Head of the Home

My parents were Christians and our home was fairly traditional, but I don’t remember ever hearing about the “head of the home” while growing up. I can’t remember a single instance of my dad asserting his position in the home, although he exemplified a good husband and father.

It wasn’t until after I married that I heard this in various teachings about marriage. At the time, I just accepted as fact that the husband was supposed to be the leader of the home. This seemed okay except in situations where it was extreme and wives were made to be doormats.

Headship was never an issue for us because my husband and I functioned in a relationship of mutual respect. Submission was never commanded. That would have seemed shallow when we already had a relationship that was based on love and trust rather than power.

Perhaps that is why it wasn’t difficult to challenge my beliefs about this topic. As I have examined when and how power is a part of relationships in the kingdom, I cannot see that it has a place in the marriage relationship. I do not believe now that there is hierarchy in the marriage relationship.

The main argument that I’ve heard for “the head of the home” is that one of the partners (the husband) must be appointed to make an executive decision in the case of an impasse.

A good example of that opinion was expressed in the comment section of the post Conversation at our House:

“There cannot be 2 leaders in a marriage, it just doesn’t work. When something comes up that wife and husband don’t agree on someone has to have that authority and power to make the decision. It can’t be both because if they don’t agree and both can’t have it their way, how will they resolve it? The Christian wife has to delegate that power to her husband.”

Over all the years that we believed the husband was the leader, this situation never came up. During the times when we were mutually selfish instead of submitted, we learned how to compromise. And we learned how to repent, to apologize, to forgive, and most of all to respect and trust.

I agree with Steve Sensenig’s reply to this comment – that Jesus should be the head in our marriage.

The scriptures concerning the husband as head to the wife as Christ is head to the church describes a relationship of union, not rulership. We are to be one flesh, in the same way that Christ is one with the body.

There is, however, a difference in the relationship in that Christ has Lordship, where that is not true of the husband/wife relationship. Back to the issue of governance, in that respect (Lordship or rulership), Christ is to be “Head” of the home and of both husband and wife.

In reality, this is so beautiful because then there is truly only one Head of the home. When a husband and wife submit themselves to the Lord and then to one another, we exemplify the unity and relationship that Paul said marriage was to reflect.

While a husband who truly loves his wife may not want to hinder her relationship with God, if he mistakenly believes his position is to rule over her, he does in fact put himself in a position that is between her and God.

That is the essence of a patriarchal or hierarchal understanding of the marriage roles. It puts both husband and wife in roles they weren’t intended to fulfill and distorts the mutuality of the relationship by imposing a power structure upon the relationship.

To be honest, I was afraid to admit this belief for awhile. It seemed too extreme, as if I was challenging the very balance of the universe. Questioning male headship seemed like the territory of bra-burning liberals, big-mouthed women, and stubborn insubordinates.

Believe of me what you will, but I have come to my current understanding in a sincere pursuit of knowing God, His way and His will. I don’t say that to claim infallible understanding, but rather to let you know that my thoughts about this are not borne out of a rebellious heart.

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22 thoughts on “Head of the Home

  1. Great thoughts Grace. I’m glad you weighed in on this. You, as usual, have offered a fair and levelheaded perspective of a challenging subject.

    And I like the remodel around here.

  2. I’m with you on this, as you could tell by my response on the other thread.

    It seems that the “man at the top” mentality comes from a “letter of the law” perspective, whereas you are promoting a “spirit of the law” perspective.

    I think this is quite consistent with how Jesus interpreted the Old Testament law.

  3. I too have been coming to this conclusion as of late. It seems that believers have bought into the world’s MO of power and control.

    It seems to me that the Kingdom of God is best demonstrated by an attitude of servanthood and submission. If this is true, then authority in any relationship comes not from issuing commands, but rather through wearing the towel of servanthood.

    Why is it that we often quote the Scripture about a wife submitting to her husband, but seldom are reminded that the same biblical author also said “submit yourselves one to another”?

