Nearly two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul penned these controversial words:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Eph 5:22-24)
For the last two weeks, we’ve looked at some prime examples of what biblical headship isn’t. On the one hand, we’ve talked about “Christian chauvinists” – men who take passages like this one and twist it to justify their own self-centered way of relating with women. On the opposite side of the spectrum, and equally damaging, is the prevailing view of our day – that Biblical exhortations to headship are not to be taken seriously. That they are merely cultural. As one facebooker explained, “The Bible is a guide to self improvement, not to be taken literally for the purpose of belittling one gender over another.” Now, putting that particularly-dangerous line of thought aside, the question we want to answer today is this: is that really what the Bible does? And if not, what does the Bible really say about headship?
One of the keys to properly understanding and interpreting the Word of God is to understand that for every biblical truth, there is also a balancing truth. When one truth is taken too far without the balancing truth to accompany it, the end result is heresy. For example, it is a truth that God is too just and holy to tolerate sin. But the balancing truth is that God is also a loving God who freely offers mankind the gift of grace through His own sacrifice on the cross. Take either one of these truths without the other, and you will end up with a twisted, distorted view of God which will either steal all of your joy or lead to promiscuity.
When it comes to headship, there are several balancing truths which we should take into account in order to come to a proper, biblical understanding of the relationship between a man and a woman.
1. Marriage is founded on mutual submission
While it’s easy for both sides of this argument to think of submission in terms of the woman submitting to the man, did you know that husbands and wives are actually commanded to submit to each other? Here’s what Paul says:
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1Co 7:4)
Although Paul is speaking specifically here of husbands and wives being sensitive to each others’ sexual needs, this truth has much more far-reaching applications. Husbands and wives are commanded to be equally sensitive to each others’ needs and be willing to sacrifice selflessly to meet them. This is no one-way street of male dominance and female passivity – Paul explicitly states that the husband does not have authority over his own body.
2. Seflessness is the cornerstone of Christian marriage
In Philippians 2, Paul gives us the very foundation of Christian relationships:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Php 2:3-4)
Although Paul is talking to the body of believers generally, I think the exhortation holds doubly true for spouses. It’s so important that Paul actually tells us the same thing three times: Don’t do anything out of selfishness. In fact, consider your spouse to be more important than yourself. Don’t just look out for your own interests – don’t just do the things that please you. Look out for the interest of your spouse as well.
This selfless, self-sacrificing love is what separates a loving relationship from a lustful relationship. You’ve heard it a dozen times in youth group – “lust takes, love gives.” But I think very few people realize that lust will keep right on taking even after the marriage altar. The same things that made it wrong before the wedding make it wrong after the wedding – it’s a constant focus on pleasing and gratifying yourself. This kind of attitude is easy to identify in any couple that is having problems, whether before or after they are married. It will almost always manifest itself as complaining about the other person. “He/she isn’t meeting my needs.” “He isn’t leading me spiritually.” “She isn’t motivating me spiritually.” “I just feel like I deserve to be with somebody who will make me happier.” This kind of relationship-eating, self-satisfying lust doesn’t always have to be sexual.
3. The call to men is much more severe
Sadly, in getting so hung up on the woman’s role in submission, it’s very easy to forget about the even more stringent command that is placed on the husband. It goes like this:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:25-32)
What Paul is saying is that marriage is a “mystery” – an amazing biblical truth that ultimately tells us something about salvation. And in her place in the mystery, the wife is to be to the husband as Christ is to the Church. But men? Men? We get to be Jesus. Think about that for a second. It doesn’t say “enjoy your power as though you are God incarnate.” It says “love your wives as Christ loved the church.” How did Christ love the church? First, by giving Himself for her. By carrying the cross up to Calvary. By enduring the shame of being stripped naked and beaten and hanging out like a wrack of pummeled meat to take responsibility for sins and failures that were not his own. That is the gospel. That is what Jesus does for His church.
But that is not all He does. Jesus not only redeems his bride from the slough of sin, he washes her clean from its filth. He does this with the water of His Word. And that, Paul tells men, that is how we are supposed to love our wives. I am to love Sophia as my own body. As my own flesh. To seek to please her rather than pleasing myself. To pursue her like Jesus pursues me, whether or not I feel like she’s challenging me, validating me, or respecting me the way I think she should. And I am to wash her, to lead her, with the water of God’s Word.
This is how headship works. It is founded in mutual selflessness and submission; it begins with a man who is willing to be made more like Jesus as a selfless servant-leader; it manifests in a wife who respects the leadership of a respectable man; and it results in a wife and family that flourishes.
Starting with Headship: Chauvinism, Culture, and Service, we began a look at the Biblical concept of headship. In this post, we discuss the “Cultural view” of headship, where it comes from, and some of the problems associated with it.
At the other end of the spectrum (as two related heresies so often are) is what I would call the cultural view. The cultural view of headship says simply this: That headship as laid out in the Bible is a cultural issue. Living in a more advanced culture two thousand years later, we have transcended traditional gender roles. Like chauvinism, this is by no means a new idea.
