As we continue our journey to discover biblical womanhood in the Bible we have now reached that topic few of us women want to talk about. Is the man the head of the household? It is a difficult topic to discuss in the context of our current culture, but we have to be careful to not let culture dictate what God’s word is trying to tell us. I would suggest that if you have not read my other articles in the biblical womanhood series, you start there first. It will set the context for this conversation. So roll up your sleeves ladies, and let’s dig in.
Is “the Man the Head of the Household” Biblical?
One of the things I learned as I began to investigate this topic is that the phrase “the man is the head of the household” does not appear in the Bible. What the scriptures actually say is a bit different, and it is important when studying God’s word is to focus on the actual words God uses.
Let’s start with Ephesians 5.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.
From verse 23, the actual phrase from the Bible is “the husband is the head of the wife.” On the surface, it may seem like semantics, but actually, it is not. Not understanding the nuances is what has led to the perversion of these scriptures and the belittling of wives by some Christian men. As we investigate these scriptures further, the importance of this slight distinction will be clear.
When the Wife is Called to Rule the Household
Look at this verse in I Timothy 5.
So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.I Timothy 5:14
In this verse, Paul is giving instructions to younger widows. In those instructions, note the phrase, “manage their households.” Here is how this phrase is translated in other versions of the Bible.
King James Version – “guide the house”
New King James Version – “manage the house”
New Living Translation – “take care of their own homes”
New International Version – “manage their homes”
Christian Standard Bible – “manage their households”
New American Standard Bible 2020 – “manage their households”
New English Translation – “manage a household”
Revised Standard Translation – “rule their household”
American Standard Version – “rule the household”
Do you see a pattern?
This verse is translated in this way for a reason and that reason is found in the Greek word used in the ancient manuscripts. The transliterated Greek word behind the phrase “manage their households” is “oikodespoteo.” It is a compound word made up of two Greek words, “Oikos” which means house, and “despotes” which means Lord or master. Does “despotes” sound familiar? Does it sound like an English word in our vocabulary? (If you guessed “despot” you guessed right because that is where our English word was derived from.)
So here, in I Timothy 5:11 Paul is recognizing that the wife is to rule her own home. How can we, therefore, reconcile I Timothy 5:11 with Ephesians 5:22? It is possible to have two leaders?
It is very tempting here, as others have suggested, to say that the actual intention of the Bible is for mutual submission to exist in a marriage. The strong-willed and opinionated side of me would love to agree. However, I think that would be a grave mistake and we would be mishandling God’s word.
To reconcile both, we have to look at these verses in the context of other sections of scripture on the same topic.
How the Husband is the Head of the Wife in Scripture
We have one scriptural reference above to the wife ruling her home, but there are at least five other scriptures that give the husband a clear leadership role over the wife. In two separate Bible verses, it references the husband as the head of the wife and in three sections God instructs the wife to submit to her husband. Let’s look at each of them in turn.
But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.I Corinthians 11:3
The Greek word behind the word “head” in both Ephesians and I Corinthians is transliterated as “kephale.” Biblically, it is used literally to refer to a person’s head, but also to show lordship over something such as Christ being Lord over the church aka the head of the Church.
This idea of headship in the husband-wife relationship is re-emphasized in three Bible verses as it does in Colossians 3:18 and I Peter 3:5-7 (and also in Ephesians 5:22).
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.Colossians 3:18 (ESV)
1 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external–the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear– 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.I Peter 3:1-6
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. … 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.Ephesians 5:22, 24
As much as some may want to explain away the headship of the husband over the wife, I think biblically it would be disingenuous to do so. There are just too many scriptural references supporting it as we see here. But we still have the problem of I Timothy 5 where the wife (more specifically younger widow) is given the command to rule her house. The answer lies in the understanding of command structures.
The Military Term in “Submit to Your Own Husbands”
In the three verses above, the words “submit” or “submitting” are used. The Greek word behind these translations is a military term transliterated as “hypotasso” which means “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader.”
This is not the first time military terms are used in reference to women. In my previous studies on the meaning of “helpmeet” and “virtuous woman” we learned the military-type terms were used in those cases as well. God is certainly consistent! I have a background in military studies so God’s choice of word to use in conveying submission makes perfect sense to me. Let me explain.
