This is part of a series on partriarchy, headship, and submission. See this index.
There is tension between unity and authority in marriage. But which is primary? For no one can serve two masters. You must love one and treat the other as of no consequence whatsoever.
Let’s say that spouses are in unity in nearly everything, but occasionally they cannot come to an agreement. At the minimum point of unity, up steps authority to break the tie. Hooray, authority has saved the day! Thus, it is authority that is master and unity that is inferior.
What if it is authority that is inferior to unity? Did not Jesus—just before his death on the cross—pray for radical unity?
That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. — John 17:21-23 (KJV)
If unity—in love—is indeed superior to authority, then unity—in love—is required to fix any failures of authority, and authority cannot fix disunity, for unity is the master. If there is a breakdown in authority, there must logically be a breakdown in unity. In unity, there is no such thing as a tie-break.
This why the head-body metaphor refers to unity, not authority. It is why Paul tells wives to submit to their husband as head of the body and husbands to love their wives:
And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. — Colossians 3:14
If a husband and wife are in complete unity, authority is subservient. When two persons are in perfect unity, there is no meaningful distinction between their wills. Authority is of relatively little consequence between them. The solution to disunity (and thus lack of authority) is to unite the wills in love.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)
There is a place for authority within the bounds of marital unity, but there is no place for marital authority outside the bounds of unity. If the wills of two persons are joined as one, then this may (or may not) involve some exercise of authority that honors that unity. But disunity cannot be brought back into harmony through the exercise of—or adherence to—authority. This is the error of the church, believing that unity is a function of adherence to a particular denomination—an authoritative set of beliefs, doctrines, and practices—rather than the inner state of the congregation of believers. Unity is a matter of the heart, of love.