Decision making, mutual submission and God’s call

In a comment on my post "How to do theology?" "Priest" wrote:

I'm keen to know how you work 'mutual submission' out.

This is a common question for people who only have experience of Male Headship (commonly marketed at Complementarianism). 

For those of us who have grown up in "egalitarian" homes and/or whose relationships are not based on hierarcrhy or headship the question can easily apppear odd. We can struggle to understand why this would be considered a problem. Our confusion is often increased by the scenarios that are suggested as examples of situations where equality and mutual submission won't work.

One of the common challenges I have heard is without a single person to make decisions how do you quickly decide how to tackle an armed burgular who had broken into your home? One of the key problems with the scenario being the assumption that tackling an armed burgular is the best option whereas getting the family out of the house (something that can be done better by two of you working together) and calling the police is likely to be a much better option.

"Priest" asked a different question and one that is more interesting:

When I got married, my wife felt God had given her a desire to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, more specifically to unreached people groups. I, on the other hand, felt God had placed the local church we were part of, on my heart. What would you advise me to do in such a way that my wife feels honoured and respected?

I think this is worth answering in some detail in the hope that others will find it useful.

First, the language of the actual question is based in a view of Male Headship that does not match my understanding of the goals of a Christian egalitarian marriage. So instead of:

What would you advise me to do in such a way that my wife feels honoured and respected?

I feel it would be better to word this differently such as:

How might we decide what God is calling us to as a married couple so that together we casn respond to God's call and grow in our faith, discipleship and relationship.

In other words I am not following a path of mutual submission so that my wife "feels honoured and respected" but we both do this so that God may be honoured and our relationship strengthened as part of our journey into life in all it's fullness.

Next, I am certain that every couple will have their own way of doing this. The way that Jane and I do things won't be right for everyone, what works for us comes from our personalities, particular gifts & experiences, our family backgrounds, culture etc.

So how do we work out what God is calling you to do? Especially when you have different understandings or are "hearing" different things?

One factor in the equation is that compared to most Complementarians we are rather more Postmodern in our understanding. That means we are less likely to frame choices as discrete, mututally exclusive options. We are also less likely to see any revelation/understanding of calling as being complete and crystall clear.

This means that we are open to taking a while to making a decsion. If you like Myers Briggs then this emphasises P rather than J on the Judging element of personality (but don't worry if you think Myres Brggs is a load of rubbish that is not a core belief or a requirement). Not all decisions can be made slowly, but where a decision affects the whole of life it seems sensible to us to take as much time as is available to make as good a decision as possible.

So with the difference in understanding of God's call that "Priest" gives we would be considering together and with family, Church & friends lots of things. For example are these callings really incompatible? Might we be called to support/challenge our local church in world mission? Might we be called to support a local church in a place where there are many unreached people? Might the unreached people actually be in our wider community? Might the timing be sequential for example to work within the local Church while undergoing missiological training before going elsewhere? Might we be called to stay in this country and Church while funding ourselves for extended mission trips each year? Who else might God be calling us to work with (Churches already doing mission around the world, other churches where we live, parachurch organisations).

We would be praying and looking for doors opening/closing. We would be talking & praying together about the possibilities, about our developing understanding of God's calling for us both. We would be doing all this in the knowledge that both of us are willing to put aside our own preferences for the growth, happiness and discipleship of the other.

We would be doing all this in the belief that when we are seeking God's will and being willing to submit to the Holy Spirit then God will take our choices and work for good in them. We will recognise that we might get things wrong and miss some of what God asks but through that God will still work for good and will honour our intentions while forgiving our mistakes.

In otherwords we understand that the decision making process is almost as important as the decision. If we model love for God and love for our neighbours in the process then the decision will allow us to love God and our neighbours. If we honour the Holy Spirit in the process then the Holy Spirit will bless the outcome.

