The real meaning of “the husband is the head of the wife” (Ephesians 5:23)

Husband, Head of a
Submissive Wife?

Surprising Biblical Insights

A Man’s Man, the Bible Way

For husbands: getting your Christian wife to submit and obey
For single women: vital help in choosing a godly husband

By Grantley Morris

Special Note to Women

This webpage is for men. Surveys indicate, however, that material written for husbands is usually read by even more women than men.

I plead with married women not to read this because they have already made their life choice. For a wife to read further could cause dissatisfaction with her husband and therefore weaken her marriage. Should a wife ignore this warning and continue reading, I cannot be held responsible for any pain, frustration or temptation that result.

Unmarried women, however, can benefit from this webpage, as it will help them know what qualities to look for when considering marrying a man. But it should be read only by unmarried women who intend their wedding vows to include obedience to their husband. If there is one thing Jesus railed against, it was hypocrisy, and for anyone refusing to live by biblical standards to expect her husband to live by biblical standards is hypocrisy in all its ugliness.

Further Note for Women

The Extraordinary Power of Husbands

Over many years, hundreds of people have confidentially bared their hearts to me. Throughout this time I have found myself repeatedly flabbergasted by the astounding power of ordinary husbands and fathers to mold, almost in concrete, their loved ones’ conception of God. They achieve this not by theological dissertation, but solely by the way they exercise their God-given authority over their loved ones. I keep trying everything I can to help people whose spiritual lives have been crippled by inadequate men. “God is not like that man!” I desperately plead, almost to the point of uprooting my hair, “The Lord is altogether different. God is trustworthy. You’re so special to him.” But most of my words bounce off the concrete poured by a solitary, apparently insignificant man, whom they call husband or father.

I know a widow in her sixties. For nearly forty years her husband treated her selfishly and unlovingly, although he probably saw himself as a normal, considerate husband. Even though this woman had known the Lord throughout all the time of her marriage, her relationship with God is tragically hindered to this very day as she wrestles deep feelings that God must be like her cold-hearted husband.

This is an intelligent, mature woman, who rightly prides herself in being a woman of the Bible. And yet – as frustratingly irrational as it seems, and as much as she wants to be freed from the illusion – the ungodly way her husband used his God-given headship, often shouts louder in her heart than the words of Scripture declaring the nature of God. Her husband is now dead. He made no pretense of being a Christian. He abused his authority only a little. And yet sometimes the accumulation of incalculable thousands of hours of preaching and theological study are unable to withstand the impact of one ordinary man – now dead – who seldom even mentioned God.

A husband or father who does not exercise headship in a kind, gentle, selfless manner, slanders God and jeopardizes not just his own eternity, but the eternities of those closest to him.

It is hard to measure the ramifications of the way a man uses his headship. The following might provide an inkling of the vital role of men in the home. Preliminary research suggests boys from a fatherless home are:

    * 5 times more likely to commit suicide

    * 9 times more likely to drop out of high school

    * 20 times more likely to end up in jail

Girls brought up in one parent homes are:

    * 2.5 times more likely to get pregnant than teenagers from two parent families

    More Statistics


Imagine growing up in a jungle tribe of headhunters in which you and everyone you have ever met firmly believe that one’s masculinity is affirmed by murdering innocents. The more human heads in your collection of personal kills, the bigger the man you are. Only weak, effeminate, no-hopers would pass up an opportunity to murder a vulnerable person. With this background, if you became a Christian, you would face nothing short of an identity crisis. To stop headhunting would be as devastating to your manhood and self-image as for a normal man in our society to start wearing high heels and dresses in public. Even though after your encounter with God you realize that it is morally right not to murder, you would be repeatedly assaulted by self-accusations of being weak and effeminate if you stop murdering innocents.

Each man’s conception of masculinity is a very deep part of his identity, built into him by his upbringing. To tamper with it could make breaking and re-setting one’s bones seem like fun. For a deeper understanding, see Understanding Men: Insights for Both Sexes.

Our dilemma is that our own society is as far from God’s ways as a tribe of headhunters. Because it is the society we have grown up in, however, we have absorbed its values into our personalities as surely as food becomes a part of our bodies. Much of our society has indoctrinated us to equate masculinity with stubborn selfishness and inflicting emotional pressure upon those we love. So strong and unconscious is the worldly indoctrination we have suffered, that we are usually unaware when we are twisting the Bible to force it to conform with modern society’s godless presumptions.

