Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

Biblical Marriage and the Headship Debate

  • Shaunti Feldhahn & Robert Lewis Authors, The Life Ready Woman
  • 2012 31 Mar
Biblical Marriage and the Headship Debate

The following is part II of an excerpt from Shaunti Feldhahn and Robert Lewis' new book The Life Ready Woman (B&H Publishing Group, 2011). Read Part I, "The Wonderful Differences Between Men and Women," here.

Now that we can see a biblical definition of godly manhood and womanhood, let’s take a look at God’s design for marriage, a discussion that can help both those currently married and those single but looking ahead. Unlike our biblically generated definitions for manhood and womanhood that we can piece together by contrasting two archetypes, Scripture provides an explicit outline for marriage. It can be awkward to talk about because it is all too often misunderstood, and in a moment we’ll deal with some of those common concerns. But let’s just start with what the Scripture actually says:

  • God the Father is the Lord of marriage, charging the husband and the wife with specific callings for their marriage (Genesis 1:28; Genesis 2:24).
  • Husband and wife are to live together as coheirs of the gift of life, sharing equal honor and value as those made in God’s image and as one in Christ (Genesis 1:27; Galatians 3:28-29; 1 Peter 3:7).
  • Husband and wife are to strive for unity and oneness submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).
  • In the same way that Christ is the head of his bride (the church), the husband is charged by God to be the head of his wife (Ephesians 5:23; 1 Peter 3:1).
  • The wife is specifically made equal in personhood to her husband but is also charged by God to be the helper of her husband (1 Pet. 3:7; Genesis 2:18; the Hebrew word for helper, Ezer Kenegdo, literally means “a helper who is corresponding to him” or “equal in power and ability to him”). 1
  • The husband is to love his wife sacrificially, as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25) and as he loves himself (Ephesians 5:28). He is to understand his wife and love her in ways that meet her deepest needs (1 Pet. 3:7) – for example, giving her security, valuing her as an equal partner, giving her conversational companionship, and being emotionally responsive to her.
  • The wife is to love her husband in ways that meet his deepest needs: giving him admiration and respect, providing him personal support, joining him as his recreational companion, and being physically responsive to him (Proverbs 31:27-29; 1 Corinthians 7:3; Ephesians 5:33).
  • Children are to be valued as gifts from God requiring time, sacrifice, personal attention, and training (Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Psalms 127:3; Proverbs 22:6).
  • Children are to be raised to embrace a vision of changing the world and advancing God’s kingdom with their unique gifts (Gen. 1: 28; Psalms 127:4-5; 1 Peter 4:10).
  • The Holy Spirit is the conscience and the power that makes this kind of marriage possible (John 14:25-26; John 16:8-15).

This is the biblical outline for marriage. Today, however, parts of it have become controversial among some Christians, especially the titles of head and helper. Many modern marriages no longer embrace these biblical terms or use them in their wedding ceremonies. Now, I (Shaunti) completely understand the impetus behind that trend and know that it is often well-intentioned (trying to omit anything that might be perceived as degrading toward women). But it results in eliminating a vital piece of guidance that is, when rightly understood, absolutely life-giving and transformational to launching a couple into the loving, balanced, and equal partnership they are presumably longing for.

Today, as a result of avoiding or downplaying these awkward terms, many couples are launched into their marriages on vague generalities of love rather than with specific biblical responsibilities. The only clear mandate is that the husband and wife must be viewed as the same.

The biblical marriage, however, is a radically different construct. Scripture recognizes first and foremost that men and women are created as spiritual equals before God. But as noted, “equal” does not mean “the same.” We each have our differences, including several gender-specific marital responsibilities. And the reason God gives each gender such a specific responsibility is not because one partner is inherently better or more able to lead than the other but because God is trying to bring balance, peace, unity, and abundance to a marriage relationship that sin will otherwise mess up.

But It Seems So Old-Fashioned, Even Dangerous!

If you are struggling with this outline of biblical marriage (or, more accurately, struggling with the notion that a man should ever be considered “the head of” his wife), believe me, I (Shaunti) completely understand. When I first came to a true relationship with God and started reading the Bible at the age of twenty-one, I had the same disbelief and discomfort with this notion that many other modern women do. My worldview was already set, and it did not include a favorable attitude toward male “headship.” Frankly, that idea made me furious! No matter how much my pastor or Christian friend tried to explain that God views women as equal, I couldn’t get past how unjust it seemed, or the question of, “Well, if we are equal, then why make anyone the head?”

