Husbands, wives, Ephesians 5 and mental health (responding to Beth Moore’s questions)

Earlier in the week, Beth Moore asked two questions, specifically aimed at men who hold to a complementarian view of male/female relationships in the church and family.[1] 

Whilst she asked for quick tweet answers, I wanted to make a fuller response. So here it is. My friend Steve Kneale has also written and so I don’t want to revisit all the points he makes, for example I am in full agreement with him on question 1 and substantively on question 2, so I want to interact where there may be some differences of view between us and also where I would like to supplement his response with my own thoughts.

First of all, as Steve notes, there is a complementarian position that sees the distinctions as all encompassing to all aspects of life and culture. Therefore, true manhood involves leading whilst true womanhood means finding men to submit to.  This is one of the challenges that Aimee Byrd raises in her book “Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.”  Like Steve, I don’t hold to that position and don’t believe it to be Biblical. The Bible talks specifically about wives submitting to husbands and talks about the role of men and women in the church.  So I don’t find the idea that women cannot be police-officers, managers, MPs and Prime Ministers in the Bible. Indeed, I think there are enough context-based examples to point is the other way!

Where I would disagree with Steve slightly is that he says

“What I do think the Bible teaches is that men are God’s designated leaders for the church and family.”

I doubt from what he says about homelife that this would look very different between our households in practice but you might see some variations in how we approach church.  My view is that elders are male but leadership is not. I think there are different types of leader and different ways of leading and therefore that for specific Biblical reasons you will see certain functions carried out by men. However, their qualifications to do those roles do not simply rest on being men nor, are those the only examples of leadership. Part of the problem is that we often think of leading in terms of secular business models, rather than family models.

I think that when you look through the Bible you see all sorts of examples of women taking the lead, taking the initiative for their families and for God’s people. Deborah leads as a prophetess and judge, guiding God’s people,  Abigail takes the initiative when Nabal is a fool in order to protect her family from David’s wrath, Esther is also seen leading, taking the initiative to protect her people during the exile.  In the New Testament, women lead by being the first to bow and anoint the feet of Jesus whilst men hang back and judge, by being there at the Cross until the last and by being first to the tomb.  It seems to me that Junia, Phoebe, Chloe and Priscilla in some way appear to hold leadership responsibilities in the New Testament that don’t undermine the headship of husbands or the role of the elders in the church. 

The other thing I would like to add in my response is that whilst wives submit to their husbands in the Lord because the husband is the head, there is also a significant level of mutuality in Paul’s instructions. In Ephesians 5, Paul says that we are to be filled with the Holy Spirit and this leads to a number of responses including singing and thanksgiving. The last result of being filled with the Spirit is that we should submit to one another. This means that yes, even husbands, parents and masters submit to wives, children and slaves according to Paul.[2] Wives submit to their husbands but husbands sacrificially submit to their wives.  Indeed, if a husband’s first duty is to love his wife, then we might say that a wife submits by letting him love her.

Now, it is worth mentioning at this point that Ephesians 5 seems to assume mutual ror recipricle behaviour, that the wife is submitting to her husband and the husband is sacrificially loving his wife. It is worth noting that 1 Peter 2 and 3 introduce the possibility that with the Holy Spirit’s help we might fulfil our side of the bargain even when it is not reciprocated.[3]

In his article, Steve argues that the husband’s headship role is to ensure that his family flourish, that his wife is enabled to use her gifts for God’s glory and the welfare of the family too. We can also apply that thinking to the role of elders in the church who are there not to benefit from privilege or do everything but to equip the church family so they are built up together in unity.  I agree with Steve on this.

I also want to emphasise again that as a husband, my headship is not about intellectual abilities or gifting but rather I want to note two things here.

First of all, there has been some discussion about whether there is specific gender fittingness to the roles in marriage and the church. I am cautiously open to the possibility that we might distinguish providing/protecting roles from nurturing roles. However, when we look at the reason Scripture gives about the family, it is that the marriage relationship is meant to portray Christ’s relationship to the church. In other words, husbands and wives do take on “roles” in the original sense of the word (acting out parts).[4]

Secondly, I believe that this headship type leading therefore relies on us seeking to ensure that the spiritual direction of the family is shaped by a concern for God’s glory, that we lead by setting a godly example and again that we lead in love, we should be the first to love, the first to be sacrificial.  Husbands should not wait for their wives to respond in the way that they want them to before committing fully to this sacrificial love.