The world is so perverse that Jesus had to say even of his own highly devout society, “For that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). And the Lord Almighty said:

    Isaiah 66:2  . . . to this man will I look, even to he who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at my word.

That might describe David the giant-killer, but not some modern day Rambo.

Most people in our society presume that no one can be a real man if he excels in qualities that the Almighty highly prizes, such as gentleness, patience, kindness and humility, not to mention sexual purity. One scrambles to the top of the heap by being a beer-swilling, self-serving loudmouth who incites lust in women and envy in men. Can you see how our society is as spiritually primitive as a tribe of savages? We must let Christ rise up within us and boldly defy the perverse notions of manhood thrust upon us from our most impressionable years.

I grew up believing a real man never cries and that Jesus was the perfect Man. Since Jesus openly cried, one of those beliefs had to go, and yet I wanted desperately to cling to both beliefs. Even after decades of trying to reshape my thinking I’m not totally free from my childhood presumptions. Shedding tears is inconsequential. Christian men in our society, however, typically face similar conflict over far more serious matters.

A man’s man is not someone who can handle emotional and physical pain without crying, but someone who can handle it without anger or violence or defeatism. To control tears is only a selfish attempt to save face. To control anger, however, is to exercise true authority, allowing us to fulfill our protective role by making those around us feel more secure. Men rarely realize how unsettling or even terrifying it is for family members to live with a man who is given to outbursts of anger, even if the anger is never directed at family members. Ironically, what makes loved ones feel secure and protected is not a man’s physical strength, but his strength of character.

    Proverbs 16:32 One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty; one who rules his spirit, than he who takes a city.

We have been brainwashed into using as measures of masculinity qualities that are the exact opposite of Christlikeness. To be Christlike is both to have great power and to voluntarily yield up that power to achieve eternal good.

    Philippians 2:5-8 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.

To drive home the unbreakable connection between great husbands and humble, selfless Christlikeness, in the very passage where husbands are told they are the head of their wives, just as Christ is head, husbands are commanded to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . .” (NIV, Ephesians 5:25).

In ancient times thousands of men were crucified and yet made no impact on the world. What makes Christ so special is that he had the power to make his enemies grovel at his feet, and still he chose sacrificial love. He did nothing out of powerlessness; everything out of love. His power was absolute, but his glory was his ability to restrain that power. Today, many see Christ’s restraint and think him weak. One day, however, all will be revealed and his glory will be acclaimed for all eternity.

If someone needy overpowers you and robs you of a large sum of money, that is your shame. But if, moved by love, you give needy people a large sum, it is your glory. Likewise, if a wife obtains something from her husband by overpowering or outsmarting him, it is that man’s shame. If, however, out of Christlike wisdom and love, a man gives his wife that same thing, it is to his eternal glory.

We can easily confuse praise-worthy acts with weakness because the results can look the same. But to God, who sees the heart, weakness and Christlikeness are an eternity apart. One day, promises the Almighty, the secrets of the heart will be exposed. Then everyone will see our shame or our glory.

The Ideal Wife

One of the most powerful forces pushing humanity forward is that good fathers fearlessly and valiantly strive not only to achieve but for their own achievements to be eclipsed by those of their children. They passionately want their children to end up better educated and more prosperous and successful than they themselves were. This is the glory of fatherhood and highlights the selfless courage of genuine love.

So if you truly love your wife – and to do so is a divine requirement – you will not only refuse to put her down or hold her back, you will long to empower her to thrive in every area of life. And any way in which she surpasses you will make you proud.

I’m sure you’ve read about the Bible’s ideal wife but please look at it with fresh eyes:

    Proverbs 31:11, 14, 16-18, 24-26, 28-29, 31 The heart of her husband trusts in her. . . . She is like the merchant ships. She brings her bread from afar. . . . She considers a field, and buys it. With the fruit of her hands, she plants a vineyard. She arms her waist with strength, and makes her arms strong. [Note: even her physical strength is valued.] She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. . . . She makes linen garments and sells them, and delivers sashes to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing. . . . She opens her mouth with wisdom. Faithful instruction is on her tongue. . . . Her children rise up and call her blessed. Her husband also praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you excel them all.” . . . Give her of the fruit of her hands! Let her works praise her in the gates! . . .