We also operate under assumptions that God is not going to call us to break up our marriage or hurt each other. That all of us are equally loved and called by God

All of this is called Christian Discernment. Decision making about God's call on our lives is a big big issue. It is not to be taken lightly or without using all the resources that God gives. You might find it helpful to think of these in terms of the Wesleyan Quadritaleral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason & Experience) being worked out in Christian Community (at the levels of marriage, family, local Church Community & wider Church).

For us the decision about whether I was being called to leave IT and our own business to become an itinerant Methodist Minister had the biggest potential for radical change for us and in many ways was the biggest decision of our marriage. Previous decisions about job changes while difficult were easy by comparison:

  • In the first few years of our marriage Jane changed jobs a couple of times for better prospects, related to training as a Civil Engineer.
  • I left the United Bible Societies to work in the City of London because the work was changing, because the amount of travel I did was upsettling our children and because we were struggling with negative equity.
  • We started our own business because we were approached with a wonderful opportunity of a two year contract to get us started with some security and because we wanted to work together & have more time as a family. It provided a way for Jane to return to work in a way that worked with a young family.

Training for and then becoming a Methodist Minister was much bigger with lots of questions:

  • had we understood God's call correctly?
  • what about all the employees in our company (over 15 at this point)? What did it mean for their futures?
  • what about our children? It would mean part-time studying for 6 years for me which would take a lot of time away from the family. It would mean moving around to places we didn't choose with potential disruption to their education.
  • what about my parents who were moving into retirement and had handed over their business to us? What did it mean for their dreams and relationships with people who had worked in the business for many years?
  • what about Jane's parents, particularly as her Dad was being treated for cancer? What would it mean for our support for them?
  • what about money? It would mean a huge pay cut (for us both) and we had a large mortgage on our home. Jane would have to start a whole new career as well.
  • what would it mean personally? Jane had chosen to marry a computer programmer not a minister. I liked working with technology more than people.

In the end it meant that it took 10 years from my first call to ministry to being stationed for the first time (admittedly for the first few years we thought the call was a joke and didn't take it seriously). When we started to take it seriously (due to a sleepless week for each of us as God repeated the call time and time again) we put lots of effort in to testing it and exploring it together and with others. For us it was also important that this call was not just about us but that the Church also tested it and so the recognition of the wider Church was important not just because the call was to be a minister but because we felt that the Church needed to be part of the decision.

For me this fits with Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 especially verse 8. When it comes to responding to the radical calls that God makes on our lives things are different when you are married. When it comes to God's call for people who are married then the call has to be discerned in the light that you have become "one flesh" committed to each other for the rest of your lives. Fortunately, God honours our marriages and so respects the process by which we discern and respond to the call.

Our process may seem long and complicated compared to the view proposed by male headship supporters (God called me and I made the decision for our family because God appointed me as the head of the family) there is one other critical factor.

When we respond to God's call things will not always be easy. We will be attacked for the decision and we will struggle at times. However, when things are difficult the process by which you came to the decision makes a huge difference. If this is a decision you have made together as equals then our experience is that you will be far more able to support and encourage each other at these difficult than if one of you made the decision on behalf of all. Inevitably the level of commitment you each have to the decision is greater when you have been fully involved in that decision.

Simplistically, I know that the decisions that we make together are better decisions than I would make alone. Of course that is not a surprise given that I married someone far more intelligent than me :-)

7 thoughts on “Decision making, mutual submission and God’s call

  1. priest

    Instead questioning that which God has brought together, I suggest you spend your time more fruitfully by reading Dave’s excellent post on making decisions together and working out your call.

  2. Rhea Flanery

    Priest, was that directed at me? I’m confused. Even if it was…I guess my personal experience with male-headship Christians/ministries…well…those that I personally know would probably question how God actually ‘brought together’ two people with two radically different callings. That’s all I was commenting on. That’s why that’s what stuck out the most to me. Perhaps your personal experience with those who have male-headship views is quite different…in which case two Christians with radically different callings from God getting married doesn’t seem strange. *shrug*

  3. Dave

    Sorry you have not got s response from Priest.
    I have two ponderings:
    1. It seems to me obvious that a belief in Male Headship also involves a downsizing of the likelihood and importance of God’s calling for a married woman. a) because she cannot be called to anything which has authority over men and b) because she is under her husbands headship so he gets the final decision on that call.
    2. I think we are generally more used to handling the are we compatible/in love for marriage questions rather than the have we both understood God’s call questions. I think you are right to be concerned about whether God would call 2 people to be married with incompatible calls. However, I suspect that the most common problem is our attention to discerning God’s call rather than our discerning of human love.