In modern times, we can tie it to the rise of feminism and the “sexual revolution.” In the name of “liberating women” and “giving women freedom over their own reproductive choices”, our society has discarded traditional gender roles in favor of the “empowered woman.” And the church, sadly, has not only acquiesced – it has largely embraced feminism. In fact, as some might point out, feminism really had its start in the church long before it became accepted in the workplace.
For the last sixty years, there has been an almost implicit assumption on the part of our culture that the church is for women – that it is the woman’s domain. The active membership of most churches today is overwhelmingly female. American preaching and theology has been progressively feminized, and men are told that in order to be good “Christian” men that they need to be more sensitive and less assertive. Recoiling from so many historical examples of masculinity out of control, the church swung to the other extreme and demanded that men become more like women.
With so many machismo-pumped alternatives vying for our weekends, is it any wonder that the last half-century has seen a mass-exodus of the church on the part of men? The tragic result of this is men who don’t know how to be the spiritual heads of their homes and women who (and pretty reasonably so) don’t look to their husbands for spiritual leadership. They step into the perceived gap in leadership, which to their husband’s mind justifies the forfeiture of the responsibility.
But this, of course, leaves the church with a difficult question: what about headship? The Bible seems to leave very little room for argument in stating that the husband is the head of the home. And so we are faced with one of three options: we are wrong and our society is fundamentally broken, or; biblical command regarding headship are really only cultural and we’re at a different place now as a society, or; our particular family is an exception to the rule because of some extenuating circumstance.
Luckily for us, the society around us and pop psychology in particular is more than willing to validate the second of those three options. The problem, of course, is that it isn’t cultural. Men are the head of the home, Paul says, in the same way that Christ is the head of the Church. There’s a direct correlation there. Paul’s statement can only be culturally limited in the same way that Christ’s headship over his church can be culturally limited. And if it isn’t about Jesus, we may as well pack up, close our doors, and go home.
The husband is the head of the home. Whether or not the head is succeeding or failing at his job is another matter. And this (as our last post should make very clear) isn’t a justification for the man who tries to rule his home with an iron fist. It’s not meant to enable men who demand respect without being respectable. But what it does mean is that men are called, biblically, to step up to the plate and lead. Whether or not it is culturally acceptable.
In the next and final post in this series, we’ll take a look at the third and biblical model of headship: That of the servant-leader.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.(Eph 5:22-23)
We live in a fallen, sin-marred word that is fundamentally broken from the inside out. Understand that. We live in a world where there are sometimes mothers, but no fathers. We live in a world where husbands are emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive. These things do happen and are happening. And they create unique cases in which it is both unsafe and unloving to tell the wife or children to be submissive and obedient.
While acknowledging that this is the case (and having been privileged to be part of a pastoral staff that has to deal with cases like this from time to time), we can still teach the general commandment: Wives, submit to your own husbands. Husband, before you do too much in the way of chest-thumping and self-congratulating, know that your calling is an even heavier one:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Eph 5:25-31)
If your wife has to be the church, you have to be Christ. It is a high and heavy calling – one which we should treat with the utmost gravity and fear. How should I love and lead my wife? Like Jesus loves and leads His church. That is all. There is no wiggle room in this. There is no room for you to be the spineless sitcom dad. There is no room for you to be the gushy, obsessive romantic comedy boyfriend. You get to love her and lead her like Christ. There are no exceptions.
Great, you say. We’ve established that there is a seemingly-impossible standard. But how do we achieve that? How do we live up to that? To try to answer that question, I want to key on to one verse specifically here in Ephesians 5:
…that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5:26-27)
Jesus cleanses His bride with the Word. This is part of his High Priestly ministry that He is continually performing so that one day He can present us to His Father as a holy, wholly redeemed bride. Now, that right there is some pretty heavy gospel – and it’s sadly beyond the scope of this writing to deal with all of the joy-laden implications of this passage. Today we will be mainly focused on one of them: how you can mimic Christ (and you are commanded to do so) and love and lead your family like He loves and leads His.
The implicit command of this passage is that we should be “washing” our families with the “water of the Word.” It’s a concept that stretches back all the way to the Old Testament and the Mosaic Law, where parents are charged with taking the commandments of the Law and teaching them to their children:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise… (Deu 6:4-7)
But as in many cases, the Law of Grace is more specific and more demanding than the Law of Moses. Where the Law of Moses commanded the Israelites to teach the commandments of Scripture, a careful word study will show that as Christian husbands and fathers, we have an added responsibility: to diligently search the Word of God for specific messages for our wives and families.
There are two Greek words commonly translated as “word” in Scripture. The first, and most common, is logos, the word from which comes our English word “logic.” This is a term that is used to refer generally to the revelation of Scripture and also to Jesus Christ Himself (John 1:1).
The second word – and the word that Paul uses in Ephesians 5 – is rhema. A rhema is a specific, timely word from God for an individual or situation. Rhema is what happens when the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the logos in a way that applies directly to our lives.
Paul is not telling us that all we need to do to fulfill our role as the spiritual leaders of our home is to read the Bible to our family (though that is certainly an excellent start). He is telling us that we have a responsibility to study the Word of God diligently for guidance, not just for ourselves, but for our family. We are thus responsible not only for our own spiritual growth, but for shepherding the spiritual growth of our wives and children.