over the real meaning of “headship” often leads to marital conflict,
but the Bible doesn’t give husbands the right to be tyrants.
a Bible-believing Christian, Mike* was the spiritual leader of his
home. He believed that in order to be a faithful man of God he must
always “be in charge.” His wife, Jill*, and their four children
graciously submitted to his authority.
Mike insisted on controlling every aspect of home life. Jill was not allowed to handle any aspect of the family finances.
Jill felt God wouldn’t be pleased if she didn’t respect Mike’s headship,
so she eventually became numb to her husband’s demands. Mike was never
physically abusive, but his constant criticism made Jill feel like a
worthless spiritual zombie.
all erupted one day when their 5-year-old son, Tyler*, got the flu.
Usually Mike and Jill tried natural remedies before seeing a doctor, but
in this instance Tyler didn’t seem to be responding to the natural
products. After he’d had a high fever for several days, Jill took the
boy to the doctor, who told her Tyler had a respiratory infection that
Jill had a prescription
filled and intended to give a dose to Tyler immediately. But when Mike
learned about the doctor’s report, he told Jill not to give Tyler the
No matter how much Jill
pleaded, he refused—saying that the antibiotics might have negative side
effects. Jill was so concerned for her son’s safety that she threatened
to give the medicine to Tyler anyway. Mike then shot back: “I am the
head of this house! You have to do what I say!”
Jill felt she’d been pushed into a corner by her husband’s ironclad demands. Finally she placed the matter in God’s hands.
The next morning Tyler was so
sick he couldn’t get up to the table to eat. Jill was desperate and
dared to express her concerns. “Is it right to withhold something from
him that you know will alleviate his symptoms and help him get well?”
Mike finally gave in. Within 24 hours Tyler had improved, and in only a few days he was well.
Mike and Jill, meanwhile,
were nursing the wounds that had resulted from this quarrel. Mike’s
pride was hurt because he felt his leadership had been challenged.
Jill felt exhausted from
having to push so hard to help her son. Their marriage was frayed in the
process—and they eventually had to seek counseling.
These kinds of disagreements
occur in Christian homes every day. In many cases, husbands and wives
who argue over an issue agree to sit down, listen to each other, try to
understand the other spouse’s perspective and then decide on a
resolution. That’s the way conflict management is supposed to work.
But domestic strife can’t be
resolved if the husband believes: (1) that he is always right; (2) that
it is wrong for him to defer to his wife; or (3) that his masculinity is
weakened if he admits a mistake. If he believes all three of these
fallacies, he qualifies as a first-degree tyrant.
Patriarchs Don’t Live Here Anymore
When I preach about gender equality in the church, many women come to me
and say, “But I have been taught that my husband is the priest of the
home.” I challenge them to look up that phrase in the Bible. Show me one
scripture that says husbands should serve as priests for their wives!
traditionalists maintain that women should live in the background and
allow their husbands to represent them to the church and to God. They
also teach that the husband is responsible for the wife’s behavior, as
if she were some kind of puppet on a string whom he must manipulate.
They have the audacity to use
this unbiblical concept of the priestly husband to justify abusive,
authoritarian behavior. This is emotionally crippling to women—and it is
The Bible tells us that under
the old covenant, before the redemptive work of Christ and the advent
of the Holy Spirit, God dealt with men through priests. But now that
Jesus has secured our access into the presence of God, we all have been
qualified to be priests unto God.
Peter says we are part of a
“royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9, NKJV). He does not say that this
priesthood is exclusively male or that it refers to husbands. There is
no reference to gender because “there is neither male nor female…in
Christ” (Gal. 3:28).
Women have been clothed with
the priestly garments of holiness, and they have been commissioned to
exercise His authority. No husband has the biblical right to stand in
his wife’s way, and no wife should use “male headship” to excuse herself
from fulfilling God’s call on her life.
“Headship” is another popular
word thrown around in conservative religious circles. Many Christian
men believe their spirituality is measured by the level of control they
exert over their wives through “male headship.”
These guys think they are
being “real men of God” if they refuse to listen to their wives’
counsel. Where did we get the idea that an authoritarian style of
leadership is even remotely Christlike?
The rigid view of the
Christian family says that men have been placed in the God-ordained role
of full-time boss. The husband’s role, according to the conservative
religious model, is to lead and protect his wife, while her role is to
trust him and submit to his authority at all times without question.
Since he is supposedly smarter, stronger and more spiritually capable,
the woman has no option but to accept this arrangement.
