Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Male Leadership in Marriage


by Dennis Pollock

It is perhaps the most studiously avoided subject in the pulpit, with the possible exception of hell. Liberal ministers dismiss it as a meaningless relic of ancient thinking. Conservative pastors will acknowledge it if forced, but most have no heart to preach on the subject. And so this topic, which is clearly and unavoidably spelled out in the Bible, goes un-preached, unheard, and ignored. So what is this strange, problematic concept which the Bible addresses fearlessly but the pulpits neglect conscientiously? I am speaking of the principle of male leadership in the marriage. It is summarized in the short exhortation repeated in various forms by the apostle Paul: “Wives, submit to your husbands.”

In our current generation the idea seems hopelessly behind the times. Surely we have gone beyond these primitive, patriarchal Jews of Moses and Paul’s days! Some might wonder how in the world the poor, benighted, simple-minded evangelicals could dare hold onto a doctrine which society has thoroughly and completely rejected. Women, submitting to and obeying their husbands – allowing the men to make major decisions and exercise authority and leadership in the household! We’re not living in the Middle Ages anymore!

For “liberal Christians” (code for unbelieving folks who can’t quite drop their religious ways altogether) this is not a problem. In their minds, Moses, Paul, and the other Biblical writers were clearly men influenced by their particular cultures. “We should not be so foolish as to suppose that their bigotry and patriarchal attitudes are the slightest bit relevant to us today. We can admire them for their spiritual passion, we can learn from their emphasis upon the centrality of God, we can be encouraged by their fortitude during their many trials and difficulties, but we certainly do not need to adopt their cultural values. After all, this is the 21st century!

Inspiration, not Culture

Christians who read, study, and value the Bible, believing it to be “God-breathed,” obviously don’t see it that way. They are as quick to believe Paul when he wrote, “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything,” (Ephesians 5:24) as they are to believe Jesus’ words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). They are convinced that the Holy Spirit’s inspiration trumps cultural values and local attitudes. If the Holy Spirit moved the patriarchs and apostles to encourage wives to submit to their husbands it must be because this is the will of God for Christians of every generation, every nation, and every culture. That would include American wives, Asian wives, African wives, Hispanic wives, and every other wife on this planet.

The doctrine of wifely submission poses problems and elicits questions of all sorts. How far should women go in this? What about mean husbands? Stupid husbands? Lazy husbands? Ungodly husbands? But before we try to deal with some of these issues, let’s go to perhaps the one question that towers above all others. Is there any logic behind this? Other than the fact that the Bible encourages male leadership in the family, is there any basis for this in logic that would at least make following the Biblical admonition seem somewhat reasonable? Of course, one might argue, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” And this should be good enough, but for the sake of those who have not yet recognized the value and inspiration of the Scriptures, allow me for a few moments to deal with the question of why.

Need for Leadership

Abraham under the stars

Setting aside the idea of male leadership in marriage, let’s consider the principle of leadership in general. Throughout the Scriptures we find that the people of God were always under human leadership, as well as God’s leadership. Abraham led his household with a firm hand, and God said of him:

For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him. (Genesis 18:19)

God declared that He had chosen Abraham and revealed Himself to him, in order that he might “command” his children and household to live righteously, not to timidly suggest that his wife and children follow the LORD, but to take the lead and make sure that all those under his authority serve the Lord and keep His commands.

When God brought Israel out of the bondage of Egypt, He established Moses as their leader and backed up His servant fully whenever Moses was challenged by rebels who thought Moses was acting autocratically. When you read of Israel’s complaining, rebelling, and attempts to turn back to Egypt, even with Moses as their leader, imagine what total confusion and chaos there would have been if there had been no leader, and God had allowed Israel to make their decisions by voting, or simply allowing each individual to do as he liked.

In the Church – and the World

When Jesus instituted His church, it was not a leaderless entity. Wherever churches were established, elders were chosen to lead the congregations. Bishops exercised authority over groups of churches. And when you read Paul’s epistles, you can quickly see that the apostle exercised authority over those churches he founded, even though he might have only been there for six months and was now hundreds of miles away. From that first generation church to the present day, churches have never been simple bands of individuals getting together from time to time, with no one in a position to make decisions, bring direction, rebuke the rebellious, counsel the weak, and establish order. Again, consider the vast amount of difficulties churches have experienced over the centuries, despite having leaders in place. Now imagine what it would have been like had there been no leadership whatsoever!

