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.