What Does “Husband is Head of the Wife” Mean? And Are We Reading Hierarchy into It?

by | Jul 12, 2022 | Men's Corner, Spiritual Intimacy, Theology of Marriage and Sex | 56 comments

What does 1 Corinthians 11:3 mean?

Hey, everybody!

Keith and I have been on vacation this week, just camping and hanging out and doing a whole lot of nothing. He had something on his mind yesterday and wrote up this post that he wanted to share!

So here’s what he’s thinking about when he has time to write and he’s not at work.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

One of my favorite movie lines of all time is from the Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya turns to Vizzini and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

For those of you who have been living under a rock since 1987 when this absolute gem of a movie was released, Inigo’s statement followed Vizzini’s constant use of the word “inconceivable” to describe almost every situation they were involved in.

I have come to regard the words “high view of Scripture” in the same light. Almost every time I hear those words spoken these days, the little voice in my head says, “You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Case in point: a recent online discussion I was in about how married couples should make decisions together. There were the typical comments about how the man should always have the final say or that he should be the tie breaker. This was being challenged by myself and others as unhealthy and that couples really should make decisions together. Then someone simply commented:

“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (I Cor 11:3, ESV).

This “mic drop” was meant to silence anyone saying that the husband and wife should work together to glorify God in their relationship.

In this person’s mind, this Scripture clearly shows that the man is the boss in the marriage. In fact, it shows it so clearly that it does not need further commentary. As far as people like that are concerned, if you disagree with them, you “just don’t believe the Bible” or at the very least, you “don’t have a high view of Scripture”.

But for anybody with a semblance of an open mind, it is clear that a diversity of opinion exists about what Paul meant in this part of Scripture as well other areas where he refers to the husband as the head of the wife. Marg Mowczko has written some excellent articles on the topic and Cynthia Long Westfall’s “Paul and Gender” (Amazon has it 33% off!) gives an incredibly thorough treatment of this as well as several other key passages related to women and their role in marriage, the Church and society. I would recommend you read these resources if you are trying to understand what Paul actually meant here.

Unfortunately, sending people like this commenter to these resources is a lost cause, because they do not believe people who see these Scriptures differently than them are arguing in good faith.

In my experience, they inevitably believe that Westfall, Mowczko and others are simply twisting the Bible to say what they want it to say. They will not listen because they believe we are perverting the “clear reading” of Scripture for our “feminist agenda”. I have even heard people suggest that when someone honestly asks, “Did Paul really mean x, y or z?”” that they are in fact echoing the serpent in the garden saying, “Did God really say?….”

I not only acknowledge that I could have a bias, I have publicly stated that I come to the Bible with the idea that women are equal to men in dignity, value and significance and that God loves His daughters as much as He loves His sons.  I accept and embrace that this inevitably will influence how I read Scripture. In fact, if I see something in the Bible that seems to contradict this, I will wonder if I am interpreting the Bible incorrectly. I have no problem with this as I believe these ideas are self-evident and do not need Biblical proof texting.

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To give another example of the same phenomenon, when I read in Psalm 104:5He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved.” (ESV) it does not convince me that science is in fact incorrect and the earth is not moving around the sun at 107,000 km/hr. The fact that this verse suggests that the earth is not moving is irrelevant as I know a priori that it is. My prior knowledge influences me to have a more accurate understanding of what the Scripture means while a literal one would leave me confused or – worse – believing nonsense.

Now certainly my ideas about equality do not have the same weight as the scientific proof behind our understanding of the solar system, but I am willing to stand on them nonetheless without apology or embarrassment.

What I don’t see on the other side, however, is any similar acknowledgement that they may have a bias.

They honestly believe they are seeing the “plain reading of Scripture” and that plain reading simply says men rule and women follow, like it or not. Full stop. They refuse to accept that maybe they have a predisposition to interpret verses through a more male-dominated lens. They believe they are immune to bias, a position which any intellectually honest person realizes can only be incredibly naïve or incredibly arrogant.

But whether or not the other side acknowledges their bias does not excuse me from checking my own.