This is one highly capable woman! Her husband esteems her intellect, talents, economic prowess and even her physical strength. Such is his faith in her that he even lets her buy property! You might lament that your wife is not as capable as this amazing woman, but if you don’t see your wife as having that potential, your very perception is most likely what is keeping her from achieving it. The mother of your children needs you to believe in her. No one has the power to shape her destiny like you have.

Like the lover in the Song of Solomon, we see in the above Scripture that the husband of the ideal wife richly praises her. He exalts her, both with his actions (by entrusting her with great responsibilities) and with his words. Don’t wait until she does something exceptional; find things right now to praise her. As it says in an omitted part of the above passage, “ . . . a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised” (verse 30).

Use your words to build her up. Do all you can to inspire her to new heights. What happens to the man who dares do this? Is he despised, neglected or left behind?

    Proverbs 31:23 Her husband is respected in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land.

Nevertheless, a real man should be so filled with genuine love (not soppy romantic fiction, but the Christlike love that brings eternal fulfillment) that what he gets out of it means nothing to him, relative to the joy of seeing his wife honored and fulfilled. One day you will have to stand before the Judge and give account of whether you achieved this.

You have seen proud fathers. God longs to see more proud husbands – men who facilitate and delight in their wife’s achievements.

A Forgotten Role of the Head

There is no doubt that headship implies leadership. We will expound this later. More than leadership is involved, however, and discovering this will help us understand the type of leadership expected of husbands.

We do not need modern discoveries to know that no baby or child could grow if it were severed from its head. Science reveals that there is more to this than the obvious fact that anyone without a head would be dead. For example, growth hormones are produced by the brain and, like many hormones, these hormones critical for growth are secreted into the blood in a manner controlled by the brain. For accurate interpretation of centuries-old documents, however, it is not enough to apply modern understanding to ancient texts. Did the inspired writers of Scripture think of the head as the source of growth? They did indeed:

    Colossians 2:19 . . . the Head, from whom all the body . . . grows . . .

    Ephesians 4:15-16 . . . we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love . . . (NIV)

I will not get side-tracked into explaining the principles of accurate Bible interpretation but the above quotes are powerfully relevant because they not only reveal how a contemporary of the writer viewed the function of the head, the quotes are actually from the very same author – in fact, I’ve included a quote from the very same letter – as the one calling husbands the head of their wives. And even more pertinent is that both these quotes refer specifically to the relationship between Jesus and the church. Remember that Paul wrote:

    Ephesians 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ also is the head of the assembly, being himself the savior of the body. (Emphasis mine.)

Clearly, regardless of whether we would have thought of it, in the mind of the divinely moved writer, a major function of the head is to facilitate growth. To be the fully functioning head of your wife you must be continuously promoting and nurturing her spiritual, emotional, and intellectual development, enabling her to keep rising to new heights.

If you are the head, what are you continually doing to promote your wife’s growth as a person?

True Leadership

Marriage is all about two people becoming one. How can any man claim to be living in this realm if he enjoys winning an argument with his wife? How can anyone win at the expense of the person he is one with? Being one flesh means, “When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. Or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

True love delights in the success and achievements of the beloved.

Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) started working for two cents an hour and ended up giving away $365 million. His leadership ability was the key to his astounding success. Before he died he ensured his tombstone read:

    Here lies one who knew how to gather around him men who were cleverer than himself

True leadership is not about big-mouthing oneself or suppressing people. True leadership is about bringing the best out of people and seeing them soar to their full potential. Weak men are too scared to accept this challenge. They quake before the words of Richard Bach:

    If you love something, set it free; if it comes back it’s yours, if it doesn’t, it never was.

Weak men are so insecure that they think the only way they can gain their wives’ respect or prevent them from leaving is by shattering their self-esteem by verbal abuse, put downs and restricting their freedom. This is a key method abusers use, whether it be wife bashers or child abusers or hypocrites who think themselves better than such people and yet ruin their women by keeping them from being the achievers God created them to be.

Which is the higher glory: to be the leader of elite soldiers or to be followed by those who feel defeated? Who is greater: the man confident of winning the love and admiration of an intelligent, high achiever, or the coward who thinks his only chance is to crush his wife’s self-esteem or keep her from advancing?

And what does God expect of you?

    Philippians 2:3 doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself

Husband, you were born for greatness – to be the head of an astounding woman. Rise to your calling.


