MarriageSpiritual leadershipSubmission

Understanding Male Headship

By May 17, 20108 Comments

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.


  • e-Mom says:

    A nice treatment of a difficult topic. I’d love to know what books you’ve been reading. :~D

  • Miranda Hahn says:

    This was so well written – the sentence, “While the world believes strength is displayed by force, Christ redefines strength as meekness, faith in God, and unconditional love” is one of the most powerful things I’ve read in awhile. So glad to have stumbled across your blog!

  • Marg Mowczko says:

    You mention the husband choosing to be the “head” of the home. Nowhere does Paul teach or imply that the husband is the “head” of the home. (cf 1 Tim 5:14 KJV, in the Greek Paul actually uses the word oikodepotein which means to be the master of the house)

    The husband is the “head” of the wife, however the word “head” is not defined in this article. It is misleading to assume that the word “head” in New Testament Greek means “authority” as it does in English.

    You seem to equate male headship with spiritual authority, however there are more than a few passages of scripture which show that spiritual authority is not linked to gender.

    Mary, the mother of Jesus was betrothed to a man (and would have lived under the protection of a father or male guardian before her marriage), and yet the angel Gabriel entrusted the word of the Lord with her. (Luke 1:26-38)

    Similarly, the Angel of the Lord, entrusted the word of the Lord to Samson’s mother who seems to have been a very discerning and sensible women. (I love this story found in Judges 13.)

    There are other examples of courageous and discerning women in the Old Testament who were civil leaders and/or spiritual leaders. These include Miriam, Deborah, the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah and Huldah, etc.

    Under the New Covenant, men and women are equal, and the Holy Spirit gives his spiritual gifts and abilities without apparent regard of gender.(1 Cor 12:11) Several women are mentioned by name who were house church leaders. These women where spiritual leaders.

    In marriage, God’s ideal is complete unity, affinity and equality between the husband and wife; where the husband and wife live with mutual love, honour and submission.

  • Sharon says:

    Marg, again thank you for your comments and the time you have invested in citing these various verses! I would, however, have to disagree with some of your conclusions because you have overlooked verses such as 1 Cor. 11:3 in which the husband is clearly described as the “head” (kephale) of the wife, and then in verse 10 he is described as the “authority” over his wife. Bearing that in mind, my understanding of this headship has little to do with modern day language and everything to do with the Bible’s own language, as well as the model upon which marriage is based: Christ’s headship over the church.

    To understand in greater detail what this headship looks like, we can look to passages such as Ephesians 1:22-23 in which Christ’s relationship with the church is described as follows: “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” There is a clear nuance of authority to the idea of headship here, and the husband is to model that type of headship in his relationship to his wife, as well as his children (Eph. 6:1), which I summarized with the term “head of the home.”

    What concerns me most, however, is your implication that male headship implies female inferiority, or that women are at no time to fill a role of spiritual leadership. There is certainly an important distinction between the context of marriage and the larger church, and within the context of the larger church we certainly see women filling roles of spiritual leadership in the Bible. Within marriage, however, a man is given to be the spiritual steward of his family, but that doesn’t mean that women are blind sheep. As I argued in the above post, women have an important role to play in challenging their husbands and building them up spiritually. That is her role as his sister in Christ, but it does not mean she has somehow supplanted her husband in his God-ordained role as the spiritual head of the marriage.

    While Scripture certainly calls for a total unity between husband and wife, we must not ignore these passages in which the man is clearly defined as the head authority of his marriage (not to be conflated with his and his wife’s role in the larger church body) and wives are encouraged to submit to this authority at certain times. These roles have nothing to do with equality but everything to do with a marriage’s reflection of Christ’s relationship with his beloved church.

  • Marg Mowczko says:

    Hi Sharon,

    1 Corinthians chapter 11 is a tricky passage, and people on both sides of the Biblical equality debate assert that we cannot be sure what Paul’s real meaning is here. The real issue here, however, is propriety in worship, and not the husband and wife relationship. Propriety in worship is the context of this passage.

    Paul uses the word “head” in this passage in more ways than one. There is the literal head (which sits on top of our necks) and the metaphorical use of head, meaning “source” or “origin”, such as in the head, that is, the source of a river, for example.

    I do not believe that the authority the woman has on her head in 1 Cor 11:10 refers to her husband. (It’s important to note that the word used for authority here, exousia, also means freedom, right and licence.) In other New Testament passages where this identical expression is used, it is always the person’s own authority, freedom and rights being referred to, and not a delegated authority. The simple fact is that the woman does have authority on her head. What Paul actually meant by this, however, is open to conjecture . . . and there has been plenty of that . . .

    I actually avoid commenting on 1 Corinthians 11, simply because we cannot know with any degree of certainty what Paul was trying to tell the Corinthians.

    The husband is called “the head” of the wife twice by Paul, but never “the spiritual authority”. Calling the husband “the spiritual authority” or “leader” is an interpretation of what Paul has said, not what he actually stated.

    Paul never said that the husband was the leader or master or governor or the authority or any of the other (common) words with leadership connotations used in the New Testament. Some of these words are however used of Jesus Christ, because Jesus is the Lord of the church as well as being the head of the church. Jesus is described in other ways too; ways which cannot be applied to husbands, even though they both share the description of “head”.

    What I am trying to say is: Just because “Christ is the head . . .” and “the husband is the head . . .” doesn’t mean that the word “head” implies spiritual authority. Christ is many things to the church, and most definitely it’s source and sustainer; which is how the word “head” is used frequently in Koine Greek. “Head” is rarely used in Koine Greek for a chief or leader.

    I do not believe that the husband is the authority or leader of a wife, or a marriage, or a family. I think there is a very good reason why God gave children a father and a mother: so that they could lead and manage and bring up their children together, each offering their own abilities according to individual strengths and temperaments.

  • Erin S says:

    Thank-you Marg! It is so difficult to find Christians willing to speak up AGAINST the long held notion of male headship and female submission. I believe that when Jesus came to redeem the world he came to redeem all of the brokeness in it, including the broken relationship between husbands and wives. It wasn’t until sin entered the world that Adam was given the “headship” role in Genesis. My husband and I have a relationship of mutual love, respect and submission, and we believe with all our hearts that this is God’s will for us.

  • David Layzell says:

    I agree with Erin and Marg. In the Baptists churches in Auckland New Zealand it would be hard put to find ANYONE who believes in male headship. The concept does not go down well with Kiwis. To me it was a 1st Century practice that Paul comments on (just like slavery). My wife is my equal.

  • Andy says:

    Marg you said “What I am trying to say is: Just because “Christ is the head . . .” and “the husband is the head . . .” doesn’t mean that the word “head” implies spiritual authority. Christ is many things to the church, and most definitely it’s source and sustainer; which is how the word “head” is used frequently in Koine Greek. “Head” is rarely used in Koine Greek for a chief or leader.”

    How does Eph 5:23 not give a 1:1 correspondence of Christ’s headship of the church and a husband’s headship of his wife. “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church”

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