So as a mental exercise, let’s look at 1 Cor 11:3 and give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s put aside ideas of justice, equality, fairness, etc. and assume they are correct in their assumption that head really does mean authority. (I will even use the incredibly biased translation of the ESV for all my Scripture quotes throughout this article.)

If head means authority, then what Paul is saying in summary is:

“Christ is in authority over every man, the man is in authority over his wife and God is in authority over Christ”.

But if the point of the passage is authority relationships, everything is mixed up and it makes no sense. It should read:

“I want you to know that the head of the wife is the man, the head of the man is Christ and the head of Christ is God”.

The fact that it doesn’t follow this order should suggest that maybe it is talking about something else.

But beyond that, what does the whole of Scripture say about these three relationships?

I’m not a theologian, but it seems to me that in Scripture the relationship between the Father and the Son is not marked by hierarchy, but by mutuality. The idea that the Father is in charge, with a Son who is totally subordinate “junior partner” in the Trinity has a name. It’s called “The Eternal Subordination of the Son” and despite its promotion by certain elements in the church, it is a heresy.

And what does the whole of Scripture say about authority itself? Time and again Scripture teaches us that authority is something that is meant to be laid down for others not appropriated for ourselves. When Jesus disciples bickered about who was to be the greatest, Jesus didn’t give them a pecking order so they would all know where they stand. He told them they were missing the point entirely. So why is it so important for people to make sure women know their place? Is it really a desire to be true to Scripture or is something else going on? We humans want to know who is in charge. That is our bias. Scripture consistently encourages us to see past that.

A high view of Scripture should take all of Scripture into account rather than using isolated verses to proof text our biased viewpoint.

Any verses that we think are about authority (just like every other verse) should be seen through the lens of the entirety of Scripture. And every time Paul talks about the husband being the head, it seems to me the point is not hierarchy but unity. The point is that the head and the body are connected to each other and dependent on each other. This is my plain reading of the text and I cannot see how anyone can see it otherwise.

Paul consistently uses the marriage relationship as a figure of what Jesus was trying to say in his high priestly prayer:

“that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.”

(John 17:21 ESV).

To think Paul’s point is to establish a pecking order is an incredibly low view of Scripture, which is obvious to anyone who can lay down their biased assumption that “head” means authority for even one second. And to teach that the point of these verses is that women need to know their place and that it is under men? That does not reveal a “ high view of Scripture”; it shows you are missing the point of the Scripture entirely.

Inigo’s comedic puzzling through what “inconceivable” might actually mean is even funnier when you consider the irony that Vezzini styled himself a genius.

“Ever heard of Plato? Aristotle? Socrates?” he asked. “Morons!” he declared. Yet all the ways that Wesley was foiling Vezzini’s clever plan were “inconceivable” only in the sense that Vezzini hadn’t thought of them. The most hilarious part of the joke is that it lays bare that Vezzini wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.

Maybe with a little humility we can avoid repeating his mistake.

What does 1 Corinthians 11:3 mean?

What do you think? Have we read our biases into Scripture? How can we get others to recognize their biases against women? Let’s talk in the comments!

Keith Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

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56 Comments

  1. Stefanie

    Princess Bride fan here! Great use of PB as an illustration.

    Reply
  2. Jacqui Ramjee

    Thanks Keith for that overview. One little word “kephale” and it’s translation has led to so much unclear reading of scripture and erroneous interpretation. I have read many articles by women explaining what headship really means and because it’s a woman there is the perception that she has a feminist agenda. Why are there not more men writing about this? The women have had to step up and do the work to find out how these passages have become distorted due to poor translation. Because of our largely patriarchal society men have assumed that they are naturally the head and therefore read such scriptures in that light without also doing the hard work to find out what Paul actually meant? Bible translators were mostly men so it would have suited them to use the word head instead of source or origin as they probably all believed in male headship and wouldn’t have thought what effect that word had. Here’s to better reading and understanding of scripture!!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      There are some amazing men doing work in this space–Michael Bird, Kevin Giles, Bruce Fleming, and more. But you’re right. We need more men to step up. I think it’s hard when the current translations really benefit you!

