Does Scripture Tell Husbands to Lead Their Wives?


Does God tell husbands to lead their wives?

Yesterday on Facebook, I shared the following update:

When my husband and I were complementarian (though, functionally, we both submitted to each other), I was writing a blog post on submission, and I went to grab the verse that says, “the husband is the spiritual leader.” Yeah, I searched for a while

People who believe the husband is the leader assume there’s a Bible verse to that effect. When you find there isn’t, it does a thing to the brain. But because you’re such a believer, you find other verses that have been twisted out of context and culture and make them fit into “husband leads and wife submits.”

I am a fierce advocate of Christians examining their beliefs because, folks, that’s how we grow. That’s how we mature. That’s how we breathe freedom to ourselves and to others.

  • Just develop curiosity.
  • Read widely.
  • Check out the comments on the Advocates pages.
  • And STUDY your Bible for yourself.
  • And BELIEVE that you can hear God for yourself without middlemen.

I received a lot of comments and questions around “husbands lead their wives” and I thought I’d take some time today and share feedback on a couple of issues.

Husbands to lead their wives

There were a couple of questions around the following verse (and others like it) after I said the Bible isn’t clear, as many people claim it is, that the husband is the leader of his wife.

“23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Ephesians 5:23-24

This verse doesn’t say “the husband is the leader” or “the husband is the spiritual leader,” but that hasn’t stopped many from reading it that way.  

And that’s the point I was making yesterday, that “the Bible says” statements are inaccurate because there isn’t a single verse that clearly says “the husband is the leader.” But many people say, “The Bible is clear” or, “The Bible says.”

Does God tell husbands to lead their wives?

In the original language, the word translated “head” in Ephesians, used for husbands, did not usually translate to “leader” or “one in authority.” In this usage, a more faithful meaning is “source” or “beginning.” And these do not carry a power or position dynamic over the woman.

In general, Paul uses the head-body metaphor in Ephesians to illustrate unity in marriage. He’s not promoting hierarchy in marriage as has been commonly taught. 

Rather he’s appealing for mutuality and honor among Christians and the Christian marriage. The key verse is 21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and in the following verses, he breaks down the nature of that mutual submission thought he already introduced in verse 21.

Many will say, “But Paul does not tell husbands to submit, only the wife.” But in verse 21, the key verse, it is evident that men are asked to submit to women. And men include husbands.

The word “wives” in verse 22, “wives submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord,” does not appear in the original text, according to many scholars. 

It’s simply inferred from verse 21. Paul clarifies to the women that they are to submit to their OWN husbands, not to all men.

Be that as it may, even if the word “wife” did appear in that sentence, the rest of the verses are a thorough breakdown to husbands on how to honor and cherish their wives. 

In my opinion, Paul is going heavy and conveying how submission looks like for the husbands since the culture of the day put men in positions of power and privilege over women, and Paul wanted them to be different.

Remember, many other portions of Scripture speak of this mutual honor and equality of genders, for example, 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, which says “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” 

Does God tell husbands to have authority over their wives

Does God tell husbands to lead their wives: The Culture

Many Christians don’t seem to realize it, but in Paul’s day, his words to husbands (to love their wives) were a revolutionary departure from the Greco-Roman culture of the day. 

In the day, men did not have to be loyal or devoted or treat their wives well. Women had little, if any, social, cultural, spiritual privilege. 

That was the background of newly believing husbands. Paul comes along and tells them to treat their wives as equals.

It seems we’re having the same problems the early Christians had. We’re arguing FOR keeping women in positions of less power and privilege. 

We need clarification on Paul’s intent and goal, which was advocating for newness and honor and leveling the ground for all. He was following the steps of his Savior, who had been upsetting the status quo but not with might and grandeur, but through clarifying who God is Vs. who man had made Him to be. 

The inner transformation was supposed to lead to outward shifts.

Unlearning and relearning

One of the things that have helped me unlearn the old and relearn the new is the practice of keeping the big picture in mind, always remembering the main story the writers of Scripture are communicating.

Keeping the main thing as the main clarifies much of the “confusion” we encounter as we zoom into specific portions. Let’s remember that Scripture, in its original language, does not contradict itself.

