Co-Leadership in Marriage: What about Headship?

Tim Evans


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coleadership headship

Headship can often become a divisive issue in marriage discussions—especially in religious circles. Various “infallible” headship interpretations and accompanying dialogue could fill a library. Our experience is that people will endlessly argue the original Greek and Hebrew, lexicons, grammar roots, verb tenses, hermeneutical and eschatological anthropomorphisms, and endless jots and tittles until Jesus Christ returns.

Our preference is to invest our time and energy focusing on God’s original co-leadership marriage principles. We are not theologians. But for decades, we’ve studied different headship interpretations. Our understanding is that proponents of the male rulership and traditional-hierarchical-complementarian marriage views interpret headship as meaning that the husband is the head who has authority over the wife. Egalitarian marriage view proponents believe headship means “source”—as in headwaters.

It is often assumed that the word “kephale” translated as “head” in this passage means leader, boss, or authority. However, while there are numerous references to titles for leaders in the New Testament, none is ever designated using the word “kephale”. The word “head” used in this manner appears exclusively in the relation of Christ to the church paralleled in that of a husband to a wife. In each of those references, the function of Christ’s headship to the church is servant-provider rather than authority or leadership.

As you can see, the scholarly debate about headship can get pretty “heady.”

But before sin entered the picture, there was no designated hierarchy, headship, or female subordination, and the man was not declared the leader or spiritual cover.

Headship is never mentioned until thousands of years after God’s original marriage design. In Eden, the husband and wife enjoyed mutual equality intrinsically and functionally. The husband and wife co-led together—naked and not ashamed—as they celebrated the miracle and mystery of two becoming one.

The Bible has a little over 31,000 verses, but it isn’t until Ephesians 5:23 that the apostle Paul—for the first time in all of history—described the husband as the head (kephale) of his wife.

This makes us wonder: if headship is a foundational component in the husband/wife relationship, doesn’t it make sense that Jesus would have made it a key point—an absolute—when he talked about marriage? But Jesus never mentioned headship. In fact, when Jesus talked about marriage, he returned to the one-flesh togetherness principles of Eden Matthew 19:4-6.

Nevertheless, we understand that many men and women consider headship a major marriage focus. When this is the case, we encourage the husband to act as the head as the Ephesians passage describes. The husband is to love his wife ‘as Christ also loved the church.’ How did Christ love the church? He ‘gave Himself up for her,’ ‘nourish[ing] and cherish[ing]’ her (see Ephesian 5:25-29).  As head, Christ died for the church; likewise, a husband as head is to give himself up for—nourish, cherish, love, serve, and be willing to die for—his bride. For the record, we have no problem with husbands living out headship in those ways.

Our experience is that walking out headship differs from couple to couple. Most religious leaders (including male rulership and traditional-hierarchical-complementarian marriage-view proponents) believe that headship means the husband has functional authority—and unless something is immoral or illegal—the right to have the final say in making decisions.

It’s like the husband possesses a gender trump card. Essentially there is a functional hierarchy with the husband first and the wife second.

Personally, we have concerns with interpretations in which head means the husband has final say and, if necessary, is able to impose his decision on his spouse. Impose is defined as “insist on something, make people agree or comply.” Nowhere in Scripture does it say a husband has the position or the authority to force his wife to submit to him.

Throughout church history, the “Christ as head of the church” metaphor has been misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misapplied.

As we look to Jesus as our model for headship, do we see Jesus ever having final say in making decisions? Does Jesus ever pull out a trump card and impose His will or make people comply? For example, does Jesus ever impose His desire for a person to avoid sin, repent, pray, serve at church, tithe, or live in certain ways? For that reason, we do not agree with marriage views where the husband has final say in making decisions or, figuratively speaking, has a male gender trump card.

Reread the Ephesians text. We believe the heart of headship includes an invitation to step into the Larger Story where God is the main character and to not live in the smaller story where functionally the husband is the main character.

Biblical headship includes a husband denying himself, dying to selfishness, and placing his spouse’s needs and feelings above his own. Remember, these commands to husbands in that season of history were over-the-top countercultural. At that time, life was all about men, and women were treated as property.