This view has been derived by
misreading the words of Paul in Ephesians 5:23–24: “For the husband is
head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the
Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ,
so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.”
We must remember that at the
time Paul penned these words (probably A.D. 60), women had no rights and
were viewed as the property of either their fathers or their husbands.
In Ephesus during New Testament times, a man’s idea of “ruling the
family” was to keep his wife shut away in the house to do backbreaking
chores, tend the family farm, provide sexual gratification and bear as
many children as possible.
If she died in childbirth, he
found another wife. If she didn’t please him in bed, he paid a younger
woman outside the home to meet his sexual needs. If his wife shamed him,
he beat her.
Historian Ruth Tucker notes
that in ancient Greek society, most men considered their homebound wives
boring—so they typically sought the companionship of heterae, or
professional female escorts. Yet when Paul introduced the Christian
message to the Ephesians, he came with a radically new model of family
that went to the very core of what was wrong with the world: “Husbands,
love your wives” (Eph. 5:25).
Perhaps we don’t realize what
a revolutionary concept these four words were in the first century! It
was even more radical when Paul told the men of Ephesus to love their
wives “as their own bodies” (v. 28).
This meant that men and women
were equals. It meant that Christian men would have to break out of
their pagan Middle Eastern mind-set and stop looking down on the wives
as if they were brainless, inferior animals. Paul’s simple words
shattered gender prejudice at its core.
And when Paul told the men to
love their wives “as Christ also loved the church” (v. 25), he implied
something even more revolutionary: Women are just as deserving of the
grace of God as men are. We find in these tender verses the bedrock
foundation for the Christian idea of gender equality.
Two Kinds of Christian Husbands
Paul’s words to the Ephesians blatantly contradicted the worldly
philosophy of the ancient world, which taught that men and women live in
two different social strata. In the kingdom of God, Paul declared, men
don’t beat their wives, rule their homes like despots or threaten
divorce as a means to manipulate or control. In God’s kingdom, husbands
treat their wives with respect—yes, even as equals.
Paul was declaring in this
passage that men are no longer “over” women. Husbands can no longer
dominate their wives or treat them like chattel.
Now that Jesus Christ has
come, the curse of male domination over females that began in the Garden
of Eden has been broken. Women have been restored to a place of respect
and dignity! This was good news for the women of Ephesus; it is good
news for all women today.
But if this is true, then why
does Paul still say the husband should function as the “head” of his
wife? (See Eph. 5:23.) Does this not give him the right to dominate her?
That depends on whether we want a Christian model of leadership or a
The husband does function as a
leader. But the gospel of Jesus Christ—who was the ultimate example of
the compassionate “servant leader”—does not allow men to impose
leadership in an authoritarian way, nor can men view their role as
“head” as part of a God-sanctioned hierarchy that places them over their
wives to domineer them or to deny their rights.
Ephesians 5 is not about
hierarchy; it is about equality. But if we read Paul’s words through a
warped lens, it’s easy to impose our own misconceptions about
male-female relationships on the text. That’s why we need the Holy
Spirit to help us when we read the Scriptures.
Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, in
her book, Good News for Women (Baker), explains that there are really
two kinds of male headship from which to choose. One is what she calls
“life-giving headship,” which was instituted by God in the Garden of
Eden when He took Eve out of Adam’s side.
The opposing model is what
she refers to as “ruling headship,” which began with the fall, when man
and woman came under the curse of sin. Christian men today often view
ruling headship as the godly way to lead a family—but it is the wrong
Writes Groothuis: “The
biblical headship of the husband described in Ephesians 5 is redemptive,
in that it mitigates the effect of the fall which places the woman
under male rule, and it helps to reinstate woman in her creational place
of cultural responsibility alongside man. In life-giving headship, the
social privilege and power of maleness is shared by the husband with the
wife, and utilized by him according to the terms of love rather than of
male conquest and demand.”
Some Christian husbands have
made a lifestyle out of being benevolent dictators—and they quote
portions of Ephesians 5 to defend their behavior. Tragically, many women
have embraced the idea of being Christian doormats, and they have made
their subservience such a part of their identity as women that it has
become a place of security for them that they cannot abandon.
I pray you will not let a false concept of “male headship” stop you from fulfilling your high calling in Christ.
*Not their real names
J. Lee Grady is the editor of Charisma and author of 10 Lies the Church Tells Women (Charisma House), from which this article is adapted. He and his wife, Deborah, have been married for more than 25 years.