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What is Male Headship?

September 6, 2012

The Biblical model of the husband being the head of the household has raised many a debate in recent decades (and centuries for those of us who are nearsighted). Much of the confusion stems from a misunderstanding of what Paul means in Ephesians when he talks about male headship and a wife’s submission to her husband. The issue is not that the Bible commands male headship but rather the modern abuses of it. Bryan Chapell, in his book Each For the Other provides some helpful guidance on handling this tricky, but grace-giving role of headship in a family. I will try to summarize:

The head of the home possesses the most authority in the home. You have to do some fairly crafty exegesis of the text in Ephesians 5 to arrive at the conclusion that the above statement is not true. However, you have to be equally as crafty to conclude that there are not limitations and boundaries on authority. Paul gives the reason for a wife’s submission (v. 23…it would be helpful to pull out your Bible and turn to Eph. 5 at this point), an example of submission comparing marriage with Christ’s headship of the church (vv. 23-24), and the extent of a husband’s authority (v. 24). Clearly, the husband has primary authority (1 Cor. 11:3-10; Titus 2:5).

What is missed in all this is that there are limits to this “submitting in everything.” The right to exercise authority exists only to the extent it reflects Christ’s nature and purposes. Headship that transgresses God’s purposes loses God’s approval. A husband has no right to belittle his wife for her misuse of money or for embarrassing him in public.

The responsibilities God places on husbands yields a definition of headship far from dictatorial rule or passive disengagement. Biblical headship is the conscientious and loving use of the authority God grants a husband to ensure that all in his home honor God and experience his blessings.

What we sometimes miss in context of Ephesians 5:22-33 is that it comes right after 5:18-21. Verse 21 concludes with the command to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ. Everyone who is filled with the Spirit serves others sacrificially…and so Paul gives an example of husbands and wives serving one another. A husband who is exhibiting proper headship in his home is a servant, a giver, a peacemaker, and one who pours all that he has into others. He is not a taker, an abuser, and a passive observer of his family’s demise. Instead he orders his household for the benefit of his family, not himself. Biblical headship uses authority to ensure the good of others.

What makes all this possible? No husband can conjure up this kind of consistent care for his wife and children on his own accord. He may be able to fake it for a month or even a year, but he will eventually break down. The only resource a husband has is a life-giving relationship with the Lord; one that recognizes Jesus as his head. In this humble posture, the man sees his need of the leadership and tender care of the Lord as the source of the sacrificial love he gives his family.

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