      Reply
  3. Jennifer Weed

    Last semester I took a college course that was an introductory overview of the Old and New Testaments. One of the huge takeaways I learned was that reading the Bible through a modern, American (for me) lens is like traveling to a foreign country without knowing the culture, the language, or having any tools to help me navigate. I would be totally lost. I think of this every time someone talks about “a plain view of Scripture”. I now see that as a rather arrogant way to approach Scripture.

    Also, great illustration! I’m a HUGE PB fan!

    Reply
    • EOF

      I’ve long thought that modern day America couldn’t be ANY further from the original biblical society, and that we need to carefully re-examine the scriptures because of that.

      Many act like it was written to and for us, and that is extremely arrogant. We need to be like Bereans and examine scripture, not just take it as it seems. The book of Acts calls them of more noble character because of that.

      Reply
    • Karena

      That’s a great analogy, Jennifer! My husband and I have a lot of sticking points around complementarianism and egalitarianism. (I jokingly call myself a recovering reluctant complementarian and am gingerly exploring the deeper meanings of the verses used to support that stance).

      He pseudo-humbly claims that he’s not a Biblical scholar and hasn’t studied the original language; he’s just taking a “plain reading of scripture,” and he sees that it reveals that the two genders and our respective (and different, God-given roles) in marriage are clearly seen.

      Your comment reminds me however that what seems “plain” to us is still seen through the distinctive lens of our own culture and time in history! The meaning is no longer necessarily plain when viewed in the context of the time, culture and language(s) which the Scriptures were written, not to mention the impact of the biases various translators have introduced into their interpretations!

      The thing I still struggle with at times is this: our God is not a God of confusion. Things that He wants us to know clearly he makes clear in His Word. How do we reconcile some verses that do seem to clearly point to some of these complementarian themes in both the OT and NT? That’s where sometimes my argument falls apart, and I’m simply left with “I don’t feel like that’s the heart of Jesus?” I am very wary of picking and choosing the Scripture I want to pay attention to…I really despise when others do that!

      Sheila, do you have any thoughts on this? Thanks!

      Reply
      • Jo R

        https://carolashby.com/roman-family-power-rights-children/

        If even a quarter of this article is accurate, it puts quite a different spin on Paul’s letters, as these were the customs he was addressing.

        I cannot now find an article describing how Roman men often had (at least) three women as sex partners: one to provide for physical needs (essentially a prostitute), one that apparently provided fine conversation (hetaira in Greek, sort of like a courtesan), and a wife to provide legitimate children.

        Roman men could not really be charged with adultery, though Roman women could be (free born, that is).

        If those arrangements were typical, then again, those social conventions put a significantly different light on Paul’s words to both husbands and wives.

        We cannot simply take the English as it would be understood in today’s western culture. That’s simply not the situation Paul was writing to, though there may be underlying principles we could adapt.

        Reply
      • Hilary w/1L

        My thought on the Bible (ever since I read through the whole thing as s teenager) is that we’re supposed to read it for the discovery of God’s character and the heart of Jesus. There are stories about messed up people doing messed things and that doesn’t mean take it at face value to decide that if people in the Bible did it then we should do it like they did; it means, watch how God responds to the people involved. (And yes, seriously, in my church growing up, the one elder taught courtship based off of Isaac and Rebekah.)
        The “study guide questions” for any passage of the Bible should be “what do we learn about God’s character in this story?”

        Reply
  4. Phil

    Keith – love your article today. What I love most about it is the word UNITY. I have been wanting to close the gap on Jesus’ final prayer for Unity. Your article helps me. What I ah e determined is: IT DOES NOT MATTER WHAT PAUL MEANT. Last I checked Paul is not the son of God. Jesus’ final prayer trumps whatever Paul meant anyway. What matters is what JESUS MEANT! So for the hierarchy thinkers: your idea is blown out of the water. Jesus is God and God is love and he wants us to be ONE. Thats the final prayer. Thats the final answer. That is what matters. Having final say in a marriage because thats what Paul meant is a joke or as otherwise put here: INCONCEIVABLE! 😬😂🤪

    Reply
    • Mara R

      Phil, back in the day when I had more energy and tried to argue this point, I would get lambasted for not placing Paul’s words on the same footing as Jesus. I spoke of Jesus being the foundation but they countered with a scripture that talks about the teaching of the apostles and prophets as being the foundation (and yes, that scripture exists. However, Jesus is the Foundation of Rock and the Chief Cornerstone that they reject. But I digress.)

