Does Every Marriage Need a Captain? Do Husbands Need to Make the Decisions?

by | Jun 21, 2022 | gsr | 29 comments

Do marriages need someone to be in charge? 

And what does it mean if you assume that they do?

Last week Alistair Begg, a big speaker and theologian, posted this on social media:

Alistair Begg Every marriage needs a captain

I could say so much about what’s theologically wrong with this statement, but I’d encourage people to check out instead:

I just want to look today at what this statement says about the person who is stating it.

When someone says that every marriage needs a captain, I feel tremendous pity for them, because it’s clear they have no experience of true intimacy.

They don’t even know that it’s possible to be in relationship with someone you love more than anyone else, seek after Jesus together, pray together, and decide together. They think that marriage is an endless series of disagreements that will always require a tie-breaker.

In truth, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think the husband is the tie breaker, then when there’s a disagreement, you figure he needs to decide. But when a couple decides they’re going to keep Christ as the center and seek out God’s will, then you just pray more, talk more, seek counsel, and work it out.

We’ve been married 30 years. We’re very, very happy. And we’ve never needed a tie-breaker.

But even more–Alistair Begg doesn’t realize he’s actually in a very small minority.

As we shared from our findings of our survey for The Great Sex Rescue, 79.8% of Christian couples DO NOT USE A TIE-BREAKER. They do not have a “captain.” They make decisions together.

But when couples do have a “captain”, when the husband does make the decisions (even with his wife’s input), divorce rates increase 7.4 times. Marital and sexual satisfaction plummet.

Most couples who believe what Begg is teaching don’t practice it, because instinctively they know it’s not healthy. They want real intimacy, and they pursue it and find it. I wrote more about this asking pastors to start preaching what they practice!

But Begg doesn’t even know it’s possible. He assumes everyone is like him. He thinks this is common sense to say “every team needs a captain.”

What if you’re NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you’ve been taught have messed things up–and what if there’s a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It’s time for a Great Sex Rescue.

This reminds me of a friend I know who grew up saying his favourite colour was red.

His parents would buy him red shirts. He had red in his bedding. He loved red.

Then, in high school science class, they were studying the concept of colour blindness. And for the first time he took a test and learned that he has the kind of colour blindness where you can’t see the colour red.

What he was seeing as red, what he thought was red, was not what everyone else saw as red.

He didn’t even know that he wasn’t experiencing the real red.

I wonder how many pastors and theologians who preach the “captain” doctrine have no experience of real intimacy–without realizing it.

No one who could declare so cavalierly and proudly that every marriage needs a captain could actually understand that a couple can operate really well without a tie-breaker. And that means that he doesn’t understand real intimacy. Anyone who has tasted it could never say what he said.

And not only has he not experienced it–he doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know. He doesn’t even realize that he is in the 20% minority, and that 80% of people actually do quite well operating as equals. And, in fact, those 80% are happier.

When people say things like this, they give us insight into what their lives are like.

Like, if someone said, “we all know women hate sex,” you would assume that his wife doesn’t like sex very much, because anyone with a wife who really likes sex wouldn’t say that. If someone says, “we all know that all men lust and can’t help looking at a woman in yoga pants,” we would assume that he lusts, because if he didn’t, he could never say that sentence.

So when a man says that we all know that every marriage needs a captain, he tells us what his life is like.

And that’s why I think these people are to be pitied. They have no idea what they’re missing.

They can’t see intimacy, because, as the analogy goes, they don’t even know they can’t see the colour red.

Does every marriage need hiearchy? Response to Alistair Begg

Do you find that a lot of pastors who preach about this are telling on themselves? What have you noticed? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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29 Comments

  1. Jo R

    Interesting caveat at the end: “***responsible*** decisions of her husband.”

    Who gets to decide if the husband’s decisions are responsible or not? Let’s see… Since the wife is supposed to defer to her husband, then if she thinks he’s being irresponsible and he thinks the opposite, guess who gets to cast the tie-breaking vote?

    What about situations where it’s not really a case of responsible or irresponsible, but just a matter of preference? What to do on a date night, where to go for vacation, which after-school activities for the kids, which color to paint the living room (assuming all such choices would cost the same in time and money)?