In addition, we find most male rulership and traditional-hierarchical-complementarian marriage proponents believe that as part of his headship role the husband is also the wife’s spiritual cover. Practically, this means a wife goes through her husband in the decision-making process because, as head, he is the spiritual leader in the marriage.

We do not believe this lines up with Scripture. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and [human]kind, the man Christ Jesus” 1 Timothy 2:5.

Our humble opinion is that men and women—husbands and wives—are to go directly to Jesus Christ. They are not to first go through any person—spouse, saint, or religious leader.

As we survey our culture and the current marriage landscape, we sense God inviting men and women (husbands and wives) not to focus on who has authority or to debate the precise meaning of head, but rather to focus on walking in humility—loving, serving, and together advancing God’s kingdom.

This is one of a three-part series on marriage adapted from the book “Together: Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage“. Used with permission. See also Part 2 Submission and Part 3 Authority.

More on marriage: Side by Side: Taking Responsibility for My Own Spiritual Well-Being and The Dance of Mutual Submission.

For scholarly commentary, see Kephale and Male Headship in Paul’s Letters by Margaret Mowczko.

Graphic credit: Kate Hickman

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  • I have often wondered why people (pastors, etc.) keep using Paul’s words. Jesus said, “The gentiles lord it over each other, but with you it shall not be so. You are to serve each other.” Is this not clear enough?

    • When “people (pastors,etc.)” interpret Paul’s words in ways that contradict Jesus, they are misinterpreting him. Paul had heard about what Jesus said while he was on earth. Paul has to be interpreted in light of what Jesus said. Paul’s words can’t be torn out of context of the gospel message as a whole. Some “people (pastors,etc.)” even interpret Paul’s writings in ways that contradict other writings of Paul. Paul said that there is no male or female in Christ, that all believers should think of others as more important than themselves. Peter said that believers form a royal priesthood (no gender exceptions).

      Take Ephesians as an example: Paul said that the dividing walls (of the temple) had been broken down and we are all being built together into a dwelling place for God, and we are all seated with Christ in heaven. After reading all that Paul says in Ephesians about who we are in Christ, how could anyone think that he would then say that women were less? No, Paul was telling the women in Ephesians to behave toward their husbands as all believers were to behave toward each other. Why it needed to be said wasn’t stated, but if we interpret it as a command to hierarchy, we have to assume that the Paul didn’t understand the gospel or what he had just written before this. Why these “people (pastors,etc.)” don’t just see this and say, “Wow, I wonder what some of the Ephesian women were doing that would require Paul to tell them such basic stuff about Christian humility and attitudes toward others?” Instead, they take it, contradict all that goes before, and interpret it through their personal cultural biases, instead of researching the many available historical references dealing with the religious beliefs of the Ephesian people that Paul may have been trying to refute.

      • That’ll preach! Thanks for your thoughtful response, Michelle 🙂

  • Excellent post! I just finished their book “Together: Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage” and it is a must-read. It’s exciting to see the next generation opening up a new conversation about marriage. We want to experience passionate, kingdom-focused marriages based on God’s original design with Christ as the head. I’m grateful for their contribution to the conversation.

  • How interesting to read articles and views on a changing world. Great insight I think. Our marriage is an interesting mixture of independence and giving way to the better decision we both come to. Our sons treat women as equals, but, because of our attitudes, also delight in regarding women as ladies….as one pointed out….women don’t always have the physical safety that size and muscle provide!
    Could be because their mother is 5ft tall, and the three men in my life are 6’2 and more! That’s reality in a good way, I’m equal, but I like to be treated as the lady I try to be!, and treat the men I know as gentlemen in the best sense of the word.

  • I have ordered their book Together: Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage for me and several friends. If you enjoyed this excerpt, get the whole thing. Great book!

  • In John Bristow’s book, What Paul Really Said About Women, he states that kephale (head), means “the first into battle,” not in the sense of someone being a general or commander, but the first one who puts his life on the line. I believe this is a good interpretation.

    • That’s an interesting interpretation that I haven’t heard before. It does fit with laying your life down!

