There are certain questions we need to have answered by Scripture and settled in our minds when it comes to roles within marriage. Let’s consider a sampling of a few questions that will quickly beg for an answer in marriages where there is a misunderstanding of how God intends husbands and wives to operate:
- How is God’s definition of leadership (more specifically, headship) different than the world’s definition of leadership?
- Does submission require unquestioned obedience?
- What are the implications for the husband and the wife’s roles?
When an individual works in a corporate environment or observes political dynamics at any level of government, it is possible to gather some descriptive words for what the world views as ideal leadership. Many of these words would be included in a description of what Scripture calls the natural man (1 Corinthians 2:14), such as “self-confident, knows men, makes own decisions, ambitious, originates own methods, enjoys commanding others, motivated by personal considerations, [and] independent” (list from The Exemplary Husband, Scott 117).
Because of the nature of the world we live in, most people (including people who at least regularly attend church), do not have a mental picture of a leader outside of these qualities. However, when Scripture references leadership, this “natural man” is not the picture that God has painted for us. Sadly, many believers, Christian husbands, and Church leaders do not have an accurate understanding of what God originally (and continually) expects from those to whom He delegates leadership responsibilities within the context of marriage and family.
The spiritual man is much different than the natural man and can be described using words and phrases such as “confident in God, also knows God, seeks to find God’s will, self-effacing, finds and follows God’s methods, delights to obey God, motivated by love for God and man, [and] God-dependent” (Scott 117). God’s definition of leadership came first and it is the true standard of leadership; however, it is not the picture of leadership that many individuals are exposed to as they grow up — even with a Christian upbringing.
Unfortunately, most people have unbiblical models of leadership and headship to influence them before they are even adults. Then, when men reach adulthood, while living in a fallen and broken world, this “natural man” view of leadership is only reinforced.
Despite the way the world has botched the general understanding of what makes a good leader, God has some principles that men who desire to be the kind of husbands who are pleasing to the Lord can choose to follow. For instance, husbands need to understand that their authority is given to them by God delegating it as limited authority. Only when a husband is operating under the authority of Jesus Christ is his authority legitimized. Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18b). There is no legitimate authority outside of the authority of Jesus Christ, so a husband who is operating outside of the authority of Jesus Christ, in reality, is not operating with true authority.
Another principle that a husband should follow is to be intentional and active within his role as the leader. The husband is to lead his wife the way the Lord has led the Church. Jesus has not led His Bride by using demands and selfish ultimatums, and He has not expected anything from her that the Father has not asked of her. Likewise, the husband is to lead by setting a good example. He is to be like Jesus, a leader who serves and sacrifices for his bride. It will be the wife’s joy to submit to her husband when he is not demanding of her or treating her like a child. This is why Scripture says to “obey” your parents (Ephesians 6:1) and “submit” yourself to your husband (Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18). These concepts are readily confused, but they are not the same.
The word “obey” in the Greek language as used in Ephesians 6:1 is hupakouō, which means “to listen and attend to” (Strong 1573). The word “submit” (or “submissive”) in the Greek as used in Ephesians 5:22 and Colossians 3:18 is hupotassō, which means “to place or rank under” (Strong 1574). God used two different words when referring to the parent/child relationship and the husband/wife relationship because the role expectations and practical implications are not the same. Wives are called to submission, not obedience. Submission is different and greater. Submission is voluntary and there is a higher level of accountability associated with it.
Wives who follow or enable their husband’s sinful behaviors are responsible before the Lord for doing so. They do not get to be “off the hook” because they were just following their leader. Wives must think for themselves in all things whether or not it would be right or wrong to follow their husband based on his submission to Christ and his commitment to keeping his marriage holy and sanctifying. This would be considered on a case by case basis more so than an overarching decision. Is he making good choices? Is he setting a good example? Does he seek forgiveness AND commit to repentance when he fails to lead as Christ leads (through service and sacrifice)? When he does, Chirstian wife, follow him! When he doesn’t offer gentle correction and a chance to repent. (Note: If personal safety is an issue in abuse cases, submit to Christ over your husband and seek refuge (Proverbs 22:3, 27:12).)
Where a father would lead a child by providing instruction and commands, and the child should respond through obedience; the husband is to lead by serving and setting a good example, and the wife is to follow. So headship and submission work together through persuasive modeling in a biblical manner rather than by personal mandate. Just as the human body follows the head attached to it, the wife should naturally follow the headship of her husband. The husband has a huge responsibility to live his life as Christ would have him to (so that his example is worthy of being followed). A wife can be obedient to Christ even as she chooses not to submit herself in a particular area (or areas) to her husband. Ideally, the roles of the husband and wife will work together: the husband follows Christ and the wife follows the husband as he follows Christ.
Click to view this key passage: Ephesians 5:22-33