Three years later something clicked as I was leaving for graduate school. My boss at work said he too was leaving; he and several colleagues were going to be equal partners at a firm he would head. A bit confused (I was still young!), I asked, “Well, if you’re partners, how will you be the head of it?” And he said, “I’ll essentially be first among equals. Ultimate responsibility has to be given to someone or there is chaos.” And in that moment, I finally understood one of the reasons for the biblical notion of headship. There is no such thing as a truly leaderless organization. Even in purely egalitarian partnerships, ultimate responsibility has to rest with someone for specific tasks. We’ve all seen how it works in equals-type situations like school project groups or volunteering efforts. To get anything done, someone either has to be given leadership responsibility by an outside authority or has to step up and assume that role. And like any other organizations, someone in the family unit has to have ultimate responsibility. Chaos results when the family leader abdicates that responsibility.

Now that said, God has created the family to be different from your average business! In fact, unlike a traditional, hierarchical organization, God wants the husband and wife, as equals, to always strive for unity, oneness, and agreement. This is not the same thing as “compromising to meet in the middle,” and it is not, “I’ll take your opinion under advisement and then make the decision, thank you very much.” Instead, it is a purposeful effort to walk in true oneness of mind, heart, and purpose, including a willingness to defer to one another (Eph. 5: 21). And as the one given the ultimate leadership responsibility, it is, in the end, the husband’s job to create that environment.

Bringing Balance

You might be asking the same thing I did. “Okay, but why does God ask the man to lead and not the woman?” To us that simply doesn’t seem fair.

The biblical answer is perhaps the most important and most misunderstood key to building the great relationship God intended us to have, which is why the selective use or ignoring of this Scripture is so tragic. The answer is that the head and helper responsibilities put as back into balance. A man’s willingness to take a position of servant leadership, and a woman’s willingness to allow him to do so, serves to reverse a man’s sinful tendency to either passively shut down or to dominate, and serves to reverse a woman’s sinful tendency to control. It brings us to true biblical equality – not the sort of modern “equality” in which one partner is, in reality, the one imposing their will on the other.

Our Tendencies

To understand this more specifically, let’s look at what each gender’s sinful tendencies are. First, see what God told Eve would be the pattern for men and women after the fall: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3: 16, emphasis mine).

Our English word doesn’t come close to the full meaning of the word used here: teshuwqah is only used three times in the Bible. And we can see its meaning most clearly in the next use, Genesis 4: 7, where God sees that Cain (Adam and Eve’s firstborn son) has developed a murderous attitude toward his younger brother, Abel. God tells Cain, “Sin is crouching at the door; and its desire (teshuwqah) is for you, but you must master it.” This word means a desire to envelop, master, and control. We see the desire to control when Eve decides to ignore her husband’s God-given instruction not to eat the fruit and to convince him to do what she wanted him to do, as well.  In other words, Eve in practice doesn’t really prefer things to be fair, unified, and equal, like the rest of us, she really wants things done her way.

And in response to this controlling desire, Adam backs off, does not step in to strongly protect his wife, and becomes passive, just as is the case with many men today. (“Fine. Whatever you want.”) The other pattern we see with men today (sometimes even the same men) is outlined in Genesis 3: 16 as another possible and ungodly reaction a woman’s controlling desire: that a man may seek to rule. This is not the noble leadership God set forth for Adam in Genesis 2 but a cursed leadership that dominates, forces compliance, and demands submission: a rule of power, not love. It is an injurious rule men have used over women for centuries.*

The “desire to control” that God said Eve will now feel for her husband and the passivity and/or domination Adam will now exercise area both desperate and tragic. They are corruptions of God’s original design of Adam as a caring head and Eve as a supportive helper.

*At this point, we must make a key distinction. While some men do become harsh and dominating in response to a woman’s desire to control, that is not the only reason for that pattern, nor even an excuse for it. A man’s emotional or physical abuse of a woman is never “caused” by her approach. In fact, abusive patterns also often start with the reverse: a violent man partnering with a more timid or non-controlling woman that he sees he can more easily bully.

Excerpted from The Life Ready Woman (Broadman & Holman). Copyright (c) 2011 by Veritas Enterprises & Robert M. Lewis. All rights reserved.

Shaunti Feldhahn is a former Wall Street analyst, best-selling author (For Women Only), national speaker, and regular commentator in the media. She and her husband live with their two children in Atlanta, Georgia.

Robert Lewis is the visionary leader behind the Life Ready series of video studies. He is a pastor, best-selling author (Rocking the Roles: Building a Win-Win Marriage), and the founder of the popular Men's Fraternity Bible study movement. He and his wife have four grown children and live in Little Rock, Arkansas.