The authority of husbands is not the apostle Paul’s invention. It is God’s decision, and it is taught in the Old Testament (eg Numbers 30) as well as by Peter (1 Peter 3:1-6). Even Revelation refers to the church as Christ’s bride, thus implying the relationship between a husband and wife is like that between the Lord and his church.

There is no escaping it: husbands and fathers have authority, but most Christians have an anti-Christian understanding of authority.

    Matthew 20:25-28 But Jesus summoned them, and said, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever desires to be first among you shall be your bondservant, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The greater your authority, the greater your accountability before the Almighty who gave you that authority. James highlights this principle when discussing becoming a teacher.

    James 3:1 Let not many of you be teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive heavier judgment.

Remember the widow I mentioned earlier: there were times when all the preachers and teachers and authors impacting her life could not outweigh the negative effect of her very ordinary, now deceased, husband. What grave responsibility is entrusted to husbands!

It is currently fashionable in Christian circles to have an unbiblical view of God, thinking that since we can call the Almighty our Father, we can get away with sin. Prayerfully, our eyes will be opened before we pay too high a price for our foolishness:

    1 Peter 1:17 If you call on him as Father, who without respect of persons judges according to each man’s work, pass the time of your living as foreigners here in reverent fear (Emphasis mine.)

Like Father God, to be a real man is to be impartial, and no one can be impartial if he is swayed by the barest hint of selfishness.

Your Magnificent Wife

    Genesis 2:18-20 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field, and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. Whatever the man called every living creature became its name. The man gave names to all livestock, and to the birds of the sky, and to every animal of the field; but for man there was not found a helper comparable to him.

To become aware of his need of a helper, God had Adam examine the animal world. When, for example, birds pair off, the female role is not to pander to the male’s whims but to play an essential role in the fulfilling of their joint, divinely-appointed task to be fruitful and multiply. So it is with wives: their divinely intended focus is not the meeting of their husband’s personal desires but a task so noble that it is bigger than both of them – the fulfillment of the couple’s divinely-appointed assignments.

Someone limited to English, unable to access God’s Word in its initial form, might be excused for supposing that the term “helper” could apply to a servant and/or menial tasks. The reality is very different. Never in the Bible does the Hebrew word here translated “helper” imply servitude. It is term for a savior/deliverer. It is such a strong word that it is used almost exclusively of God as man’s helper. For example:

    Exodus 18:4  . . . “My father’s God was my help and delivered me from Pharaoh’s sword.”

    Psalms 33:20 Our soul has waited for the Lord. He is our help and our shield.

    Psalms 70:5 But I am poor and needy. Come to me quickly, God. You are my help and my deliverer. Lord, don’t delay.

    Psalms 121:2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. (Emphasis mine.)

This strongly implies a wife is like God to her husband. Of course, she does not in any way replace God, but by giving a woman the status of her husband’s helper/deliverer, he is assigning her a Godlike role in his life.

As seen in our need of God, our need of a helper implies our weakness, not our right to lord it over the one on whom we depend.

Divinely entrusted to you is not a mere trillion dollars, nor the world’s most sophisticated computer, but a human being – the crown of creation, the focus of the infinite love of the crucified Lord of glory. You married and are divinely accountable for not a hollowed-out shell, but a full woman. You are responsible not just for her sexual fulfillment but for her emotional fulfillment.

Tragically, modern men tend to be shallow. The “strong, silent type” usually has serious hang-ups that he is too much of a wimp to even face. Thinking that ignoring a problem is a sign of strength is like someone with a life-threatening cancer acting too stupidly “macho” to have the sense to see a doctor before his stubbornness kills him. If you choose to ruin your life by refusing to talk about problems, that is serious enough, but you will be held doubly accountable if you bring down your wife by not encouraging her to share her heart with you.

You were not born to be gummed up, nor born again to be stony hearted; your divine destiny is to:

    Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (RSV)

It is devastating when a man marries, expecting to find sexual fulfillment and receives frustratingly little. It is devastating for a woman to marry, expecting companionship and emotional connection only to end up receiving precious little.

The Pinnacle of Manhood

To achieve the pinnacle of manhood is to be the person your magnificent wife instinctively runs to whenever something emotionally significant happens to her – when she is frightened, depressed, or elated; whenever she wants comfort, reassurance, understanding, a listening ear; someone deeply moved by her pain and her joys. Are you the one your wife turns to when she wants an opinion about something important to her, even if it is a dress or hairstyle? (Remember, you chose to become one with a woman.) Times with the potential for deepest bonding between a man and his wife tend to be the very times weak men shrink from. They are often times when your wife’s mouth is bursting with ten million words and your head is bursting after hearing the first hundred. A real man boldly moves out of his comfort zone to provide strength, support and encouragement to his life-partner.