In the military, there are various positions of authority and various levels of authority. Let’s look at the command structure on a naval ship for example. The position of the Executive Officer (XO) submits to the authority of the Captain of the ship. But the XO exercises authority and practically leads the whole ship. He submits in authority to only one individual, the Captain, but will act as the Captain of the ship when the Captain is unavailable for any reason.
Like the XO, the wife is to be the ruler/leader of her home (perfectly consistent with the innate leadership qualities God gave her. Read more about this in my article, “Created in God’s Image: Defining Truth for Women.“) And yet the wife still has to submit to the authority of her husband (the Captain).
In essence, you do have two leaders, but one just has a higher level of authority.
The Husband Exercises Leadership Over His Home
The husband, like the Captain, will have the responsibility of leading his home as we see in I Timothy 3. In this section of scripture, Paul is instructing Timothy on the necessary qualities of overseers and deacons in the church, but it gives us insight into God’s view of the role of men in a marriage.
4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?I Timothy 3:4-5 (ESV)
Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.I Timothy 3:12 (ESV)
So although there is truth in the phrase “the husband is the head of the household” it must be understood in the context that the wife is also given a leadership role, even if it is subordinate to the husband’s. I cannot overemphasize this enough. Failure to understand this simple truth has led to condescending treatment, and worse, abuse of women within the Church.
Day-to-Day Application for Women
Traditionally, “the man is the head of the household” has been erroneously used to relegate wives to no more than glorified maids. However, when you pull all the scriptures together and view them from a biblical context as a whole you get a much different picture. The wife is not a servant, she is a leader with various kinds of talents and abilities beautifully depicted in the Proverbs 31 woman. God expects her to lead her home (I Timothy 1:5) and he also commands her to put herself under the authority of her husband. How can we apply this to everyday living within a marriage?
How Can a Woman Lead Her Home?
Leading a home and family is more than just making decisions on how to decorate the living room. It can mean making day-to-day decisions on the children’s education, discipline, encouragement, etc. It can mean hiring and firing contractors, picking a real estate agent, or researching a financial advisor. Remember, the Proverbs 31 woman managed employees (her maidens) and her own business.
In my own home, I manage the finances (because I am good at it). I make the everyday decisions on spending and giving. I do not ask nor do I need to ask for my husband’s permission for every decision I make. I know and understand his vision for our family and he trusts me completely to make those decisions without him (Proverbs 31:11). There are other times, however, when I am unsure of how he will feel about something so I will seek out his guidance before proceeding forward. And of course, there are times when I have disagreed on a particular matter and I have deferred to his final decision (although not always perfectly).
The bottom line is that a wife must be given the space and room to be the natural leader that she is, especially in areas where God has gifted her. Being able to lead is an inherent characteristic of being created in God’s image. How this looks will vary from home to home depending on each spouse’s abilities, talents, prayer, and lots of communication between the two.
How Does a Woman Submit to Her Husband?
The husband/wife relationship is NOT a master/servant relationship. However, because the husband is the head of the wife when disagreements arise, it is biblical to submit to a husband’s final decision on a matter. This does not mean that we can’t provide our opinions or make a good case for our point of view. Of course, we can and a husband who is leading well, will in most cases seek out his wife’s opinion.
In my experience, as difficult as it has been for me to grapple with this truth, when I embraced it, my husband and I fought less, especially about small things that don’t matter in the end (like him letting the kids have ice cream when I wouldn’t have). Yes, we fight less because I “gave in.” But what benefit, really, is there if I win the argument other than stroking my own ego? In the end, in the Christian marriage, it isn’t about him or me, but about how together we can accomplish God’s will, worship God, and raise our kids in the Lord. If my husband is wrong in his decision-making, he bears the responsibility before God. I don’t envy that position.In the end, in the Christian marriage, it isn't about him or me, but about how together we can accomplish God's will, worship God, and raise our kids in the Lord. Click To Tweet
What To Do When Our Husbands Are Wrong
But what if my husband’s decision is truly not the right one?
Submission is an act of faith. When we submit to a decision our husband makes that turns out wrong, we have to trust that God will work it out. Submission isn’t about trusting our husbands. It is about trusting God. And that holds true for submission in other areas as well like to our bosses, church leaders, government authorities, etc. Other than Christ, any person in a position of authority is wholly inadequate and imperfect and is bound to make mistakes. But the ultimate authority is the One who is Perfect and who can work any situation around to accomplish His will.
