On Female Submission and Male Headship

On Female Submission and Male Headship
By: Evelyn Miranda – Feliciano
Retrieved from Vol. 9 No. 2 (1993)

Ephesians 5:21-23

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

“Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord; For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body. For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and his wife must respect her husband.” (NIV) 

This appears to be the Magna Carta of marital relationships, the ideal standard of Christian marriage. This is a passage around which almost every officiating pastor worth his salt weaves his sermon in Christian weddings; the favorite Scripture portion in marriage encounters, family camps, and couple’s fellowship.

Yet, for all its seeming clarity and noble perspective of how husband and wife should relate to each other, it is also, along with similar passages in the New Testament (i.e., Peter 3:1-7; Col. 3:18-19), a deep source of controversy among theologians, and naturally, among the immediate subjects – the husbands and wives themselves.

I have heard women friends suffering from marital pains, ask in anguish: “Do I really have to be subject in everything? How long do I have to bear all these?” And I also heard men friends thunder from the pulpit: “As head, the husband has authority over his wife. He is the one who will give an account of her before God.” Apparently, there are different emphases and understandings of this passage. It may be best to look at it again, this time with a little more circumspection as in what often it is supposed to mean.

Three general observations can be made outright:

One. St. Paul’s admonition to husbands and wives is within the purview of a new life that Christians receive in the redemptive act of the Lord Jesus (5:1-22) and within the direct canopy of a more general rule— that Christians exercise submission to one another as an act of reverence for Christ (v. 21). This is an important context that is often neglected by not a few churchmen who are quite eager to emphasize that wives should submit to their husbands. Overlooking this general principle makes the whole admonition lopsided with submission, stacked on one side only, which is the wife.

St. Paul undoubtedly does not have such an idea. Elsewhere in his letters, he stresses mutuality. In 1 Corinthians 7:4, for instance, he points out that in a sexual relationship, husband and wife have a reciprocal obligation to submit to one another and not have the husband ‘lord’ it over his wife. Unfortunately, however, a number of Christian wives have voiced out their tragic helplessness in this matter. Some husbands’ sexual demands are unreasonable. They expect their wives to give in to their wishes regardless of their feelings or inclinations. “My husband wants sex any time of the day, I get sick of it. Sometimes I literally vomit right after,” a wife confided some years back. “Can’t you just refuse? Say no to him?” I asked. “He told me I should be thankful he comes to me for it and not to other women. He is a church worker, and I don’t want him to sin by my refusal,” she said. Two years later, I met her again and inquired about her problem. “I can’t do anything. I just bear it,” she shrugged her shoulders unhappily, surrendering to what she termed as a “kalbaryo” in her life.

Her case may be extreme, but many Filipino wives hardly have any say in their sex lives with their husbands. Some wives have shown me their bruised upper arms and thighs inflicted by their husbands for refusing their sexual advances. It is apparent then, that mutual agreement and mutual enjoyment do not figure in some marriages at all.

Yet, submission to one another and consideration for each other is St. Paul’s constant theme among believers. He reminds Christians (man and woman, husband and wife) in humility to consider others better than themselves, and each one to look after the interests of others and not only theirs (Phil. 2:3-4). Or, that each one should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up (Romans 15:2). Thus, for a relationship to deepen, humility must be reciprocal. For it to grow, submission must be mutual.

Two.  The thrust of the passage is a mutuality of responsibility: the wife is to submit and the husband to love. And both model their attitude and action to one another after Christ. It is worth noting that the apostle spent a scant two verses to address the wife (and one tail-end clause in v. 33b) whereas, he spends nine verses to ensure that the husband gets it right. The word “love” and “loved” are mentioned six times. This is a simple composition principle, that is —we repeat and provide more space and time to that point we want to emphasize. This may appear quite elementary but a good number of expositions intoned in many pulpits dwell too much on the wife’s obligation and too little on the husband’s that it gives the impression of intellectual lopsidedness if not dishonesty on the part of the expositors. 

Three. The whole issue of headship in this passage has nothing to do with the common exegesis that the husband as head has a monopoly of authority over his wife. That is to say, St. Paul places him on a superior plane and that marriage is necessarily a hierarchical structure with the husband on top. Therefore, his is the dominant voice. He is the chief decision-maker, the final arbiter in all family matters. This stems from the metaphorical comparison used by St. Paul of Christ as the head of the church to illustrate how the husband is to be head of the wife.

Such interpretation is not found in the passage. Rather, we find a description of headship that is entirely different from what the pagans and most of us have in mind. It is the kind of headship that loves, sacrifices, cares ad serves. If we are looking for marital authority that subjugates or domineers, we have to look elsewhere and not in the teachings of St. Paul, nor in any part of Scripture for that matter.

Rather, in all the main passages related to married life for Christians, the stress is on mutual privileges and mutual obligations in a perfect balance. In Genesis, the woman is the helper fit for the man, yet, she is the bone of his bones (Gen. 2:20, 23). This means the woman in her different-ness is the exact answer to what man lacks. Yet, he sees so much of himself in her such that he instinctively knows she is an integral part of his being. They could only belong to each other.

