Husbands, Headship, and Authority

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Berry Kercheville

Many years ago a young man brought his wife into my office for counseling. The woman was in tears and the man displayed a stern, hard look. His words were even harsher: “Would you tell her that since I’m the head she has to obey me?”  

How would you have answered this man? Is this the kind of relationship the Lord expected when he said, “For the husband is the head of the wife” (Eph. 5:23)? In commenting about this incident, my wife said, “Do men really think that women who are single are just dying to get married so they can have a man to boss them around? If that is the case, why would any woman ever desire marriage?” Indeed.

My answer to the man went something like this. “Who told you that you are the head of your wife?” Obviously this question took the man by surprise. He answered by quoting the text. I opened the Bible and asked a second question: “Was that text written to you?”

Even though most men would not follow the demanding approach this husband displayed, many still speak of headship in a way that does not reflect the scripture. Notice that the paragraph which speaks of headship begins with “Wives…” It is not until Ephesians 5:25 that the text says “husbands…” When Paul addressed husbands, he never said a word about headship. If anything, Paul described headship as a man laying his life down for his wife just as Christ did for the church. Where in the text is there any suggestion that a husband is to take an authoritarian approach in his relationship with his wife? Though Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, that is not even the approach that he has taken with us.

Misunderstanding Genesis 3:16

After the sin of Adam and Eve, the Lord pronounced the consequences of their sin. In regard to the woman’s relationship to her husband, God said, “Your desire shall be for  [or “against,” marginal rendering] your husband, and he shall rule over you” (ESV). This is the rendering of most of our versions. However, the NET version may give us better clarity on what God was saying: “You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.” The NET translators offer a note indicating the similarity of this verse and Genesis 4:7. To Cain, God said, “If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for [“against,” margin] you, but you must rule over it” (ESV). Both the construction of the sentence and the words “desire” and “rule” are the same in each text. In the case of Cain, sin’s desire was to rule over him, but Cain needed to dominate or subdue sin. In regard to the woman, she would want to control or rule her husband, but he would dominate her.

Consider the contrast of the relationship of Adam and Eve before and after their sin. Prior to sin, Adam said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh… Therefore a man shall leave father and mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” Adam pictures his relationship in the same nurturing, loving way Paul pictures Christ and the church and the way husbands and wives should relate in Ephesians 5. But after their sin, their relationship turned into a battle. We have observed the battle in carnal cultures ever since the Fall. Just as Eve violated her role in urging Adam to sin, and Adam violated his role by being a passive husband in listening to his wife and allowing her to lead him into sin, so the marriage relationship would suffer with similar battles. The wife’s desire would be to control her husband, but the man would dominate his wife. It is not a picture of Christ and the church nor of a loving relationship.

God Reverses Curses

One of the interesting patterns in Genesis is how God sets out to reverse the curses that resulted from sin in the Garden. When God called Abraham, he gave three promises  or blessings that would take away the curses of sin. The curse on the ground is reversed through the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, and ultimately in the rich blessings and security that is found in Christ (Cf. Amos 9:11-15). The curse of death is reversed through the offspring promise. Through healing the barrenness of Sarah, Rebekah, and others, we see glimpses of the reversal of the pain in childbearing/rearing and the ultimate fulfillment of the great nation promise in the kingdom of Christ.

In Ephesians 5, we see Christ portraying the original intention of the relationship of marriage. The husband nor wife attempts to dominate one another. Instead, just as Christ wooed us to him by laying his life down for us, so husbands lay their lives down for their wives, nourishing and cherishing them, treating them as their own bodies, and bringing them to glorious splendor. Paul even quotes from Genesis 2:24, prior to sin, to show God’s plan in the beginning both for marriage and for our eternal relationship with Christ.

God’s Intentional Design of the Woman

None of the above is to suggest that God created a man and a woman with equal roles. Men and women are equal, we are all one in Christ, but we still have differing roles. In Genesis 2:18, God created woman as a “helper, suitable” for the man. Paul reaffirmed this in 1 Corinthians 11:9, when he said the woman was created “for the man.” However, when we read “helper” we tend to think in worldly terms as if the woman was created beneath the man, as in, “she’s just a helper.” That is not the connotation of the word helper. This same word is used throughout the Old Testament when God refers to himself as the “helper” of man (Ex. 18:4; Deut. 33:7; 1 Sam. 7:12). The woman was created for the man, but she is not beneath him. The wife is commanded to submit and adapt herself as a helper to her husband, but the husband is never given permission to dominate his wife.


Jesus warned the disciples against dominating and exercising authority over one another:

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42–45)

We need to give careful attention to Jesus’ words. Whether we are talking about husbands, elders, deacons, evangelists, or other leaders within God’s kingdom, no one is allowed to “lord it over” another or “exercise authority over” others. It is sad that our carnal minds cannot think of differing roles without thinking of one person being on a higher plane than another or one person being in a diminished position or even a servile position. The home nor the church is like the military or like a corporation. Instead, these are kingdom relationships, and though there are submissive roles, we all are also commanded to “submit to one another” (Eph. 5:21).

Therefore, when a husband attempts to put his wife into submission or believes he needs to demand her obedience, he has already lost the battle. He is thinking the way the “Gentile” world thinks. But when a husband is a shepherd-like leader, who in following the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his wife, he will draw her to him, and cause her to desire him and follow his lead. Would a husband really want her to submit to him for any other reason?