Robert bared his heart to me and has kindly permitted me to share his story with you. He admitted that marriage had been a disappointment to him. In addition to other trials, his wife suffered serious mental afflictions. He told me, “I had often felt as I tried to move forward or excel in my work and with my walk with the Lord, [but] it was like I was climbing a vertical ladder and my family, (particularly my wife) was pulling me down.”

Things grew so bad that Robert sought the help of a Christian counselor who was not content to rely on human wisdom but sought God’s mind on the matter. The Lord revealed that Robert could easily make it up the ladder by himself, but he was to stop and pull his family up.

“That hit me like when the prophet Nathan told King David, ‘You are that man!’ ” [2 Samuel 12] said Robert, “I have not been the priest of the home and the loving husband that I should have been for most of my 26 years of marriage.”

A Perk or a Grave Responsibility?

In marriage, the Lord has made husbands responsible not merely for a highly complex being who will live for all eternity after their fleshly union ends, but responsible for the physical, intellectual, sexual, emotional, and spiritual well-being of God’s very own daughter. One might rise to having influence over millions of people, and yet it will still not equal the influence a husband has over his wife. To be entrusted with the well-being of God’s own daughter is nothing short of a holy and fearful responsibility. Some poor men might think they have a “mother-in-law from hell” but it is far more disturbing to have a Father-in-law from heaven.

The Almighty Lord is as fiercely protective of your wife’s self-esteem, achievements, personal growth and spiritual and emotional fulfillment as the most devoted father would feel toward a young and cherished daughter. She is the apple of the Father’s eye. Not only is Father God intensely concerned for his darling daughter; he never lets her out of his sight. You never see the Father, but he sees you. You may forget he is there. He never forgets. It would be a grave mistake to misinterpret the fact that the Almighty’s anger is seldom displayed instantly. As the eternal, all-seeing Judge, God holds all the aces. It seems that for almost a year, King David thought he had got away with his sin. Only after Bathsheba’s baby was born did he first learn of God’s judgment. Years later, he was still suffering the consequences (2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:14).

The frightening thing is that God lets us get away with things – for a season. He gives us time to repent, then suddenly time and mercy are no more. In parable after parable, Jesus warned about the many who would think everything is going well, only to be shocked and utterly devastated at judgment time. They mistook God’s temporary restraint for his eternal acceptance.

    Romans 2:4-6 Or do you despise the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and patience, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath, revelation, and of the righteous judgment of God; who “will pay back to everyone according to their works:”

    Hebrews 10:30-31 For we know him who said, “Vengeance belongs to me,” says the Lord, “I will repay.” Again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

The Old Testament, taught the apostle Paul, was divinely penned to warn us who live under the New Covenant. (Scripture) One of the concepts the Old Testament tries hard to impart is that to violate something holy is to call down the fearsome wrath of God. Your wife is holy. Her body is the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit. The word chosen to convey this truth in the original text (1 Corinthians 6:19) is often used to specify the inner, holier part of the temple, rather than the temple as a whole. In fact, it is appropriate to think in terms of the holiest object in ancient Israel, the Ark of the Covenant, since the fearsome power of the Holy Lord has taken up residence in your wife’s very body. We are not discussing ritualistic or theoretical holiness: the terrifying truth is that the Holy Spirit of almighty God literally resides within your Christian wife’s body.

Most of us have totally missed the implications. Better to play with a nuclear reactor than tamper with something made holy by the actual presence of the King of the universe. You need to treat your wife with almost the caution with which Old Testament saints had to treat the ark. Seventy treated the ark casually. They were struck dead. Later, another touched it as he would a mere precious object. He died. (Scriptures)

When God struck Uzzah dead for touching the Ark, Scripture says, “David was afraid of the Lord that day” (2 Samuel 6:9). Such fear is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). If few of us have this fear of sinning against God, it is not because we live in the age of grace, but because we barely know the God of the New Testament; the God who in Acts struck Ananias and Sapphira dead, killed Herod for his pride, and blinded Elymas for opposing Paul; the God of the Corinthian believers who were afflicted, or even killed, for the flippant way they treated holy communion; the God into whose hands, warns Hebrews, it is a fearful thing to fall; the God whom Jesus said is the one Person in the universe to fear because he alone can destroy body and soul in hell.