      They said that God/Jesus was speaking to us through Paul’s letters and what Paul said was the further revelation Jesus said would come when He sent the Holy Spirit.

      I agree whole heartedly with what you say. But whenever I said something along those lines I was attacked for not respecting Paul’s letters for the full Word of God like I should have.

      Reply
      • Phil

        Well Mara – First I must admit this is an epiphany for me that I just learned and I am still working on. Here it is: The bible is a historical record. Jesus did not write the bible. He is the reason for the bible. I admit the attack you share is a challenge for me to reply to. The best I can tell you without writing incoherently is Paul is not my savior. Jesus is. Further- If I am respecting Paul’s writings then we are to be like Jesus. Paul says that over and over again. Different ways in his writings. Be like Jesus. I am certainly down with that. However, it you tell me that Jesus told Paul to write that man has the final say in marriage I have to scoff. Where did Jesus demonstrate that behavior for us? Please someone tell me! Be like Jesus – Thats the argument that is taken up around here and I think it’s the best one. Appreciate you sharing your thoughts and I wish you well – take up the battle. Stand firm. Its true.

        Reply
        • Mara R

          Thanks.

          Another place of study concerning this for me is the first chapter of Hebrews. It basically asks to which of the angels/messengers has God ever said, “You are My Son. Today I have begotten You.” Among other things in this chapter.

          More questions to ask. For which of the apostles did the heavens open up at baptism and a voice say, “You are My beloved Son. In You I am well please.”

          And which of the apostles was transfigured on a mountain top with God saying. “This is my Son. Listen to Him.”?

          So why are men giving the words of angels, messengers, apostles equal footing with the words of Jesus? Why are they even cancelling out the Words of Jesus to everyone for all time (in the Gospels) with letters written by Paul specifically for the Gentile Ephesians and Corinthians?

          Don’t get me wrong. Paul’s letters are great. But I wonder what Paul would think about men using his words to undermine the Words of our Lord, Himself?

          Sorry. Rant over. Just a little glimpse into past frustration on this particular topic. 🙂
          I know you didn’t mean to hit this nerve. It just happened.

          Reply
          • Phil

            This is good stuff Mara – I am interested in what you have to say – because it makes me think. Thanks for ranting today 😀

      • Laura

        Mara,

        I experienced that too. I’d remind people that Jesus did not say anything about hierarchy in marriage. It was Paul who said it and when he wrote these words, he was living in a patriarchal culture. Sometimes, no one could say a word after I said all that. Then there were other times when people said, “But he (Paul) was influenced by Jesus or God.” Um, no. Jesus never talked about hierarchy in marriage.

        Reply
    • EOF

      Amen!!

      It always amazes me how people pushing patriarchy and misogyny focus so much on cherry-picked verses from Paul (who never even walked with Jesus) and Peter (a verse written to wives with unbelieving husbands). Worse still, they shove those twisted scriptures into the Genesis 1-2 and insist that women’s subjugation is God’s good plan from the beginning!

      We need to be focusing on Jesus! His life, his teachings, his example. None of which point to anything remotely patriarchal:

      Matt 20:25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

      Reply
    • Karena

      I just love reading your comments, Phil!!!

      Reply
    • Rev. Carlene Appel, MDiv.

      These typical understandings of what Paul says are taken out of context (Salad bar Theology). For those that insist on just pulling Scriptures out that way as “Plain meaning” and haven’t obeyed Jesus’ “plain meaning” command to pluck out your right eye and chop off your right hand, you are grand prize salad bar theologians and hypocrites of the worst kind.

      Just as real estate is”location,
      location, location.” Bible is “context, context, context”
      Place, issue, people, literary forms, punctuation, customs, etc.
      Words cannot mean what they never meant. When Paul talks about husbands being the head of the wife he uses the word “kephale” or source. Had Paul meant that the husband was the big kahuna of the house he would have used “arche” which means over. There were no chapter or verse delineations in the original texts. Editors made those choices and there were also editiorial insertions. Editors were human and so reflected cultural biases of their day. This is evident in Ephesians where chapter 5 starts. It should have started right before “Submit unto one another out of love for Christ.” But the editor has chosen to divorce that from the topic at hand on how to treat one another. And just so you know, the directive to wives to “submit” happens to be the Greek middle imperative which is a VOLUNTARY action not a duty. But the passage is broken up. The primary subject is mutual submission- a radical idea. When understood in context, Paul is in harmony with what Jesus modeled.

