Headship means leadership and authority—both in the New Testament and in secular Greek. But the leadership that takes its pattern from the Scriptures displays an altogether different character from that of the world. Jesus Christ spells out the difference in Mark 10:42–45: “Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Peter calls for this kind of leadership in I Peter 5:1–5. Pastors are to feed (shepherd) God’s flock, not for self-centered reasons or as “lords over God’s heritage,” but as “ensamples [examples] to the flock.” Peter, himself a man whose leadership started out more headstrong than Christlike, displays biblical headship both in what he says and in how he says it. In verse 1 he exhorts (comes alongside) them as a fellow elder, not as a ruler over them. There’s no question that he would have recoiled at the notion of someone kissing his ring or calling him pontifex maximus. Why? Because Peter clearly does not take his concept of leadership from the secular world. Worldly headship is lordship leadership. But Peter has learned to follow his Lord’s pattern. In the church and in the family, biblical headship is servant leadership.
Just as Christ’s undershepherds should never lord it over God’s heritage, so godly husbands and fathers should never behave like despots in the home. I Peter 3:7 commands a husband to make a home with his wife according to knowledge (understanding). He is to honor his wife (treat her as highly valuable) as the weaker vessel. She has made herself vulnerable to her husband’s headship for good or ill. God warns husbands not to abuse that trust. A Christian wife is a fellow heir of God’s grace. Christ poured out His lifeblood to redeem her. Woe to the man that treats her harshly! No wonder Peter warns that failure in this area hinders our prayers.
Paul’s admonitions in Ephesians 5 yield the same conclusions. A husband is to nourish and cherish his wife—to give her the warm and tender security she needs. Ephesians 5:23 teaches that “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.” Christ not only redeemed His body—the Church—He is our continuing Deliverer, Preserver, and Benefactor—our Head. It makes no sense for your physical head to mistreat your body. Doing so violates the function of the head. In the same way, those modeling biblical headship don’t mistreat those whom they lead.
Just how far should a husband go? Paul answers in verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” If he takes his pattern from Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, a husband will sacrifice his own life for his wife. Paul isn’t talking strictly about making some impulse sacrifice in an emergency situation. He’s talking about the day-to-day sacrifice of self for the good of one’s spouse.
That kind of living requires more than human power. It takes the fullness of the Spirit. This section in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus begins with the command to be filled with the Spirit (5:18). Among other results of the Holy Spirit’s control is mutual submission to one another: a wife in reverence to her husband, a husband in sacrificial love for his wife, children in obedience to their parents, fathers in not provoking or exasperating their children, slaves in cheerful service, masters in kind treatment of their slaves. Why are believers to behave this way? Because they fear the Lord.
Every one of us will answer to God, especially those who lead. Our headship does not belong to us by right. It is given to us by God, and to God we will give account. I Corinthians 11:3: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” Christ always did what pleased His Father. Men ought always to please Christ.
So how do we live this way, not just under direct public scrutiny but also in the telltale pattern of our private lives? First, we have to be drawing on the power of God’s Spirit that indwells every true believer. That means we need to be sure we are really born again. Holding a position of Christian leadership does not make one a Christian. A man who consistently displays carnal behavior in his leadership calls into question whether he really knows God at all.
Second, we must subject our concept of headship to what the Bible teaches leadership should be: selfless, loving, gentle, caring, humble—leading for the sake of those you lead rather than for yourself. Third, leading means you’re walking a path others can imitate. “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Set the example. Teach and preach, yes—but teach and preach with your ways, not just with your words. Don’t just tell them; show others how to live.
Finally, be quick to ask forgiveness when you fail to lead like Christ. Doing so will communicate that your leadership is not aimed at bending others to your will. It will show those you lead that you keenly feel your accountability to the Lord Jesus. You will demonstrate to them that your leading is not about you; it’s about Him. If you model truly biblical headship, your life will be a case in point. Following Him makes our leadership matter—for time and for eternity. Soli Deo Gloria.
Drew Conley is pastor of Hampton Park Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.