But it is not just in the Bible where we see leadership. In America, we are known as a democratic nation, of the people, by the people, and for the people. Certainly this is a wonderful idea. But if you were to take that to mean that we are a leaderless nation you would be wrong. From the smallest little village to our largest cities, we have mayors, alderman, city council members, governors, legislators, judges, and of course a president.

Suppose someone came up with an idea of total equality for every American, to such a degree that all leadership positions were abolished. We would all be allowed to do whatever we pleased and there would be no one who could hold us accountable. If such a plan were instituted our nation would immediately turn into a nightmare of lawlessness, confusion, and misery. We would go from being called the greatest nation on earth to the most miserable nation on earth. The only people who would want to immigrate to America in such a case would be thieves and gangsters.

In the business world it is taken for granted that every business must have leadership. Go to any bookstore and you will find book after book on the principles of successful leadership. Any business without leaders would fail in record time. Imagine a business where workers go to work when they please, do whatever they please, goof off as they please, and leave as early as they please. Any person or group planning to start a business does not have to read the Bible to recognize the importance of leadership. It is, as Thomas Jefferson might put it, “self-evident.”

Family Not a Democracy

Let’s get back to marriage. Even though any business, club, church, nation, or assembly where people get together must have leaders, some suppose that a marriage, which is probably the most difficult venture of all, requires no leader. Let all decisions and issues be settled by giving husband and wife an equal say. Neither has any more authority than their spouse. And some would suggest that when children come along, they, too, should have equal input in all family decisions. Let the family become a perfect democracy.

It does not work. Although husbands and wives should by all means seek to work together in making decisions, there will always be situations and issues where both the husband and wife are equally adamant in their opposing preferences, and only one choice may be made. If there is no “tiebreaker,” an authority to make a final decision, the arguing, the brooding, and the sense of hurt may fester and grow increasingly poisonous until at last the marriage breaks down altogether.

Our Creator, who is a whole lot smarter than we are and understands a thing or two about authority, has determined that such a case would not be healthy. He has decided that just like every village, city, nation, church, and business, marriages need leaders. And according to the Holy Scriptures, He has made His choice. The male will be the leader in the family. We find the Scriptures relating to this sprinkled throughout the New Testament:

  1. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband… (1 Corinthians 11:3).
  2. Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands… For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord… (1 Peter 3:1,5,6).
  3. Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord (Colossians 3:18).
  4. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything (Ephesians 5:24).

From these verses and others that could be quoted, it is evident that the doctrine of male leadership in the family does not spring from one tiny, obscure, misinterpreted verse. It is spoken so plainly and repeated so frequently that the only way you could deny it would be to deny the Scriptures (in the case of the ungodly) or ignore them (in the case of the liberals and some conservatives).

Why the Male?

So why should God choose men as leaders? The short answer to this is that the Bible does not really address the why of this. There is one hint about it in Second Timothy where Paul declares that women should submit to their husbands, and goes on to say, “Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (1 Timothy 2:14).

What nearly all can agree with is that men and women have different temperaments, as a whole. Men typically are more logical and women more emotional. Men are far more aggressive than women. If you don’t believe that, check out the auto insurance rates for young men and young women! It seems reasonable that our Creator designed men specifically for leadership roles and women for the more nurturing roles. I know that what I am saying here is politically incorrect in the extreme, but I cannot help but feel that God had very good reasons for declaring that marriages must have leaders, and that the male should be that leader. And I am not at all prepared to throw out the Scriptures, the very same Scriptures that our Lord Jesus declared “cannot be broken,” for the sake of appeasing the doubters and skeptics.

Not a Matter of Superiority

Are there not individual cases where wives are smarter than their husbands, wiser than their husbands, and godlier than their husbands? Certainly there are. There are also many situations where employees are smarter, wiser, and sharper than their bosses. This by no means gives them the right to rebel against leadership and do as they please. Imagine a private in the army refusing to follow the command of his sergeant because he is the smarter man. If this was common you would have totally dysfunctional army!

Does the doctrine of male leadership give the husband the right to serve as dictator and autocrat over his wife? Not at all. The Bible also commands husbands to love their wives even as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. Just as Jesus showed His love for us all by dying on the cross for our sins, so husbands are commanded to love their wives sacrificially and totally, which will make wifely submission a whole lot easier. Any husband who insists upon his way all the time, every time, in matters large and small, is a fool. Both husband and wife are to be in submission to Jesus Christ, first and foremost, and this means seeking the other’s happiness, making compromises, showing tenderness, and bearing with one another’s faults. But there will come times, hopefully not many but surely some, when a final decision must be made. Leadership is going to have to be exercised, and someone will have to do it. And in those times, God says to the woman, “Let your husband lead.”



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