“The Husband is Head of the Wife”

“The Husband

is Head of the Wife”


One of the views presented to our Christadelphian community seeks to explain male/female relationships in terms of a “God-given hierarchy in the household of faith”. “Hierarchy” is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as “a ranking system ordered according to status or authority”.


Men Are to Lead, Women Are to Be Led?

This view is based on the references in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, and 1 Timothy 2:

“man is head of the woman”

“let her be in submission even as the law says”

“I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man”

It then goes to Genesis to the declaration to Eve (“he shall rule over you”), to the patriarchal society of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to the Mosaic Law and male priesthood, and through all of these it claims to discern a divine principle. This principle, it is declared, applies to both family life and religious life: men are to lead, women are to be led.

When these quotations are strung together as we have done here, they can look impressive. But they are taken out their context and therefore misused. Texts must be read in their context and in the context of the Bible as a whole.

Our comments, therefore, on this claim for a divine hierarchy in the household of faith, are as follows.


1 Corinthians 11

There is certainly a hierarchy here for Paul says:

I want you to understand that the head of every man (aner) is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband [aner, same word as just translated ‘man’], and the head of Christ is God.                        (1 Corinthians 11:3)

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 the hierarchy concerns marital relationships, not ecclesial ones (“the head of a woman is her husband”, RSV). This can be seen because 1 Corinthians 11 does not put any restriction on the church activities under discussion (praying and speaking in prophecy), as long as the sisters honour their husbands in whatever they are doing.

Although Corinth is in Greece, it was a strongly Roman city. For a wife not to wear her marriage veil gave out the wrong message, according to values of the time.

[Paul] was, in effect, accusing the Christian wife who removed her veil when praying and prophesying of parading like one of the profligate ‘new’ Roman women. If she did this while participating in a leading way in an open meeting, then she publicly dishonoured her husband....

(Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, pages 128-129)[1]

This is the reason for Paul’s writing this section of the letter. He is very anxious that the believers should not give the impression of abandoning their marriage relationships now that there was freedom in Christ for women to participate verbally in the meetings. If the wife felt the veil was a restriction on her independence, Paul points out that the husband too cannot act independently, for “the head of every man is Christ”, and indeed so it is for Jesus, “the head of Christ is God”. In Ephesians 5 Paul describes Christ as the head of the church. The church consists of both men and women, so there are no grounds for thinking that Christ is head of the man but not head of wife, or as Augustine thought only head of wife through her husband.

In the context of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers to Genesis 2, that the woman was created as a suitable companion for her husband. Therefore independence of wives from husbands is not acceptable behaviour.

For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.          (1 Corinthians 11:8)

But Paul immediately modifies this statement lest the wife should therefore be considered of less value or of less importance as a person:

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.                    (1 Corinthians 11:11-12)

What, then, does Paul means when he says that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Does head mean “ruler”, or “chief” or “boss”? That is certainly how Roman law at Corinth, and people in the ancient world would tend to understand the relationship of the husband to the wife. And it has often been understood in this manner since. We need to look at Ephesians to understand Paul’s meaning.



Paul again says “the husband is the head of the wife” (Ephesians 5:23).

The husband was head of the wife in an absolute manner according to secular laws. She was his property and he could do whatever he liked with her. He could tell her what to do and she had to obey. Aristotle (384-322 BC), who strongly influenced church thinking in centuries subsequent to the apostle Paul, said that the man’s proper qualities were to command, the woman’s proper qualities were to accept orders.

... tame animals are superior in their nature to wild animals... Also, as between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.[2]

                                                            (Aristotle, Politics 1254b, 1260a)

In the Roman world Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BC) said:

Our ancestors thought it not proper that women should perform any, even private business, without a director; but that they should be ever under the control of parents, brothers, or husbands.

(Livy, History of Rome, Book XXXIV.2[3])


So, when we see the apostle Paul declaring that the husband is the head of the wife, is this what he means? He is the ruler, and she is the subject? But Paul then qualifies his statement:

For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour.... Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her....                                                                                                               (Ephesians 5:23, 25)

A completely different kind of headship is envisaged. Christ became head of the church by giving himself up for it, by being a servant even to death:

And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.               (Philippians 2:8)

Paul in Ephesians is not saying that the husband should be the head of the wife in the sense that he always or exclusively takes the lead or tells her what to do, but the reverse! He is saying the husband should do all he can to care for her, to serve her and to see to her needs. In Ephesians 4:15-16 we have the analogy of a body, and function of the head is explained and described: “the head ... from whom the whole body ... makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love”. The word head is used here to mean the one that feeds and makes grow.