    And as usual, do such men require unanimity on their churches’ elder boards? If they can’t all agree, what do they do? Hmmm? Do they adjourn to pray, to reflect, to research, then address the issue again? Or does the whole board immediately and without any murmurs of dissent defer to the single-handed edict, er, decision of the board’s chairman or perhaps the pastor? If not, why not? Why wouldn’t a dictatorship in the church by whoever is the head be equally acceptable in church governance as it is in the home?

    Maybe because it would seem disrespectful to the men with other ideas and opinions? Or that men don’t want to run roughshod over other men? Or that men can more freely admit to other men that perhaps they don’t know everything? Or…???

    Reply
    • Jen

      Yes, yes, yes! Excellent points!

      Reply
    • Natasha

      I love your comment about unanimous decisions on the elder board. I think this is a common practice with a lot of churches. Why do they think it will work where there are a dozen or so men involved but you can’t make it work with 2 people? I also love that they go back and pray until the decision is unanimous. What a great way to confirm your decision. Again, why can’t this work with only 2 people?

      Reply
  2. CMT

    Telling on themselves, for sure. What if it’s also something of a self fulfilling prophecy? The more one person in the relationship believes God wants her to “submit” unilaterally, the less capable she’s going to be as a full partner. So it’s going to seem obvious to the other person that he should take charge. It’s not going to occur to him that maybe he should support and encourage his partner to grow up a bit. He’s just going to “man up and lead” and her learned helplessness will just solidify his belief that this is the God-ordained way to do things.

    Reply
      • CMT

        It’s really not, and it’s not healthy for men either. If someone wants things this way it’s a real red flag imo. And a man like my husband, who genuinely wants to have an equal partnership, is left feeling really alone if his wife feels guilty for maybe being “unsubmissive” every time she expresses an opinion that differs from his. Ask me how I know haha.

        Reply
  3. Laura

    I’ve also heard similar “captain” analogies like, “There has to be a leader in every marriage,” or “Every team needs a coach.” Whenever I said, “How about God? He’s the leader.” And these people I’ve said this to are Christians. When you’re single and living alone (which had been my case in the past), who are you supposed to defer to? Well, I kind of enjoyed that season in my life because I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to some extent. But, as an adult, I had responsibilities such as going to work, paying my bills, doing chores, caring for my dog, and caring for my health. I had to depend on God to help me with these things. If there was a decision I needed to make, I went to God in prayer and I asked around for advice. But, I alone, had to make the final decision. Sometimes that felt like a burden, but I put my trust in God. I liked that much better than having been married to my ex who believed he was entitled to make the decisions because he was the husband.

    I’ve been living with my widowed mother for 15 years now (my father passed away 9 years ago) and we don’t have a “captain” in our home. Of course, when you live with someone, you do need to be respectful and not walk around the house in a bra and panties all day. Also, clean up after yourself. Since my mom owns the house, remodeling decisions are up to her.

    So, I am not down with the husband insisting there needs to be a leader in the marriage. I’m an adult with an education, a bank account, and a mind of my own. After having a boss at work, I don’t want a boss at home. If my church friends heard me say this, they would think I am rebelling against God because I don’t want my future husband to be my leader. God is my leader. That’s not going to change when my relationship status changes.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very true! I think this is a key point I want to explore more on social media: If you’re single, you listen to Jesus, hear His voice, and follow Him.

      But when you get married, you’re supposed to listen to your husband’s voice and follow him instead.

      So single women are closer to Jesus than married women are! How is this remotely a good thing?

      Plus putting a husband in the place of God in your life is literally idolatry.

      Reply
    • Jane Eyre

      I think this stuff is written by people who have never experienced adulthood without a spouse. Once you have, it all sounds so foolish.

      Plenty of people have roommates. They don’t have a “housemate captain;” they figure it out like adults.

      The analogy doesn’t work, either. While a team has a captain, a team is usually at least a dozen otherwise co-equal people. Many teams have co-captains, so two or three people work together to lead the larger group
      A tennis team may have a captain, but a pair of tennis players who play doubles does not; they work together. And captains are usually chosen for their dedication to the team, leadership, and desire to do extra work, often with the input of the team.

      Reply
  4. Phil

    Sheila – I have found that there is only one place in the Bible where God directs man to have the final say. In fact an entire book of the Bible is devoted to it! It is kind of weird though because it has to do with coffee; and God said: HEBREWS! 🤣😂🤪

    Reply
    • Marie

      This made me giggle 😀

      Reply
    • Laura

      Phil,

      You made my day with this! Love it!