      Middle Eastern storytellers are known for using “hyperbole (extreme exaggeration) to get their point across and Jesus was no exception. cutting one’s right hand off was one such case.

      Dr. Claude Mariottini my Seminary OT prof. told us, how we understood the 7th week in Daniel dependedted on where the punctuation is. Then we looked at 6-12 different Bible versions. Lo and behold the punctuation did differ from version to version.

      Don’t think punctuation matters? Here is a simple but powerful illustration:

      “Let’s eat, children!”
      “Let’s eat children!”
      “Let’s eat children.”

      Notice how the simple removal of a comma from the first instance changes the ones being called to eat to becoming the main dish in example 2. Example 3 changes the whole “Great idea” mindset to a conclusive statement.

      Rev. Carlene

      Reply
  5. Amy

    This line from the article: “Any verses that we think are about authority (just like every other verse) should be seen through the lens of the entirety of Scripture.”

    AMEN!

    One of my goals for 2022 was to avoid scriptural proof-texting and this is just what the male headship folks do, they proof-text. They pluck an out-of-context sentence or two out of scripture and base an entire theology around it.

    Reply
  6. Snoopy

    As a child of a big fundy family, I am pretty sure that the folks who refuse to even consider an open-minded appraisal of the actual meaning behind Biblical texts are TERRIFIED of going to hell. They honestly believe that questioning the meaning behind the words (which are a translation, many iterations away from the original) is somehow doubting God. I grew up believing that it’s possible to live your whole life doing your best to love and serve God, but still go to hell if you die while in a moment of doubt…. Of course, I now believe that’s nonsense since I’ve come to know Jesus truly! But for those still living on constant fear of the wrath of God and believing that you can anger Him by simply asking questions….. they consider it spiritual suicide to open themselves to anything but a completely literal interpretation of the KJV. 🙂
    Oh, and I looove PB!!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think you’re likely right! Which is funny, because they’d also be the first to say that they are saved by grace, not by works. But they’re turning beliefs into works.

      Reply
      • Tim

        That’s very insightful Sheila. I’d never thought of it like that, but you’re absolutely right.

        Reply
    • EOF

      I resonate with this so much. Part of what kept me submissive in marriage to abuse for so long was the teaching that the Bible (translated from translations, many years and societies apart from the original) is inerrant.

      God would NOT allow his word to be mistranslated. And oh, the things that *had* been mistranslated didn’t have anyhing to do with salvation, so those don’t count. Obey the Bible and don’t make our lives difficult because Hebrews 13:17.

      Reply
  7. A2bbethany

    There’s a passage in the old testament that I think of when we are talking about hearing from God, and the dangers of trusting it to someone else.
    It’s the story of a prophet and an old prophet. God sent the young prophet to tell the king a message, and specifically told him, “don’t eats sleep or drink in that country!” Well on the way back he bumped into a servant of the old prophet, and his master told him to come eat with them. He says, “I can’t, God told me not to eat, drink or sleep in this country”. The old prophet then claims, “well God just told me that you should have a meal with me”. So he did and during the meal, a real message came to the old prophet and it’s was telling the younger, he’s gonna die for disobeying God’s command. And sure enough a lion killed him and then laid down right next to the man’s donkey.
    This tells me to trust nobody’s word, when it comes to hearing from God for me. I’m in charge of knowing and obeying his word. Because you’d think the most trustworthy person would be an old prophet of God!

    Reply
  8. Rev. Domnic Misolo

    Wow, this is great article and I love your genuine and honest view of this part of this scripture….

    Today, I used your argument while leading training classes on Transformation Masculinity Education with faith based Men’s group in Kenya.

    I would really love to get more of your writing on this texts….

    Thanks and be blessed.

