Male headship is a taboo topic for the world. That’s not a surprise in a society that has comprehensively rejected God’s design for the family. But even within the church today it’s a topic that ruffles feathers and makes people uncomfortable.
And yet we can’t hope to understand or apply God’s design for marriage and family if we sidestep this important biblical doctrine.
Marriage itself is founded on the principle of mutuality. Don’t imagine for a moment that the husband’s God-ordained headship relegates the wife to some secondary status or destroys the essential oneness of the marriage relationship. Marriage is a partnership, not a private fiefdom for dominant husbands. That truth is woven into everything Scripture teaches about the principles of marriage and the husband’s headship.
Different but Equal
In the first place, Scripture makes it perfectly clear that men and women are spiritual equals in the sight of God. They have an equal standing in Christ and equal spiritual privileges, because we are all united with Him in the same way. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There is no second-class spiritual citizenship. In Christ and before God, there’s only oneness. We are equal. Men are not spiritually superior to women.
It’s nonetheless true (and perfectly obvious) that both Scripture and nature assign different roles and different functions to men and women. The Bible is quite clear in assigning headship in every family to the husband, not the wife (Ephesians 5:23). The responsibilities of teaching and leading the church are given to men, not women (1 Timothy 2:12). But women are uniquely and exclusively equipped to bear and nurture young children, and the fulfillment of that role assures that they can never be relegated to any second-class status.
Men are, as a rule, physically stronger (1 Peter 3:7 NKJV refers to the wife as “the weaker vessel”). Men are therefore responsible to carry the weight and the brunt of labor in order to provide for and protect the family. Scripture teaches that God designed the physical differences and the functional differences between men and women for a purpose—and that is why God clearly distinguishes the roles and responsibilities of husbands and wives.
Remember, however, that while their roles are clearly different, the spiritual standing of men and women in Christ is perfectly equal. Even the biblical language of two becoming one flesh underscores the essential oneness of husband and wife in a way that rules out the very notion of inequality.
In fact, the way Scripture describes the husband’s role as head of his wife underscores the essential spiritual equality of men and women. In 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul wrote, “I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.”
Notice several significant truths that emerge from that one simple verse. First, God has given every husband a clear responsibility for spiritual leadership, and men dare not abdicate that duty. The husband, not the wife, is to be head of the family. That is God’s design. Within every home, someone must ultimately have the responsibility of leadership, and Scripture unambiguously assigns that duty to men, not women.
Second, the model for the husband’s headship is Christ. Christlike headship involves not only authority for spiritual leadership, but also the duties of care, nurture, protection, and self-sacrifice. In the words of Ephesians 5:28–29,
Husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church.
That text demolishes any notion that the husband’s headship makes him in any way superior to the wife.
Headship Within the Trinity
But third, notice the statement that comes at the end of 1 Corinthians 11:3: “God is the head of Christ.” In other words, even within the Trinity, one person is head. God the Father is head over Christ.
Aren’t all the persons of the Trinity fully God, and perfectly equal in essence? Of course. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). He said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Christ “is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). “In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). There is no inequality whatsoever among the persons of the Trinity.
But there are nonetheless differences in function. The Son willingly submits to the Father’s headship. The same Jesus who said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18) also said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me” (John 4:34). He said, “I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 5:30, cf. 6:38). In other words, although Father and Son are the same in essence and equally God, they function in different roles. By God’s own design, the Son submits to the Father’s headship. The Son’s role is by no means a lesser role; merely a different one. Christ is in no sense inferior to His Father, even though He willingly submits to the Father’s headship.
The same is true in marriage. Wives are in no way inferior to husbands, even though God has assigned husbands and wives different roles. The two are one flesh. They are absolutely equal in essence. Although the woman takes the place of submission to the headship of the man, God commands the man to recognize the essential equality of his wife and love her as his own body.
All of this beautifully illustrates the principle of mutual submission. And it is further illustrated by what Scripture teaches about the physical union of husband and wife. In 1 Corinthians 7:3, Paul wrote: “The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.” He clearly recognized that each member of the marriage union has a duty to the other, and he commanded them both to fulfill that duty. But he also expressly stated that each partner has a kind of authority over the other’s body: “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:4). Again, we see that each must submit to the other. That same principle of mutual submission is built into every aspect of the marital relationship, beginning with the physical union.
Once again, none of that negates what Scripture plainly teaches about the husband’s headship. But it does demonstrate clearly that the man’s headship is not a kind of dictatorship where the rest of the family exists just to do his will.
In other words, the God-ordained roles in the family have nothing to do with superiority or inferiority. Many wives are frankly smarter, wiser, better educated, more disciplined, or more discerning than their husbands. God has nevertheless ordered the family so that the man is the head, because the wife is the “weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7 NKJV) and the husband therefore owes his wife self-sacrifice and protection. The wife is not thereby relegated to an inferior role; she is, rather, a joint heir, who shares in all the mutual richness of the marriage.
Above all, the husband as head and the wife as weaker vessel must practice mutual submission, where each esteems the other as better than (never inferior to) self. The principle of mutual submission also permeates both family and church, so that in some sense every family member, as well as every Christian, should “be devoted to one another in brotherly love; giv[ing] preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10).
That is the essential starting point for everything Paul had to say about the family. The rest of his teaching—in which he outlined the distinct roles of husbands, wives, and children—is therefore set in the context of this all-important lesson about Spirit-filled humility. This one essential precept therefore establishes the bedrock principles of mutual submission, spiritual equality, tender self-sacrifice, godly humility, and loving service. Those are the keys to family harmony, and everything that comes afterward is simply an explanation of the ideal family environment—the foundation for building a true home.