X Close Menu

Husbands Who Lovingly Lead their Wives (3:19)

“Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Col. 3:19). Although the word for “headship” does not appear in this text, it is found in the parallel passage in Ephesians 5 and thus calls for extensive comment.

Perhaps the best place to begin, as I did with submission, is by dispelling the myths about the nature of biblical headship.

First, husbands are never commanded to rule their wives, but to love them. The Bible never says, “Husbands, take steps to insure that your wives submit to you.” Nor does it say, “Husbands, exercise headship and authority over your wives.” Rather, the principle of male headship is either asserted or assumed and men are commanded to love their wives as Christ loves the church.

Second, headship is never portrayed in Scripture as a means for self-satisfaction or self-exaltation. Headship is always other-oriented. I can’t think of a more horrendous sin than exploiting the God-given responsibility to lovingly lead by perverting it into justification for using one’s wife and family to satisfy one’s lusts and thirst for power.

Third, headship is not the power of a superior over an inferior. Human nature is sinfully inclined to distort the submission of the wife into the superiority of the husband. That some, in the name of male headship, have done precisely this cannot be denied, but it must certainly be denounced. We must also remember that the abuse of headship is not sufficient justification for abandoning it. Rather, we must strive, in God’s grace, to redeem it and purify it in a way that honors both Christ and one’s spouse.

Fourth, headship is never to be identified with the issuing of commands, nor does it mean that the husband must make every decision in the home. Unfortunately, some men have mistakenly assumed that it undermines their authority for their wives to take the initiative in certain domestic matters. This is more an expression of masculine insecurity and fear than it is godly leadership.

So let’s try to identify the essence of male headship.

First, headship is more a responsibility than a right. A “right” is something we tend to demand or insist upon as something we are owed. This can all too often make for an authoritarian and self-serving atmosphere in the home. When headship is viewed as a sacred trust in which the husband is “called” by God to lead and honor and sacrifice for his wife, the tone and mood of the home are radically improved.

Second, headship is the authority to serve. John Stott explains: "If headship means 'power' in any sense, then it is power to care, not to crush; power to serve, not to dominate; power to facilitate self-fulfillment, not to frustrate or destroy it. And in all this the standard of the husband's love is to be the cross of Christ, on which he surrendered himself even to death in his selfless love for his bride" (232).

Third, headship is the opportunity to lead. If Jesus is our example of biblical leadership, it will help to take note of how he led his disciples. Among other things, he led by teaching his disciples, by setting an example for them (John 13:15), by spending time with his disciples (Acts 4:13), and by delegating authority to them (Luke 10:1-20).

Fourth, headship is scripturally circumscribed. Husbands have never been given the authority to lead their families in ways that are contrary to the Bible. On a related note, if a wife is ever asked or told by her husband to do something that violates Scripture, she is not only free to disobey him, she is obligated to do so.

Fifth, headship does entail the responsibility to make a final decision when agreement cannot be reached. This final decision, however, may on occasion be to let his wife decide. No. contrary to what you may think, this latter option does not undermine the husband’s authority.

Sixth, headship entails gentleness and sensitivity, as our text in Colossians 3:19 makes clear. Paul’s exhortation not to be “harsh” or “embittered” toward one’s wife has in view "friction caused by impatience and thoughtless nagging" (Moule).

Seventh, headship does not give men the right to be wrong. Simply because God has invested in the husband the authority to lead does not give him the freedom to lead in ways that are contrary to God’s Word.

Eighth, headship means “honoring” one's wife (see 1 Peter 3:7). What a powerful word! Men, pause for a moment and reflect on what you feel, do, and say when you “honor” something: whether an idea, event, your country, the flag, a person. Is that how you treat your wife?

Ninth, headship means loving and caring for one's wife as much as we love and care for ourselves (see Eph. 5:28-29).

Tenth, and finally, headship means loving and caring for one's wife as much as Christ loves and cares for us (see Col. 3:19; Eph. 5:25-27). Christ's love for us is unconditional (Romans 5:8), eternal (Romans 8:39), unselfish (Phil. 2:6-7), and sacrificial (Eph. 5:25), among countless other characteristics. John Stott put it best:

"Christ 'loved' the church and 'gave himself' for her, in order to 'cleanse' her, 'sanctify' her, and ultimately 'present' her to himself in full splendour and without any defect. In other words, his love and self-sacrifice were not an idle display, but purposive. And his purpose was not to impose an alien identity upon the church, but to free her from the spots and wrinkles which mar her beauty and to display her in her true glory. The Christian husband is to have a similar concern. His headship will never be used to suppress his wife. He longs to see her liberated from everything which spoils her true feminine identity and growing towards that 'glory', that perfection of fulfilled personhood which will be the final destiny of all those whom Christ redeems. To this end Christ gave himself. To this end too the husband gives himself in love" (Stott).

Humbled by the responsibility of headship,

Sam