Is the Husband the Head of His Wife?

Short answer: “yes” with an “if”, long answer: “No” with a “but”

Headship is revealed in sacrifice. In the same way that Christ gave himself up for the church, the husband gives himself up for his wife. He crawls through traffic, fights grizzly bears, and catches bullets for her.

Since time immemorial, men and women have been trying to get along, and the results have been occasionally spectacular but often mixed.

Even if you accept that men and women are equal in grace, there are undeniable differences between the genders. What do these differences mean, and how do they affect the way we relate to each other? Do they illuminate that ancient question of who’s the boss?

Who’s the boss?

Indeed they do, said Aristotle.

Since women are excitable, while men are cool, calm and collected, wives need the steady hand of their husbands to guide them. An ideal marriage, said the philosopher, is one where the rational man rules his emotional wife the same way a soul rules its body.

“What nonsense,” said the Apostle Paul. “A man is not the soul of a marriage. He’s the head” (1 Cor. 11:3, Eph. 5:23).

But what does that mean?

According to the English theologian Matthew Poole, it means the husband is in charge:

The man is called the head of the woman, because by God’s ordinance he is to rule over her. He has an excellency above the woman, and a power over her.

Like Aristotle, Poole believed the husband to be superior to the wife for the same reason that “the head in the natural body, being the seat of reason, and the fountain of sense and motion, is more excellent than the rest of the body.”

Albert Barnes, an American theologian, said that the headship of the husband meant the complete subjection of the wife.

In all circumstances—in her demeanor, her dress, her conversation, in public and in the family circle—(she) should recognize her subordination to him.

For 2,000 years, theologians have been parroting Aristotle’s dribble about husbands being the rational rulers of their marriages. Wives are delicate creatures, easily upset. They need the cool-headed authority of their superior husbands.

But Jesus said no such thing, and nor did the apostles.

When Paul said the husband is the head of the wife, he did not mean he is the king or the boss of the home. He was talking about actual heads, like the one found on the top of your neck.

“Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28). Just as a head supports the body, the body supports the head. Paul was talking about the unity of marriage and how husbands and wives are mutually dependent.

For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. (Eph. 5:23)

Paul is not saying husbands are their wives’ saviors; Christ alone is our Savior. But the manner in which Christ saves—by laying down his body for the church—is the manner in which a husband serves his wife.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Eph. 5:25)

Just as the love of God is revealed in a death, biblical headship is revealed in sacrifice. In the same way that Christ gave himself up for the church, the husband gives himself up for his wife. He crawls through traffic, fights grizzly bears, and catches bullets for her.

The husband puts his wife’s needs and interests ahead of his own because he values her more highly than his own life.

Source: The Silent Queen.

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23 Comments on Is the Husband the Head of His Wife?

  1. Phil Hamson // June 3, 2021 at 3:30 am // Reply

    Awesome. The church needs this. It is sad how many twist scriptures to justify mental and emotional abuse against women in marriage.

  2. John K Cheeseman // June 3, 2021 at 3:31 am // Reply

    Lol, Aristotle was an idiot. That’s not how it works. A man can be spiritual leader of household if, like salvation itself, he accepts that gift and the responsibilities that come with it. At the time of the writing it was man’s custom that men were head of household regardless, thanks be to God for a better way found in Grace. We are not automatically saved but have to accept the gift, then grow in knowledge and grace from there.

  3. OK, BUT you can still lay down your life for someone you are “in charge” of so your point doesn’t really answer the question.

