When I asked the young man to explain why his marriage was so troubled, he expressed genuine consternation. He said he had tried to be a good husband. Because his Christian college had strongly emphasized the importance of following biblical family models, he had committed himself to being a spiritual leader in his home. Again, I detected no cause for the couple's problems, so I asked him to explain in everyday terms how he expressed his leadership. This is what he said: "In order to make sure there is no question about who is the head of our home, I try to make sure both my wife and I let Scripture rule our actions. For instance, even when I come home from work and want to relax, I still try to act as the head of my home. If my wife asks for some help with something in the kitchen, or with the kids (he had three preschoolers, including a set of twins), I don't immediately drop my newspaper and snap to attention. To make sure we both understand who is the head of our home, I flip a coin in my mind. If it comes up heads, I help. If comes up tails, I don't. That way there's no question of who's in charge." His answer will strike most as preposterous, but why? Does not the Bible say that the husband is the "head" of the home, and that the wife should "submit" to him? The confusion that we experience in the church over these terms means that we cannot blame our culture alone for the decay of families in our society. Until the church makes clear that biblical principles of headship and submission command mutual loving sacrifice, and do not commend a "me dictator, you doormat" view of marriage, mature people in our churches as well as the uninformed in society will reject our family views. As the church seeks to reform society by re-knitting its heart fabric, we have a clear mission fairly and persuasively to rearticulate what biblical headship means for families. What does the Bible mean when it says that a husband is to act as the "head" of the home? In the informative Ephesians 5 passage, the Apostle Paul (speaking consistently with his teaching in four other epistles, with the Apostle Peter's writing, with 2,000 years of Old Testament precedent, and echoing Christ's words) says that wives should submit to their husbands "for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church" (vv. 22-23). Our modern ears can barely stand these words. They sound so chauvinistic and sexist. What makes the words not merely tolerable but tender is the apostle's following explanation. Since husbands are to model their headship after Christ's example, Paul tells husbands to "love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her" (v. 25). Biblical headship involves sacrificing one's self for the sake of another. A biblically guided husband looks past his own rights to consider what is right for his spouse. Following Christ's example, such a husband refuses to abdicate the responsibilities of leadership for the family, but uses his biblical authority to arrange the family's resources and activities to serve the best interests of his wife and children. Stubbing out the Marlboro man
Jesus gave Himself out of love to make His bride-the church-holy, radiant, and blameless (vv. 25-27). Such headship involves taking responsibility-even to the point of personal sacrifice-for the well-being of another. Such a definition grants nobility to the phrase "being a man" and renders boyish and undeveloped those images of manliness that idealize personal independence, family disinterest, and a "sportin' life." The Marlboro Man and Michelob weekends represent true manhood about as much as a 5-year-old in a cowboy hat resembles John Wayne. This description of headship repudiates modern perspectives that make headship a nasty synonym for self-seeking power plays. The use of the term to describe Christ's agonizing efforts for those He loves also speaks to those men who may use headship as an excuse for passivity in their marriages. Those husbands who will not expend the effort to do anything responsible in their homes may claim they are exercising the prerogatives of headship, but they are abandoning their biblical responsibilities. A mother of three recently reported to my wife, "My husband hasn't made a decision regarding our family in two years. He makes no attempt to discipline the children-that's left to me. He never consults me about taking out-of-town work assignments. He comes and goes seemingly without any regard for my feelings or our children's needs. They don't even know him. All he does is come home from time to time and break our routine before leaving again. I don't have three children ... I have four." Indifference to the needs of one's family is not biblical headship. The active sacrifice God requires of the heads of homes needs strong emphasis to counter wrong notions of the Bible's teachings prevalent in both Christian and secular settings. A husband whose headship results in rule by intimidation or abuse also has no biblical support. Such men-who have made idols of the cultural icons of swaggering independence and managerial machismo-program their actions and emotions to be self-absorbed, self-contained, and non-responsive. In contrast, the Bible requires men to treat their wives with consideration and respect (1 Peter 3:7). Because the husband's headship is built on the analogy of Christ's relationship to the church, the right to exercise family authority exists only when it is consistent with Christ's nature and purposes. This does not mean that wives are only to honor the authority of husbands who are Christian (see 1 Peter 3:1). The relationship between husbands and wives is rooted in the way that God created us, and His standards for this relationship do not disappear because our marriages are faulty. Rather, by revealing the right design for our marriages God intends to bring the beauty of His love into scarred lives. Headship-even flawed headship-is designed to fulfill God's purposes and should be honored accordingly. However, when a husband uses the power of his position to counter the purposes of God, then the man has no biblical authority for those specific actions. The husband who demands that his wife stay in a corner while he abuses their children speaks without biblical authority. Headship that transgresses the purposes of God loses His endorsement. Submission is not worship
