Husbands, Headship and Half-Baked Ideas

I know I normally write poetry, but something has been on my heart lately and for good reason. An exceptionally close family member has spent virtually all of her adult life trying to be “a good wife.” She absolutely abhors the idea of divorce, but she also has a deeply rooted and, I dare say, almost fundamentalist idea of what it means to be “submissive to your husband.” Consequently, she has consistently blamed herself, and only herself, for some really serious problems in her current marriage. (Her first ended after 25 years solely by the decision of her then-husband. She was opposed, but that’s another story.)

So, okay then, I say let’s take the more evangelical-fundamentalist approach to the idea of marriage, and let’s use what is doubtless the most popular passage of Scripture about marriage. 

Let’s take a look at the fifth chapter of Ephesians, since so many Christians, both men and women (interestingly enough), love to point to the verses where St. Paul says, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.”

The Apostle has far more to say to the husband in this passage of Scripture that, interestingly enough, begins with the injunction, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Yes, he goes on to explain just how the husband is to subject himself to his wife in sacred marriage. And make no mistake: Paul is explaining how the husband is uniquely to subject  himself to his wife.

And how is this?

  1. He is to love his wife just as Christ Jesus loves the Church, His bride. And how does Christ love the Church? He loves the Church with perfect, godly love. (Here read the “love chapter” in First Corinthians, that is, chapter 13)
  2. He is to give himself up for his wife as Christ gave himself up for the Church. And how did Christ give himself up for the Church? He died for her! So this means that the husband is to die to self to, first and foremost, live for Christ and his wife! And, of course, this entails essentially placing his very life at the disposal of the wife; no, not to be hounded and ground into the dirt, because the godly wife would not attempt to do this. However,  his life is no longer his own! It belongs first to Christ, then to his wife.
  3. He is to care for her and nourish her. Think about how the mother cares for and nourishes her children and you have a pretty good grid into which to fit this command. This command certainly goes along with dying to self to live for Christ and his wife.
  4. He is to cleanse her “with the washing of water by the Word,” which at first glance can seem kind of esoteric. Is he to literally wash her? No. This is really a reference to baptism, which was and is the symbol of rebirth. So St. Paul is essentially instructing the husband to “baptize” his wife (continually) by, first, Christ Jesus, who was and is the Word of God incarnate and, secondly, by the written Word of God, holy Scripture. Now think for a moment about this awesome responsibility!
  5. He is to “make her holy . . . without spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind . . . so that she may be holy and without blemish.” Think about this for a moment. On the great and terrible Day of Judgement, it will be the husband who actually presents his wife before almighty God, and the Apostle is essentially saying to the husband, “You’d better be able to present your wife before God as an icon of holiness, godliness, and heavenly beauty.” This is what the Lord God expects!

So . . . Paul tells the wife to be subject to her husband, but as we can see he had an awful lot more to say to the husband, and he did so in really grueling detail! This is not something to be taken lightly, by any means. This is the written Word of God, holy Scripture, laying down very clearly and firmly the standard for a godly, Christian husband. The (alleged) Christian husband ignores this to his own peril!

And this, really, should be enough said on the subject, but it does raise an interesting question: If the husband, as in so many cases, is not even beginning to “measure up” to this standard, and not even really trying, then is it really possible for the wife to be submissive to her husband . . . at least in a godly manner? One might think the first question should be, “Is she even obligated to be mutually submissive to her husband, who is not mutually ‘submissive’ to her as outlined above?” But I’m skipping over that question to ask if it’s even possible. If so, how so?

Far too many conservative, evangelical Christian women, I’m afraid, are like my dear loved one: They are caught — or trapped — in a sterile, one-way doctrine of submissiveness without bothering to really consider to whom and to what they are attempting to be submissive! To this I make two observations: 1) St. Paul was speaking specifically about a truly Christian marriage, and 2) he begins with the instruction to be mutually submissive (so that it’s not just a one-way street!), though the submissiveness for each is unique (and far weightier for the husband than for the wife.) And those are biblical statements, too!

Thank you for your time and consideration. God bless!


4 thoughts on “Husbands, Headship and Half-Baked Ideas

  1. Consider also the cultural implications – Paul lived in a Patriarchal society under Roman control, Ephesians was written to the population in modern-day Turkey, as was Colossians, which contains the other set of nearly identical Household Codes. The Greek, Roman, and Jewish churches didn’t get the same message in the same detail as they weren’t struggling with the teaching. Perhaps it wasn’t easy for them to give up their own cultural expectations about marriages and live under the Roman rules concerning fathers being the heads of their households by Roman law and tradition. The same passages that tell wives to submit to their husbands are the ones that also direct slaves to submit to their masters using the same language. Yet today, we recognize that slavery is a moral evil and hundreds of countries the world over have signed a pact to put an end to it. How is it then, that we view the headship of a husband over his wife as if it were enduring? As if it remains true in our egalitarian society?

    A teaching I had heard explained that Paul was telling men to submit to their head (i.e.) Christ (per 1 Corinthians 11:3), and in a mutual way, women are to submit to their heads (i.e.) their husbands. That’s how they explained mutual submission, so that men were not told to submit to their wives, but rather to Christ. Women are told to submit to their husbands as their husbands follow (that is, submit to) Christ. If she’s taught this variation of the teaching, then the idea that her husband is supposed to submit to her would be heresy. That’s the scary thing about these headship teachings, they often to one’s head and can cause some to be drunk on their supposed God-given power to make all the decisions and have the final say. It’s a recipe for disaster that often results in abuse in one form or another.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so very, very much for this detailed and enlightening comment, Jamie! Of course, I agree with you completely and would only add that my heart is deeply grieved that so many women (and men, for that matter) buy into the very warped interpretive viewpoint you so well explained above, i.e. that the wife is to be submissive to her husband who is to be submissive to Christ. You are right about this being a recipe for disaster . . . I’ve personally witnessed such disaster before and am currently witness it again within my own immediate family! (All because a dear loved one believes in her heart that her “place” is essentially under the thumb of her husband . . . and I’ll stop here w/o saying anything about her “husband,” who really is no husband at all beyond a legal document!) Anyway, thank you again for reading and commenting. God bless you!


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