Husbands have been given significant authority, but to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). God will hold us accountable for how we use what he has given us, so we dare not have a mistaken view of why that authority was entrusted to us.

    2 Corinthians 10:8  . . . concerning our authority, (which the Lord gave for building you up, and not for casting you down) I will not be disappointed

    2 Corinthians 13:10  . . . the authority which the Lord gave me for building up, and not for tearing down.

    2 Corinthians 1:24 Not that we control your faith, but are fellow workers with you for your joy. . . .

When, in Ephesians and Colossians, Scripture speaks of wives submitting to their husbands it is in the context of the requirement for husbands to love their wives. Let’s remind ourselves of what the Bible is getting at. Read this carefully:

    1 Corinthians 13:4-5 Love is patient and is kind; love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud, doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil

    1 Corinthians 8:1  . . . Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

That first passage is so important that I would like you to read it in the Revised Standard Version:

    1 Corinthians 13:4-5 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful (Emphasis mine.)

Husbands are made head of their wives not to be served but to serve.

    Mark 10:45 For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

We should also note that this authority does not negate Scripture insisting that in many ways the wife has equal rights to her husband. For example, Peter commands husbands to treat their wives, as “joint heirs of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). The apostle Paul puts this spiritual equality even more powerfully:

    Galatians 3:28 There is neither . . . male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

And the great apostle takes this gender equality beyond the purely spiritual to many aspects of marital roles. Note how precisely equal Paul makes husbands and wives in the following:

    1 Corinthians 7:3 Let the husband render to his wife the affection owed her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife doesn’t have authority over her own body, but the husband. Likewise also the husband doesn’t have authority over his own body, but the wife. Don’t deprive one another, unless it is by consent . . . (Emphasis mine.)

Scripture is emphatic that wives should submit to husbands, but we have just quoted Paul, the one we cite when saying wives should submit to husbands. In the above he speaks of the necessity of “consent(verse 5) and both here and elsewhere he speaks in precisely equal ways of both husbands and wives. So if the above Scripture, speaking of equal rights in marriage, seems to clash with the concept of husbands being the head, it shows we have a mistaken conception of what God means by headship.

This same apostle says that not just wives but all Christians are called to submit to one another and to serve one another:

    Ephesians 5:21 subjecting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.

    Galatians 5:13  . . . through love be servants to one another.

The Head

We have seen that Scripture pronounces a husband and wife to be one flesh, with the husband being like the head and the wife like the body. The head is utterly dependent upon the body, and the body upon the head. In the Bible’s words:

    1 Corinthians 11:11  . . . neither is the woman independent of the man, nor the man independent of the woman, in the Lord.

The head pampers its body, meeting not only all its needs, but attending to its slightest wish. If the body has as much as an itch, the head immediately responds. If the body has the slightest hunger, the head ensures it is filled, not just with bread and water, but usually with the exact morsel the body desires. On very rare occasions, your body might want food and your head after careful consideration says, “No, we should fast to draw closer to God.” But your head is most reluctant to make such a decision and if it proceeds it is constantly aware of the body’s discomfort, and your head longs for the fast to end quickly for the body’s sake. Paul specifically states that this is the tender relationship he had in mind when affirming that the husband is the head of the wife (Ephesians 5:23). Just after declaring the headship of husbands he continues, “For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it . . .” (verse 29).

How to Lead

Forget heathen methods, the Christian way to lead is by example. Christ, of course, lived as our example. And, following Christ’s example, the original church leaders led that way. “Be imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” wrote Paul (1 Corinthians 11:1). Under the inspiration of the Spirit, another leader (Peter) said leaders should be “. . . neither as lording it over those entrusted to you, but making yourselves examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3 – More Scriptures).

So the Bible – the very book that pronounces a husband as head of his wife – affirms that the way to lead – exercise headship – is by example. This means husbands lead their wives into submission by the way husbands themselves submit to authority and even by the way they submit to their own wives.

Scripture says all of us should submit to government authorities, (Romans 13:1,5; 1 Peter 2:13) employers, (Ephesians 6:5-7) church leaders, (1 Corinthians 16:16: Hebrew 13:17) and to each other (Ephesians 5:21). When no one is looking, do you obey directives that you regard as petty, annoying and inconvenient? People often think they are in submission when they are merely in agreement. They do what a leader says because they agree with their leader’s decisions. Submission comes into play only when you strongly disagree with a decision, or it is something you naturally recoil from.

