A substantial amount of teaching and practice relating to marriage and family life in the Sword of the Spirit is based upon a principle taught in scripture: that the husband should serve as the head of his wife and family. This principle has become increasingly controversial in recent decades. It is less and less embraced in modern culture, and it is less and less embraced in many Christian environments as well. In 1980, Steve Clark (a founder and past president of the Sword of the Spirit) wrote the book Man and Woman in Christ. While his book provides an excellent and very thorough explanation of the position of the Sword of the Spirit, many people find its length and scholarly approach a bit daunting. A shorter discussion may meet the needs of many members of the Sword of the Spirit, and that is the goal of this article.
A number of passages point to the idea of the husband being the head of his wife and family. I will list several using the Revised Standard Version (RSV).
- 1 Corinthians 11:3 I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
- Ephesians 5:21-24 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.
- 1 Timothy 3:2-5 Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife…He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God's church? (Note: while this passage discusses the position of bishop, it has more general application as well.)
- Titus 2:4-5 Train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited.
- Colossians 3:18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
- 1 Peter 3:1-5 Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior... So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands.
Some Arguments Against
Cultural Bias: Some people argue that the authors of these passages (mainly the Apostle Paul) were simply constrained by the culture in which they lived. First-century Mediterranean society very much favored men, and the writers of scripture carried that cultural bias into the Bible, they say. Since the authors (especially Paul) were unenlightened and we are, we can and should disregard their teaching on the subject.
Response: I do not think that I (or any Christian) can disregard any part of the Bible. In 2 Timothy 3:16 we read: All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. Christians traditionally have understood that the Holy Spirit inspired the writers, who faithfully transmitted what they received from God. There are some disagreements among Christians about what books are included in Holy Scripture, whether the process was more dictation or inspiration, and how one passage might impact another, but for 2,000 years Christian churches have accepted the Bible as God’s written revelation of his will, and we would do well to continue that practice.
If we accept the idea of divine inspiration of scripture, the question is not was Paul culturally biased but was God the Holy Spirit culturally biased? Human culture simply does not impact God in that way. Rather, again and again the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Bible to say things that very much stood against the accepted culture of the time.
Perhaps cultural bias is working in us and not the writers of the Bible. We live in a culture that finds the passages cited above objectionable, so we are tempted to make them go away. In Romans 12:2 we find a passage that applies: Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.
Modification: Some people argue that the passages above (and others) are modified by Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. They say that if there is no longer male or female, but all are one in Christ, the husband cannot be the head of his wife because doing so makes men and women unequal in an important way.
Response: While it is true that we have to understand passages within the larger context of scripture, and that some Bible passages are fulfilled or expanded (not quite the same as modified) by other passages, there is not a strong argument that Galatians 3 modifies Ephesians 5. One reason for this is that the book of Ephesians was written after the book of Galatians. If anything, Ephesians would modify Galatians.
I do not think, however, that either passage modifies the other. Rather, they are addressing different subjects: Ephesians 5:21-24 is addressing structure and order within the Christian family while Galatians 3:28 is addressing our standing and inheritance in Jesus Christ. The two passages are not at odds with each other; indeed, they are complimentary: in Jesus Christ men and women have equal standing and inheritance before God (talk about an idea that flies in the face of the prevailing culture of that time), and the two passages taken together instruct people with equal standing and inheritance to order themselves in a particular way.
An example may help us to better understand Ephesians 5:21-24 and Galatians 3:28. Several years ago my father passed away (my mother had died previously). My father’s will stated that his children (my siblings and I) were to receive equal shares of his estate. The very same will, however, named a sister and me as executors of the estate. Therefore, we all had equal standing and an equal inheritance, but two of us were asked to serve in a way different than the others. Our service did not make us any better than our siblings, it did not give us a larger inheritance – it simply gave us some work to do. The arrangement brought a measure of peace and order to the situation. Similarly men and women have equal standing before God and an equal inheritance in Jesus Christ; they are also instructed to serve in different ways.
Galatians 3:28 does, I think, point to an important principle: although the husband is appointed the head of his wife, this does not imply superiority. In Christ, one can serve as the head and another can serve by submitting without there being an implication of better-than or less-than. In much the same way, Jesus Christ submitted his will to the Father, and yet Christians proclaim in the Creed that Jesus Christ is “homoousios” (of the same essence, or consubstantial) with the Father.
Mutual Submission: Ephesians 5:21 says, Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. [Other translations read “submitting to one another” (NKJV), “submit to one another” (NIV), and “being subject one to another” (Douay-Rheims)]. Some argue that this passage turns the idea of submission on its head by demanding that husbands must likewise submit to their wives. Therefore, they say, the wife has the same authority over her husband as the husband has over his wife – either both are head or neither is head.
Response: It is helpful, I think, to remember that this passage was originally written in Greek, and that “be subject to” and “submit” are attempts to translate into English the Greek word “hupotasso.” Hupotasso is a military term meaning “to arrange in a military fashion under the command of a leader” (Thayer and Smith Bible Dictionary). With this understanding we can see that Ephesians 5:21 is something of a heading for the verses that follow: “arrange yourselves under godly authority: wives to husbands (5:22), children to parents (6:1), and slaves to masters (6:5).”
Even if one goes with the translation “submit to one another,” that verse does not negate what follows or the many other passages that speak of a wife submitting to her husband and the husband being the head of his wife. If it were the Holy Spirit’s intention to break this long-established pattern in marriage (1 Peter 3:5 So once the holy women…were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.) it would seem that he would have said so clearly, but while there are numerous passages that reinforce the husband’s headship in marriage and family, not one passage directs the husband to submit to his wife.
