The Husband as the Head of His Wife

In his book, Winning Your Wife Back Before It’s Too Late, Gary Smalley references a study in which thousands (21,501) of married couples were analyzed to determine the primary stumbling blocks within their marriages.


Not surprisingly, problems sharing leadership equally topped the list. An astounding 93% of the participants marked this issue as the most challenging.  What about you?

Do you believe the husband should be the head of the household? The better question is, how is headship described in Scripture? Is it the function of one, or both, spouses?

Today, “headship” is almost always described in terms such a:

  • Wh0 is the ultimate decision-maker?
  • Who has the final word?
  • Who has the final authority?

These are all questions we tend to ask. Like the sons of Zebedee we’re concerned with matters of authority. Their mother asked if they could sit at his right and his left in the kingdom, but Jesus responded by saying, “…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:20-28).

Woven into the fabric of our human nature is the desire to establish a structure of authority.  But true leadership, Jesus said, is marked by servant hood, not by authority.

Ephesians 5:23 gives clear insight when it says,

“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”

There are two basic schools of thought in regard to “headship” in marriage.

1. Complementarians argue for distinct gender roles.  They say the Bible is clear in regards to the “roles” of husbands and wives. They argue that there is a pre-ordained “design” for marriages; and that divine design is for a husband to lovingly lead his marriage.”

As David Neff said in his article, Creating Husbands and Fathers, one of the advantages of the language of “headship” (according to complementarians) is that it serves as a greater motivator for men.  He says,

Some men feel indispensable in the workplace, but all can potentially feel that way at home. Here is where the language of equal regard may fail to inspire, whereas the language of headship motivates.

2. Egalitarians argue for couples to discover and negotiate roles and responsibilities in marriage.  Neff goes on to say that Egalitarians are quick to quote I Corinthians 11:11,

In the Lord…woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.

Therefore, male domination is an effect of the fall of Adam and Eve and should not be read back into creation.

Which school of thought is closest to the New Testament concept of “headship?” And if “head” is a metaphor, is it possible to read too much into the word, or not enough?

Understanding the word “headship” in the larger context of the book of Ephesians is helpful. Paul uses the term “head” as a metaphor for “source of life.” A “head” is a source. If it’s true that the husband is the head, it does not mean that he has priority over her, but he is joined to her in an organic unity. As the head, he is the source, while the woman becomes his glory, his brilliance, his radiance.

I think its safe to conclude, then, that Paul did not use “head” in Ephesians 5:23 to mean the ultimate decision-maker of the family. If he wanted to designate the husband as the ruler of the family, he could have used a variety of other terms such as “ruler”, “judge”, or “mind.” Instead, he uses a word the Greeks understood to mean “source”. One thing is clear. Headship has nothing to do with domination.

The “structure” of the Trinity helps in this regard. Catherine Kroeger (author of Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of “Head”) said that to declare the Father as “boss, chief, or authority over” is to deny the status of the eternally begotten Son, equal to Father and Holy Spirit in goodness, power, and love. To declare the husband as “boss, chief, or authority over” the wife is to cause an imbalance that may threaten the very fabric of the marriage.

Furthermore, the word “husband” means “manager”…one who is responsible. A husband is a steward of the marriage and the home. However, when Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives, he is enlarging their view of its very definition. He is saying to husbands, in essence, that being a godly husband involves Christ-like love as well as management. Better stated, the “business” of marital management is the business of expressing profound love.

The measure of a man is not the number of servants he has, but the number of people he serves -Arnold Glasgow Click To Tweet

As a result, husbands are to be subject to their wives by loving them. He commands them to do so and uses several similes to develop his thought. He says in Ephesians 5:25 that husbands are to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.”

Why did Christ perform such a sacrifice?

…To make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless (5:25-27).

Paul is making a simple point. As Afda Spencer wrote in, What Does Ephesians 5 Teach About Male-Female Roles?, “Christ serves as an example to husbands of a Savior, someone who saves a person’s life by making them the very best person they could be”.

Leadership is achieved by giving up oneself in service to others -Oswald Chambers Click To Tweet

Here’s how all of this plays out for me and Debbie.  Our goal is to love one another, serve one another, and submit to each other; so the question Who is the ultimate authority? never really comes up as long as we’re serving each other.  I can see some egalitarian in our relationship, and I can also see some complementarian.  I guess we’re a hybrid.  If I absolutely had to pick one, I’d say we lean towards complementarian, but only in its very best sense.

Our goal is to be a team.  We call ourselves “Team Buckner.”  There is an ebb and flow to this for us.  There are times when I take the lead on stuff in our relationship, and there are times when she takes the lead.  Either way,  we always, always, always decide together.

What about you?  We would love to hear from you in the comments section below…

    Stephen has been blogging since 2014, and he enjoys writing honestly and openly about married life. He and Debbie are high school sweethearts and have been married for 20 years. They love a meaningful conversation, a rich cup of coffee, an inspiring movie, a perfectly prepared meal, and planning their next vacation.

    Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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    2 thoughts on “The Husband as the Head of His Wife

    1. As usual another good article-plus I was reading some of your older posts-good stuff. Like the way you look at everything 360 not just part of the way. You got the gift son- use it. Looking forward to spending time with you and Deb at Christmas. P.S. Baseball winter meetings start next week- hope the Mets do a lot wheelin and dealin. Love ya Steve.