What makes these talks difficult is that we are taking these enormous subjects—issues that people write entire books on—and are trying to address them in about forty minutes. And today we are covering one of the most controversial and complicated issues, that of headship and submission in marriage, so let’s ask the Lord for help.
For as vast as this issue is, our aim is to be as practically helpful as we can for the marriages in our church and for those who would one day like to be married.
Last week we talked about the purpose of marriage, about how God brings two people who are different from one another—man and woman—and unites them together into a one-flesh union for life. And, most importantly, we saw that the ultimate purpose of marriage is to point to Jesus’ love of His Bride, the Church. Today, we are going to zoom in more closely to see how the roles of marriage further help illustrate this picture of Christ and the Church.
Remember how Paul concludes his teaching: This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. Paul is a man who is familiar with his Old Testament, he knows the language and metaphors that God has used to describe His relationship with His people is primarily the language of marriage—and in that language, God is the groom and His people the bride. Now, add to this Jesus’ teaching that in heaven there will be no marriage (Matt 22:30), and you can see how Paul (and Peter, 1 Pet 3:1-7) understands that the roles a husband and wife play in marriage are intended to point towards this heavenly reality.
The Submission of a Wife
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
What Submission Isn’t
First, submission isn’t of all women to all men. Wives are to submit to their own husbands—not husbands or men in general—but their own husband. If the passage said more simply that women are to submit to men in general, then the misogynist who believes women are inferior to men would have a Biblical argument to make. But they don’t. Wives submitting to husbands is not a domestic application of a universal principle—there is nothing in the Bible that dictates women submit to men in general. Here, the submission doesn’t depend on the superiority of one sex over the other, but of the unique role the covenant of marriage requires to demonstrate the heavenly reality of Christ and the Church.
Second, submission isn’t unconditional. A wife submits to her own husband, as to the Lord. Now, obviously, a husband is not God—he does not have that kind of authority. But that isn’t what Paul is claiming. If in a play one person is cast for the role of Zeus, this does not mean that the person playing Zeus is Zeus. That is only his role in the play. A wife submits to her husband as to the Lord in the sense that both the Lord and her husband are authorities over her—one obviously has much more than the other, but her response to authority should be the response of any person to appropriate authority: submission.
Not to belabor the point, but the difference between the authority that Jesus has over His church and a husband has over his wife is critically important. Let’s call them dominical and derived authority.
Dominical Authority: Coming from the Latin dominus, meaning Lord. Jesus has unique authority because He is God. He can unilaterally command and we are obligated to obey, no matter what.
Derived Authority: All earthly authority—parents, governments, pastors, churches, husbands—possess derived authority, authority given to it by God. This means that all earthly authority is superseded by the higher dominical authority of the Lord. So, if a husband tells his wife to sin—to lie to others, to commit sexual sin, to stop attending church—she is not bound to submit to his authority.
What Submission Is
But, what does it mean then for a wife to “submit in everything to their husbands”?
Wives are given the unique calling to submit to their husbands as the Church does to Christ. Yet, Jesus Christ Himself demonstrated a life of submission. When He became a man, He submitted to His parents (Luke 2:51), submitted to His heavenly Father (1 Cor 11:3), and ultimately submitted to death on a cross (Phil 2:5-11). Through submitting to her husband, a wife has the opportunity to follow Jesus’ path of humility before honor, of: “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men,” (Phil 2:6-7). Jesus did not use His equality with God as a right to avoid submission, but displayed His divine glory through submission.
Practically, this means that a wife’s posture towards her husband in everything should be one of respect, deference, and support. Eve was created as a “helper suitable for” Adam, using the uniquely feminine strengths, insights, and gifts to support Adam in his calling. Last week we pointed out that the creation story shows us that women are different than men. They are created with an inward orientation towards cultivating family, relationships, and beauty. Thus, for women to submit to their husbands means to use their unique feminine strengths to come alongside their husbands, with a posture of respect and support.
Let me give you two positive examples from my own marriage. Not long ago we were in a rush to get out the door and problems—of the kind that only young children can create—kept arising, so we were late. I started to get frustrated and let everybody know it. Hillary, turned to me and calmly, without anger, but clearly said, “Marc, you set the tone for our whole family.” Bam! I suddenly realized that I was not doing my job as the leader of our family, and my wife respectfully showed me that. When Hillary and I were deliberating about whether or not we should move away so I could go to school, we talked and talked and talked about it. I was intimidated about moving across the country, felt guilty about making Hillary uproot her life so I could go to school, and wasn’t entirely certain myself what to do. But eventually Hillary said: Marc, God made you the head of our family, you are going to have to make a choice. And she was right, so I did.
The Headship of a Husband
What Headship Isn’t
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” (Eph 5:25).