Suppose I think a verse says the man is the leader over a woman and many other verses speak of the centrality of Jesus in a believer’s life (no human intermediaries) and equality of both genders. In that case, I have to question my understanding of the one or two verses that contradict the big story of Scripture.

I love this quote from Bible scholar Marg Mowczko

“In Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul makes several statements about the relationship between first-century husbands and wives who typically had a very unequal relationship. Paul presents the relationship between Jesus and the Church as a model or example for marriage. Some think Jesus’s authority is given here as an example for husbands to follow. Rather, unity is the example, and Paul uses a head-body metaphor to illustrate this.”

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  1. Keith Shomper says:

    There is no doubt that many a man or woman has misinterpreted leadership or authority to mean that the leader get to “call the shots.” This is troublesome, because too many husbands then mistakenly think their wives are somewhat less able to make household decisions. This position is foolish.

    However, just because men misunderstand and abuse their authority in the home, does not mean that there is no God-ordained structure in the home. To let the the pendulum swing to this other extreme it is equally foolish. Would we do the same with regard to the Godhead or the church and say that Christ is not willingly subject to God or the church is not subject to Jesus Christ? Of course not! So why do some feel the need to obliterate what God has made abundantly clear by his comparison of these relationships to marriage?

    Poor leadership should not cause us to deny the need for leadership. Rather it should cause us to become advocates for good leadership, which is exactly what Eph 5:25-29 goes on to do. Succinctly put good leaders recognize their authority is to be used to benefit those whom they lead. Christ abundantly demonstrated this. But it is an error to remove the authority structures which God designed in any of the government, the home or the church, just because so many leaders in these roles have been bad examples.

  2. J. Parker, since THE argument solely revolves around the man/men having power and control over their wives, it is not “arguing the particulars”. This sole argument is what is the defining factor to where these “heads” will allow their families to go to church, whom their wives and children makes friends with (if they are even allowed at all). These same men will also justify lust and adultery in themselves or fellow doctrine supporters with the common rational that their own wife is not submissive enough. Therein making their covenant breaking the wife’s fault. I personally have yet to meet a man that needed scripture to reinforce his power and position that also did not believe no amount of abuse regardless of what kind of abuse also (these same men rationalize raping their wives is ok because she no longer has power over her own body and cannot tell her husband no, yet would adamantly never call it rape) no abuse was/is justifiable for the wife leaving. Why, because the first and foremost principal she is to live by is submission to her husband. Without that there’s “ungodly order” in the home. So it is supreme. Lived this and met thousands of families run the same way. It is a crisis in the church, because abuse is at epidemic proportions. This is precisely why the children produced in these families want nothing to do with the gospel/Christ. This is no small issue.

  3. Ngina, I so appreciate your desire to study deeply and be faithful to what Scripture says. However, I don’t believe this is an accurate description:

    “In the original language, the word translated ‘head’ in Ephesians, used for husbands, did not usually translate to ‘leader’ or ‘one in authority.’ In this usage, a more faithful meaning is ‘source’ or ‘beginning.’ And these do not carry a power or position dynamic over the woman.”

    Yes, that is absolutely what some scholars contend, but it is not a closed issue. There is debate on that point. Moreover, it is not only Ephesians 5:21-33 that looks at the relationship between husband and wife (see also Colossians 3 and 1 Peter 3). Some devoted Christians who would never agree to control or abuse of a spouse yet believe in different roles for husband wife, based on their own deep study of Scripture.

    I wish those complementarians and egalitarians could find fellowship together, spend less time arguing the particulars (such as whether “head” is about source or leadership), and oppose those who have encouraged women to stay in ungodly, abusive relationships.

    1. J, I never plan to write these posts (at least not the last few). It’s just that whenever I post about women being equal, or asking husbands to love their wives, mutual submission etc I get a slew of comments on FB about how wives are to submit to their husbands, no matter what. And how husbands lead, and don’t submit. I write these posts as follow ups.

      It’s impossible to encourage women to leave abusive ungodly marriages without addressing the belief systems that keep them there. Complementarianism does lead to abuse.

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