Years ago, I remember trying to share the gospel with a co-worker who said to me, “There are two things I never talk about—religion and politics. Too divisive.” And I remember saying to him, “But those are the two most important things worth talking about.” One has to do with the future of our nation, and the other has to do with the future of one’s soul. The latter, of course, being infinitely more important than the former. Yet, his response is not uncommon in our current culture. We live in a time when most people do not like to deal with controversial topics. Most people dislike controversy so much they end up on one extreme or the other. They either avoid it all together or they are over-the-top, in your face screaming because they would rather shout you down rather than deal with a difficult topic.
However, as of late, there is a topic many would rather not deal with because of its uncomfortable nature and its potential to upset people and cause division. But we must always remember that division is not always bad. Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Lk. 12:51). The author of Hebrews tells us the “word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). God’s word divides people. It’s supposed to. This is how the wheat is separated from the tares, how wolves in sheep’s clothing are exposed, and how sin is brought into the light and exposed for what it is.
This topic which often creates uncomfortableness is that of biblical headship. That is, is there an order of authority within the church and within the family? Does God care about who is in charge or does it just matter that things get done? Does he care how they get done? Many Christians believe this does not matter to God. The only thing that matters is that the right things get taken care of within the church and within the family. It doesn’t matter how they get taken care of. The end justifies the means. Though many Christians may not even be aware they believe this, it shows in how they run the church and the family. Within the family, so long as the bills are being paid, the kids are being cared for, and they grow up to be decent people, that’s all that matters. How we get to that point is irrelevant. But is it? Is that how God thinks? Within the church, so long as the Bible is being taught, ministries are being implemented and carried out, people are getting along and giving, that’s all that matters. But is it?
God has laid out an order of authority within scripture for the church and for the family, and when this order of authority is not heeded, the church and the family will not function in the way God has intended. This matters because the family is the smallest unit of government within the church and society. Thus, as the family goes, so goes the church, and so goes society. Conservative churches become liberal because the families within those churches begin embracing liberal ideology. Society then becomes liberal because churches became liberal and no longer stand for the truth of God’s word. This is a slow fade, not something that happens overnight, but occurs slowly over the course of several generations until one day the members of the church look around and recognize they have moved so far to the left they have no idea how they got there, nor do they know how to get back. The devil is in the details.
Before we can begin a discussion of biblical headship, we need to define our terms. Head or headship in the Bible comes from the Hebrew word rōs and the Greek word kephalē, and is frequently used as a synecdoche, a part representing the whole. Thus, head can represent the whole person or the whole nation (Gen. 49:26; Deut. 28:13; Is. 43:4 [LXX]; Acts 18:6). The word head is also used in scripture to represent leadership. Thus, when the people of Israel are concerned about going to war against the Ammonites, they say, “Who is the man who will begin to fight against the Ammonites? He shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead" (Jdg. 10:18). He shall be the leader. And God instructs Moses to “charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he shall go over at the head of this people” (Deut. 3:28). Thus, headship in the Bible implies leadership, authority, and responsibility.
God the Father as the Head of Christ
Scripture makes clear that God the Father is the head of Christ. Though both are equally God, they do not share the same role, responsibility, or authority. We hear Jesus saying things like, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (Jn. 4:34). “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 5:30). “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 6:38). God the Son was clearly under the direction and guidance of God the Father. The Father is the one who lays out the plan of redemption, and sends the Son to carry out the Father’s plan. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). The Father is the one who gave the Son to do his will and accomplish redemption for God’s people. Certainly, Christ wanted to carry out the Father’s will as he always desires to please his Father and bring him glory, but we must not miss the fact that it is the Father who gave the Son, who sent the Son, to carry out the Father’s will.
Christ as the Head of Creation and the Church
Scripture also speaks of Christ as being the head of creation, of all that exist, and as the head of all rule and authority. Regarding Christ, the apostle Paul tells us that God has “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things” (Eph. 1:22). God the Father has placed all things under Christ’s authority and realm. To be sure, there will come a day when Christ gives all things back to the Father and will subject even himself to the authority of God the Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28), but until that day Christ reigns supreme from heaven and upon the earth. His kingdom is real. His power is absolute. His dominion is universal.[i]
We are also told in Colossians 2:10 that Christ “is the head of all rule and authority.” In other words, he does not just rule over inanimate creation, the earth and planets, nor does he just rule over the animal kingdom, the birds and the bees, he rules over kings and politicians, presidents and mayors, elders and deacons. Thus, while God the Father is the head of Christ (1 Cor. 11:3), Christ is the head over everything else aside from God the Father.
Christ is also the head of the Church; thus, he possesses a double headship. For we read in scripture that God has “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). Christ is the head of the church in that he is the one who leads the church, has responsibility for her, and has authority over her. This theological truth is what will lead Paul to later use this as illustrative of the relationship between a husband and wife (Eph. 5:25-33). Since Christ is the head of the church, and the church is the body of Christ, and the church derives her existence from Christ, marriage is to reflect this relationship since “man was not made from woman, but woman from man” (1 Cor. 11:8).
