Headship – what are husbands meant to do?

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I mentioned the other day a friend who was asking challenging questions about headship, submission, complementarianism and headship. Here’s another of their questions.

If the core characteristic of male headship in marriage is love not leadership, why do we focus on submission to a husband’s leadership instead of his love?

They are thinking primarily of Ephesians 5:25 which says:

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

I (though I don’t think it is an original or unique idea from me) have suggested that we might paraphrase and summarise Paul’s instruction to marriage partners as “husbands love your wives and … wives let them.”

I want to talk a little bit more about this. You see, it is striking isn’t it that when Paul writes to wives, he says that they are to submit to their husbands because the husband is the head. However, when he offers a parallel to husbands, it is not as we might expect “husbands exercise your headship, command and lead your wife, man up, show some authority.”  No, he tells them that they are to “love” and to love in specific way, in a way that imitates Christ. Immediately we have Philippians 2:6-11 in mind and we are reminded of Christ humbling himself and taking on the form of a servant. More importantly and specifically we are reminded that Christ giving himself up for his church meant that he died for her.  The call then is to sacrificially self-giving love.

Now, there are a couple of possibilities here. One is that what we are in effect asked to do as husbands is to relinquish any sense of entitlement to position and power in the family home.  The other is that in fact, there is actually something within the idea of headship that pushes us towards this kind of sacrificial love.  In other words, it is not that we are to exercise headship and show sacrificial love nor is it that we are to forgo our headship and show sacrificial love, rather we might suggest that (at least one way in which) we exercise headship by showing sacrificial love.

It is helpful then to think more about what the word “head” means. In my MTh Dissertation “Marriage at work” I focused primarily on the problems with interpretations and definitions being offered to support egalitarian application of Ephesians 5. Such interpretations sought to remove the concept of authority and leadership from definitions. Egalitarians argued that the Greek word “kephale” meant “source” or possibly could refer to “prominence” but certainly not to authority and power.  Now, on reflection, I’m less and less comfortable with us talking about “leadership” because when we talk about “leaders” and “leadership” those words have become too wrapped up with thinking about institutions, businesses, politics and movements.  Yet a family is not a business, nor is a church, indeed, they are not really movements although we are part of a movement (and movements).  Leaders set direction and then get others to follow them as they head towards a goal. I’m not sure how much need we have for that when Christ has already set the goal and the direction as well as leading the way.  Certainly, Christ does not need us to mediate for him to our wives or our churches. However, as I argued back then and still hold to, you simply cannot ignore that the word kephale, translated into English as “head” cannot be evacuated of any sense of authority. The nearest use of the word to Ephesians 5 is in Ephesians 1 where it speaks of Christ’s preeminent authority.

However, I think that we complementarians can make a mistake the other way.  You see, we can look at the word “kephale” and say that it is to do with an authority relationship and conclude that the word means “someone who has authority.”  The problem there is that we are narrowing in its meaning and losing the point that there is a whole semantic range to the word. This is why we have challenges when trying to translate words and phrases word for word. Sometimes there isn’t a neat 1 for 1 cross over between the English word and the Greek word. The meaning of the Greek word may have a whole host of concepts not contained in the nearest English equivalent but that English equivalent may also have meanings not included in the Greek word.  Sometimes of course, this means that in context the Biblical author had one idea in mind and we can ignore the rest of the semantic range.  However, sometimes we might just want to consider that the author intended to get us to grasp the broader semantic range so that when someone asks “does Paul mean x or does he mean y” we might say “yes …he means both.”

That’s why I think it is a little more helpful to say that kephale includes and contains the idea of authority rather than just that it means authority. We have to then think hard about what Paul meant when he said that the husband is the kephale, is the head.  Maybe just maybe it is about both source and authority. Maybe, then we would do well not to seek to over translate and interpret the word, to stick at saying that the husband is the head.

The next thing I want us to consider is what authority is for.  Of course authority is to do with power but it is specifically about legitimate power. Further, it is legitimate power for an end, to do something. What is that authority? Well it could be the authority to subdue, control, direct, have dominion over.  However, that authority is given to both man and woman together in Genesis 1.

So, what authority does the man have?   Well it is the authority to carry out what he is responsible for.  I hear a lot of talk about what husbands are meant to do in marriages but actually, I’m not sure that  those suggestions arise directly out of Scripture. Take one example, we are often told that we are responsible for encouraging our wives to be godly. Well yes we are but is that a one directional requirement?  Have you noticed the context in which God says that it is not good for man to be alone?  The immediate consequence is the command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  This is the context in which Adam needs a helper. In other words, he needs someone to help him be godly and of course, Eve fails to do that just as Adam fails to help her to be godly, instead of encouraging each other in godliness, they encourage each other in sin. I believe that there are aspects of a marriage relationship that are asymmetrical but this is not one of them, or concern for each other’s godliness is reciprocal and symmetrical.

So, I keep coming back to this point.  Adam in the garden is given the responsibility of tilling/tending and keeping/guarding it.  Similarly in Acts 20, Paul charges the Ephesian elders with responsibilities that involve feeding the flock and protecting them from wolves.  Hence, I would suggest that men, husbands, fathers, church elders primarily have that responsibility, to provide and protect.  That’s a big part of what headship is to do with and so the authority we need is exactly that, the authority to provide and protect. A wife submits when she allows her husband to provide for her and protect her – in other words when she allows him to love her.

And that’s why I think my friend is on to something in their challenge. We need to be teaching a lot more about what it means to love.  We need to teach more about what it means to let someone love you, what it means to let your elders love you as they feed you with God’s Word and protect you from false teaching, from wolves, what it means to let your husband love you sacrificially. What it means to let Christ love you.

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