Misunderstandings About Biblical Headship and Submission
On Friday, I received a call from someone who wanted me to clear up some questions and confusion she had about headship and submission. I wasn’t able to take her call, but told her that I would cover it this week. So, here is a sneak preview of some of my new book, which will be out September 2013, on emotionally destructive marriages.
Misunderstandings about biblical headship and submission
As a young wife, I attended a retreat that was geared around becoming a godly woman. Most of the wives in the room groaned when they heard the “S” word featured as our next topic. No wife looks forward to hearing that God says she must give her husband the final say in all decisions regardless of how capable or stable he is, just because he’s the man.
Throughout the session, the speaker emphasized how God created the husband as the head of the home to be the leader. She said that even if our husband made poor decisions, God would protect us and our children if we simply trusted Him and obeyed our husband. Then she proceeded to tell a story where a woman’s husband wanted her to have an abortion. The wife didn’t want to, but she submitted. Just before she was to go to the clinic for the procedure, she had a spontaneous miscarriage. “See”, the speaker said, “God was faithful.”
I wanted to stand up and scream, “That’s crazy. Don’t’ listen to her!” but I was too much a coward at the time to risk such censure from the group. I’m braver today, and I’m telling you don’t fall for that kind of simplistic and naive teaching on this very important subject. If you want to get clear-headed and be a godly woman, in addition to listening to wise counsel, you must study the scriptures yourself and ask God to help you understand what the Bible says. Jesus tells us that as believers, He gives each one of us the Holy Spirit which He promises, leads us into all truth (John 16:13).
The Bible never says that submission is only a wife’s or woman’s responsibility, nor does it say that the husband or man gets the final say in all decisions. These ideas have been misrepresented and misunderstood. Wrongly applied, they can cause harm to men, women, and children, as well as thwart God’s plan for loving family relationships.
During a counseling session, Natalie asked, “I’ve always been taught that submission to my husband trumps everything, even my children. But when he’s raging out of control, screaming and threatening them and their scared little faces look to me to for help, what am I supposed to do? Does God want me to support my husband or ignore what’s happening because he’s the head of our home?”
The New Testament never describes godly headship or leadership by using an authoritarian, power/over model. Jesus demonstrated headship for his disciples so that they would be crystal clear what he meant. Instead of wielding his mighty power and rightful authority to show them what leadership looked like, he donned a towel and basin and personally washed each of their dirty feet. They were the future leaders of his Church, and Jesus wanted to show them that biblical headship meant sacrificial servant-hood. Jesus, or the scriptures, never describe biblical headship or leadership as entitlement to do what you want, demand that others do you want you want or to get your own way. The correct biblical terms for those characteristics are selfishness and misuse of one’s power and authority. There are numerous examples of these behaviors throughout scripture. However, they are never depicted as God’s example of leadership, but rather as sin. (Read through the seven chapters of the Old Testament book of Micah for numerous examples of leaders abusing their power and God’s response.)
After Jesus finished washing his disciples feet, he said to each of them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14,15). This concept of selfless servant-hood was so radically different from his disciple’s idea of leadership, that they didn’t truly grasp what Jesus meant. Later on, James and John were arguing about who would have the better seat in heaven and Jesus stopped them and taught them the essence of biblical headship. He said, “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.” Jesus expressly warned his leaders not to abuse their power just to get their way or boss people around (Mark 10:41-46; Luke 22:25,26; Matthew 23:3,4 italics added).
What Jesus taught was unheard of in Jewish culture. Hierarchy was well established even in the most intimate relationships. Men dominated women; husbands their wives. Paul picked up Jesus’ heart on the subject of headship in marriage when he writes, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). The essence of Biblical teaching on headship is that if you are the leader, your responsibility is to initiate and model servant-hood before anyone else in the family does. As the leader, you are to show the way. You are to go first. When a leader (whether of a home, a church or a nation) manipulates, threatens and scares people into doing what he says or to get what he wants, know that he is not behaving as a biblical head, but rather as a bully. As Paul writes, “Love does not demand its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5).
Jesus didn’t only model headship for us, he also modeled submission. In the Garden of Gethsemane while anticipating the crucifixion, Jesus’ prayed that this cup of suffering would be removed from him. He dreaded the cross; he wanted God to find an alternate way to save humankind. Yet, Jesus submitted himself when he prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Throughout his life, Jesus always wanted to do what God wanted. He said his will was synonymous with God’s will. (See John 4:34; John 6:37; John 5:3; John 17:17.) Now in his agonizing moment during his garden prayer, Jesus felt differently. This was the first time he didn’t want to do what God wanted, but he chose submission to God’s will and his Father’s perfect plan. God didn’t force Jesus to submit, Jesus chose to. Jesus said, “No one takes my life, I give it (John 10:18).
In the same way, biblical submission can never be forced. It can only be done by the one who chooses to submit her (or his) will to another. When we voluntarily give our will to another or to God, it’s called submission. When someone forces our will to be given, it is not biblical submission. The correct terms are intimidation, coercion and bullying. Submission isn’t necessarily agreement; it’s yielding your will to another for a greater good. The good might be unity in the family (or body of Christ) or honoring and pleasing God.
The apostle Paul writes in Philippians that we must be intentional if we don’t want selfishness to rule in our relationships (Philippians 2:2-4). He then uses Christ’s example for us to see how that works. Paul writes, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
Jesus modeled both headship and submission in volunteering for the servant’s place and yielding his will to God. This describes the working together of headship and submission. The husband sacrificially leads his wife in servant-hood (through example), and the wife sacrificially yields her will in servant-hood (through example). Both are servants of the other and of God. When only one is the servant or the other is the master or god, the marriage isn’t working as God intended.
Since the fall of Adam and Eve, human beings have been vying for power and control over one another (Genesis 3:16). This was not God’s original plan, but the result of sin. Biblical headship doesn’t mean you get your way all the time, and submission doesn’t mean you have no voice or choice in the matter. The scriptures validate the mutuality of marriage and the dignity and value of each individual no matter who they are. As Paul plainly wrote, “now there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man or woman” (Galatians 3:28).
We may have different roles and responsibilities, but one is not over the other. Mutuality of servant-hood, submission and sacrifice are the biblical model for the trinity and for godly relationships, including marriage.