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Is the Husband the "Head" of His Wife?

by Kevin K. Nelson

I've been in lengthy debates on this subject, and I've had a number of people who refuse to believe that the Bible teaches that the husband is to be the "head" of his wife, and really debate whether or not the wife is to be "obedient." Now, since the debate was with Christians, these things surprised me somewhat, for the only way to believe these things is to adamantly ignore scripture. So before I continue, I will place down a rule of thumb:

How should we interpret scripture?

Either the Bible is the inspired Word of God or it is not. If it is the inspired Word of God, then we MUST believe what it teaches, and we must have faith that God has protected His Word. IF we do not believe that it has been protected by God, and that it is 'useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness' (2 Tim 3:16-17), then we are all on our own, and our faith has no more power than the faith of any of the religions of the world--and it is pointless to be a Christian. As Christians, we place our faith on the Word of God, to teach us about Him and what He expects of His Creation. Without the Word of God, we are as blind and lost as any of the religions of the world, and we will be trapped into making rules on our own whims and intuitions. Therefore, if we call ourselves Christians, we must obey the Word of God.

Even if we agree that we are to obey the Word of God, we can still come up with any theory we want. I can, for instance, decide that I want to believe in reincarnation. However, as a Christian, after I come up with this theory, I must test it by what I find in scripture. Now, I could go into scripture, and I could find a vague verse that alludes to reincarnation and thus "prove my point." However, that is not the correct approach. I must not only seek to "prove my point," but rather I must seek to find a contradiction. If there is any contradiction, then I know that I am in the wrong.

If I really wanted to "prove" reincarnation, I could go so far as to use this scripture:

"All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again" (Eccl 1:7, NIV).

I could point out that what Solomon is really talking about is the circle of life, and it isn't confined to simply talking about nature, but rather, he is really talking about the circle of human life--that of reincarnation. You see, Solomon was so wise because he was able to remember his past life, and that was how God gave him wisdom, by allowing him to remember his previous time on earth. As far-fetched as this seems, I've seen people interpret scripture this way.

Beyond being a stretch of the context, and every other rule of interpreting scripture, the problem is that I am focusing on what I want to find instead of what I don't want to find. Similarly, Christians today are searching all over scripture looking for what they want to prove and ignoring the contradictions. For instance, there are thousands of intelligent, educated people, who are seeking everywhere in scripture looking for a loophole that allows homosexuality to be okay, but all the while, they are ignoring the quite simple fact that the Bible calls it an abominable sin. Back to the issue of reincarnation, the person that believes in it and says they're a Christian is clearly ignoring this verse:

"Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment," (Heb 9:27, NIV).

That one verse contradicts their belief clearly. Since there is a very clear, at face value, verse that disproves reincarnation, we cannot support reincarnation Biblically. Therefore, the basic rule of thumb is to come up with theories that you find supported by some scripture, and then look to see if it contradicts anything. If it contradicts anything, then the belief is wrong...Period! Unfortunately, we have a lot of people that are going on their whims, and supporting it by "looking up the Greek," and in "reading deeper" into the metaphors that the Bible gives. Looking up the Greek and reading into the metaphors of scripture is not wrong, in fact it is important, but it is wrong when we are creating beliefs that are contradicted by what scripture gives us at face value and preaching them as being taught by scripture. Are we God, that we can make up our own rules?

The headless marriage

"And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy" (Col 1:18, NIV).

To my knowledge, there is no disagreement among Christians on this point. We all believe that Christ is the 'head' of the church, and that we are to obey Him. It is clear from scripture that Christ is in authority over us. Jesus even said that if you loved Him, you would obey Him--that love and obedience are inseparable when it comes to our relationship with Him (John 14:15). So, as His body, with Him as the head, we are to be in total obedience and submission to Him. To obey Him and the Father, as Christians, is our primary responsibility. This isn't just a simple belief of mine, this is the foundation of the Christian faith--that Jesus Christ is God, and to enter into Heaven that we must come to a place of obedience to His call and accept His forgiveness of sins.

