A friend recently asked about this topic, so I thought I’d give a sketch of my thoughts. I won’t be citing any sources, but hopefully what I cite as evidence is either self-evident or easily obtainable.
The basic question is this:
What does is mean to submit to your husband as the head of the household in the Bible?
Put more theologically:
Does being a Christian mean that a woman loses her autonomy to her husband?
And here is the question with a twist toward defending the faith:
If male/female equality is true and the Bible teaches husband/wife hierarchy, does that mean the Bible is wrong?
So there are three layers of discussion here:
- What does the New Testament actually teach about husband/wife relationships?
- What does it mean to be a Christian?
- Is the biblical picture of a well functioning marriage true/workable today?
Question 1: What does the NT actually teach about husband/wife relationships?
If somebody asked me, “does the Bible say wives should submit to their husbands,” my straight forward answer would be, “Yes.” If they said, “What do you think that means?” I’d say, “She should respect him, in public and private.”
If I were asked to give further explanation, I’d elaborate like this.
For the sake of argument, let us assume we’re talking about married Christians who aren’t having significant problems worthy or counseling or legal intervention (being physically assaulted is a problem for police and the legal system, the church can excommunicate an abusive spouse but can do relatively little to get them out of your life).
First, the Bible is clear about the core behavioral principle of Christians toward each other:
“Love one another even as I [Jesus] have loved you. ” (John 13:34)
“Whatever you wish others would do for you, you do unto them.” (Matthew 7:13)
The first principle of all relationships between Christians is love for one another because the first aim for the Christian is to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness (Matt 6:33).
The second principle for understanding the Christian instructions regarding husbands and wives is that the household was seen as a microcosm of society in the ancient world, as such a household was in competition with other households for prestige and resources and all human societies had a leader or, as the Bible says, “head.” This is just how things were conceived, or at least how they were written about. For instance, in Ephesians 1:22-23, Jesus is the head of the church and all spiritual reality. And so families/households had a head, the husband.
For the husband to be the head of household usually means four things:
- He is the provider for the family.
- He is the protector of the family.
- He is the representative of the family’s needs in the broader society. (this fits well with the previous two)
- He is the de facto leader of the group.
Now, in the case of Jesus Christ and his church, submitting to him as the head of the church means obedience, worship, and persistent deference to his will. In the case of Christian marriage it means what you might see in Proverbs 31. The woman there submits to her husband’s headship by ensuring that the well being his household is achieved:
- she cares for his health
- she raises their children
- she manages the in-house financials
- she uses her resources to improve the financial situation of the house in the market
- she seeks to maintain the honor of the household among the neighboring families.
In other words, to submit to your husband is to promote his interests and those of the family generally. Paul puts it this way: “…let each wife respect her husband.” In other words, submission isn’t a matter of obedience as it is toward Christ. Instead, submission is meant in the sense of admiration and pursuit of his well-being and honor.
Now, the interesting thing in the New Testament is that no specific rules are set forth for how husband/wife relationships should be pursued, but rather general principles. Husbands are to put extra effort into loving their wives and wives into respecting their husbands. My guess is that the general temptation of a wife is to gossip about or mother her husband and that the general temptation of a husband is to treat his wife harshly (like one of the fellas), neglect her needs, or talk down to her. So Paul give instructions to address each of these in Ephesians 5:33, “Let each husband love his own wife as himself and each wife respect her husband.”
As a tip, I recommend that men go out of their way to be admirable (to make your wife’s job of respect easier), and that women go out of their way to be sweet/lovable (to make your husband’s job easier).
As an aside, there is a sense in which husbands are to respect/honor their wives (Proverbs 31 says that a good husband praises his wife in the gates) and wives are to love their husbands, as the general command to Christians is to respect each other, encourage one another, listen to one another, and love each other.
Briefly, nowhere in Scripture is a husband instructed to boss his wife around, abuse her, or run her down as a function of his headship. That has happened in history and been perpetrated by Christians, but is forbidden in Scripture (1 Peter 3:7).
Question 2: What does it mean to be a Christian?
Some people feel that women might lose their autonomy in a marriage that uses the language of ‘headship’ or ‘submission.’ I want to address a few things here:
- People are justified by faith in Christ. So one does not become a Christian by figuring out how to be a spouse. Rather, one learns to be a better spouse by discipleship to Christ. This particular issue, while important, is secondary. Not only is it secondary, it’s disputed. The picture I painted above may not be accurate.
- One loses and gains autonomy as a Christian. When you become a Christian, you’re committing to be crucified to the world with Christ. But in doing so, you can find your life and find it to the full.
- When you get married, whether you’re a husband or a wife, you’re more specifically defining who you are. To define oneself at all is a simultaneous gain and loss of autonomy. If you become Jackie’s husband or Jerry’s wife, then you’re making a choice to be a specific person bound to another specific person. In that sense, you put on an identity within which to make a wide range of previously unavailable choices (gained autonomy) and you’ve severely limited your choices as well (lost autonomy).
Converting to Christianity or getting married is to lose/gain autonomy, but this is how all choices are. I do fear that certain quarters of the feminist movement want a world in which choices lead only to gained autonomy:
Thankfully, such a world is impossible.
Question 3: Is the picture of headship prescribed in Scripture good or workable?
I think the answer is yes. Most of what comes next is just a sketch, and maybe even speculative, though the psychological (esp. evo-psych) and anthropological research is there.
The notion that headship means domineering is clearly wrong. The notion that it means to protect, provide, represent, and lead is generally what children want in a dad and wives in a husband. In cases wherein things are different, the Bible is clear that people should treat others as they want to be treated and discussion and compromise are necessary. But I think that in the majority of civilizational history, women have had particular duties which made it difficult for them to be, in any sense, “head” of the family. Once a baby was born, mom became attached to the duties of feeding, educating, and otherwise caring for baby. This did not mean that they weren’t leaders, influencers, creative thinkers, or productive. It just meant they did it as mothers.
Insofar as biological sex differences are products of divine creation and/or evolutionary processes, the development of the headship model is rather natural and the Paul’s method of attaching the mutual ethics of love and respect to that model help to make it work in a fashion, not of biological necessity, but of Christian spiritual formation.
It’s best to remember that the New Testament commands all Christians to love and honor/submit to one another and that the character of married couples must include both of those traits, because in many places those characteristics are encourages without reference to gender roles or any roles in particular. So, Christian wives ought to respect their husbands and Christian husbands ought to love their wives.
The other details (the nature of roles) are definitely cultural, but culture comes from human beings whose behavior comes from their nature. And so it’s best to determine if the roles mentioned in the New Testament work before rejecting them outright. And like many of the social rules in the New Testament, there are likely exceptions.