In Colossians 2:19 Christ is described as “the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” Paul in Ephesians 5 transforms the conventional understanding of male dominance. He turns it on its head! Husbands are to dedicate themselves to the nourishment of their wives just as Jesus does for the ecclesia: “nourishes and cherishes” “as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29). Influenced by Aristotle and by pagan society, many interpreters have assumed that Paul was simply endorsing commonly accepted attitudes. A careful examination shows that Paul means the opposite. It is significant that nowhere in the Bible does it say it is a good thing for men to rule over their wives, though it was a commonly held view in the Jewish and pagan worlds that they should. Paul approaches very closely to a mutual relationship where husbands and wives work together as a unity. If the husband really loves his wife, he will not attempt to tell her what to do. They will consult one another, planning things out together, each serving the other to the utmost. He will not order her about. He will seek to walk with her in the ways of God – and this is, of course, mutual. If an unbelieving husband is consecrated through his believing wife, how much more will a Christian wife be able to help a believing husband, and vice versa (1 Corinthians 7:14-16). Being “head” is a position of service, of being an example of Christ-like behaviour, as indicated also by the comment that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (verse 28). A husband who so loves his wife will seek to do the best he can for her, to attend to all her needs and concerns, physical and spiritual. Christian love (agape) means submitting to one another, not acting selfishly but looking to the interest and needs of the other.

The same is meant when wives are told to submit to their husbands in everything. All believers are told to submit to each other (verse 21). When wives are told to submit to their husbands in everything, Paul is instructing them to a positive attitude of service to their husbands. It is notable that Paul does not instruct husbands to rule their wives nor does he tell wives to obey their husbands. He reserves the word “obey” (hypakouo) for children to parents and slaves to masters. The practical outcome of this teaching is effective equality, despite the slightly different manner in which it is described. Considerably more space is devoted to how husbands should treat their wives than vice-versa, which suggests a need to redress the male chauvinism of the pagan world where wives were only to produce children and run the household and were not treated as proper companions. By contrast, the Christian ideal, the pre-fall position, was that “the two shall become one” (Ephesians 5:31). Compared to the standards of the ancient world (and indeed compared to the standards prevalent in the modern world) Paul’s teaching is revolutionary in its reciprocity.

The principle, therefore, is of service to one another, service in which the needs and cares of each individual are fully understood and catered for by one another.

What, then, is the connection with the ecclesia? Is there a “God-given hierarchy in the household of faith” whereby men are to lead and woman to be led?

It is worth noting that in Ephesians 5:21-33 Paul did not lay down a specific role for the husband and another specific role for the wife, nor was he prescribing roles distinguishing brothers from sisters within the ecclesia. As we illustrated in Chapter 6 (pages 40-47), the different roles within the ecclesia were apportioned not on the basis of male or female but “according to the grace given to us” (Romans 12:6). In modern terms this means that we are to use our God-given talents according to ability.[4] Of course different roles occur in marriage and in the ecclesia. Marriage roles (who does what) are worked out by each couple according to ability, inclination and personal circumstances. There is no reason to say that because the husband is head, in Paul’s sense, that therefore he should be in control of the money, or of the kitchen, or he should say grace at every meal, or should always make the final decision if the couple disagree. If he loves his wife in the manner described, final decisions will be arrived at by discussion and compromise, and everything will be shared by agreement.


Worldly Hierarchies and Ruling in the Ecclesia?

There are worldly hierarchies. Jesus instructed his disciples:

The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.”                                                                   (Luke 22:25-27)

This gives us the clue as to the kind of “head” that Jesus is. He expects his followers to be like him – “one who serves”.


Ruling in the ecclesia and in households is described and endorsed.


Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.

                                                                        (Hebrews 13:17, NRSV)

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour...

                                                                                    (1 Timothy 5:17)

I would have the younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households....                                                                 (1 Timothy 5:14)


Obviously some hierarchy is necessary. It is necessary for children; for slaves, in a society which owns slaves; in the ecclesia, to keep things organised and get jobs done. God has given Jesus “all authority on heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). He is our King. Within marriage, authority of man over woman or woman over man was not taught “from the beginning”. Rule by man over woman came in after the fall. In Christ, in the new creation, it is replaced by service to one another, and by companionship. And Paul’s teaching indicates how by service and by love, God’s original intention is restored.