Authority Comes From Submission

Jesus spoke to a storm and a tree. Both obeyed. He walked on water, rode an unbroken donkey, and commanded fish to enter a net. As the sinless Son of Man, Christ was exercising the authority over nature that humans had prior to Adam’s fall, when they were in sinless submission to the Lord (Hebrew 2:6-9). Now, corrupted by sin, humanity has lost its ability to rule nature by divine authority. So humanity has had to try to dominate nature. We hail humanity’s achievements in forcing nature to submit, and yet the result is that earth’s ecology is in a mess. Likewise, despite any outward facade of success, your wife and marriage will be in a mess to the extent to which you rule her by dominating her, rather than by God-given authority. And your degree of God-given authority hinges on your own love and submission, just as the perfection of Jesus’ authority over nature hinged on his perfect submission to Father God (John 5:19, 30).

If a police officer is discovered breaking the law or failing to submit to his superiors, he will be suspended from the force and lose his authority. When his failure to submit renders him no longer part of the police chain of command, the only way he could get people to obey him would be through bluff, threats, or brute force. Likewise, a husband’s authority rests entirely upon his submission both to God – the ultimate authority – and to God’s delegated authorities.

I don’t see myself as having a rebellious streak – not even in my teen years – but submission makes me squirm. If I don’t like being told what to do, I am without excuse if I fail to be exceptionally gentle and considerate in what I ask anyone else to do.

The only God-given authority I have is the authority to lead by example. Once I expect anyone to submit to requests that I wouldn’t want to do – or would not obey if I thought the requests as petty or frustrating as the person thinks them – I have failed the law of love. I am not loving my neighbor as myself. In fact, I am in danger of exposing myself to the anger that Jesus reserved for hypocrites.

If, by not exercising leadership as I would want others to lead me, I have broken God’s law – the law to treat others as I want them to treat me – and am no longer submitted to God, from whom my authority is derived. Like the suspended police officer referred to earlier, I would lose my authority. I could only rule by threats or brute force, harming those God appointed me to nurture and protect.

The Weaker Vessel

Authority has been divinely entrusted to you to empower you to serve your wife. Were you to misuse your power over her as an occasion to serve yourself, all of God’s plans and promised blessings for you would begin to crumble. For example, we all know how repeatedly and emphatically God has promised to answer prayer, and yet he says:

    1 Peter 3:7-9 You husbands, in the same way, live with your wives according to knowledge, giving honor to the woman, as to the weaker vessel, as being also joint heirs of the grace of life; that your prayers may not be hindered. Finally, be all like-minded, compassionate, loving as brothers, tender hearted, courteous, not rendering evil for evil, or insult for insult; but instead blessing; knowing that to this were you called, that you may inherit a blessing. (Emphasis mine.)

A sober study of this Scripture reveals that every husband is divinely required not merely to love his wives to the degree that he must love everyone on this planet (i.e. to love his neighbor as he loves himself – Mark 12:31) but to go beyond this with his wife; treating her even more thoughtfully and tenderly that he would treat himself. The Scripture goes on to reveal that if any husband fails to treat his wife as being more delicate than himself – i.e. needing to be treated with greater care, sensitivity, thoughtfulness and gentleness than he treats himself – the God who both made her and cares passionately for her, is so alarmed that the very core of the offending husband’s relationship with God – his prayer life – is at stake.

There might be ways in which men are typically weaker than women. Physically, however, men are usually stronger than their wives, thus rendering their womenfolk vulnerable. This physical advantage must never be abused. Whatever edge either partner has, it must be used to serve – not put down – the other. That’s what love is all about, and God is all about love.

So Scripture is clear: any failure to treat your wife as the more delicate one – deserving of more gentleness and consideration than you give yourself – threatens to sabotage your spiritual life.

If a husband’s authority is God-given, for a man to abuse that authority is to defile a sacred trust. To take a holy thing and use it for our selfishness would be to set our lives on a collision course with our eternal Judge. Jesus warned that there would be many reversals in the age to come. Those who humble themselves will finally be exalted. Those who exalt themselves, will end up humiliated.