However, the scripture goes on to say:

"For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior"(Eph 5:23, NIV).

Therefore, just as the church is to obey Christ implicitly, it is saying that wives are to obey their husbands implicitly by saying that the husband is the head of his wife. Therefore, the belief that the husband is not really the "head" of his wife is CLEARLY not scriptural but is, rather, a whim, an emotional argument that has no validation from scripture. The husband is the head of his wife, just as Christ is the head of the church. So, wives must obey their husbands in everything, just as Christians obey Christ in everything. Now, just in case you think: "No, it only says he's the head, 'as' Christ is the head of the church, not that wives are to obey everything he says." To this, I must say, "Read the next verse."

"Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything" (Eph 5:24, NIV).

Therefore, scripture is making it clear that wives are to obey "in everything," just as the church is to obey Christ. The only exception that we could feasibly come up with is if he told her to violate a government law or one of God's laws, for a husband cannot contradict a higher authority than himself. The point, however, is that we cannot pick and choose verses that we like and ignore scriptures that we don't like.

I'll be honest. As a man in our modern society, I have a hard time with this verse. To me, this would make it seem like the Bible postulates abuse. However, the Bible is also very clear that God does not support a man mistreating his wife, for it commands husbands to lay down their lives for their wives as Christ laid down His life for the church. Imagine that! A husband is required by God to be like Christ in the relationship. Why would God command such standards if he was not really the 'head' of his wife? Do you realize how high those standards really are? As the head of the church Jesus died for the church, so, then, the husband is required to die to his own desires for the sake of his wife and to lay his life down for her (Eph. 5:25). That is a lot more than God asks from women, believe it or not.

To tell husbands that they are not the head of their wives is to let them off the hook. If the husband is not the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church, then he is not required to lay down his life for the sake of his wife. However, there is a very prevalent belief in churches today that the Bible teaches "Mutual Submission."1 By "looking deep into scripture, and finding a missing word, they have formed an entire doctrine around one verse while ignoring many verses. The idea that the scripture teaches husbands and wives to be mutually submissive is almost ludicrous in its potential to let men off the hook for what God has commanded them. Though the movement that teaches that husbands are not the heads of their family was intended to protect women from abusers, it actually lowers the standards that God requires of men and makes them less accountable for their families than what the scripture teaches. A woman in a "mutually submissive" relationship will never understand what it means to have her husband serve her with a whole heart, to lay down his life, willingly, for her...and that is a shame, for women need to be loved, cherished, and served--not submitted to.

However, back to the argument at hand, the Bible also commands husbands not to be harsh with their wives (Col. 3:19). If the husband were not in authority over his wife, what reason would there be to say this? Therefore, God is commanding husbands, as the leaders, to be the same as He is, to be a leader that serves instead of trying to be served2. That is the kind of loving leader God has always been, and that is the kind of leader he expects men to be. To say anything else is to give men an excuse to sin and not lead in the way that God has commanded them--by laying down their lives.

But so many men have abused their leadership

Just because some men have twisted various verses in the Bible to defend their right to treat their wife in any way that they please, and often abuse their wives, does not mean that we should swing all the way to the other extreme and say that the verses don't mean what they say. The Bible is very clear that the husband is the head of his wife, and that wives are to obey their husbands in everything. It is also very clear of the responsibility that God gives to men, and God will hold abusive men accountable for their actions.

"Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God" (1 Cor 11:3, NIV).

In this verse, another piece to the puzzle is added, one for which people misuse scripture for the sake of their understanding rather than change their understanding for the sake of scripture. The Bible declares not to lean on your own understanding, but to acknowledge God and trust Him to make your paths straight (Prov. 3:5-6). So, we must abandon anything we think we understand if it is contradicted by scripture. However, I have heard an argument that goes like this:

"Yes, the Bible commands headship, but it is our understanding of headship that is misdirected. You see, it talks about the husband being the head of his wife, but it also talks about God being the head of Christ. However, there is a problem here. How can God rule over Christ since they are One. They are One, so there is no way for one to have more authority than the other, it is not possible… it does not make sense. Therefore, when it talks about the husband being the head, it is not saying that he should rule over her--rather, they are to be one, and they should be mutually submissive to each other." If the term "mutual submission" is not used, a similar idea is presented.