Submission is something we are all asked to do to each other (Ephesians 5:21). Submission means putting oneself and one’s time and energy at the service of others, not of oneself.

How does this work if we have leaders?

Now, brethren, you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints; I urge you to be subject to such men [=people[5]] and to every fellow worker and labourer.                                           (1 Corinthians 16:16)

Submit to such as these, and to everyone who joins in the work and labours at it.” (NIV)

The answer is that both leaders and those who are led are involved in joint service in supporting the values and teachings and practices of believers in Christ. True leadership is not a matter of dominating others, or telling them what they must do, but being prepared to organise, to listen, to discuss, to plan, to criticise if necessary, but all in a Christ-like spirit. Similarly authority is to be exercised in the marriage relationship:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer....             

(1 Corinthians 7:3-5)

Christian marriage is not to be a matter of one partner dominating over the other but a relationship which works “by agreement” in which each shows consideration for the other.

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)

If a Christian husband acts properly towards his wife it should be to appreciate her and all her abilities. He should encourage her to use her talents in Christian service of all kinds: according to circumstances this may involve bringing up children; writing to and visiting the sick; looking after the elderly; teaching in Sunday School; giving Bible Class addresses; helping in house groups with food or with discussion. The possibilities are many and varied, just like the lists of jobs in the New Testament in passages such as Romans 12:4-13. A Christian wife likewise does her best to support and help her husband. By discussion, prayer, Bible reading together, they stimulate each other to service in Christ. It is a two-way process, not a matter of husband telling wife and the wife listening. That would be no “helper suitable to him”.



A Caution

Women being ruled over by men is the imperfect state of affairs after the fall. Paul seeks to correct it by balancing up how husbands and wives behave to each other. If the husband truly loves his wife as described in Ephesians 5, it is likely that the relationship will be a good one, though human sin and hardness of heart from either partner can cause the relationship to fail. If the husband takes a worldly view and aims to be head in the sense of being the boss, issuing orders, taking decisions as he sees fit without the consent and full-hearted approval of his wife, then this is an abusive relationship, and not at all a Biblical or a Christ-like one. According to the New Testament, the husband is “head of the wife” in the manner in which “Christ is head of the church”, and only in this sense.[6]


Single Women

Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 that the husband is head of the wife obviously does not refer to single women, whether unmarried or widows. In Roman society they might have had male guardians, but Paul seems to take no account of this. In giving his advice, Paul says that he does not wish “to lay any restraint” upon them at a time of anxiety (possibly famine in Corinth). His comments to both male and female unmarried believers is that not needing to worry about a partner frees them to concentrate on how to please God and lead a holy life, as in his own case (1 Corinthians 7:8-9 and 32-35).


[1] After Paul Left Corinth – The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change, Bruce W. Winter (Eerdmans, 2001)

[2] Aristotle deduced this from the society in which he lived and from his observations on nature. He considered that bees were ruled by a king bee, and it was not until centuries later that naturalists discovered the ruler was a queen bee.

[3] Available at www.gutenberg.org/files

[4] Much of this part is adapted from the section on Marriage in our booklet, Principles and Practice (1994).

[5] The word “men” does not occur in the Greek. Paul’s instructions are “be subject to such people and to every fellow worker and labourer”. For a fuller explanation, see Chapter 6, pages 40-47.

[6] There is scope for further analysis of the meaning of “head”. In Ephesians 1:21-22 Paul says that God has put Jesus “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” and has made him “the head over all things for the church” – a slightly different expression from “head of the church”. A considerable debate on the meaning and translation of “head” (kephale) in Greek has been taking place for several decades in the evangelical world, one group maintaining the word means “chief” or “ruler”, the other that it means “source” or “origin”. It is an argument that will continue, but as far as the practical application of the husband being head of the wife, and the consequences for ecclesial activity is concerned, we consider respectful, loving partnership is the application indicated.

To follow the arguments about the meaning of kephale, (and the discussions amongst evangelical scholars on the position of women according to the Bible) see the websites: “Christians for Biblical Equality” www.cbeinternational.org and “The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” www.cbmw.org. See also “The Evangelical Debate over Biblical ‘Headship’” by David H. Scholer, available on http://www.godswordtowomen.org/scholer.htm, which summarises and critiques the various arguments about kephale.

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