      Reply
    • Meghan

      Haha, good one! You reminded me of one of my favorite Bible themed jokes:

      How does Moses make his coffee? Hebrews it!

      Reply
      • Phil

        Haha 😬

        Reply
  5. Jen

    I am 100% on board with mutuality, and my husband and I are working hard to build that into this new phase of our marriage. QUESTION: there is a lot of teaching in the evangelical church about the men bearing more responsibility before God for what happens to their family, for spiritual health , etc. and that they will stand before God to be held accountable. Now obviously we are all accountable for our actions, but this teaching suggests an extra burden before God on men simply because they are men. Is this just all part of the “leadership/headship” idea – as in teachers will be held to a higher standard- or is this something else?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I can’t see anywhere that that is in Scripture. If anything, it also goes the other way–a woman sanctifies an unbelieving husband, according to 1 Corinthians 7. So it’s a mutual thing too.

      Reply
    • A2bbethany

      That’s a teaching I’ve heard too, but I’m not actually sure there’s a scripture to back it up. I know there’s one that directly says that for leaders and teacher/pastors. But I’m assuming they took the word “leaders” and put men in it’s place. Because men are the leaders of the home right?
      Which is jumping to conclusions….

      Reply
      • Laura

        Mara,

        I just read both your blog posts and wow! I never thought of it this way: patriarchy doctrine is basically that wives have two masters-Jesus and husband. So, which one do we really have to defer to? Obviously, Jesus is the One we defer to.

        In Ephesians 5, when Paul is telling husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, there is nothing about leadership mentioned. So, I think it was the culture that to this day still dictates that the husband gets to be in charge. Now, that women have had the chance to vote for over 100 years now, they can own property, get a credit card without a male signature, and live independently without a husband, it’s very appalling how mainstream Christianity (I can only speak for the US) still wants to keep women in their place. This is why I’m kind of done with organized religion. I just cannot be part of a system that still harms women.

        Reply
  6. EOF

    The church definitely made the early years of my marriage miserable because of these faulty and damaging teachings. Two decades later, and I’m still dealing with the emotional and spiritual trauma.

    After we got married, someone told me that my husband was my authority and I was shocked. I’d been reading the Bible for about ten years at that point and couldn’t recall ever reading THAT. I knew I was supposed to be respectful and submissive, but having him as my authority shoved everything to a whole new level!

    Leaders were constantly telling my husband that I wasn’t submissive enough. (Now, I look back and say good! I was standing up for myself and speaking my God-given mind.) Leaders told my husband that he needed to MAKE me submit (even though submission is a choice a person makes for themselves). Leaders told him that he was responsible for everything I did, so he needed to make sure I didn’t screw up and have God holding him accountable for my actions. Can you imagine the tyrant that turned him into? Now he’s nothing like that. Thank God!! But sometimes I still react to him as if he was that man, because I was so traumatized by it.

    What kind of ridiculous theology is this?!? It’s sickening, and it destroyed me as a person for way too long.

    God holds each person accountable for their OWN actions. He never intended for humans to rule over each other. He created us to rule over creation TOGETHER. The focus on authority and ruling is based from sinful human desires. Period. Our authority is God. Not just men’s, but women’s and children’s too.

    Do other one-on-one relationships need an authority?? If there are two siblings, does one have to be in charge? NO. Because their parents are. Does one friend need to be ruler and decider? NO. Do two coworkers? NO. Two adults are capable of working together and coming to a decision, ESPECIALLY if they go to God together.

    We need to throw out all those umbrellas and captains and CEOs and whatever other visuals people want to use. Why don’t we instead encourage people to grow closer to God and follow Jesus’s teachings? Because that would take away power from the men who don’t want to give it up.

    This garbage always makes me think of a quote from the House of Cards: “Everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” I find that fitting with the church. Everything is about sex and power, and ultimately power.

    These “Biblical” teachings are not about God. They’re about power. Nothing else. Just power. Push down the women so men can feel good about themselves.

    Reply
    • Cynthia

      Husbands ruling over wives is described as a curse, just like death. It isn’t how things are ideally meant to be.

