“The Husband is Head of the Wife”
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
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
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.
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)
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.
was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman,
but woman for man. (1 Corinthians
But Paul immediately modifies this statement lest the wife should
therefore be considered of less value or of less importance as a person:
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
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
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.
(Aristotle, Politics 1254b, 1260a)
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)
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:
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
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:
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. 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:
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
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.
elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour...
have the younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households.... (1 Timothy
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?
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] and to every fellow
worker and labourer. (1
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:
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.
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”.
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
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).
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