Effective Biblical Headship

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The twentieth century has seen a revolution in the relation of women and men. Women have been ‘liberated’ from the status of ‘second-class’ citizens. Not since a first-century rabbi named Jesus taught women about the Jewish faith has so dramatic a change in roles been introduced.  (James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective)

There is a section from Hurley’s book, “What does ‘headship’ entail?” that I regularly use and discuss with individuals when I do marital counseling. Although I do see couples with other problems, the majority of couples have conflict that grows out of a failure of husbands to exercise the biblical headship Hurley summarizes here.

I’ve known of husbands who tracked their wives’ menstrual cycles and said that their arguments as a couple were directly correlated to their wives’ periods. Others have tried to argue that this and other concerns were indications of there being “something wrong” with their wives. I’ve known husbands who failed to give their wives access to their online banking and checking accounts; even access to the computer itself. Others, when angry at their wives, have given them “the silent treatment.” One such individual didn’t talk to his wife for about six months. Other husbands, when they didn’t get the response they wanted from their wife, would call family and friends to tell them about the issue and try to get them to convince their wives.

All of these behaviors occurred within self-described Christian marriages. And in one way or another they were failures of the husband to exercise proper biblical headship, as Hurley described it. He began this section on headship by saying that it would be a major mistake to narrowly conceive headship as just ‘the right to command,’ wrongly applying the biblical passages saying that a wife should submit to her husband. If kept to this narrow understanding, headship quickly becomes dehumanizing and unworkable.

Authority to lead must include the necessity to delegate authority. If the person in charge of any situation believes that all authority must reside with him alone, then he must make all the decisions and take all the actions. Not only is such micromanagement impractical, it rapidly becomes absurd. Some men feel their authority or headship is threatened if they are not consulted on decisions as small as what meals should be served. Their wish to hold all the reins regularly frustrates family members. “Any initiative on the part of others threatens their relatively fragile sense of control. Such headship is crippling to a family and to a marriage relation.”

The husband cannot hope to exercise his ‘command’ in every area and soon finds himself occupied at every turn with the defence of his status [or headship]. The more thorough he is in his ‘control’ the more exhausted he will be from trying to be an expert everywhere and the more his family will feel alienated from him.

Biblical headship and authority are then for the sake of encouraging and building others up. Christ repeatedly said that those who would be leaders of his followers must be servants of all (Matthew 9:35). Biblical leadership or headship involves the responsibility of taking action for the sake of others, rather than the right to command them.

It may be a husband’s responsibility in a biblical marriage to take the initiative, but not to do it all. Any attempt to make all the decisions undercuts real headship and leadership. He needs to seek the counsel of his wife and family and to often defer to their expertise. This is not an abdication of his responsibilities, but an effective fulfillment of them. “Christ does not guide his church without paying the closest attention to the needs, desires and abilities of his people. . . . The husband’s relation to his family should reflect a similar involvement.” So headship modeled after Christ should take into account the needs and abilities of the family members for whom the decisions are made. 

The husband and father who understands his role as merely to provide money and give orders fails to truly be the ‘head’ of his family. “If he is to know their growing abilities and changing interests,” he needs to be involved in their lives. He needs to be to his family as Christ is to the church (Ephesians 4:14-16). Jointly with his wife, he should help to prepare their children to be godly adults. He must also know her if he is to love her as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25-30). “Headship demands involvement. Involvement demands time.” So within his relationship to other family members, the husband and father is to be an example to them. 

A few pages after this section, Hurley discussed “the exercise of authority.” He commented that modern Christians tend to understand authority in the manner of the Gentile kings against whom Jesus warned (Matthew 20:25-26). In our culture, we are often concerned with such matters. “The model of Christ and the church, however, has more to offer than bald ‘right to command.’” Turning to Christ’s leadership as a model, we see that “He does not crush us or impose his will in a way which denies our humanity or initiative.” Applying what he said previously about husbands and wives, Hurley said:

The exercise of authority and leadership in any organization will be most effective if it is done in such a way that the abilities of those under authority are developed to their fullest rather then suppressed. This demands that the leader be aware of the thoughts and abilities of those under him. They in turn must be satisfied that their input is heard and respected. Authority must be delegated and initiative must be given to subordinates. If they can never act without first checking out their actions, progress will quickly be stifled. Resentment and suspicion will take its place. Christians must consider carefully how to administer and how to respond to authority in their home and in their church life. Failure to do so will inevitably produce destructive results.

James Hurley wrote Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective in 1981, during his time as an Associate Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia—my alma mater. He left the seminary to complete a Ph.D. at Florida State University in 1985 and has been the Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy and Counseling at Reformed Theological Seminary since June of 1985.

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