To this, I am forced to respond: Since when is the Bible interpreted according to what makes sense to our three pound brains. We admit we can't understand the Trinity in it's entirety, but then we seem to think that we can interpret the command structure of the Trinity that we don't understand according to what we understand. Now, that line of thinking is what doesn't make sense. If the Bible says that Christ is in submission to the Father, then we are to accept that as coming from the Word of God. If we do not accept it on that basis, then we are determining eternity on our whims and feelings, and our understandings of such things--making us no better than any of the other religions of the world that have tried to understand eternal things through the power of their three pound brains. Instead, we must choose to accept scripture for what it states, and Christ showed that he was in submission to the Father during his time on earth. Many people believe that was the end of His submission, that it was only for His time on earth. However, it is clear that after his time on earth, even in all his glory, Paul reveals to us that the Father is still the head of Christ and will continue to have more authority from now to forever:

"For he 'has put everything under his feet.' Now when it says that 'everything' has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all" (1 Cor 15:27-28, NIV).

Therefore, scripture makes it clear that the Father always has more authority than the Son. Christ did not "just submit during His time on earth," but will continue to submit for eternity to come. Any argument to the contrary is an emotional argument that has no basis in scripture, for no where does it ever declare that the Son will no longer be in submission to the Father after the end of times, but it does say that quite the opposite is true3. So, as the Son is always subject to His head, the Father, and the church is to always be submissive to her head, Christ, so also, every woman should be subject to her head--her husband. Scripture is clear and concise. There is no argument that stands up under scrutiny that states that submission is not mandatory, nor is there any argument that stands to reason that the husband is not the head of his wife.

We need to stop feeling the scripture and start reading the scripture. When we start reasoning what scripture teaches by how we feel about it, we are on a narrow and dangerous path in the wrong direction. We cannot interpret scripture according to modern philosophy. Unfortunately, however, we are allowing our society to change us. We are being influenced by the liberal views of the media rather than influencing the media by doing what is right in the eyes of God. We are changing scripture in order not to offend all those that are preaching equality and egalitarian marriage. However, we must return to scripture and stop interpreting scripture on the basis of what is politically correct. We need to stop teaching people to have a headless marriage.

When we take scripture at face value, we find that, yes, the husband is the head of his wife, but we also find the kind of standards that God will hold men to. By softening the blow of submission and telling wives that they don't have to be obedient to their husbands, teaching mutual submission, etc., we have adversely let men off of the hook and lowered the standards that God requires of them. Is the wife to be obedient? Yes, just read 1 Peter 3. You may not like 1 Peter 3, but the Pharisees didn't like it when Jesus rained on their parade either. Stop making up new rules like the Pharisees and start obeying the ones that God has already set up. If you are a Christian, then Christ is your head, and His Word declares that the husband is to be the head over the wife. The church without a head would fall apart, cease to function, and marriages without a head or with an abusive head also fall apart. So, lets screw our heads on straight and start believing what the Bible says instead of making up rules to our fancy.


1) I put more on Mutual Submission in another article: Is Mutual Submission Biblical?

2) I put more on Servant Leadership in another article: The Serving Husband

3) The argument that submission was a result of the fall, but now we are in kingdom living--and oneness, not submission is the goal, is also clearly refuted by this argument. Since Christ, who is one with God, is subject to God even after all is finished, then it is clear that wives are to continue to be in submission to their husbands regardless of whether or not they are good Christians. I will remind you that these letters were written to kingdom people, people who had chosen Christ as their savior. To say we can ignore the command of submission because we are now under grace is a great fallacy that is not supported by scripture. Oneness comes about as a byproduct of the husband serving and the wife submitting, just like our oneness with Christ comes through our serving Him, not through our being mutually submissive with Him. Who of us would dare to say that Christ is "mutually submissive" with us?

Copyright © 2000, Kevin K. Nelson, all rights reserved