Christ as the Head of the Husband
Within the marriage relationship, however, the husband is not autonomous. Though he is placed in the position of leadership and authority (Eph. 5:22-24; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:5-6), he is directly answerable and accountable to God. “The head of every man is Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3). He is given the responsibility of physically and spiritually nurturing and protecting his wife (Gen. 2:15; Eph. 5:25-29), and God will ignore his prayers if he does otherwise. “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7). This may not sound very threatening, but within 1 Peter 3:7 there is a promise from God to foil all of a man’s plans in life. We are told in Proverbs 16:9 that a man plans his life, but God determines his steps. Thus, when a man does not strive to physically and spiritually nurture and protect his wife, when he does not strive to cleanse her “by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present [her to Christ] in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27), God will treat that husband as a wicked man, as he does all wicked men, and set their feet in slippery places to make them fall to ruin (Ps. 73:18). God not answering a man’s prayer means he “opposes the proud” (1 Pet. 5:5) and does not even hear that man’s prayers. “The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous” (Prov. 15:29). “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him” (Jn. 9:31). God stands against a man and his plans who does not strive to love his wife as Christ loves the Church. The last person a man wants standing in the way of his plans is GOD.
The warning of 1 Peter 3:7 is so strong because Peter understands that throughout scripture God makes clear that those within society who are most susceptible to abuse and neglect hold a special place in the heart of God—the poor (Is. 3:14-15), orphans (Ex. 22:22-24; James 1:27), sojourners (Ex. 22:21), widows (Ex. 22:22-24; 1 Tim. 5:3), and all women (Ex. 22:13-19, 25). These are the individuals who are most susceptible to abuse, neglect, and mistreatment at the hands of men within society. Thus, husbands who abuse their strength and authority over their wives, who do not love their wives as Christ loves the church, incite the wrath and anger of God against them. God stands behind every wife, looking at her husband and saying to him, “I gave her to you to care for. Treat her right or you’ll have me to deal with.”
This, of course, does not mean giving her what she wants and letting her rule the roost. It means gently and lovingly leading her, teaching her God’s word, correcting her, protecting her, and providing for her. It means men accepting their God-given responsibility to shepherd her and the family.
The Husband as the Head of the Wife
In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul states that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (11:3). Understanding the relationship between a husband and wife is based on the relationship between God the Father and God the Son and teaches us that the woman’s role does not imply inferiority. The Son submits to the will of the Father, but he is not inferior to the Father in any sense. Christ is fully God and fully worthy of all worship and praise. The Father and the Son are equal in nature but not in role and responsibilities. But even with regards to their roles and responsibilities, the role and responsibility of the Son is not inferior to the Father’s or less important, only different. Carrying out the plan of redemption is no less important than laying out the plan of redemption.
First Corinthians 11:3 has to do with order of authority: God the Father—Christ the Son—husband—wife. There is an order of headship. And it is worth noting that nowhere in this order do we see pastor-elders. This is important because while church members are encouraged to submit to their elders in a general sense with regards to church ministry and direction, wives are to “submit to your own husbands” (Eph. 5:22). Husbands are given the direct responsibility of teaching God’s word to their wives (Eph. 5:26). And when wives have theological questions or are desiring counsel, Paul instructs women that “if there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home” (1 Cor. 14:35). When a wife has a theological question or is seeking advice or counsel, she should first go to her husband because he is her spiritual head. She should not first go to her best friend, her pastor, Bible study leader, women’s ministry leader, discipler or counselor. Women who are married to men who can’t or won’t provide them with the answers they are seeking should not easily allow their husbands off the hook. They should not allow their husbands to abdicate their God-given responsibilities. They should gently and lovingly encourage their husbands to figure it out.
Two exceptions to the aforementioned are women who are married to unbelievers and unmarried women (widows and virgins). Women who are married to unbelievers should seek the advice of their pastor, particularly when it involves a theological matter, as shepherds are responsible for keeping watch over their souls (Heb. 13:17a). But in all other areas they should go to their husband first (Eph. 5:22-24). Women who are unmarried should first seek the advice of their father (Eph. 6:2-4), if he is a believer and is still alive, of course. This is simply because there is no man who would know her better than the father who raised her. Of course, if her father has passed or is an unbeliever, she should seek the advice of her pastor. But ordinarily, wives submit to their husbands and husbands submit to Christ. This means, then, if a woman is given advice from her pastor which is contrary to her husbands, she should submit to her husband. The husband is the one who is directly and primarily responsible for his wife’s sanctification. And the husband is accountable primarily and directly to God for his wife’s sanctification.
This doctrine of the order of headship does not imply inferiority, “for this doctrine refers to a hierarchy of function, not of dignity or value. There is no inferiority of person implicit in the doctrine. God has designated a hierarchy of responsibility, hence authority, within the family and has done so according to the order of creation. But woman’s dignity is preserved not only in the fact that she has equal standing in Christ, but also in that the command to submit to her husband’s headship is addressed to her. She is told to do this willingly as an act of spiritual devotion (Eph. 5:22) and not in response to external coercion. She is to do this because God rests primary responsibility upon her husband for the welfare of the marriage relationship and for the family as a whole.”[ii]
[i] Hexon J. Maldonado, In the King’s Presence: How Christ’s Royal Majesty Enriches Corporate Worship (North Star Ministry Press, LLC, 2023), pg. 126-127.
[ii] L. I. Grandberg and J. R. Root, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 1984), pg. 744.
*Photo by Jared Subia on Unsplash
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies