One of the ways complementarians typically try to define the kind of authority they see a husband possessing in the home is by speaking of "final decision-making authority." Yet that phrase can be understood to mean a variety of different things, and the meaning which someone ascribes to it says a lot about what they understand complementarianism to be.
Some people hear "final decision-making authority" as an affirmation that the husband's word is law. There are a variety of extreme patriarchal expressions of this which seem to imply (or state outright) that the husband is the one who discerns and decides God's will for the family, that the husband's will is ultimate and should never be questioned, that he may choose to consider his wife's input but he is under no obligation to do so. Complementarians and egalitarians are united in decrying this authoritarian and oppressive view.
A close corollary to the my-word-is-law approach, and one which often accompanies it, is the oppressive arrangement in which the wife is expected to run every conceivable decision past her husband. Beyond having some form of "final decision-making authority," the husband in this instance has sole decision-making authority. Essentially, she is not permitted to make any decision. He must micromanage everything. Again, extreme patriarchalists may affirm such levels of control, but egalitarians and complementarians do not.
Others hear "final decision-making authority" as meaning that the husband has a kind of tie-breaking vote when husband and wife do not agree. In this view, the spouses are expected to strive for unanimity where possible, the wife may have considerable input into the decision-making process, and she may have the freedom to make all kinds of decisions without consulting her husband. Yet when husband and wife disagree, the husband is seen as able to cast the deciding vote. I think many complementarians hold this view, which may or may not be oppressive depending on how the husband wields his voting power. If this ability to play a decision-making trump card is used by the husband to domineer his wife, such a marriage won't look very different from the my-word-is-law type of marriage described above. If, however, the husband uses his deciding vote only as a last resort, such a marriage can exhibit a great deal of mutuality and consensus in decision-making.
Egalitarians tend to argue that an arrangement like that is fundamentally oppressive and potentially dangerous because it still gives a sinful man ultimate authority over his wife. I think they certainly have a point.
Some hear "final decision-making authority" and emphasize the finality of the decision. In other words, once an issue has been decided, there is an implicit assumption that the issue should never be brought up again. Wives in this situation may feel not only that they have been trumped by the husband's final vote, but also that once his vote has been cast, she can have no basis for further appeal. Again, it won't be long before women in this situation will begin to feel they have no real voice in their marriages.
For my wife, Lisa, and I, "final decision-making authority" is not a vote to be cast so much as a general framework for decision-making. To begin with, I certainly don't feel I have to make or approve every decision. Lisa makes a variety of decisions, both big and small, affecting not just herself but the whole family, without being required to consult me first. In a high percentage of cases she will consult me first, perhaps because she wants to use me as a sounding board, or because she wants to make sure I don't have any strong objections or scheduling conflicts, or simply because it's a decision we really need to make together.
I likewise am free to make a variety of decisions on my own without first consulting Lisa, but in a high percentage of cases I do consult her. This dynamic is not about rights and obligations so much as it's about mutual courtesy and our desire to benefit from each other's wisdom. In other words, we generally make decisions as a team, and there are no set "rules" for how the decision-making process is carried out.
That's a largely mutual decision-making process which I doubt many egalitarians would object to strongly. So where is there any sense of my having a "final decision-making authority"?
To begin with, Lisa and I both operate with the tacit understanding that when a decision needs to be made, I am ultimately the one responsible to do it. This is not the right to a final vote so much as the responsibility to articulate a decision when one needs to be made. Like the chairman of a board or the leader of a committee who summarizes and integrates the various opinions and ideas which have been expressed, I'm usually the one who summarizes the discussion and says, "Okay, here's what we're gonna do . . ."
Seeing this as ultimately my responsibility helps motivate me to step up to the plate when I might otherwise try to avoid making a decision. And when I do make the decision that needs to be made, Lisa typically finds that comforting rather than oppressive.
But what about the times when Lisa and I do not completely agree? How do we handle that?
In the vast majority of cases, one of us will simply defer to the other. If one feels strongly about something and the other does not, the one to whom it is less important will typically be the one to defer. We love each other, and if we can make each other happy by giving in, we're usually quite willing to do so.
There have, of course, been times in our marriage where we each felt strongly about some point of contention, and those are the times we've argued, and discussed, and cried, and prayed, and yelled, and reconciled, and talked until we're blue in the face. When we just can't seem to see eye to eye on something, and it's a decision we can put off, we'll do so. If we have to do something, then we'll reach some provisional compromise and go on with our lives until the issue crops up again.
There are a few things I've learned over the years from these various decision-making crises. First, I've seen that Lisa and I tend to make decisions differently. I tend to be very slow to make decisions. I'll put off making a decision until I've analyzed all possibilities, anticipated potential pitfalls, counted the costs, and become convinced that a particular course of action is the right one. The downside of my approach is that I can often slip into "analysis paralysis." The upside is that once the decision has been made, I rarely ever second-guess it, and I accept any challenges which result from it as challenges I knew ahead of time I might face.
Lisa, on the other hand, is quicker to become convinced that a particular course of action is the right one. She'll certainly weigh a decision ahead of time, but not to the same extent I do, and she isn't nearly as prone to paralysis and indecision as I am. Conversely, she is far more likely to second-guess a decision once it's been made, wondering if the grass would have been greener if we had taken a different direction.
As I see it, our different approaches to decision-making complement each other perfectly. She's there to prod me into action when action needs to be taken, and I'm there to reassure her when she starts wondering if we made the right decision.
By the way, these tendencies are one reason I never view any decision we make as "final" in the sense that it can never be revisited. I may think something has been "settled," but if Lisa brings it up again, it obviously hasn't been settled to her satisfaction. In many cases, she just needs reassurance, but in some cases, it has become clear that there's something more which needs to be addressed. I may not want to reopen that old can of worms, but if Lisa needs us to, we will.
Another thing I've learned from these decision-making crises is that those are the times which have helped us grow the most. They're painful, and the temptation is always there to cut the disagreement short. There are times I'm certainly tempted to say, "Look, this is what we're doing and that's final." There are also times when Lisa is tempted to throw up her hands and say, "Look, you decide; I don't care any more." But acting the tyrant is not leadership, and knuckling under is not submission. When I feel Lisa has just given up, I don't proclaim victory; I keep the conversation going with the goal of reaching agreement. When Lisa feels I'm just being stubborn, she begins praying that God would change my heart, and tries for the umpteenth time to explain her position in terms I can understand.
Finally, these crises have taught me that the decision we're trying to make is usually not the ultimate source of the conflict. In many cases, the issue at hand is not really the issue at heart. Instead, the point of disagreement is merely the catalyst for exposing insecurities, fears, concerns, and sins we were previously unaware of. We certainly don't enjoy the seasons of strife, but if we were to use some concept of authority or submission to cut those seasons short, our love for each other would never have grown so deep.
So as a complementarian, do I affirm that the husband possesses "final decision-making authority"? As a means of control or a way to silence my wife, certainly not. As a trump card or final vote, no. As a general framework in which decisions can be reached, yes. As a call to accept responsibility for making decisions together with my wife, yes.
Is my view what most complementarians mean when they speak of someone having to make the "final decision"? I don't know. I think many adopt the tie-breaking vote view, but most of the comp marriages I've seen operate very much like mine. The wives are strong and active in the decision-making process, yet there is nevertheless an expectation on the part of both spouses that the ultimate responsibility for family decisions falls to the husband. It certainly isn't the model of marriage most egalitarians articulate, but it's a far cry from the oppressive authoritarian relationships which they may envision when they hear the phrase "final decision-making authority."