First, headship isn’t only about leadership. Notice, Paul doesn’t say “Husbands, lead your wives.” He says, “Husbands, love your wives.” Now, obviously the language of “head” implies leadership—Jesus is the head of the church and does lead the church, yes, yes, yes. But I am concerned that much of the language about a husband’s headship in marriage today is reduced to “leadership.” We speak often about whether or not a man is a good leader, whether or not he leads his family well, leads his wife…why is that bad? Well, it isn’t wrong if we let Jesus’ model of leadership serve as the guide. But I am concerned that we unknowingly slide into that word a worldly definition of leadership, so that a man is a good “leader” so long as he acts like a coach, CEO, or general. That is, you are decisive, clear, driven, authoritative. But here is what I am trying to get at—you can lead decisively, clearly, with authority…and not love those you are leading. One of the ways a man can love his wife is through being clear and decisive and taking initiative—yes! But if you are good leader, if you are a provider, if you read your Bible and pray, if can budget well, but have not love? You are noisy gong and a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13:1-3).
Second, headship isn’t tyrannical. Paul says that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Paul overtly defines a husband’s love for his wife as sacrifice. Paul defines headship and authority the same way that Jesus did: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:42-45).
Sometimes it can be tempting to assume that if one person has authority over another person it will necessarily lead to exploitation. But Jesus has an entirely different conception of authority. The more authority you have in Jesus’ kingdom, the more of a servant you are. The more you deny yourself. The more you go down to the low place that no one else wants to go.
Further, like we said earlier, husbands do not have dominical authority, but derived authority. And someone could ask me about this in the Q&A time afterwards, but even in their derived authority, husbands are not given the authority to coerce their wife to submit to them, the way a parent can do to a child or a police officer can do to a criminal. His authority is limited to the authority of persuasion, not the authority of coercion.
A husband’s headship isn’t tyrannical or exploitative, but is defined by service and sacrifice out of great love.
What Headship Is
Let’s look at the rest of what Paul says to get a clear picture of what headship is.
First, headship is sacrifice and washing
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, 27 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 5:25-27)
Husbands should lay down their lives for their wives. This means that a husband should, on the rare occasion of physical danger, put himself in harms way to protect his bride. Dad’s, if you want a simple lesson to teach your boys what it means to be a man, you can tell them: “God made you to be strong so you could use your strength to protect others, especially girls.” Do you remember the story of the six-year-old boy in 2020 who jumped in front of his little sister when a dog began rushing at her and was bit several times in the face, but was able to grab his little sister and pull her to safety? It took 90 stitches to repair his face. When asked why he did it, he said: “If someone had to die, I thought it should be me.” Obviously, no one wants their six-year-old to be put in a position where they are having to risk their life—but parents, teach your sons that God has called them to use their strength to sacrifice for others, to protect others.
But, the dragon that most often needs to be slain to protect the damsel in distress is ourselves. We must sacrifice our own selfishness, our own desires, our own preferences, our own sin.
But also, headship is not only a concern for our own sanctification, but also our wife’s. Jesus gave himself so he could beautify His bride by making her holy. Therein is a powerful picture both of the feminine reality of beauty, but also of the root of true beauty: godliness. Husbands should always be thinking of how they can help their wives grow in their own relationship with the Lord. We aren’t the Holy Spirit and our wives aren’t projects to fix, but husbands bear a unique responsibility in creating habits and rhythms in the home that make godliness easier, not harder.
So practically, this looks like setting an example in your own spiritual disciplines, praying for your family, doing family devotions (as in, reading the Bible together and praying), faithfully attending church, keeping the family schedule from becoming so crammed that spiritual life becomes impossible, being the chief repenter and confessor of sins in the home, and enjoying God in all of life deeply. It is a posture of responsibility for the spiritual climate in your home.
Second, headship is nourishing and cherishing
In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church 30 because we are members of his body. (Eph 5:28-30)
Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies—she is your flesh, one flesh. And since no one hates their own flesh, husbands ought not hate their wives. Instead they should nourish it. Meaning, they provide for what their body needs. Husbands should provide for their wives. Meaning, the primary weight of responsibility for ensuring that the bills are paid and food is on the table falls on the husband. This doesn’t mean that a wife is not permitted to work or cannot even make more money than her husband. But it means that when the going gets tough, the husband does not assume that the wife will go out and get a second job.
Lastly, headship is cherishing. A husband doesn’t only provide for what a wife needs, or sacrifice for her, or protect her—he is to cherish her. The only other place in the New Testament this word is used is to refer to a mother’s love for her newborn baby (1 Thess 2:7). It implies a tender regard and affection. There is an emotional cord being struck here. Husbands, would your wife ever use the word “cherished” to describe how you make her feel?
Maybe you should take a note from the Song of Solomon and speak to her like this: “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you,” (Song 4:7)
What if my spouse isn’t willing?
What do you do if you want to embrace this role, but your spouse doesn’t want to? Since both roles, husband and wife, are defined by service, it does not require the participation of the other person to be enacted. A husband and wife can each pursue their roles, even if the other isn’t willing or interested. In fact, if a husband or wife feel like they cannot fulfil their respective roles, I want to suggest that they probably don’t really understand what it means to be a head or what it means to submit.