  4. Great thoughts – you know I’m in agreement. ;) I’ve also found myself in a position where I can’t use the language of “authority over” in terms of describing how scripture talks of relationships in the Kingdom.

    You also said: “Headship was never an issue for us because my husband and I functioned in a relationship of mutual respect. Submission was never commanded. That would have seemed shallow when we already had a relationship that was based on love and trust rather than power.” This is what too often gets lost in these discussions – and I think you’ve said it beautifully. Great thoughts – I’m looking forward to your continuing reflections on this.

  5. Grace,

    Is it possible to mutually submit to each other, love, honor, and defer to one another, and still have a husband who says, “After considering all the options, this is what I believe we need to do…”, and then proceed (with his wife in agreement) to do it?
    Is it possible, based on Jesus teaching on servant leadership that the ‘headship’ within the marriage covenant is a function not a position?
    It is also possible to submit to someone or defer to someone without them lording it over you?

    Is there room in your view for a husband to lead his wife without dominating her?

    Now if you’ll excuse me I have to dig out my hockey equipment and warm up the doghouse. ;)

  6. Lily,
    I’m glad you noticed the remodel. It stretched my techgeek abilities to the max. I’m looking forward to seeing your new blog.

    Steve,
    Thanks for your comments here and on the previous post. I pretty much know that when you write something, I’m going to agree with it.

    Raborn,
    That’s so true. And once we start looking at the nature of the kingdom of God, there is little support for power structures within relationships.

    Scott,
    I am deeply indebted to your writing in helping me wrestle through these issues. Honestly I hope that you find more avenues to write, teach, and share about your understanding of the kingdom. You have an insight and depth in your perspective that I have rarely seen.

    ksg,
    You know I’ll be nice to you. ;)

    My answers to your questions:

    1. It is possible for either the husband or wife to proceed with a decision when they are in agreement.

    2. In order to answer this, I would need you to define and describe what you mean by function.

    3. Submission can only be given, not taken.

    4. I do not believe it is the husband’s role to lead his wife. It is his role to love her.

    I believe the first (to lead) will lead to unhealthy relationship dynamics. While the second (to love) will lead to life, peace, joy, and fulfillment for both.

    You always have interesting comments, and I enjoy the dialog, whether we agree or not.

  7. Like you two, Wendy and I have never had to use the language of power or hierarchy because we similarly have a wonderful relationship of mutual respect, honour, and submission to each other.

    On one hand, this makes it a non-issue with us, but on the other hand, because it’s a system of inequality and power-enforced hierarchy in too many marriages and church leadership structures, we have become more involved in the discussion. As nasty as it sometimes can get!

    Great thoughts, Grace, keep ’em coming!

  8. Grace,

    Excellent post and great replies to the comments. I was also raised with the justification you quoted above. It was often said “You can’t have a majority with two, therefore someone has to have the final vote”. For me, this was always backwards logic- “You can’t have a majority of two, so God was pretty smart setting up marriage that way!” This principle holds true in community, seeking to move forward with consensus (or consent if necessary) where the Spirit, giftings, etc. all play a part on how decisions are made.

    My wife & I believe that we are called to follow together, one leading the other depending on circumstances, but most often coming to decisions together. It is FAR more difficult than having one person with the final authority, but it is in that difficulty that we discover the deep wisdom of the approach.

    Bravo for sharing this post!

    Peace,
    Jamie

  9. Grace,

    Let me preface my response by saying that my wife and I have always dialogued and come to agreement about any important decisions in our life together and we’ve never used (as Robby says above) “the language of power or hierarchy” . I also think that our beliefs on this subject are very similar and that we may just be getting stuck on our understanding of each other.

    Okay, that said…

    #’s 1 & 3) yep, I agree.

