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Headship (Are you a man she can trust?)

Part 1, part 2, part 3

Marriage is a microcosm of human society.  A key aspect of this micro level is headship in marriage.

In Ephesians 5, Paul explains headship in marriage in a pretty straightforward way.  He recasts the traditional authority of the husband (‘head’) to reflect the way that God upends human authority.  He says, ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’.  What a radical statement!

Let’s get a few things straight, though.  So often, our ideas of headship remain attached to our own human notions of authority.  I see one of the biggest confusions about headship in the word ‘leadership’, which some Christians use more or less interchangeably with ‘headship’.  For example, Mark Driscoll sometimes seems to reduce headship to decision making, so that the head is the one who calls the shots.  That’s off the mark.

Headship does involve being responsible and taking initiative — but remember, these are not our human ideas.  God has subverted these things in Christ.  Headship is being responsible for serving. Headship is taking the initiative in sacrificing.

I use the word initiative deliberately: it captures the idea that — like Adam in the garden, and like God’s work through Christ — there is someone with the opportunity to start things off and make the first move.  This means that headship is not about authority or even about being first.  It is about being the first to serve.  Being a real husband means being the one who takes the initiative to love his woman, giving up his life for her.  Being the head in a marriage means being the sacrificial servant who loves his wife so radically that he gives up every desire and ambition and even his own self all for her service.  And to lose your self like that, of course, means you need to know yourself and be dealing with your insecurities.

What about leadership and decision making?  If it is possible to speak of either in relation to headship, it is in a sense that is profoundly opposed to our human ideas.  Paul is providing a radical Christian spin on traditional household codes.  There may well be times when a husband ought to make decisions — but this is not because he is the leader but the lover.  Whatever he does must be driven by his sacrificial service to his wife, just as Christ loved the church.

Throughout this mini series, I’ve been exploring things in terms of two different groups of guys.  One group needs to see that headship is a very active thing.  This may be your problem because you’re insecure, or it may be your problem because you’re hyper-individualistic.  Either way, to just follow along with your wife or to leave her to tick along by herself is exactly the way not to love her.  When you switch off, that undoes her trust and disempowers her.  Our wives are our equal partners, so manning up means teaming up.  Each of you have a corresponding part to play.  You have an equal partnership, but it’s an equal partnership.  You empower your wife by partnering with her.  Only when you see that you are bound together as partners will you be able to give up your life for her.

Other men have a different problem.  Some of us are so caught up in being ‘active’ and propping up our own insecure machismo that we’re fixated on authority.  We think that real men assert themselves, tell their wives what to do and ‘keep their women in line’.  If that’s you, you have entirely missed the point that headship is about service and sacrifice.  You have simply copied the traditional human authority of a husband, which grasps at power and control, always reflecting the fall.  A man who needs to control his woman is a weak, fake man.  Strong, real men are big enough to love and empower their wives in every way.  Remember the Bible’s ultimate anti-patriarchal statement: Christ did not grasp power but made himself nothing.  You have an equal partnership, but it’s an equal partnership.  Your wife is your counterpart, so start caring for her.  Then, perhaps, you might even begin to sacrifice yourself for her, as God commands you to.

The bottom line is this: the measure of a husband is not how well his wife submits but how well he serves her.

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

7 replies

  1. Hi Arthur,

    Can I flag a few issues Arthur. (I like to think and you and Tamie always make me think!)

    1. You get a bit fuzzy with the concept of “headship” in a couple of places. You say it’s not about being first but then say its about Jesus being the first to serve, just how much being first is there in your definition of “headship.”

    2. It seems reductionist to make being male in Scripture simply about initiative. Obviously Scripture wants to us distinguish the two genders but its a complex topic.

    3. I can’t quiet put my finger on it but there’s a problem in your reasoning here. You seem to be implying God give Adam leadership (“headship”) on the basis of his gender. The two topics are related because God picked one gender to have authority, however Adam’s gender doesn’t cause God’s command.

    4. “Headship is being responsible for serving.” Obviously God’s delegation of authority to Adam/husband includes serving but can it be reduced simply to serving? Driscoll’s rhetoric aside, wouldn’t Headship equal ultimate responsibility that includes serving as opposed to simply being the one responsible for serving the other?

    5. Small exegesis quibble, Philippians 2:5-8 isn’t about anti-patriarchy, it has that potential application when patriarchy is being abused.

    (Just so you know where I’m coming from, I agree Scripture teaches gender distinctions but believe God gives Adam/husbands the responsibility of leadership regardless of gifting. In a sense ‘patriarchy’ is as cultural as other biblical concepts such as ‘substitutionary atonement’ or the ‘afterlife’, problematic if Scripture was purely a human book.)

  2. Mmm, as an egalitarian, the reason why I think I found this description of headship so appealing is its lack of equivalence with ‘human’ notions of authority. I agree with Luke, do you think that you’re missing something here, Arthur? What are wives submitting to if all their man is doing is serving her?

  3. Thanks Luke, I always love your questions!

    1. How much ‘first’ is there in headship? It depends on whether we’re talking about God’s idea or ours. We naturally equate ‘first’ with ‘being in charge’, whereas Paul says the head is the one who gives up his life. 2. Granted. 3. I think it’s that both-and thing again. (And trying not to conflate the macro and micro levels.) Adam is the head because God made him man, and because of God’s command. So men who find that headship comes easily to them do reflect God’s creative design, while men who struggle with that should aspire to it because of God’s command. 4. As with (1), I’m trying to work out the right emphases. Paul doesn’t say that heads are like Christ in every facet of Christ’s nature and work. Paul says that heads must ‘love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…’. 5. Granted.

    Hi I.I.
    I’m getting at the directives to husbands. For wives, ‘as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything’… Whatever that means! :) (Over to Tamie.)

  4. Hi I.I.

    As you know, I don’t think the Bible is either ‘complementarian’ or ‘egalitarian’ and so there’s room for both sides to affirm and agree on what the Bible has to say on this issue. :)

    To answer your question, though, I think that we ought to primarily understand submission in relational terms rather than hierarchical terms, that is, that submission is about trust.

    The problem is that we view trust as something that has to be earned rather than something that is given freely. I do think that trust will work itself out in deference to one’s husband, but in this vision of marriage, that’s not a problem because the husband’s desire is to serve and empower his wife. The issue comes when the husband doesn’t love and serve his wife as he ought but that doesn’t change the goodness of the model or the directive for the husband to love and serve and the wife to submit (trust).

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