Headship: Another line of thinking focuses on the word “head.” The word head (kephale in Greek) does not indicate authority, some say, but something more like “source” or the “headwaters” of a river. With this understanding the verse has a deeper meaning: the husband is the source/headwaters of the wife as Christ is the source/headwaters of the church. Given this understanding, the passage is not talking about authority, but pointing back to the creation narrative in which Eve literally comes out of Adam; and in the same way the church’s source and headwaters is Jesus Christ.
Response: Indeed, this is beautiful imagery. The problem is that the Bible typically uses the Greek word kephale to refer to that object perched upon ones shoulders, the head. Some examples:
- Mark 6:24 What shall I ask? And she said, The head (kephale) of John the Baptist.
- Matthew 27:29 When they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head (kephale).
- Luke 21:18 But not a hair of your head (kephale) shall perish.
Slavery: A common critique of headship in marriage and family goes something like this: In the 18th and 19th centuries, American (and other) slave owners pointed to scripture passages about slavery to justify their owning slaves. Those who point to scripture passages about the headship of husbands are doing much the same thing: pointing to scripture to justify an unjust practice.
Response: True, the Bible addresses slavery. It acknowledges that slavery was a practice and it laid out rules to govern it. It must be said, however, that the slavery of the Bible looked nothing like what was practiced in the Americas. American slavery was an evil perversion – and it was Christians, quoting Bible verses, who rightly led the charge to end it. The Bible set strict limits on the practice of slavery. Nowhere does it command that individuals hold slaves. Indeed, the Old Testament commands that within the people of God, slaves be set free in the Year of Jubilee. Christians ought not to pervert and twist God’s word to make it say whatever they want. They ought not to go beyond the limits God has set. That they did so in regard to slavery was sin. In the present case, however, we are not trying to twist or go beyond; we are simply trying to apply personally the clear and often repeated biblical teaching about order in marriage and family.
The Central Problem
I understand that talking about the husband being the head of his wife is counter-cultural (to say the least) in modern society. I also understand that many husbands have abused the position of headship and distorted the teaching of scripture. I can see why people today – especially women – would look at the passages listed at the beginning of this article and wonder, “Does this really mean what it says?”
At the same time, I understand that God is sovereign. He has authority to set things up however he wants to. I do not have to understand why. I assume he has good reasons for arranging things as he has—he probably created humanity with this very arrangement in mind. It is not my place to apologize for God or for the writers of Holy Scripture. Nor is it my job to judge or change Holy Scripture; just the opposite, Holy Scripture is supposed to judge and change me. The Bible is radical and challenging with some regularity; it is not my place to try and make it less radical or less challenging. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25): that is a radical and challenging word for me as a husband. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22): that is a radical and challenging word for my wife.
The central problem as I see it is this: if one can take this considerable collection of scriptures and say these words from God do not mean what they say, Holy Scripture – God’s revelation of himself and of his will for humankind – ceases to have much meaning at all. If “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church” does not mean what it says, then what does “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3) mean?
Indeed, there are a number of clear scriptural teachings that fly in the face of the values and sensibilities of modern society:
- That marriage is the only context for sexual relating
- That homosexual acts are sinful
- That Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father and to salvation.
- Matthew 7:26 Everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.
- 1 John 5:3-4 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.
- Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
While upholding the teaching of scripture about order in family life, it is important to recognize offensive historical policies that sought to limit the role and rights of women. For centuries women were denied the right to vote, to sign contracts, to own property, and in other ways were limited and marginalized by governmental and social policy. Again, Bible passages were used to defend such practices, and that historical precedent continues to distort understanding of what the Bible actually teaches.
The biblical ideal of woman is not one of weakness and dependence – it is of strength and virtue. The godly wife of Proverbs 31 conducts business, buys property, supervises the household staff, works hard to provide for her family, and is looked to as a fountain of wisdom. Women labored side by side with the Apostle Paul and served as deaconesses in the early church. Abigail’s wisdom overruled her husband’s foolishness. Deborah served as a prophet and judge among God’s people. Lydia was a business woman and philanthropist.
The Bible admonishes a wife submit to her husband as an expression of her reverence for Jesus Christ. It is something that she does freely and willingly – a giving up of some autonomy for the sake of good order in a Christ-centered marriage. Her submission is not necessarily absolute. That same Greek word “hupotasso” used to instruct wives to submit to their husbands is also used in Romans 13:1 where Christians are instructed: be subject to the governing authorities. When the governing authorities ordered Peter and the Apostles not to preach in the name of Jesus Christ, they replied: We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Similarly, a wife’s first obedience is to God, and her husband may not expect his wife to obey unrighteous direction.
The husband’s authority is to be guided and directed by Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Love is defined in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. When a husband strays from the admonition to love his wife, or fails to follow the example of Jesus Christ who sacrificed himself for the good of his church, the marriage no longer operates as it should.
I am comfortable with the Sword of the Spirit’s teaching on order in marriage because it applies well the clear teaching of scripture. Modern society and many Christians may say that it is outdated, but the Bible really does mean what it says. In the Sword of the Spirit we have experienced good fruit in seeking to apply the clear teaching of scripture to our day-to-day lives. Generally, we have strong marriages and families, with husbands who are truly engaged in leading the family in the Lord. We have experienced tangibly the blessings of obedience. In contrast, modern society, which rejects God’s instruction, has seen an overall breakdown of marriage and family, especially the role of husbands and fathers. God’s word can be radical, and we should allow it to be radical. We can allow it to say what it says and then humbly obey.