  4. Some great wisdom there Paul – I so appreciate you tackling these topics from a grace perspective. My one thought in response (from someone still trying to work it out). Jesus is not described as the elbow, stomach or thumb of the church – but the head. In other biblical passages eg. Col 1:22 the use of the word ‘head’ seems to clearly mean ‘the leader’ (which is consistent with regular conversation, the ‘head of the company’ –> is the leader). So perhaps the use of the word ‘head’ is meant to mean more than just another connected body part (which is what I’m picking up from your article above). My question then: What then does the word ‘head’ mean? (when in conversation and other biblical texts it means ‘leader’)

    • Hi Mark, you’re absolutely right. It does mean more, and that’s something I’ll get to in a future article. It’s also something I talk about at length in the book. Short version, headship reflects origin, not authority. The husband is the head because Eve was taken out of Adam. If Eve had been made first, she would have been the head. Adam’s headship reflects the order of creation. When people form a queue, the person at the front is at the head of the line. It doesn’t mean they’re better than those who came later. It simply means they got there first.

      What that means for marriage is a subject for another time.

  5. Wow, thank you for this. Illuminating.

  6. How have I never seen this perspective before. Brilliant!

  7. Given the context of Ephesians, when Paul spoke of the husband as the head there is an implication of authority, especially as it is the beginning of a series on governing relationships(husband/wife, children/parents, master/slave). To argue that there is no implication of authority is to completely ignore the context in an attempt to harmonize it with modern egalitarian sensibilities. In fact, it’s quite clear looking at contemporaries that Paul is in fact referring to legal relationships under pater potestas where the husbands authoriity over his family was absolute, so there is a transformation of mores in favor of equality but as is typical of Paul the social change is secondary to the witness of the gospel.

    • The context is very plainly sacrificial love. There’s no mention of authority and why should there be? It has always been God’s plan for men and women to rule together (Gen. 1). It was sin that introduced patriarchy (Gen. 3).

      Interestingly, the Bible uses two different words when discussing the head of the home. When Jesus talks about the head of the house knowing the time of the thief’s coming, he uses a noun (oikodespotēs) which is related to the word despot. A despot is a ruler who holds absolute power. It’s the householder or the person in charge of an estate. It’s the landowner who hires the vineyard workers or sends his slaves to invite people to a banquet. In context, it means the man in charge.

      But when Paul talks about husbands being the head of their wives, he uses a different word (kephalē) which simply means head. Paul never uses the despot word except when counseling young women “to marry, to have children, and manage their homes” (1 Tim. 5:14). Incidentally, the word for manage in that verse is the verb form of the word despot (oikodespoteō). So Paul is literally instructing the women to be masters or lords of their homes. In the words of John Chrysostom, the “woman is assigned the presidency of the household.” Who is head of the home? According to Paul, it is the wife. She is the lord, master, and president of her household.

  8. Paul literally tells wives to submit to their husbands, and the passage is formulaic of a typical household code from the era. Your discussion of the word for head is a nonsequitor because it is true that Paul is using a bodily metaphor in the passage, but the context of Ephesians 5:21-6:9 is likely a borrowed code Paul adapted for his own use, with the central theme of the entire bit being unequal relationships where one has the legal authority over another. It is a radical departure from others of its day since it includes responsibilities of the authority figure towards the submissive end but the idea of authority is central to the whole passage. The husband in Rome wasn’t simply a titular head but was the complete legal head, with such authority that should he desire he could sentence his wife to death with the slimmest of justifications. It’s certainly a passage that has seen abuse, but the natural reading is a matter of authority and not simply a matter of sacrificial love.

    • Yes, Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands, right after telling husbands to do the same for their wives. In fact, Paul spends more time telling husbands how to lay down their lives for their wives than vice versa.

      To force-fit Greco-Roman norms onto Paul’s inspired portrayal of new creation realities is to completely ignore the context in an attempt to harmonize it with long-standing patriarchal prejudices.

      • Paul never tells husbands to submit to wives…

      • I think you need to take a closer look (Matt. 20:25, Rom. 12:10, Eph. 5:21, Gal. 5:13). I know it is tough for some to accept that men are not to lord it over our wives or that in the new creation marriage is a partnership where wives can lead just as easily as their husbands, but this is what the Bible consistently preaches from the very first chapter. At some point we must decide whether to go with what the Bible says or hold onto whatever prejudices we may have inherited.