A wife's obligation to submit to her husband's authority also has no biblical support when he demands that she disobey God. When Paul says, "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord ... in everything" (Ephesians 5:22-24), the apostle is not teaching that wives are to treat their husbands as divine. Such homage is due God. The command to submit "as to the Lord" reminds women that their actions ultimately honor God and are accountable to Him. The command echoes the Bible's injunction for us all to work as though we are serving the Lord when we labor for human employers (Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:23). In so honoring employers we do not make them gods, nor do we feel bound to obey them when they order us to break God's law. In the same way a wife who submits to her husband's authority honors God, but not if by obeying the man she disobeys God. The wife should submit to her husband "in everything" that God's Word approves. The wife's submission is not a suppression of her gifts or responsibilities, but is rather full expression of them in behalf of another. The apostle's analogy for submission also reflects the relationship of Christ and the church. We would never assume that in order for the church to submit to Christ that she should fail to use her greatest gifts of mission, praise, and stewardship to honor His purposes. Similarly the apostle's instruction for a wife to submit to her husband is not a mandate to suppress her gifts but to fully express them to support God's purposes in her husband's life. The Greek word for submit is actually a combination of terms meaning "to arrange under." Thus, as the husband sacrificially uses his leadership for the good of his spouse, the wife sacrificially arranges her gifts under the purpose of supporting her husband. Husband and wife bear mutual responsibility to obey God in their spousal obligations. Neither can say that he or she has a right or a requirement to disregard God's standards because of what the other has commanded or neglected. When couples forget these basic principles of Christian living, great harm results. Far into his adult years, a friend I will name "Joshua" for the purposes of this article bears the scars of parents who neglected these principles. Joshua grew up in a major Eastern city where his father worked the late shift as a taxi driver. Though he rarely woke from his daytime sleep to show any interest in the family, the father would occasionally assert his "spiritual authority" when he returned from work drunk. In those pre-dawn hours the father would drive his wife and children from their sleep with threats and beatings in order to "preach" to them for hours in the living room. To this day Joshua reports that his mother defends his father's actions because, "He is the head of the home, and the Bible says we must submit to his wishes." I will not claim to have an easy answer for what this long-suffering wife should have done. What I see in her son, however, is a lifetime of family and psychological turmoil over the perverted definition of headship a husband portrayed and a wife defended. Having been taught that headship included the right to abuse, Joshua became an abuser of his own wife and children until he confronted what Scripture really teaches. The Bible never sanctions the actions of a bully in the name of headship, and never approves the abuse of any family member for the sake of submission. Biblical headship is the conscientious and loving use of the authority God grants a husband to ensure that a home (and all its members) honor God and experience His blessings. Service, not "serve us"
Those who perceive headship as synonymous with dictatorship will have trouble understanding this servant/leader role. Clarity comes, however, when we remember that Jesus exemplified what God expects of persons in this position. Jesus came as our Savior/Lord (the one who totally surrendered Himself to our needs, though He had absolute authority). Because the one who had all authority in heaven and earth committed to Him also came to serve rather than to be served (Matthew 28:18 and 20:28), we know that sacrifice does not erase authority. Instead, when authority serves the interests of another, it masters the purpose for which God ordained it. Because a husband's headship reflects the ministry of Christ, we should understand that the head of a home is Christ's chief representative in that home. A wife and children should better know the love of their Savior through the actions and decisions a man makes. The head of the home dispenses Christ's grace into the home, using the authority of a husband to ensure that God's caring standards guide the family and that His unconditional love governs its relationships. This is an immense responsibility-so overwhelming that it requires every man humbly to seek God's aid. Only by his own close relationship with the Savior and by regular exposure to the mind of God in Scripture will a man know what it means to be the head of a home. This means that a husband must submit his own life to God before he should expect the submission of any other.
-Bryan Chapell is president of Covenant Theological Seminary and Professor of Practical Theology