Is there ever a time to not submit to our husbands (or other authorities for that matter)? Yes, there is. When our husbands are asking us to do things contrary to God’s will (get an abortion, get drunk, lie on his behalf, not provide for the basic needs of the kids, or subject ourselves to his abuse are just some examples). This is what I like to call “godly disobedience.”
Let’s dive a little more in-depth into the topic of abuse where women can exercise such “godly disobedience.”
“The Man is the Head of the Wife” is NOT an Excuse to Abuse Women
I couldn’t talk about the topic of submission in marriage, without addressing abuse in marriages. Sadly, too many Christian marriages are characterized by various forms of abuse including physical, sexual, spiritual, and mental abuse. So let’s look at the topic from a biblical perspective.
The Man Should Never Force His Wife to Submit
The instructions found in Colossians 3:18, I Peter 3:1, and Ephesians 5:22 are to the wife, NOT to the husband. That is a very important distinction. Our God is asking us, women, to freely submit, out of our own free will, to our husbands even in an imperfect marriage (although not an abusive one). He is NOT telling husbands to force their wives to submit. To do so is to pervert the word of life.
Consider I Timothy 3:4 when Paul describes the qualities that one must aspire to if seeking to have the office of an overseer (translated as “bishop” in other versions).
He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,I Timothy 3:4 (ESV)
It is clear that a father must seek to have his children in submission (through various godly parenting strategies). Who does the verse NOT include? The wife. It does not say that the husband should keep his wife submissive. The instruction is only for the children to be maintained in submission (again in the context of godly parenting). The wife is not a child and should not be treated as such.
What if the wife does not want to submit to her husband? What is a husband to do? He can pray, and he can seek counseling and/or help within the church. He should continue to fulfill his part–to care for, love, and nourish his wife–and let God work on his wife. There have been many times when I have gone completely contrary to my husband’s wishes and God has always done the work in me to get me back on track. Just as it is an act of faith for a wife to submit, it is an act of faith on the husband’s part to continue to fulfill his responsibilities in the absence of submission.
This does not mean the husband relinquishes his authority. In other words, he doesn’t have to give in to his wife’s every whim (especially when what she wants goes contrary to God’s word). It just means he doesn’t use any type of abusive behavior to force her.
In my experience, I have often found that the men who want to force their wives to submit are the same ones who will not submit to their own bosses, pastors, teachers, and other governing bodies. So I want to gently encourage any husband who may be reading this, to always ask yourself if you are submitting to the authorities above you before worrying about your wife’s lack of submission.
Abusers Pervert God’s Word
Husbands who abuse their wives (and their peers and leaders who support or ignore their behavior) are willfully mishandling the word of truth by ignoring instructions given to the husband.
Let’s look at some of the key phrases in Ephesians 5 that are direct commands to husbands.
Verse 25 “love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” — a husband is to demonstrate self-sacrifice and to put the needs of his wife above his own
Verse 27 “love their wives as their own bodies” — making sure your wife doesn’t endure anything you wouldn’t want to endure yourself (this would exclude any kind of physical, sexual, spiritual, or mental abuse)
Verse 28 “nourishes and cherishes it” — a husband is to cherish and nourish his wife.
Now let’s look at I Peter 3:7.
“live with your wives in an understanding way” — Pretty self-explanatory.
“showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel”– A husband, understanding that his wife is physically weaker and therefore more vulnerable, must show her honor (not abuse).
“so that your prayers may not be hindered” — God lays out a clear consequence for men who mistreat their wives. Their prayers are hindered.
The commands given to husbands are more extensive than those given to the wife. With more authority, comes more responsibility, and failure to live up to those responsibilities carries consequences. Any man who adheres to scripture will not partake in any type of abusive behavior.
A Wife Need Not Submit to an Abusive Husband
Many church leaders have erroneously forced women to stay in abusive relationships. They have told them to patiently endure. Enduring an imperfect husband is much different than enduring an abusive one. Yes, if our marriage is imperfect, we are called to endure, even when we both “have lost that loving feeling.” However, abuse is a different story. God, biblically, has allowed women to do what is necessary out of self-preservation or to protect others in the face of danger (physical or economic). This falls under the category of godly disobedience.
Here are three examples of women who disobeyed authorities above them.
Consider Abigail, who disobeyed her husband when he almost caused their entire household to fall at the hands of David.
