By John Piper
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
The question I want to raise and try to answer today is one that is repeatedly neglected in Christian feminist treatments of Ephesians 5, namely, What is the positive, practical difference in a marriage between the man’s role as compared to Christ the head, and the woman’s role as compared to the church, Christ’s body? Ephesians 5:22-23 says, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body.” Verse 25, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her.” Husbands are compared to Christ; wives to the church; husbands to the head; wives to the body; husbands are commanded to love as Christ loved; wives are commanded to submit as the church to Christ. My question is: What are the positive, practical differences between a husband’s role and a wife’s role implied by these different comparisons?
The Important Question That Is Often Missed
As I read Christian feminist books and articles on this passage, my main disappointment is that they seldom get around to this question. They stop short of it. They point out correctly that verse 21 teaches a mutual submission; they stress correctly that Christ’s headship was not domineering but servant-like; and they emphasize that the church’s submission is not slavish but free and willing. But then they stop. (See Margaret Howe, Women and Church Leadership, p. 55; Patricia Gundry, Woman Be Free, p. 73.) And because they stop there, young people today are left with great ambiguity and confusion about the proper roles of husband and wife. Christian singles and young couples know that husbands and wives are not to lord it over each other; they know they are to serve each other and put the other’s interests first and not be mindless and obsequious. They know the pitfalls of domination and servility.
But if you ask the average young man or woman today, who has been bombarded with feminist ideology for fifteen years, What is distinct about your God-intended role as husband? What is unique about your God-intended role as wife? What are some positive, practical implications of being called “head” that make the husband’s role different from his wife’s?-young people have a very hard time answering these questions. Interpretations of Ephesians 5 have been so defensive that very little help has been offered to young people in defining the biblical differences between the roles of husband and wife.
But every ordinary reader can see in Ephesians 5 what feminist scholars so often neglect: after declaring that there is mutual submission in verse 21, Paul devotes 12 verses to unfolding the difference in the way a husband and wife should serve each other. After verse 21 the whole passage is devoted to making distinctions between the loving headship of a Christ-like husband and the willing submission of a church-like wife. What we so desperately need to hear from this text today is not just what headship and submission don’t mean, but what they do mean and the difference between them. What are the positive, practical implications of being called “head” that give man his distinct role in marriage? It is not enough to say, “Serve one another.” That is true of Christ and his church-they serve each other. But they do not serve in all the same ways. Christ is Christ. We are the church. To confuse the distinctions would be doctrinally and spiritually devastating. So also the husband is the husband and the wife is the wife. And to confuse these God-intended distinctions harms personal, church, and social life over the long haul.
So what I want to do this Father’s Day is not rehearse all of what I’ve written in the Standard or said in earlier sermons, but rather spell out in practical terms some of what I think it means for a man to be the head of his household.
Four Reasons “Head” Means Leader
Again and again you hear feminists say that “head” does not mean leader. For example, Patricia Gundry writes, “The meaning of head is not that of ‘leader’ but of ‘source,’ ‘respect,’ and ‘responsibility'” (Woman Be Free, p. 71). I surely don’t want to disagree with those three words. The husband should be a source of strength and security and love for his wife. He should have her respect. He is uniquely responsible in the relationship. But surely those three truths are not the opposite of leadership but the expression of leadership.
There are at least four reasons why we should insist that headship does mean leadership in Ephesians 5.
1) It was commonly held in Paul’s day that since the head was on top of the body and had eyes, it was the leader of the body. Philo (a contemporary of Paul) said, “Nature conforms the leadership of the body on the head” (Special Laws, III, 184).
2) “Head” is used for leader in the Old Testament. For example, Judges 11:11, “So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and leader over them.” (See also 10:18; 11:8, 9; 2 Samuel 22:44; Psalm 18:43; Isaiah 7:8.)
3) Ephesians 1:21-23 says that Christ is “above every name that is named . . . and God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body.” Christ is not seen here as the source but the ruler over all things when he is called head.
4) In view of all this, when Paul says that a wife should be subject to her husband becausehe is head, headship must be something that makes submission especially appropriate. And what makes it appropriate is that God has ordained that man, as head, be the leader of his household.
