Understanding Male Headship

After my last post I received a comment that I really want to respond to because it raised an excellent question: How does female leadership relate to submission in Christian marriage? The commenter also wondered if our constructs of marriage are at all culturally based. These are truly important questions, and the answer to the second one is both a yes and a no.

One of the dangers of applying a passage of Scripture incorrectly is that it often leads people to conclude that the passage itself is altogether invalid. This has often been the case with Bible verses on submission and roles within marriage. These verses are not only universally true, but are beneficial for marriage (and women, I might add!), however our interpretations of them have often been so mangled by culture that it is tough to distinguish one from the other.

That said, I want to back up and briefly and explain what marriage should look like according to the Bible. And by that I mean I am going to spend little time talking about application (which tends to be more cultural) and most of my time talking about purpose. First I’ll begin with male headship and the spiritual leadership of men, and then I’ll take a look at what this means for women.

Male Headship

For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. – Ephesians 5:23

The idea that the husband is to be the “head” of the home has often been misinterpreted as a type of power play. However, to interpret this verse in such a manner is to totally ignore the majority of the verse. We can only have a proper understanding of “head” by looking at Christ. And what do we see? We see a kind of leadership that is exercised through service and sacrifice. In other words, men signify themselves as head of the home by choosing to lay themselves down for their family, sometimes in ways that can be humiliating.

(I emphasized the word “choosing” because it is not the job of the wife to force humility upon her husband. Rather, there are times when a husband may choose to serve his wife in ways that the world would tell him he is above doing, or that it is his wife’s job to do, such as cooking meals, changing dirty diapers, etc.)

The second implication of this verse is that men are to exercise a type of spiritual leadership that models Christ’s example to the church. While the analogy is not a perfect one since men are not divine, and both the husband and wife should seek to model Christ through their lives, it is the relationship between Christ and the church that we are nevertheless seeking to display. What this means is that the husband is given the responsibility for setting the spiritual pace of the relationship. In the same way that the church looks to Christ as an example, women should marry men to whom they can look up to as an example. If the husband is not a Christian or is less mature than his wife, then the couple will fail to demonstrate this relationship between Christ and the church as taught in Scripture.

That is not to say that the husband and wife cannot be equally mature in their faith. While my husband is certainly the spiritual leader, it’s not because he is necessarily more mature but because he works hard to be intentional about setting the spiritual climate and direction of our marriage. In addition to this, my husband primarily models his “headship” in the ways that he serves me. He puts my interests before his. He hops up to get me a glass of water so that I can stay in my seat. He cleans the dishes because he knows that I don’t like to. He empowers me in my calling to serve God. And he does all this, not because he’s “whipped,” not because he’s a doormat, and not because I demand to be treated like a princess, but because he desires to model Christ’s sacrificial love and service so radically that I will be encouraged all the more in my own love for Christ.

It is service and sacrifice, not absolute authority, that model Christ. While the world believes strength is displayed by force, Christ redefines strength as meekness, faith in God, and unconditional love. Any definition of headship that overlooks these attributes is definitively cultural.

Women’s Leadership

The other question of the commenter relates to women and leadership. Although we hear a lot of talk about men being the spiritual leaders, does this mean that women should not be leaders? Well as Paul would say, by no means!!! If you are a Christian, you are called to be a leader. You can either be a sheep and follow the cultural tide, or you can be a leader and stand against it. This leadership can manifest itself in different ways–from teaching a small group, to directing a ministry, to leading in mercy and compassion, or leading a person to Christ–but it is something that every single Christian is called to, regardless of gender.

The reason that male leadership is emphasized in marriage is because of the picture that marriages display. The ULTIMATE purpose of marriage, above ALL ELSE, is to model the relationship between Christ and the church. Why is this so important? Because most people don’t want to give up their lifestyles to follow Christ, so we model for them the freedom and joy that comes in submitting to one who loves you so much he will lay himself down for you. Our marriages can spark the imaginations of a people who cannot conceive of such a love.

And in response to one final question–Is there a time when men submit to women?–I would have to say yes. If a female police officer pulls a man over for speeding, he darn well better submit to her authority. There may also be times in a marriage when a husband chooses to submit to his wife in an area that he knows she is more knowledgeable about (If, for example, the wife has her MBA but the husband knows nothing about finance, he may defer to her on some financial matters).

There is not an exact formula (as I described in my last post), but Scripture gives a lot of helpful directives that we are wise to heed. The main goal is that the overriding picture of your marriage models the relationship between Christ and the church, the husband serving as the spiritual head and the woman honoring him as the church honors Christ. This requires that you first submit yourselves to God, setting your own agendas aside and seeking that which glorifies Him most greatly. You should be far more concerned with honoring God as much as possible than making sure you get yours.

And as a final caution to those of us who are married and are seeking to live this out, be careful about how you judge the marriages of others. It is all too easy to judge a marriage that looks different than your own, but we often deceive ourselves as to how profoundly the culture, and more importantly our pride, has influenced our own understandings of marriage and family. Do not forfeit the integrity of Scripture by condemning those whose marriages do not conform to yours. While Scripture has certainly given us boundaries, some are less clear than others, and we are all different parts of One Body seeking to honor God as best we know how.