This means therefore, not only that in a sense the husband’s role is not diminished or undermined by his mental/emotional heath but that should be the very place where headship and sacrificial love are seen.

Husbands are not the only ones who struggle with emotional and mental heath issues. At some point your wife will also be overwhelmed with anxiety and sadness, your children too. I’ve had my own brush with anxiety, depression and burnout.  So, the challenge for me as a husband and indeed a church elder is “what pattern/example” did I set in those circumstances?  My own health situation was not as devastatingly severe as Steve’s experience so different circumstances will affect us differently.  However, I think there are responsibilities we can take that show us sacrificially loving.

  • I can choose to face my health battles openly and honestly. So, when I first was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, I felt it vital that I communicated this with full transparency to the church. This is important because mental health can be such a taboo subject, even today and we do not want it to be so.
  • I can choose to take responsibility for my health.  What I mean by this is not that we go around telling people that depression/mental health is a result of sin or that it is avoidable. However, I know that there were areas where I needed to take responsibility, where my health had been made worse by my own choices. The important thing here is that we don’t lash out and blame our family.  And I don’t at this point under-estimate the level of pain and how all-encompassing it is which can lead to us lashing out at others.
  • This is important because our mental health does affect those around us. When I was off sick, my wife was worried about me, she was distressed at my condition and hurting too from some of the factors that had led to my health deteriorating.  My natural inclination at my lowest point is to turn inward and think that I am suffering alone but that is rarely the case. Our friends and family suffer with us. Therefore, again my responsibility as a husband is to seek to minimise the level of impact that it has on my wife, family, church.
  • One way in which we do that practically is by getting to the doctor, getting diagnosed and complying with treatment. It means that when there are things we cannot do effectively that we don’t keep trying to do them.  With the firm encouragement of my GP, this meant that when I was taken unwell that I had to bench myself.  I suspect there are few things more distressing for a pastor’s wife or his fellow elders and trustees than them trying to get him to step aside and take a break due to his mental health whilst he clings on all the harder.

I wanted to highlight these things because Beth Moore’s primary concern as intimated later was that we need as pastors to be alert to the practical pastoral implications of what we are teaching. Furthermore,  I think she was raising a similar challenge to the ones raised by Elyse Fitzpatrick, EM Schumacher and Aimee Byrd about the need to turn the dial back from one extreme to rebalance what we say and do.  One point arising is that the focus on teaching and pastoral guidance when handling Ephesians 5 seems to be so heavily on “wives submit” that we forget that there is a lot more there for what husbands are meant to be like (and it is certainly not about lording it over our wives, families and churches).

In that context, I would add that there is a real possibility that the two questions raised by Beth Moore may well be more interrelated than we have given credence to in our answers (but perhaps that is for a later post except to say that the man with a porn habit may be depressed and that a porn habit may be exacerbating anxiety and depression).

In my MTh (and I think this is reflected in Steve’s answer too), I argued that the mechanics of headship and submission are really just that, the mechanics under the bonnet. The aim in family life is to seek unity of flesh, mind and will.


[1] This is linked to Ephesians 5:21ff where Paul talks about headship and submission.  Complimentarianism takes the view that elders in churches should be male and that husbands are to exercise headship because men and women are made equal in God’s image and are co-heirs but fulfil different roles.  Egalitarians believe that roles are interchangeable.  I have written on this at greater length here: https://faithrootcom.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/marriage-at-work.pdf

[2] Note whilst some commentators such as Peter O’Brien have argued against mutual submission, there is strong historical precedent for reading the text this way including from John Calvin.  See Williams, Marriage at Work, 25-30. https://faithrootcom.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/marriage-at-work.pdf

[3] Note that I argue in Marriage at Work that this is not an excuse for abusive behaviour within the home.  See pages 71-73.

[4] My view is that this is the primary issue and therefore we design church life and structure in such a way as not to undermine the homelife context.

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