You Can Never Relinquish Your Headship

In his famous parable of the talents, Jesus gave profound insights into spiritual reality. Three servants were given authority over significant sums of money. For a long while they could get away with anything they wished. When the master suddenly returned, however, it became disturbingly clear that despite not intervening earlier, he remained vitally concerned about how the servants had treated what still belonged to him. He had given the unfaithful servant time to come to his senses, and to the faithful ones, time to multiply their reward. Suddenly their time was up. Even the servant that the master called wicked and lazy had been fearfully aware of his responsibility not to misuse anything entrusted to him. He incurred the master’s wrath simply by doing nothing. Imagine his fate had he used his authority for his own selfishness, such as spending the money to make his life more comfortable!

The implications for husbands are obvious. Just as the wealth belonged to the master, wives are on divine loan. Any earthly authority given to us is not for the sake of that task alone, but to prove our suitability for much bigger tasks in the world to come. The faithful servants sacrificed their ease and comfort, pouring their effort into doing what was best for what the master had entrusted to their care. Even the “wicked, lazy” servant was smart enough to know that if he used for his own pleasure the authority given him, life would not be worth living upon the master’s return.

After being placed in charge of something important to the master, there is no way to avoid accountability. Suppose the lazy servant had tried to relinquish his duties by handing investment decisions over to someone else. The master would still hold the servant responsible for any loss.

Likewise, God has declared you head of your wife and there is no way of escaping accountability. If you let your wife make all the decisions, you have not diminished your accountability. The Lord will hold you responsible for what you let her do. In areas in which her judgment is better than yours, you will be praised for letting her decide. In areas where her decisions are poor, you will bear the blame. If, however, a wife refuses to do what a husband insists upon, she is then accountable to God for her rebellion and for the consequences, just as you will be held accountable for any refusal to submit to church or civil authorities God has placed over you.


Should I tell someone, “Cut that woman’s heart open,” it makes all the difference in the world whether I am addressing a murderous thug or a heart surgeon. Likewise, it is critical for understanding the Bible’s instructions to husbands to grasp fully the implications that they are given to Christian husbands – to men have died to self. These directives are not entrusted to worldly leaders who “lord it over” others (Mark 10:42) but to men who are convinced that whoever would be greatest “shall be bondservant [slave] of all” (Mark 10:44). Had the instructions been given to carnal Christians or worldly men, the outworking would have been disturbingly different, but they are delivered instead to men who not only fully embrace Jesus’ teaching but are living as Christ, through the power of the Spirit.

The divine requirement of every one of us is that we submit to each other, deny ourselves, and treat others as we would want them to treat us (Scriptures). Any husband using his authority as an excuse for disregarding these commands is hurtling toward a confrontation with his wife’s Avenger. The divine blessing upon the meek is unalterable. It is far better to be an oppressed wife during a long and miserable marriage than to be in the oppressor’s shoes on Judgment Day.

    Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the assembly, and gave himself up for it

Christ yielded up his rights, seeking to serve, not be served. He humbled himself and took serving to the extreme of not merely being publicly humiliated, but suffering and dying for those he loved. That’s how to become the perfect man – fearlessly flying in the face of worldly ideals; having the power to dominate but by sheer mastery of oneself, choosing to serve and to build up, rather than making demands and tearing down; pursuing the other’s happiness, no matter how high the personal cost.

There are men who by the majesty of their character command their wife’s respect and admiration, and there are lowlife who degrade themselves by supposing they must settle for the mock respect that might result from threats and bashing their wife’s self-esteem. A truly courageous, Godlike man refuses the cowardly way of crushing his wife’s personality and bullying her into submission. On the contrary, he is a leader’s leader who inspires love and devotion by his sheer nobility, integrity and selflessness.

Just as there are those who refuse to honor God, a few women will fail to honor the Godlike man we have been describing. Most will. More importantly, however, a man of true dignity refuses to lower his standards if his wife lacks integrity, even as God remains perfect, no matter how low humanity sinks.

Yes, you are called to be like God himself, but this is no idle dream. To be born anew means that spiritually we have God’s very genes.

Husband, authority has been entrusted to you as an opportunity to learn Christlikeness. Use your authority as Christ showed us, and you will shine – forever.

Related Pages

A Second Look at Conjugal Rights

Understanding Your Wife’s View Of Sex

God’s View of Marriage

Marriage Counseling? No Way! More about husbands as head of their wives

How to Increase Your Wife’s Sexual Responsiveness

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