“It’s Good to Be King”? A Serious Look at Headship in Christian Marriage.

By: Gregory Popcak

washing feet

“Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives be submissive to your husbands…. Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church.”

~Ephesians 5:21-33

In my counseling practice, I have recently encountered a slew of questions relating to headship in Christian marriage and the abuses that flow from a misunderstanding of this concept.     I have been disheartened to see first hand how this beautiful and key teaching of Christian family life has been twisted in so many ways to cause so much pain. Let me offer some examples so we’re all clear on what I’m talking about.  “My husband doesn’t want me, just my body. He ignores me or is cold to me most of the time, but then he wants to have sex  at least twice a day. I feel like he is using me, but He says that he is the head and I have to submit to him in all things, especially this, or else I’m sinning. I want to be a good wife. I don’t want to offend God, but I am so sad. What can I do?”

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“My husband said that I couldn’t buy any birthday presents for our two-year old because ‘He has enough already. He needs to learn to be grateful for what he has.’  He won’t even let my family come to celebrate his birthday. My heart is breaking for our son but I don’t want to disobey my husband, what should I do?”

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“The people in my homeschool group tell me that when my husband says something, even if I disagree with it, I have to say, ‘Yes, dear.’ because in marriage I am supposed to sacrifice my will entirely to the will of my husband. Something about that doesn’t seem right. It sounds extreme but what if he wanted me to kill someone? Where do I draw the line?”

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There is a great deal of confusion about what it means for the husband to be the head of the family and much harm can come from an improper understanding of this idea. The key to understanding headship lies in the John Paul II’s statement in Evangelium Vitae, that “Man’s lordship is not absolute, it is ministerial.” Let’s unpack that statement.

1. Obedience cannot be commanded, it must be invited.

There is an important distinction to be made between blind obedience and Christian obedience. Blind obedience uses fear to motivate. The person who relies on blind obedience says, “You must obey me because I am the leader, so there!” Christian obedience is a much different animal though. It is a logical response to loving service.  St. Ambrose was contemplating the scripture, “You are my friends if you keep my commands.” but he observed that friends don’t command other friends, if they did, it would no longer be a friendship but a relationship between a superior and inferior person (the commander and the commanded). What could Jesus mean by tying our friendship with Him to obedience to Him?     Ambrose realized that Jesus was talking about a new kind of obedience based on friendship rather than fear, an “obedience” that meant anticipating and fulfilling the needs of another.     Seen in this light, obedience is really another form of intimacy, where one person attentively seeks out the needs of the other and lovingly fulfills them, often without being asked, certainly without being asked twice.     This is the essence of true Christian obedience. What parent would not want this kind of obedience from their child? What spouse would not want this kind of obedience from their mate? What God would not want this kind of obedience from His people?

Understanding obedience in this way presents a challenge to all of us. Obviously Christian obedience is a good and desirable thing, and yet, we cannot demand obedience from another (nor can we nag, whine, threaten, beat, or manipulate it out of someone) if it is to remain true Christian obedience. In fact, there is only one way Christian parents and Christian spouses can “command” obedience; the same way Jesus commanded it, through an example of loving service.  When my wife or children come to me with a need, it is not my job to sit in judgment of that need and say “Yea” or “Nay” to it. It is my job to take that need seriously, and to help them find a godly way to meet that need. If I do this, then over time, my wife and children learn to trust me. They come to see that, “Hey, Greg always does well by us. He always helps us find respectful and efficient ways to meet our needs.” Because of this, they come to seek my counsel and take my advice all on their own without me ever having to “command” them to do anything. In other words, their “obedience” to my counsel is their logical response to my having served them first. In a Christian home, obedience does not result from me beating my chest and saying, “Me Head of Family! You brainless peon!”     (That is oppression, not headship.)     In a Christian home, obedience is not commanded, it is invited, by the husband becoming like Christ and washing the feet of the greatest and the least member of his family.

2.     The needs set the agenda, not the husband.

I recently spoke at a men’s conference where a gentleman cornered me after my talk and said, “It took me 25 years of marriage to realize I wasn’t going to get any credit– from God or my wife–for giving her things she didn’t want.”  I regularly hear from husbands who want to know, “How do I know what’s right for my family?” Many men think that omniscience is a prerequisite to headship. It is not.  How do you know what’s right for your family? You ask them!  As head of household, you must assume that the voice of God is speaking through the needs your wife and children bring to you. Their needs set the agenda, not you.  Husbands would do well to remember that God is the ultimate head of household and God is the author of all of our needs.  Of course, if you have concerns about certain things your family wants, you have a right to express them, even to insist that those concerns be addressed before you move forward with fulfilling that need (incidentally, your wife has this same right when you bring your needs to her. “Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ…) And you should always pray with your family to help them discern whether the need being expressed is truly godly, but assuming the need persists through prayer and discernment, we have little choice but to respond to it. As scripture says, in the end we must, “Follow the ways of your heart, the vision of your eyes.” Assuming we truly love God first and seek his will then, “all things,” presumably even our errors in judgment “will work for the good of those who love Him.” Again, being head of household does not mean being a one man Supreme Court whose family must convince you that their needs are worthy of being fulfilled.     It means that you must be a responsive and generous servant to whatever needs your family brings to you, especially the ones that make you uncomfortable. If you do this, then, and only then, will you be loving your family “as Christ loves the Church.”

3. You all belong to God.

Paul tells us, “None of us lives as his own…. In both life and death we belong to God.”  Because each one of us belongs to God, he speaks to each one of us, and he expects each of us to fulfill the purpose for which we have been created. The only way to do this, is to learn to be attentive to his voice in our hearts and to follow that voice where it leads us.  But I have met many husbands who think that their wife and children are obliged to follow the agenda that they set for the family, regardless of what the rest of the family thinks of that agenda. This is not headship. It is idolatry.  These husbands expect their family to be disobedient to the voice of God speaking in their hearts, and instead, be obedient only to the husband’s desires. How is this any different than the pagan kings of the Old Testament insisting that their subjects pray to them?     Whenever this occurred, the servants of God were praised for their strenuous resistance to this arguably legitimate authority who made himself illegitimate by the nature of his commands. Jesus said, “No man is greater than his master, no messenger than he who sent him” as he stooped to wash the feet of his apostles. If we would love our wives as Christ loved the Church, then we must first put on the apron of humility–and serve. We cannot concern ourselves with making our family obey us. We can only love them, better and better, until they turn their hearts to us. It is then that we will be like Christ, of whom we sing, “O, How I love Jesus, because he first loved me.

If you find yourself struggling with any of the issues mentioned in the above article, call your PaxCare Tele-Coach today and get the solutions you are seeking. Call us to get the skills you need to succeed.

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