God’s Beautiful Plan for Marriage
I’m convinced that as long as this Scripture stands, the efforts of feminist interpreters to flatten out husband-wife role distinctions and to empty headship of its leadership implications will continue to look like the Scripture-twisting we are all tempted to do when we don’t like what the Bible says.
But there is no good reason for husbands and wives not to like what the Bible says here. There is something deep in every man that comes into its own when he assumes the role of loving servant-leader in his family. And deep down he knows that part of his personhood is compromised if his wife has taken the leadership of the family. Likewise there is something deep in every woman which rejoices and flourishes when she can freely and creatively support and complement the leadership of her husband. God’s plan for marriage is beautiful and deeply fulfilling. It is not oppressive and fearful. It is freeing because it’s God’s deep design.
Four Areas in Which the Husband Should Lead
So let me spend the rest of our time this morning unpacking some of the specific applications of headship or leadership for husbands. I’ll focus on four things in which the husband should take the lead.
1. His Personal Relationship with God
The first is the pursuit of his own personal relation with God. No man will be a spiritual leader in his home if he is not going deep with God in his own private life. He may try to lead, but it will not be spiritual leadership; it will not be Christ-like leadership. Therefore every Christian man who hopes to be a biblical husband and father must go hard after God in the solitude of his own prayer life. He must devote himself daily to the Word and prayer. He must fight the fight of faith in his own soul before he can hope to lead his family in spiritual warfare.
Leadership is something you are as much as something you do. If you come out of your solitude with the aroma of Christ lingering in your life, your wife and children will sense intuitively that you are at the helm of the ship with God’s hand on your shoulder. Leadership techniques and strategies are all in vain if the man has not been with God. It’s what we become in solitude with God that makes us spiritual leaders. If we fail here, we fail utterly.
A Shared Responsibility
This first step of leadership is not like the other three because this one is shared equally by the wife. Every wife has the duty to go hard after God in her own soul. There is no borrowed or substitute spirituality. The daughters of God must have direct personal dealings with their heavenly Father. The husband’s spiritual life can never substitute for the wife’s. When Peter described the holy women of old who were submissive to their husbands, he described them as women who “hoped in God” (1 Peter 3:5). The foundation and goal of their lives was not their husband but God. While Noël and the boys were away the past ten days, I thought a lot about what it would be like if one of us died and left the other behind. It was a deep joy for me to know that if I die, the foundation and goal of my wife’s life will be unshaken, because it is not me. My sons would have the same spiritual rock to hold on to.
The Difference Between Husband and Wife
But there is a difference in the husband’s and wife’s pursuit of personal, spiritual strength. For the husband it is the foundation of his headship and the heart of his leadership. For the wife it is the foundation of her submission and support for her husband’s headship. Neither will be able to fulfill the role God has appointed without pursuing power with God in solitude. But the roles that grow out of this pursuit are not the same. The same fire can make one element firm and another element soft. And so the fire of God’s presence in solitude produces some distinct effects in the life of a husband and some distinct effects in the life of a wife. It refines them for their respective roles.
Do Not Abdicate Your Responsibility
Some men react all wrong to a wife who is growing spiritually. He may say, “Well I’m not into that, so I’ll let her be the spiritual leader in the family and I’ll make sure we stay afloat financially and have food on the table. She can put her head in the clouds. I’ll keep our feet on the ground.” This response is neither biblical nor satisfying for husband or wife in the long run. To abdicate leadership at the most important, all-encompassing level of spirituality is to abdicate Christian headship. What is left of headship when spiritual leadership is surrendered is a hollow shell. Instead, a husband who sees his wife going hard after God should humble himself, admit his need, and press on in his own pursuit of spiritual depth. This does not mean he has to be her intellectual superior. There is no necessary connection between being intellectual and being spiritual. It means he must not lag behind her in personal love for Christ and zeal for God’s will.
Again and again I have seen that the abdication of spiritual leadership is owing to pride. Men are too proud to admit that spiritually they must play catch-up to their wives. So they just hang back and think of the spiritual life as “woman’s work” and so protect their egos. Brothers, that is childish. Our women know it is childish. Some of them will accept what you have surrendered and become your mother. The immature boy in you will like that. The mature man will revolt. So I urge you. Humble yourselves. Grow up. Become a godly man. Go hard after God in the solitude of your room, and I promise a new depth and joy in your relationship.