    Shalom

    Rev. Domnic Misolo

    Reply
  9. Lauren

    We all appreciate it when Keith has some time to share his thoughts. 🙂 Thanks for presenting with clarity, humility, and above all, love for Christ.

    Reply
  10. E

    So I just had a thought…and I haven’t looked into the timeline of this yet, but maybe Keith as a physician can help me out!

    Are we reading ‘the head as the boss of the body’ through a more modern understanding of human anatomy? Didn’t ancient people believe that the brain was not our ‘thinking’ organ but rather an organ to cool the blood pumped from the heart?

    I am obviously not an expert here, but the talk of bias got me thinking…

    Reply
    • Marie

      You know, I’ve wondered that same thing!

      Reply
    • Melissa W

      I’ve actually studied the ancient understanding of the word head and how the word head was used metaphorically quite a bit. They believed that the head was the source of life to the body. In fact, they believed that sperm or the seed of life came from the head. What they knew to be true was that if the head was severely injured or removed from the body then the body ceased to live. Feet was the place of authority as in “I’m putting my foot down”. That is part of why Jesus washing the disciples feet was so noteworthy. That was something that a slave or servant did for their master, not a master for their servants. Every instance of head that Paul uses is always in keeping with head as source and not authority. For instance every passage about Jesus as the head of the church is always in terms of what he does for the church or being the source of life for the church. You see even terms like first born of creation together with head of the church, which confirms this metaphorical use of the word head. Also, when Paul refers to Christ’s authority he says it is firmly planted under his feet and he is the head for the benefit of all thing for the church. Even the passage that was quoted to Keith is followed by an explanation that Eve wasn’t created first but Adam was created first. This context points to the fact that Paul was referring to source of life and not authority over in that passage. And this is just a quick synopsis of the metaphorical use of the word head in the Bible. There is so much more that confirms this when you go into the use of the word head in Greek literature of the time that isn’t the Bible.

      Reply
      • Tim

        That’s really interesting Melissa! It’s there somewhere good to read more about that?

        Reply
          • Tim

            That looks like a very interesting site. Thanks Jo (and Melissa)!

        • Melissa W

          Hi Tim, I agree that Marg Mowczko is a great resource. I would also suggest CBE (Christians for Biblical Equality) as they have resources from a large number of people. I’ve been studying this for almost 30 years and my knowledge is from so many different sources over the years including my own in depth study into history, culture and original language that it is hard to point to one source but the two mentioned are good starting points. Also, when checking out those two look at who their sources are and check them out.

          Reply
  11. Tim

    Heres some thing I’ve been pondering. Even if you were to say that “head” definitely means leader/authority in this context, leadership and authority would still mean what it means everywhere else in the Bible, right?

    So, if you had two hypothetical husbands:
    1. One who believes his wife is his equal in all respects and treats her accordingly.
    2. A complementarian who believes he has authority over his wife but actually exercises that authority in a biblical and Christ-like way (in light of the Matthew verse quoted by someone else earlier, Phil 2 to give just a couple of examples).

    Would you be able to tell the difference? It seems to me the behaviour of the two would be very similar.

    Not disagreeing re the interpretation of ‘head’, but it seems to me that the primary problem is a warped and unbiblical understanding of authority in the church at large, which this is just one example of.

    Or to put it another way, a husband who bosses his wife around is sinning regardless of how you interpret what ‘head’ means.

    Philippians passage I was referring to:
    “3. Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. 4. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. 5. You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6. who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped,” (Phili 2:3-6, NET)

    Reply
    • Jo R

      This is an excellent point.

      It’s as though four or five verses “give” husbands license to completely ignore all the dozens of verses that discuss proper Christian conduct, NONE of which adds “except that this doesn’t apply to husbands when dealing with their wives.” 🙄🙄🙄

      Reply
    • Marie

      It’s a good point. I was raised in a fundamentalist community that took the second view (in theory). What happened is that all the behaviors of the husbands became described as “self-sacrificial” even if they weren’t. Even to the point where off-the-cuff shunning a son or daughter over a Biblical disagreement was viewed as “self-sacrificial” and “loving”. The idea was basically that the husband/father is already giving up so much and being so “sold-out” for Christ, that actions that would be immediately condemed by any healthy human being were seen as extreme devotion to God (interestingly, Christ wasn’t mentioned quite so much). They have a habit of re-defining words so that it fits their worldview. Here are their talks: https://mimcolorado.com/workshop-3-how-to-lead-your-wife-jerry-bangert/

      Reply
    • Jo R

      My first response was about your brilliant summary “a husband who bosses his wife around is sinning regardless of how you interpret what ‘head’ means.”

