

Sexual Authority

Douglas Wilson

We are a fallen race, and so we understand bossiness fairly well. However, biblical headship is not well understood. A very common mistake is to confuse headship with bossiness.

Many Christian husbands have erroneously assumed that because the Bible teaches the man is the head of the home, this must mean the wife has no covenantal authority over him. As we shall see, the assumption is false, but this does not keep it from being widespread. To take a common example, suppose that a married man is defeated in some significant way by a problem with pornography. He knows that his behavior is sinful, and he confesses his sin (regularly!) to God. In search of accountability, he may even have told a male Christian friend about it. But he also assumes that such information would only distress his wife, and that he is not obligated to tell her anything about it because she is not the head of the home. This is just an individual problem that "he has to work out."
But a well-known passage of Scripture teaches us much more than the simple fact that husband and wife ought to have ongoing sexual relations. In a very important respect, a Christian woman has authority over her husband.
"Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. . . . The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (1 Cor. 7:1-5; emphasis added).
Paul is certainly saying what most people glean from this passage--a husband and wife ought to have regular sexual relations in order to protect themselves against temptations to immorality. But much more than regularity is involved. Why is it that many men who have ongoing relations with their wives do not experience the kind of protection God intends for them to have? The answer is found in that word authority. When the teaching of the passage is ignored, how can we still expect the blessing promised in the passage?
The husband has authority over his wife's body, and interestingly, Paul insists that she has a reciprocal authority over his. As the head of the house, he is responsible for everything that happens in the home, including the state of their sexual life together. He is responsible for his authority over her, and he is ultimately responsible for hers over him. Nevertheless, she has genuine authority over him in this area. The extent of their mutual authority is set by Scripture, and not by any rationalizing desires of the husband.
This means he must love her sexually as he wishes, and he must teach her to wield a biblical authority over him sexually. If their relationship is to reflect the pattern found in Scripture, then he must teach her, and then teach her to teach him. He must wield authority over her, and expect her to wield authority over him. Many men are vulnerable to the enticements of things like pornography simply because their sexual experience is so boring that they think they need something else to spice it up. Or, on their own authority, an authority they do not have, they are "rewarding" themselves because they feel shortchanged. Either way, turning to the pornography (guilt and all) is easier for many men than taking responsibility for loving and teaching a wife.
Among other things, this means that a man is accountable to his wife for his sexual behavior. She has authority over him in this. Paul is saying far more than that the woman may initiate sexual relations with her husband. She certainly may do so, but she may do so for the reason which Paul gives. The reason given by the apostle is that a married woman has authority over the sexual behavior of her husband.
The ramifications of this are considerable. If a man has fallen in a sexual way, he does not have the authority on his own to decide whether his wife should be informed. His sexual behavior is her business, and she has authority over it. He has no authority to withhold from her what she would want to know.
Christian husbands often wonder why their wives have a problem with the Bible's teaching on submission. "What the Bible says on the subject is so plain! What is her problem?" But a man only has a good view of the authority he has over others when he has an equally good view of the authority he is under. This understanding provides a wonderful opportunity: A man can teach his wife submission through his own godly example of submission--why he can show her how easy submission is!
If he refuses to submit to her where the Bible says she has authority, then he will have a hard time maintaining his dignity when he insists that she submit to his authority. A fundamental principle of biblical ethical behavior is that our actions are our declaration of what we expect others to do to us.
This means many husbands must want unsubmissive wives.

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