The woman is also described as the weaker sex yet she is a co-heir of the gracious gift of life (1 Peter 3:7). “The woman is not independent of man, nor man is independent of woman,” so says St. Paul. “For as woman came from man, so also is the man born of woman. But everything comes from God” (1 Cor. 11:11). Wives are to be submissive while husbands are to be considerate and loving (1 Peter 3:1, 7 cf. Col. 3:18-19). The mutuality or reciprocity or interdependence is too pervasive for anyone to construct a distinct, rigid, and immovable hierarchical structure or role for wives and husbands or woman and man.

For this reason, we need more flexibility and generosity of heart in considering the husband-wife relationship. Not only are the texts related to it complex but also there is much ambiguity that fuels controversy. Added to that is the cultural conditioning that often makes us see what we want to find.

Coming to Scripture with our Particular Lenses

Students of Scripture apparently come to it with an understanding derived from their own nature, nurture, and culture which is altogether understandable. No one approaches the Bible from a vacuum. What perhaps would make one reading more accurate than another would be its thoroughness and consistency with the entire intent of Scriptural teachings, a better grasp of the contexts in which pertinent portions of Scripture were written, and the cogency of the whole thought.

Three streams of thought currently prevail in the discussions of the husband-wife, man-woman relationship. 

To the first stream belongs what may be called the structuralists. They believe that when God created man and woman, He intended man to rule over woman. This is so because: (1) in the order of creation, man (the male counterpart) was created first (Gen. 2:7) and because he was first, it follows that he comes higher in ranking; (2) Also, the woman was created in response to the need of man (v.18) so he would have a “helper suitable for him.” The word “helper” is taken to mean a lower status, the sort who does the household chores nowadays; (3) Last, the composition of the woman was taken from the man (v.21). This implies that her life, her very existence is dependent on him. The way to fulfill this role is to submit to the husband for the sake of Christ, “as is fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18), even when the husband is not a Christian yet (1 Pet. 3:1).

The second stream is a variation of the above. It still holds that the wife’s calling is to stand by her husband as a helper but contends that being a helper does not make her inferior because she is the complement of the man. Her submission though decidedly puts her in a supportive role. Elizabeth Catherwood, a proponent of this perspective, enjoins the wife to rejoice in this position. “She has been made by God to help man to function as God’s representative in this world. She is to be his comforter, the one to whom he can speak and look for comfort and encouragement.1 “Along the same vein, David Field, another proponent, points out that headship is very much compatible with interdependence as both are important elements in marriage which are lived out in the Spirit of God. He quotes 1 Peter 3:4 to show that the subordination of wives is something of ‘great worth in God’s sight’. He made much use of the metaphor of Christ as head of the church in the same way that the husband is the head of the wife. He insists that when Paul compares the headship of the husband to that of Christ, “he clearly intends to say (among other things) that the wife takes the New Testament teachings on headship seriously and must yield to her husband’s authority not just to his needs.”2

The third stream is quite uncomfortable to many because it does not sit well with the Christian conventional wisdom on the man-woman, wife-husband relationship. It questions its hierarchical concept and demolishes the well-laid authoritarian marital structure as it looks at Scriptures afresh. It argues for mutual submission, shared leadership, reciprocal obligations, and privileges within the canopy of marriage.

It raises the following serious questions on some of the traditional arguments for a hierarchical husband-wife relationship:

  1. On the “man was created first and so logically ranks higher than woman”: Following this line of argument do the animals which God created much earlier rank higher than man? Obviously, they do not. Therefore, this argument from precedence is useless.
  2. On “the helper suitable for him” argument: The “helper” does not mean inferior or subordinate. Precisely because the man was inadequate, incomplete (a little lost and helpless, perhaps) and it was not good for him to be alone, that God thoughtfully and lovingly provided him the woman. The word “helper” in the Old Testament is mostly used to describe God. It means the “one who lends a hand”, a deliverer who brings help, aid, or support. In the O.T., God’s children are encouraged not to rely on any other source of help but on God alone who is the Ultimate Helper. Seen in this light, nobody ever imagines that God is inferior because He is our helper.

As to the woman being a “help meet for him”, the idea of “meet” is not so much ‘suitability’ (although it is implied), as likeness, or correspondence in nature. Thus, for a woman to be “helper” is for her to stand alongside man, being an image of himself, his perfect complement and counterpart. Upon beholding such a delight, man himself exclaimed with not a little awe: “This is a bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Would he have said that if he regarded her a little less than himself?