  4. Auth

    This is in response to your resequt as to how tdld has impacted my life…LIFE as I have known it has changed forever..Born Again at the age of 6 and raised in church, I developed a way of seeing that was so “tethered”.Last week I woke up with the word “tethered” on my mind. Holy Spirit led me to study this word in the context of “flying” in a hot air balloon. The following conveys my time with Him and what we “saw” together… When I accessed your blog today and saw the sept 5 entry with the picture of a daddy “flying His kid” He was confirming what He showed me last week…He is so personal and so real..To think I ‘ve lived 40 yrs only going on “tethered flights”.. The cords are breaking and He is taking me higher and higher..Tether a restraint for holding one to a short radius in which one can move about A chain leash or rope used to secure bind fasten shackle or halter; to use to retard one’s motion ; a leashUntethered not confined or restricted with a tether; not restrained or tied down by bondsGravity: The natural force of attraction between any two massive bodiesThe Sky’s the LimitIs gravity as we know it a limit to be embraced or an obstacle to be conquered? Certainly it is to be respected. Gravity is our schoolmaster teaching us to color in the constraint of lines. Conforming to her call, we are taught lessons in limitations. We are instructed never to challenge her and that if we venture to do so, the consequences will inflict pain. We grow accustomed to this natural force and thoughts of anything beyond compliance are slapped down with the ruler of experience. Gravity means well and does her best to keep us safe. She’ll allow us a small radius giving us a “taste” of flight but keeps us on a short leash as shackles and chains are constructed to tie, bind and secure us to her center. As these fetters become our life we are content to live within these limitations lying shackled to the ground; hope deflated like a balloon… This natural force of attraction to an earthly center is seen in all the tethered flights and deflated balloons around us.“Daddy, make me fly! I hear from my toddler begging to be hurled in the air and spun around on her daddy’s hands. Fly me so high this time daddy! stretch your arms way up” .with her arms and legs stretched out she is flying and defying her gravity. The laughter and imagination that is birthed in those heights is found nowhere else. This is a game her daddy taught her and they play often. Our daddy whispers a similar call, “Come play with me,wanna fly?” His wind blows in secret places and whispers hope. It is in this moment our balloon has a choice. Will we open up and allow more air, and trust Him, knowing that our consent will break all ties to the ground? A tug of war begins, between the voice of reason compelling us to stay grounded…and our daddy’s eyes inviting us to reach out in response and let him take us higher than we’ve ever conceived. There is laughter and imagination birthed in those heights like none heard anywhere else. Just as we are about to surrender gravity gives one last plea and offers her compromise” maybe just let him take you a little higher than the tethered flight you are accustomed to and only break a few chains ( the ones you don’t like). Then her coercion turns to warning… Don’t defy me you won’t be safe”But His whisper will not function in the imposed capacity of reason. It is all or nothing and we must choose.The sky’s the limit.

  5. Tyler

    is that God is getting the glory for the techaing you’re sharing, because he should. It’s just way too good to be of human origin.I understand that Think Differently, Live Differently is a title, not an explanation, but with what some people think think means, you could be misconstrued as another Dwayne Dyer(poor guy). And please don’t quote Carl Jung any more. Dwayne does enough of that for both of you. Isn’t Carl the one who drew those sinister occult-looking diagrams of the human psyche? Like a child trying to draw the schematic for an AMD Phenom Quad-Core processor by looking at the chip. Knowledge puffs up; Love builds up. I promise to try & get a copy of your book soon. God Bless!


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