      • The question here is strictly Ephesians 5:21-6:9, not some overarching Biblical message. The issue is far too often when people speak of what the Bible teaches at large they are doing little more than introducing their own prejudice through proof texts. No one said anything about lording it over anyone, the question is whether Paul is speaking of authority which the context of the passage demands and the analogues both from Scripture(Colossians and 1 Peter’s household codes) and contemporaries(Josephus, Philo, Aristotle) all follow a similar format where the question at hand is how to wield authority. The reasons for that discussion of authority are deeper than a God-given rule of men over women, but to completely ignore that Paul did in fact speak of men having authority over women requires contortions that draw serious questions about whether the individual is seeking to follow Christ or trying to justify their political and ethical positions in the name of Christ.

      • For someone as obsessed with authority as you seem to be, you are remarkably untouched by the authority of scripture. The word for authority (exousia) is found nowhere in Ephesians 5-6 because it is irrelevant to the subject of marriage. Nor is it found in in Colossians 3 or 1 Corinthians 13 – a chapter so full of other-focused love that it is read at weddings to this day. As for the “God-given rule of men over women,” that is not something you will find in the Bible! That’s a manmade tradition straight out of the curse (Gen. 3).

        I appreciate the Jewish sages and Greek philosophers all had strong patriarchal views on this subject (that you seem to share), but Paul had the same mind as Jesus. Indeed, Jesus shows all of us how to submit to and lay down our lives for others. Submission is not something that is coerced from above, but is something that is freely offered in love. When love rules the heart, authority doesn’t come into it.

    • John K Cheeseman // June 4, 2021 at 5:35 pm // Reply

      Since this topic, during the era, was primarily governed and defined through pharisitical rule it seems to me to be nothing more than a personal interpretation of Mosaic law which “the church” deemed itself superior and even held a degree of arrogance to Roman government. Law is bondage and does nothing but strengthen sin.

  9. Clearly some engrained beliefs in these comments and for which I have sympathy of perspective though not necessarily interpretation. I would love you to be right Paul because of both my experience and my own marriage where there is definitely an equal balance but whereby I seem more often wrong, and my wife more often right particularly regarding Scripture. Very humbling I have to say!! Nonetheless like some of the commentators here, I ‘feel’ (I stress it’s a ‘feeling’) that scripture indicates male leadership ultimately takes leadership responsibility. Is it possible that we have confused responsibility (which may mean laying down my life) for ‘authority’? Also I am plagued with the thought that while woman played equally important roles throughout scripture (and often MORE IMPORTANT roles), none of the disciplines were woman – not sure if that’s meaningful though?

    • Hi Ian, I am totally for male leadership just as I am totally for female leadership. In my marriage I lead strongly on some things and my wife follows, and she leads strongly on other things and I follow. We’re like a team of superheroes, the dynamic duo, and it sounds like you know exactly what I am talking about. I do not see how recognizing the gifts and call of God on women in the church can be anything but beneficial to all the strong men out there.

      Regarding the disciples – quite a few of them were, in fact, women. The scriptures record that “many women followers” were at the cross. So why didn’t Jesus include women among the original twelve? The twelve were chosen to be witnesses in a culture that placed no value on witness statements made by women. When it was time to take the gospel beyond sexist Judea, the Lord picked plenty of female church leaders and apostles (e.g., Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, and the hard-working women of Romans 16).

      I’ll have more to say about headship in future articles. If you can’t wait, you can always read the book.

  10. Paul, which one would be a good bible version to read?

    • Good question, but not really relevant to this discussion thread. Why not raise it on our Facebook page? I’m sure you will get some good responses.

      • beemarina // June 10, 2021 at 9:45 pm //

        Because I want my question to be anonymous. 😀 thank. You said in private message that here is where I can do anonymous questions. Sorry I agree that the question is irrelevant here but where else can I make anonymous questions?

      • In that case you could post them on the FAQs page. Just be aware my ability to respond depends on how many messages I get that day and how short the question is.

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