      To me, the various Letters in the New Testament often describe practical advice for the early church, given in the context of the Roman empire. It was a time period where a father had enormous power over wife and children. It was also a period where Rome was brutally fighting against repeated revolts by the Judeans, which ultimately ended up with the destruction of the Temple, massive numbers of deaths, mass enslavement of survivors and exile from their land – in other words, a total disaster. The early Christian church chose not to fight Rome and feared persecution, so there was a strategic decision to win people over by not challenging the existing power structure. That strategy was ultimately successful for the Church, but it relied on advice on how to appease the Romans. It wasn’t a model of how society should ideally be structured.

      Reply
    • Sarah

      So pleased to hear that your marriage doesn’t run that way any more – and would be fascinated to know how it was transformed, if you were willing to share that. Blessings to you.

      Reply
  7. Cynthia

    My reading of the original Hebrew text is that God created “ha-Adam” – the first human – male and female, in the image of God. If you look at a word-by-word translation, you notice that the word for a male individual – “ish” – is not used until the creation of the individual woman – “isha”. Before that, the word used is ha-Adam, which simply means human although it is sometimes translated as man. Long story short – saying that men were created first is basically a mistranslation.

    “It is not good for the human to be alone”. This isn’t just about being lonely. A dog can be a companion, but the text says that nothing in the animal kingdom was suitable. Making decisions alone seems easier, but this is a special relationship where, easier or not, doing things alone is not good. The Hebrew word for helpmeet is ezer k’negdo, which means help opposite. The process of having someone opposite us, hashing out ideas and both contributing their unique input, is actually a holy process.

    The creation of woman is describing a splitting of the human into separate male and female sides. Both aspects, together, form a whole that is in the image of God.

    When you put it all together, each spouse contributes something unique and essential to the decision-making process and reflects something Godly. By starting with that idea, differences stop being something bad and become something to value and respect.

    I also found that my husband and I did far better when we agreed that we each needed to be okay with any decision. Sure, we give each other space for small decisions that we delegate to each other, but for the big decisions, we know from the outset that it won’t be a power struggle because both of us need to agree. Yes, some decisions will take longer. It took us a few years to find a house we both liked. I initially pressured my husband to agree to our first house, and ultimately it wasn’t the ideal choice for our family. With our current house, it took time to find something that was right and a lot of research and creativity, but it ultimately came together. When we were in the middle of a massive renovation that went over time and over budget, it was stressful but we both confirmed that it had been OUR decision, not something that one pressured the other to agree to. In the end, that makes the extra initial effort worthwhile. We are both satisfied, we don’t turn every issue into a power struggle, we get creative and we don’t want to do something that the other one wouldn’t be happy about. We own the decisions made, and it never lingers as “that bad decision that you made that I never liked but went along with to make you happy.”

    Reply
    • A2bbethany

      I like that theory! The genders/sexes being added after Adam went to sleep and eve was made. Because it makes it very clear that we’re all equal in God’s eyes.

      Reply
    • Jane Eyre

      This is very sweet and entirely sensible. Both make the decision so neither is resentful.

      Reply
    • EOF

      I’ve been learning about how Jewish people understand the Tanak (OT) and I’ve read very similar things in various places. It really does seem more plausible than man from dust and woman from his rib. With this version, we are all truly created in the image of God. It’s beautiful and equal.

      Most Christians call this ridiculous. But why?? Because it doesn’t fit the narrative?

      Reply
      • Cynthia

        Some of the teachings get really complicated and mystical, especially as you get into Kabbalah, but there is a clear teaching even in some ultra-Orthodox groups about Adam originally having both male and female sides, and this being split. The Hebrew word for rib can also be translated as side.

        Reply
  8. Anonymous

    At a basic, sexual attraction level, I think a husband who is able to make decisons, take responsibility for them, own and apologise for mistakes around them, and take the lead sometimes is very appealing. I have struggled when my OH (wonderful as he is in many ways) hasn’t supported me or backed me up when I’ve tried to discipline the children, for example. Whenever he seems a bit dithery and indecisive it is a turn off for me. I suppose, in short, I’d like him to be a bit more assertive, although I guess it has worked with me doing the planning and driving (literally as well as figuratively) for many years now, so ‘be careful what you wish for’. I’ve read many marriage self-help books, websites and blogs both Christian and non-Christian. I wonder, Sheila, if you know of Athol Kay and his “captain and first officer” model of marital dominance and submission? He is now atheist but comes from an evangelical background which I think comes through in some of his ideas. Would love to know your take on that!

    Reply

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