  1. On “woman came from man (Gen. 2:21) and so owes her existence to him”: Technically, this is an argument of composition. It intends to show that because woman comes from man, she is dependent on him for life and he has authority over her and is superior to her. Close observation of the text, however, shows that the creation of woman was a complete initiative of God. Man was put to sleep He did nothing towards the creation and realization of her being. It is God and God alone to whom woman owes her life. And to follow through the argument of composition, are we to say that because man comes from the “dust of the ground,” it is superior to him? This is ridiculous! What matters is that God breathes life into man (who comes from dust) and woman (who comes from man’s ribs) and they become living beings – a mirror of each other, beautifully and wonderfully made – two individuals meant for partnership and togetherness.

Headship turns on its head

As earlier mentioned, the headship of husband in Ephesians 5 does not stress authority, superiority, or domination. The core of this headship is love mentioned six times in nine verses (vv.25, 28, 33). This love is patterned after Christ who loves the church. It is expressed in very concrete ways.

First, it is the giving of oneself to the beloved. A self-surrendering, self-sacrificing posture is not a virtue of a person who wants to rule. The reason for such an act is to make the loved one better, purer, lovelier. In a marriage, the wife does not flourish under a heavy-handed domineering husband. She wilts and withers even as she submits meekly to her pre-programmed script. As one young wife said, “My husband no longer treats me as his wife. He only comes to me when he needs me sexually. Other than that, I am only an assistant to his business. At minsan sinasabihan pang ‘bobo’.” This is tragic. Men shaped by traditional male machismo usually refuse to look at Scriptures in more enlightened ways. Though their wives languish secretly, they carry on with bravado convincing their selves that everything is fine.

A self-giving husband does not regard his wife less when he sees in her some weaknesses or defects. As a loving response, he provides whatever it takes to overcome those blemishes in her person. More than what he can do for her, his own person is his best gift to her. A husband has to remember that, unlike Christ, he is not at all perfect. Hence, he has to be humbler and more compassionate towards his spouse.

Headship within the canopy of love is not only self-sacrifice. It is treating another person with dignity and grace. This is the import of St. Paul saying: “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body” (vv. 28-29). In the creation account, man and woman mirror each other. Their roots are from God. Together they express fully the image of God in their beings. There is dignity in simply being a person- a man or a woman. Paul is saying to the husband in this passage: “Look at your wife. She is you! She hungers, she aches, she loves, she desires, she dreams as you do. Treat her like yourself, for surely you love yourself enough to attend to your person’s needs.”

The concept of husband-hood is revolutionary in St. Paul’s time. It was almost heretical to insist on this kind of headship. Woman then was a non-entity. The Greco-Roman world like the Jewish society placed women beyond the pale of common humanity. She was regarded as man’s property along with land and the oxen and other household goods. “One must utter three doxologies every day,” said Rabbi Judah ben Elai:

“Praise God, that he did not create me a heathen! Praise God that he did not create me a woman! Praise God, that he did not create me an illiterate person.”

Demosthenes, a famous Greek orator, solemnly intoned:  Hetairi (prostitutes) we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the ordinary requirements of the body, wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.”3

Among the Jews, the only proper sphere for women was the home but “the majority of women were entirely dependent on man and became in religious matters a sort of appendix to their husbands.”4

Given this context, Christianity through St. Paul’s incisive pen helped in revolutionizing family life and community relationships. To the Ephesian Christians, he continued on to say that a husband’s love is not abstract. Rather, its most practical demonstration is for him to feed or nourish and care for his wife. Meeting the physical aspect is only the beginning, the basic proof of loving. But wives need to grow intellectually as well, to flourish in confidence and acceptance of themselves and others, and to gain spiritual insight and wisdom. To be oneself and to be wanted for just being oneself is one of our highest aspirations as human beings.

Then, it is a headship that leaves other loves and ties in order to devote only to the one sole love, the wife (v. 31). St. Paul takes seriously what Genesis declared: “For this reason (the complete identification of man with the woman), a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife and they will become one flesh” (2:24).

This is a demand of marriage that many men have not obeyed faithfully. They still cling to their parents, either for financial support or emotional undergirding, a rather common cultural practice in our society. Yet the same men demand that their wives submit to them completely on the basis of this text when they have not liberated themselves from parental authority in the first place.

The conclusion is brief and simple. St. Paul reminds us again that the proper headship of the husband is to love his wife, and the proper response to such loving headship is respect. To respect means to give honor and deference to a person worthy of such appreciation. It is never forced or demanded. It is always voluntary as both husband and wife willingly submit to Christ. He ultimately is the head who stooped down and gave his life for us. His headship is service and servant-hood. So must the husband to the wife and to each other.


[1] Elizabeth Catherwood, “Women in the Home” in The Role of Women edited by Shirley Lees, England: IVP. 1984, pp. 25-35.

[2] David Field, “Headship in Marriage: The Husband’s View” in The Role of Women, p.58.

[3] Theomneustus and Appolodorus Against Nearea, 122 from “Women,” Baker’s Dictionary of Ethics edited by Carl F. Henry, Baker Book House Company, 1973.

[4] “Women,” Baker’s Dictionary of Ethics edited by Carl F. Henry, Baker Book House Company, 1973. 

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