  • Lovely and timely…thank you! It is good to see others with the same outlook, especially when being beaten down by the opposite. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • Well done, Tim and Anne. I appreciate the great job you do of staying true to Scripture and Kingdom principles while also building bridges with those who disagree/live differently. Sounds like I need to check out your book and ministry!

  • Tim and Anne have their finger on the pulse of truth when it comes to headship in marriage. Hats off to them for having the courage to challenge the status quo.

  • I like the article, but I do not sense God telling us not to discuss or debate the meaning of “head” in the original languages, etc. I’ve seen ever too many women (and men!) set free from a life far less wonderful than they should be enjoying just by hearing the simple truth… “It doesn’t say that in the Greek.” 🙂 Maybe some of us can focus on the Pre-Fall picture (and indeed, those folks should also dive in to the idea of “Echad” or plural oneness found in scripture, as well!) and maybe some others of us should carry on with the “heady debate.” 😀

  • Great article!

    As with any interpretation of Scripture we have to ask what the author wanted the original hearers of the letter to understand, and not project our own cultural mores and assumptions onto it. In Western Culture ‘head’ (Kephale) means boss, not so in 1st Century Middle Eastern culture; what Paul said was a slap in the face to the prevailing culture, both then and now. Paul painted a picture of a husband that sharply contrasted with the views of his day (think men carrying out honour killings in African and Iranian villages). Paul used words such as head/ source, cherish, love very deliberately – boss simply doesn’t work with the context, it is completely out of tune with the harmony of kingdom culture.

    Thanks again.

  • Great post! Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and insight regarding this topic. I am always encouraged by couples that model a partnership-oriented relationship.

    Something that I have personally struggled with in regard to the Ephesians 5 passage is that even with understanding headship to be servant-hearted in nature, wives are still essentially left in a subordinate position.

    The passage 5:21-33 begins and ends with a call for mutual submission, love, and respect. I feel that this is noteworthy for the style of Paul’s argumentation style.

    Furthermore, it seems to me that Paul is describing the way things are in his context, with women being subject and under a headship (vv.23-24), and using that as an understanding for how Christ has loved the church (the men he’s addressing, included). Thus, challenging men to love their wives in a way that was radical for that culture. Since women were already subordinate to men in nearly every aspect of the society to whom Paul was writing, it seems odd that he would feel the need to reiterate a command for women to be subject to men, or for men to function within a headship. A more likely understanding of the passage is that Paul is subverting the way things were in his culture, and promoting his consistent themes of being like Christ as the body of Christ.

    The fact that Paul tells men to love their wives is absolutely crazy for that time period in and of itself (v.25). Paul then quotes Genesis (Gen 2:24), which states that it is the man who leaves his family to join his wife – another absolutely crazy notion. Genesis 2:24 was stated prior to the fall and the curse given for men to lord over women. Also within this verse is the reference to the man and woman becoming one flesh. Paul follows that verse by describing it as a great mystery that he is applying to the church (Eph 5:32). The concept of being “one flesh” and being the “body of Christ” seem to be intentionally paired with what Paul says in the rest of the passage (not to mention functioning as the body of Christ is one of Paul’s primary messages in his writing). It seems probable that Paul is offering direction for both husbands and wives, but namely husbands, to love as Christ did. Men did not consider women people to be loved, but rather subhuman objects to fulfill their purposes. Women were required to be subjected. Paul seems to be saying, “Hey, this is how Christ loves you as the bride, His body, do the same for your wife.” I feel that this passage has been interpreted more as a prescribed privilege that men have to be Christ to their wives in some form of headship. I would propose that Paul is actually calling both the husband and wife, as members of Christ’s body (notice the corporate/inclusive language used following v. 30), to love each other in “subjection” to one another (Eph 5:21, 30-33).

  • Jesus told his disciples that they would not rule over one another like the Gentiles did. The verb is not in the imperative, but in the indicative (Matt. 20:20-28). It is a statement of fact. The logical conclusion then is that a man who lords it over his wife is not living as a true disciple of our one true Lord, Jesus Christ.

  • Thanks. Meaningful, logical, accurate, and freeing for both spouses.

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