      One other thing it reminded me of…

      MAJOR language warning on this blog post (and even in the URL!), but if you can overlook the naughty language, the gist is what Sheila, most of the female commenters, and not a few of the men commenters here say. (And note that it’s volume 4 of 14 linked on that page. You’ll find volume 15 on the main page, dated May 20, 2021.)

      https://matthewfray.com/2013/12/10/an-open-letter-to-shitty-husbands-vol-4/

      If you (not you personally,
      Tim, but all the readers here) can stand to read about yet more heartbreak, the comments will be very similar to what women here tend to say.

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think you’re actually right. That’s why healthy complementarians function like egalitarians. That’s why it’s so hard to parse this stuff out in surveys. Because it’s not about what you believe as much as it is about how you act. Most who believe it don’t act out authority; they function as teammates.

      The difference is that action often does follow belief, so we have to get the belief right so that other couples don’t end up unhealthy.

      Reply
      • Tim

        Thanks Sheila. Your last point is a really good one. Although I suspect that a hardcore complementarian husband with unhealthy attitudes towards women in general and his wife in particular would be much more likely to modify his behaviour in a healthy way if reminded of the biblical imperative to selfless servant leadership (which is difficult to live out, but not at all controversial), than to decide he was wrong about the complementarianism thing all along.

        Is that cynical of me?

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          A hard hearted person likely won’t change. But we know that being raised that thinking that you’re in charge leads to more abusive behaviour later. iF we teach people when they’re young that God meant for people to be equal and to keep Jesus at the centre, more relationships will be healthy!

          Reply
      • Sarah

        As a single woman looking for a life partner, that makes it very difficult to parse out if a man will actually behave in an egalitarian way. Most Christian men believe complementarianism, but how then do you figure out if a man will actually act it out or not? Because eliminating all men who say that from the dating pool probably eliminates some great guys and also narrows the dating pool significantly…

        Reply
        • Laura

          I’ve been divorced for 20 years and struggle with this as well. I’m at a place in my life where I don’t care if a man attends church. The last guy I almost had a relationship with adhered to patriarchal views and there was a lot of unhealthy stuff. I had on rose-colored glasses because he knew the Bible and we talked about a lot of spiritual stuff. I just could not get serious with a man who strongly believed that the husband is always in charge. So, I am a bit leery of church-going men.

          Reply
        • Tim

          Sarah – I’m by no means the best qualified person in this thread to help you out, but no one else has addressed your question directly (probably because it came late in the conversation), so I’ll have a go. If you’re dating someone and think it might be serious, tell them how you understand Ephesians 5 and other similar passages and ask what they think. I’m guessing that guys with really unhealthy attitudes would see that degree of confidence from a woman as a red flag and move on. And otherwise, you get to hear what they think on the issue (and then use your discernment about whether how they treat their mother, sister, female friends etc lines up with what they say they believe).

          I’m obviously not speaking from experience but I hope that’s helpful (maybe also for Laura’s situation?)

          Also:
          – Sheila – good point in your most recent reply! My comment that you were responding to wasn’t an entirely serious suggestion, if that wasn’t obvious.
          – EOF – that sounds really tough. I’m pleased it sounds like you’re out of that situation now!

          Reply
    • EOF

      This is so true. I experienced it, but from the wife’s side. After getting married and being told that my husband was my authority, I felt like much of the Bible didn’t apply to me because I was a married woman. I had to obey him, and he wouldn’t allow me freedoms that the Bible talked about.

      It’s no wonder my life felt like a black hole.