    4. I do not believe it is the husband’s role to lead his wife. It is his role to love her. Can this be a “both” situation not an “either/or”? Example: Because I love my wife I give myself up for my wife (Jesus’ example of servant leadership).
    This might seem provocative but, in marriage, are you interpreting any form of leadership to be domination? Maybe my answer to #2 will help clarify my line of thinking…

    2.) Headship/leadership – function versus position.
    I now view leadership in life, church, and marriage to be a function (something we do) rather than a position or title (something we ‘are’). Example: Going for a family hike (something we love to do)…a leader is not someone who decides where we are going for a hike (that is by informed consensus), but once a hiking spot is picked out, they facilitate getting to the hiking spot (gear, supplies, etc.) and where the trail is wide, makes sure all the kids are not too far ahead or behind, and if the trial gets narrow or sketchy, gathers the ‘troop’, and then leads the ‘troop’ along the narrow or hazardous trail (finding a safe ‘line’).
    So, making the decision requires consensus/consent but acting out the decision requires leadership. In my experience (personal & observed) that role (leadership), almost by default, most often falls on the man.

    As well, marriage dynamics are never static, so there will always be shifting weight in order to maintain balance.

  10. wow.. i don’t even know what to say.. so i’ll just say this..

    great post.

    and thanks for stopping by my blog too. :-)

    jeff

  11. Robby,
    It has been a non-issue for us also, however, it has been interesting examining our beliefs and bringing them in line with how we function.

    Those of us who have enjoyed this freedom of relationship, as you said, then have a responsibility to model/teach those who are struggling with the effects of systems of inequality.

    Jamie,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I agree with you that it is in the soil of seeking consensus that the relationship truly grows.

    so I go,
    Thank you! :)

    ksg,
    Before I continue, let me say that as I explain my opinions, I am not trying to convince you. I know that not everyone will come to the same conclusions I have.

    “Giving yourself up for your wife” is scriptural. Serving and submitting is scriptural and mutual. However, I don’t believe that husbands have a divine mandate to lead their wives.

    BTW, “servant leadership” is a phrase I hope to rip to shreds in a future post, in a nice way of course. ;)

    How would you describe the ways that you “lead” your wife? In what essential ways does she require your leadership?

    I believe that there are many roles in marriage where we defer to one another’s strengths and abilities. Often these roles are culturally defined, but I don’t believe they are assigned by God.

    That’s enough for now.

    I appreciate the thoughtful comments you all have contributed. It’s great to bring this discussion down to where we all live.

  12. Grace,
    I’m not trying to be convinced. I’m not at all concerned if you and I don’t believe things exactly alike. I’m just enjoying the conversation.

    Aaurgh! Great! Just when I discover the concept of ‘servant leadership’ someone wants to come along and deconstruct it! :)

    I can’t say I’ve ever held a belief that men are divinely mandated to lead women (Both men & women were given dominion over the earth by God). But I do think that a man & a woman have different and unique roles to play in their unique-to-them marriage relationship. Social & health science demonstrate that, generally speaking, men provide leadership… when a man is just in the room during child birth the incidences of distress, complications, & medical interventions drop dramatically, families are 4X more likely get ‘saved’ when the father does first. (sorry, going by memory on those two – childbirth classes & a sermon by a friend)
    Can a man & a woman have a genuinely healthy relationship where the man leads, because…it works for them?

    Ways I “lead”… example, conversation, invitation, encouragement, instruction, patiently, lovingly… and it’s safe to say she’s done the same with me. It’s also safe to say that we’ve both failed at that at times.

    Blessings,

  13. Suppose a husband receives a job offer, which requires moving to a location that his wife can’t stand. She firmly wants to stay all things considered, but he just as firmly wants to move also for the benefit of the family. There is a deadline to their decision and they have to make up their minds by Monday morning at 9:00 am. My question is this: How can egalitarianism honestly cope with this? Regardless of the final decision there has either been a functional matriarchy or patriarchy at work. Someone’s choice effectively leads the family in a certain direction. Whether identified as leadership or not it happens all the time within a marriage.

