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Upside-down headship

Men harm their wives when they mistake tyranny for leadership

Upside-down headship

(Krieg Barrie)

I know a woman who married for complex reasons: Her sordid past made her fearful and distrustful—of herself most of all. She met a man who was strong and committed to the faith she had recently discovered. A godsend! Or that’s what she told herself, even when she questioned some of his demands. But perhaps that was her fault; she had tons of sin to purge.

Soon enough, though, she began to wonder if this was what Jesus meant by “abundant life.” None of the churches they visited lived up to her husband’s standards, so they began “meeting” at home, as a congregation of two. He did most of the talking. The hothouse atmosphere produced strange fruit, and she couldn’t help noticing that while he zealously corrected her faults, he seemed blind to his own. As her loneliness intensified, so did her doubts—about him and about her own judgment. He began dictating how to dress and what to read and whom to befriend, backing himself up with Bible verses. They could scarcely have a conversation anymore; even the most trivial subjects led to lectures or arguments. Her heart shriveled, and thoughts of getting away devoured thoughts of pleasing him.

Finally she turned to the elders of her former church. After prayer and further counsel, they advised her to separate. The marriage died, but her faith survived.

This woman is not alone in her experience: I could name several others who followed a similar path, though it may have stretched out over several years. Most of them are no longer married, and in at least one case, the wife packed a suitcase one day and walked out—even leaving her kids behind, with vague promises to claim them later. She should have done what my friend did and turned to the church, but by then she had lost faith in the church, and perhaps even in the Lord.

Marriage is intended to build two people up, not to puff up one partner at the expense of the other.

None of these women were physically abused, but their faith had taken a beating. Their husbands disregarded their testimony, scoffed at their feelings (women are too emotional), told them they didn’t understand headship, tagged them with the worst possible motives, and met any objection with, “Wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”

How do we get from Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church to “God says I’m the boss”? By the same fatal shortcut we take to any other pet doctrine, which is bypassing Christ, or making Him justify the lifestyle or principle we love more than Him. A wife who seeks her identity in a man’s love rather than in Christ is easy to manipulate. But a husband who finds his identity in authoritarian headship has lost sight of the One who led by serving.

In certain circles, “wives, submit” receives far more exegesis than “husbands, love.” After all, submission is quickly elaborated in Ephesians 5:22-24, while the kind of love husbands are supposed to cultivate (verses 25-33) takes longer to explain and is much harder to practice. Some men appear to think their wives must submit to them before they can show Christlike love. Is that leadership? Did Jesus ask the same of His bride before loving her?

Gender complementarianism (the teaching that men and women are equal in worth but assume different roles in the church and in marriage) is clear in Scripture, but also clearly misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that a trembling, apologetic nature complements an unshakable, unbending nature, any more than soft flesh complements hard fist. The internet is littered with websites for runaway wives to tell their stories and lash out, sometimes at God Himself. But for each runaway there are many fearful women who remain, while wondering why they can’t find joy in a “biblical” marriage relationship.

Marriage is intended to build two people up, not to puff up one partner at the expense of the other. Jesus will not be used to justify tyranny. Husbands, if a worldly view of leadership has made you confuse authority with authoritarianism, it’s time truly to take the lead—in repentance.