      Reply
  12. Deirdre Cline

    My first visit to y’all’s blog, not my last! I hate vacuuming, so I thought this was a complementarian page. My bad ☺. Doc, I like your thinking

    Reply
  13. David

    The word “head” means responsibility and unity with the rest of the body preferably starting with the “neck”. Just as Jesus is the head of the body of Christ. He protects, serve (washes his disciples feet and feed them), guides them if need be. Our body parts reveal the obvious truth. Greed is what is at play with men who loves to throw their weight around and subdue people. Being the Head is a calling to leadership, not dictatorship. Just like the rain falls on the head before it follows to the neck then other parts, so is the view of being the head. The word “head” is now a fearful word because the first thought is dictatorship and controlling every action. Everything God created is good and for a beneficial purpose. It’s the abuse of God’s purposes that led to the dark biases.

    Reply
  14. Heidi

    Enjoyed this alot! Princess Bride fan also, we repeat many of the lines in this movie, including this one, lol! Thanks for sharing this and for being a man sharing this, lol. It is so needed in the christian ‘culture’ if you will. The damage done and being done in the name of ‘clear reading of Scripture’ is going to be seen for quite some time. It is critical believers have the truth, not their biased versions of it that, in my opinion, causes so much virtue signaling that is just plain gross. I can’t tell you the times I’ve heard women bragging about their submission in ways that clearly was puffing themselves up. I think plenty do this and then sit by and watch their husband’s go the way of death and do not say a word, all with religious piety. Such a dishonor in my opinion.

    Reply
    • Laura

      Heidi,
      I was once part of a women’s Bible study where they were trying to one-up each other on was the most submissive wife. Since I’m single, I did not participate in the conversation. One woman said, “I always wait on my husband hand and foot.” Another said, “I never say no to my husband.” I just couldn’t even talk about how being a submissive wife in my first marriage escalated the abuse.

      Turns out, some of these women are not as submissive as they’d like everyone to believe. My ex-fiance and I traveled with one of these women and her husband and she was actually the one who was bossy. I told my ex (we’re still friends) about the Bible study and how she was always talking about being a submissive wife. He couldn’t believe it and he believed in equality between the sexes.

      Reply
  15. Old guy

    I always thought that the husband being the head, means that every time something goes wrong, it’s my fault. 😀

    My wife entirely agrees with my theology on this!

    Reply
  16. Shannon

    I can understand God/Jesus’s words having more authority than anyone else in the Bible. Should I disregard everything that is said by anyone except God/Jesus?
    I have a very hard time with parables. When Jesus burned the fig tree I couldn’t understand why he just didn’t pick another fig tree. Unfortunately the Bible is full of parables so I’m having a hard time reading it.

    Reply
    • Mara R

      Hello Shannon.
      I was one of the ones above that made a big deal about needing to give more weight to the Words of Jesus in the Gospels than to the words of Paul in his letters.

      I absolutely would never recommend that people disregard everything said by anyone else.

      In the past, when I ran into a woman who was suffering from PTSD due to Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 being used to abused her, I encouraged her to quit reading chapter 5 and 6. Then I would suggest that, for the time being, only read chapters 1-4, if she was able (sometimes the very word ‘Ephesians’ is triggering to the most abused).

      Then, with time, after reading (and perhaps meditating on) those chapters, she will feel strong enough to read the rest of the letter without being triggered.

      Paul says some amazing things in Ephesians including two really good recorded prayers in chapters 1 and 3.

      I would never tell anyone to disregard all of what Paul said. Not when so much of what he has written is so good and faith building.

      Reply
  17. Mark Boyd

    Scripture says that man is the head of the wife, and that the man is to love the wife as Christ loved the church. What did Christ do for the church? He went to the cross. As Dr. Ted Roberts says, being head of the house means you’re first on the cross.
    Christ never forced or demanded that anyone to do anything.

    Reply
  18. Drew H

    I’m not one hundred per cent on this, but I think this passage is still about submission – but from a servant heart point of view. As a husband and father, the BEST way for me to lead is the way that Christ lead and served the Church – by laying down His will, and His life and dying for Her. So must I also. If I respond from a heart of humility like Christ, and in love, then as the “head” of the family I am setting the example of love and how to serve each other. The problem is, I am still human, and I don’t always step up to this ideal. But when I am able to, it is a blessing and I feel Christ’s love flow from me to my family.

    Reply

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