  14. I love your emphasis on lordship.

    trish – this is what people always toss back at me but I’ve never seen it happen and hypothetical “possibilities” are really not a good way to enter a relationship dynamic. My husband could hypothetically hold a gun to my head some day, does that mean I should just shoot him now and avoid the trouble in the future?

    in our marriage, in that scenerio, we would reach a place of unity or the job would have to be passed up – God is bigger than time constraints anyway.

    And what if it were the woman with a choice to make with a deadline? Is she supposed to let her husband decide? that doesn’t even make sense logically much less scripturally

    I have found that when both are in mutual submission, there are times when the other might CHOOSE to “give up rights” for the benefit of the whole, but that’s a yielded choice (and not always by the woman mind you), not a right taken away to demand a behavior. And that has never had to happen in our marriage so I can’t even foresee when that choice would come up.

  15. Great thoughts and interesting discussion, and I’m going to be enjoying following this!
    *munching popcorn in the back row*
    :)

  16. Ari kinda beat me to the punch, but I wanted to bounce off of that and address what Trish wrote.

    This presents something of a false dichotomy: Either the couple is equal (i.e., egalitarian) or someone “leads” by default.

    I don’t believe that is an accurate reflection of reality. Someone can yield to the other, but that does not imply a leadership position for the other.

    Furthermore, the hypothetical you present assumes that both are selfishly looking at what THEY want, rather than what is best for the couple.

    Or at best, you presented a husband who is making a decision based on the benefit of the whole family, while the wife is thinking of it in terms of where she doesn’t want to live.

    I would submit that there are issues that go deeper in this hypothetical relationship than who is “in charge”.

    One of the things that is so often overlooked in all of these discussions by Christians is the scriptural proclamation that “the two shall become one.”

    I don’t want to expound too much here in the comments section, and may even post on it myself to flesh out my thoughts, but here’s the basic gist of what I’m trying to say:

    If a husband and wife look at every decision as a decision that “we” must make together, as one, the whole dynamic of decision-making changes. If, on the other hand, they are looking at “well, I want this, but he/she wants that”, I think they have already set themselves up for trouble.

  17. That is the essence of a patriarchal or hierarchal understanding of the marriage roles. It puts both husband and wife in roles they weren’t intended to fulfill and distorts the mutuality of the relationship by imposing a power structure upon the relationship.

    great writing.

    this is why most christian published marriage books get thrown across the room and land in my fireplace: the bs that is perpetuated is maddening.

    glad to hear a sensible voice in the blogosphere addressing this. hopefully some women, and men, who have not considered this perspective before will be paying attention. that’s why we blog, yeah?

  18. Great discussion everyone. I want to sit on the back row with Molly and eat popcorn. :)

    ksg,
    So now men want to take credit for childbirth too?! No way!
    Having the father in the room may provide comfort and support, but I wouldn’t call that leadership.
    My husband may have been in the room, but believe me, he was not leading the event. (I am teasing you about this.)

    What I hear you saying…
    There is not a divine mandate for the man to lead.
    It is the man’s role to lead because he is male.
    You and your wife both lead.

    In regards to the second statement, my question would be, according to whom? I hope to address the whole concept of leadership in a broader context in a future post.

    “Can a man & a woman have a genuinely healthy relationship where the man leads, because…it works for them?”
    First, they can have any kind of relationship they choose to have.

    I don’t think that is what you were asking. Did you mean where the man always leads?

    My opinion is that that would not be an ideal or truly healthy partnership.

    trish,
    I appreciate you sharing your thoughts here even though we don’t agree. I know that isn’t always easy. You’ve sparked some good discussion which is helpful for all of us in considering our beliefs and values.

    I agree with both Steve and Ari’s thoughts about the hypothetical dilemma.

    When my husband and I run into a complete disagreement about something, it always requires that we listen to each other more. Sometimes this takes a lot of talking and listening to understand where each other is coming from.