Consider Tamar, who slept with her father-in-law, Judah, out of desperation when he failed to make the appropriate arrangements for her to marry his son (and therefore ensure her economic security). Tamar’s story is particularly insightful because God seemingly rewards Tamar by being one of only four women named in the genealogy of Jesus.
Consider Shiprah and Puah who defied a Pharaoh to save the lives of Israeli babies.
Women in abusive relationships, many times, have a hard time understanding the difference between an imperfect husband and an abusive one. As a church, therefore, we must help them see the difference and seek to protect them.
If you are in an abusive relationship, please go to a safe place and call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit them online at thehotline.org.
Mutual Submission in the Bedroom
The only area of marriage where mutual submission is biblically expressed is in the bedroom. When it comes to matters of sex, God chose to clearly delineate that one party must not have sole authority over the other. Read I Corinthians 7:3-5.
3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.I Corinthians 7:3-5 (ESV)
Some have used the first part of verse 4, “for the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does” to make the claim that the wife must relinquish herself to all of her husband’s sexual demands. This idea has led to sexual abuse of women in marriage. That is a clear perversion of the text because it completely ignores the second part of verse 4, “likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”
What does this verse mean practically? Well, if a woman has the authority over her husband’s body in the bedroom, then she has the authority to tell him “no” when he wants to do something she does not want. The reverse is obviously true.
The implied intent of verses 3-5 is to command both the wife and husband to not deny each other pleasure. That command is not fulfilled if one party is constantly forced to act in ways that are not pleasurable. So how does a couple reach mutual satisfaction? Communication and intentional effort to learn what is most desirable for the other spouse.
Was it Unfair for God to Make the Man the Head of the Wife?
In modern, western ideas of marriage, the husband as the head of the wife may seem like a bitter pill to swallow. Some would say it feels unfair and it certainly used to feel that way for me. But the simple answer is that it is not our place to judge what God does or does not do. How can the creation complain to the Creator? Having said that, though, God in His mercy gives us some biblical hints as to why this authority structure is in place.
His desire, from what I can gather, had a much greater purpose. In reviewing Biblical laws, commands, and stories in the Old and New Testament, one thing is clear, God’s intention when establishing authorities is to protect and to nurture.
What is the purpose of governing authorities as seen in Romans 13:1-7? To protect the citizenry by punishing the wicked.
What is the purpose of governing bodies within the church? From verses like Ephesians 4:11-16, it is to build up the church and “protect” us from unsound doctrines.
In marriage, husbands are to provide for and protect their wives and children.
All of this, of course, is embodied in Jesus Christ himself who through His own sacrifice protected the saints from judgment and continually nurtures and provides for our needs.
Our modern sensibilities take issue with this interpretation because we tend to see positions of authority or leadership either as a reward for our efforts or intelligence. So we end up feeling that this command puts into question our own abilities and intelligence as women. But that is not the case at all. The Proverbs 31 woman was clearly intelligent and capable. But as we have seen, God-given authority comes with the responsibility to protect, provide, and to serve. And it is certainly never given as a reward. The bottom line is that we need to stop looking at the authority that God gave our husbands as a punishment and instead acknowledge it as a blessing.
Remember, even Christ submits to the Father. Submission is part of the Christian walk. Our husbands, too, have to submit to their bosses, pastors, teachers, etc. Every Christian is asked to willfully submit to higher authorities and one day, the whole world will submit (some by their own free will and others not so freely) to our King.
Marriage Foreshadows Something Greater
Marriage is a temporary institution only for this life. In the new heaven and earth, there will be no marriage.
30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.Matthew 22:30 (ESV)
So as we look at the command from God to submit to our husbands we have to view it from that light. Marriage is a temporary construct for a temporary world. It certainly serves a godly purpose, but its purpose is not to bring us happiness or fulfillment. Those things can only be found in Christ alone. Biblically, marriage should remind us of that.
The institution of marriage foreshadows the eventual marriage between Christ and His Church (Revelation 19: 6-10). As wives, we represent the church. Our husbands represent Christ. Only when the marriage supper of Revelation 19 comes to fruition will we be able to experience perfect joy and fulfillment. While we wait, we joyfully submit to God’s commands, including the ones we may not always like.
My article Biblical Authority: Glorifies God and Not Man should be read in conjunction with this one.
Other articles about marriage you may enjoy: