When following the biblical mandate and two individuals become one flesh, who’s the boss?
For many Christians this question, fueled by custom and tradition, has a very simple and straightforward answer. Some accept that heaven has always viewed the husband as the boss of the family. To them, the wife’s marital role is subordinate or secondary to that of her husband. Indeed, doesn’t the Bible say as much? Specifically, doesn’t Paul tell the Ephesians, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church” (Ephesians 5: 22, 23)?
Surely such biblical clarity removes any doubt as to whether the husband may rightly be considered the “boss” of the family? But is that true? If we’ve learned anything through studying God’s Word, what appears to be obvious may appear so only in the absence of biblical context.
We know that marriage is ordained of God. We find in Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (NASB).1 There is no ambiguity as to how the marital relationship came into being. It is a union designed by God.
In Matthew 19, confronted by the Pharisees on the question of marriage and divorce, Jesus reiterates God’s view of the marital relationship. “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ So then, they are no longer two but one flesh” (verses 4-6).
So the origins of marriage are clear enough. Is it not likewise clear that the husband is the boss in the family? Isn’t that what Paul means in Ephesians 5:23 when he writes that “the husband is head of the wife”?
The apostle Paul does say that the husband is the head of the wife. However, may I suggest that often we magnify that part of the Word that confirms our thoughts and feelings, while attempting to diminish surrounding context. The headship Paul speaks of is not to be viewed as the husband having a dominating role.
True, God has given clear areas of responsibility for both husband and wife. However, never does He offer endorsement of the husband as the “big chief.” A correct understanding of Ephesians 5:23 would be that the husband’s headship is to be modeled after the headship of Christ with His church. Nowhere in the Bible do we find Jesus dominating the church simply because He is the head. Study His example, and you will find His approach to headship was through offering love, self-sacrificing love. Likewise, a husband is to present the same model of headship to his wife. He is to offer his wife love, self-sacrificing love.
The key to busting this myth is found in the context of mutual submission.
So then what about Paul’s admonition for the wife to submit to her husband? I like the way Jeffrey and Pattiejean Brown approach the concept of submission in their book The Total Marriage.2 They point out that submission is not synonymous with subservience. And while the husband’s role is one of headship, it is anchored in agape love that is selfless and self-sacrificing. Thus, a wife’s choosing to submit to her husband is her free-willed response to his Christlike love. As a result, the wife’s submission is not to her husband’s commands, demands, or wishes, but rather to her husband’s love. Additionally, the authors offer that many times the Ephesians 5:23 counsel for wives to submit is emphasized, while the admonition found in Ephesians 5:21 is overlooked. In that passage Paul writes, “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (KJV). The Browns point out that here the apostle Paul is highlighting the concept of mutual submission. “Mutual submission requires that Christians . . . ‘through love be servants of one another.’ If a partner is to submit as Christ’s church is to submit, then the biblical definition of submission is a free response, an uncoerced surrender to the self-sacrificing, unconditional love of a compassionate and committed spouse.”
The Bible leaves no room in marriage for a boss. That’s because God views marriage as a partnership. We find that understanding repeatedly in His Word—for example,
1 Corinthians 7:3, 4: “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” This partnership originated in the heart of God. He announced its role in our lives when He declared, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, be joined to his wife; and they shall become one” (NASB). This partnership recognizes the headship of the husband as a self-sacrificing gift to his wife, the wife’s submission to her husband as a gift-in-kind, and mutual submission one to another out of reverence for God as a total gift exchange.
No need for a boss in a Christian’s marriage. That’s because God is at the center of their partnership. And their joint prayer is “Your [God’s] will be done.”
1 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
2 Jeffrey Brown and Pattiejean Brown, The Total Marriage, pp. 55, 56. (Granthan, Engl.: Autumn House, 1999).