    Sometimes there are compromises that can be made. Sometimes we defer to the one with the strongest preference, who it matters to most. Always we try to find God’s will in the situation and do what is best for the marriage and our family.

    I would not be supportive of matriarchy any more than I am of patriarchy. The whole point of my post is that a power position is not necessary in the marriage relationship.

    Ari,
    First, it’s great to meet you! I peeked in at your blog and look forward to reading there more. Thanks for jumping in here. I loved your description of mutual submission and yielding choice.

    Steve,
    Someone can yield to the other, but that does not imply a leadership position for the other.

    That is exactly what I was trying to say. I would enjoy reading more of your thoughts about “one flesh” if you decide to post about it.

    When marriage partners are fighting for control and their own rights, they have lost sight of the fact that they shouldn’t be in competition if they are on the same team.

    Thanks Pam. I can picture those marriage books flying across the room. I wonder if anyone has ever started a list of the most damaging Christian books ever written.

  19. Grace,

    You know us men, we like to take the credit for everything! ;)’

    A few quick thoughts:
    When I first read your post I could have easily just said “Great post Grace, keep ‘em coming”. So… IMO we are discussing ‘nuance’.
    Also, the time I’ve spent making these few comments are the most time I have spent sorting my thoughts on this topic both consecutively and collectively, so for me this topic is a non-issue.

    You said.What I hear you saying…
    There is not a divine mandate for the man to lead.
    It is the man’s role to lead because he is male.
    You and your wife both lead.

    1.) Yes… no divine mandate.
    2.) No. It is not a man’s role to lead simply because he is male… I am saying that the male species has an inherent trait that inclines itself to leading. I am saying that men & women are equal in every way and yet distinct and unique as well.
    3.) Yes. For us, we come to a mutually agreed upon decision (always). And in our every day life we both lead in various ways; however, when it comes to significant issues, my wife willingly defers to me (Usually she insists upon it! So who’s leading who?!?).

    I asked, “Can a man & a woman have a genuinely healthy relationship where the man (always) leads, because…it works for them?”
    You answered, “My opinion is that that would not be an ideal or truly healthy partnership.”

    My belief is that all humans are distinctly unique; therefore, every marriage is unique. No one paradigm can be applied as a universal fix-all. I also believe that God’s design for us is to be joined with a mate who is compatible with us (who’s personality & character traits balance yet match our own) and from there to work out how the relationship ‘works’ for us. So even in a genuine, ideal, and truly healthy partnership there will always be different dynamics at play.
    Thanks for the stimulating thoughts and conversation. I will defer to you for the final word on this.

  20. Hi Grace,

    I’m sorry if i’ve you’ve already discussed this and i’ve missed it but what’s your understanding of the Ephesians 5 wives and husbands bit – particularly in relation to v23 which says that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church? I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts.

    I was brought up being strongly taught women submit and men lead – the God ordained order in the family. But what i saw lived out was that these were words only. Where is the life in that?

  21. ksg,
    Sorry I didn’t get back to this sooner.

    Yes, we probably are discussing nuances. I have been processing what “to lead” means and what it looks like in kingdom relationships for a couple of years now.

    How I understand and view leadership is really important to me. I am no longer willing to accept traditional understandings about leading.

    I agree with you that while men and women are equal, they are certainly not the same.

    I also agree with you that it how a couple works out these issues within their marriage is unique to them and to their personalities and giftings.

    If we have agreed that to lead is to contribute one’s strengths to a situation in which the other partner chooses to submit to the leading, I still contend that it would be unhealthy for that to be completely one-sided in a marriage partnership.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion, and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts as we discuss church leadership issues.

  22. Faith,
    My basic thoughts are that submission is mutual, and that headship refers to the nature of being connected and united with one another. I do not believe that head refers to rulership.

    Molly wrote a great post discussing the ephesians passage. You might want to read the entire post, but especially the portion under the heading Ephesians 5.

    Where my beliefs are headed is away from concepts of ruling and power but towards submitting to one another out of love, respect, and trust.

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