2. Shaping the Family’s Moral and Spiritual Vision
The second area in which the husband should take the lead is in shaping the moral and spiritual vision of the family. A leader is someone who takes the time and initiative to think about priorities and goals. You can’t lead anyone anywhere until you have thought about where you want to go. An aimless husband does not make a happy wife. The vast majority of wives love it when their husbands lead out in thinking about family priorities and goals. I say “lead out in” not “monopolize.” A good leader always takes the insight and needs and desires of his wife and the children into view. Leader and dictator are not synonymous.
What I have in mind here is that a husband take the initiative in forming goals for the family. This begins in private reflection and prayer about the family. It proceeds by discussion and study and prayer with the family members; and it culminates in a plan of action. The headship of a husband is compromised if he takes no initiative in setting goals and is constantly goaded by his wife to make some decisions. They may joke about his laid-back ways and her forcefulness. But deep down the respect and admiration for a competent servant leader will be missing from her heart; and his jokes will only barely cover up his sense of failure. A man knows in his heart he should be leading out in decisions about issues of lifestyle, and doctrine, and church affiliation, and financial policies, and the discipline of the children. Being the head does not mean that goals are established unilaterally. It means the husband has a special responsibility to lead the family to biblical decisions on these matters. He should not have to be nagged into action by an alert wife. He should take the lead in shaping the moral and spiritual vision of the family.
3. Gathering the Family for Prayer, Scripture, Worship
The third act of leadership comes out of the second. You might say it is a specific part of it. As the head the husband should take the lead in gathering the family for prayer and Scripture reading and worship. When a husband fails here and the wife has to constantly remind him or call the kids by herself, the soul of the marriage is in jeopardy. I would go so far as to say that this one act of leadership is so important that if you men would take the initiative here, almost all other leadership issues would fall into proper place.
I close every series of pre-marital counseling sessions with these words: Your devotional life together as a couple is the soul and heartbeat of your marriage. If it weakens, disease will occur in a dozen other areas with no apparent connection to the heart. You cannot be growing spiritually as a couple or a family without daily prayer and meditation together. And if you are not growing, you are dying. And, men, it is your responsibility. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden and God came to call them to account, it didn’t matter that Eve had eaten first; God said, “Adam, where are you?” That’s God’s word to your family this morning: Adam, husband, father, where are you? He will seek an accounting from you first, not your wife, if the family has neglected prayer and put TV before the living God.
Here’s how to get started again. Humble yourselves and admit your failure. Confess to your wife your sin. Go apart with God and plan a week of devotions with her and the family. Announce to them that a new day is dawning on the home front. Then lead them to God. This is so threatening to some of you it makes you tense to think of it. You will have to swallow so much pride. But be courageous. Fear is a scrawny enemy. Do not let him conquer you. I promise you that once you have gotten over the first hill, a new world will open before you. The ugly guilt will be gone. The sense of failure will be gone. The uncertainty of your love for God and the family will be gone. And a dozen areas of tension in your marriage will be healed which you did not know had anything to do with family devotions.
There is one last dimension of leadership I want to charge you men with. You should take the lead in reconciliation. I do not mean that wives should never say they are sorry. But in the relation between Christ and his church, who took the initiative to make all things new? Who left the comfort and security of his throne of justice to put mercy to work at Calvary? Who came back to Peter first after three denials? Who has returned to you again and again forgiving you and offering his fellowship afresh? So husbands, your headship means: Go ahead. Take the lead. It does not matter if it is her fault. That didn’t stop Christ. Who will break the icy silence first? Who will choke out the words, “I’m sorry, I want it to be better”? She might beat you to it. That’s OK. But woe to you if you think your headship entitles you to wait. On the contrary. Here, too, you should take the lead.
In summary, then, there is mutual serving in marriage. But the roles of husband and wife are not identical. The husband is to be the head, the leader.
He should lead out in the pursuit of his own personal relation with God.
He should take the lead in shaping the moral and spiritual goals of the family.
He should take the initiative to gather the family for prayer and Scripture reading and worship.
And he should consider it a special responsibility to take the lead in reconciliation.
When a man has the grace of humility and courage to do these things, the power of Christ is exalted and the heart of his wife rejoices and his children will rise up and call him blessed.
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