A young couple preparing for marriage came to their priest for their last meeting with him before their wedding. The priest said all he had told them previously could be summed up in the scriptural command “The two shall become one.” At that, the nervous groom shifted in his chair and said, “Yeah? Which one?”
A priest probably would receive a similarly skeptical, even hostile, response from a bride-to-be if he talked to her about the husband’s “headship” in marriage. Even in worship we try to avoid the subject. An alternative reading for the feast of the Holy Family is Colossians 3:12–21. The rubrics give permission to omit the last four verses of that passage, yet those four verses are the only ones in that selection that deal specifically with family life.
Why on the feast of the Holy Family would anyone want to omit the verses that reveal God’s will for life within the family? Because too many priests consider verse 18 controversial: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”
While we’re talking about potentially controversial passages in Scripture, let’s add another one that is widely ignored today. Ephesians 5:21–25. This, by the way, is the most extensive passage on the marriage relationship in all of Scripture. Take three of those verses: “Wives, be subject 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, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands” (Eph. 5:22–24).
Does this sound like the wife is reduced to second-class citizenship in the family? That’s how some people interpret it. Remember: This is revelation of God’s will for Christian married couples. We’d better take it seriously. But before we can do that, we have to understand it correctly.
What Does “Head” Mean?
Let’s start with the scriptural command that the husband is to be “head” of his wife. The Greek word used by the sacred writer is kephale, which literally means “head.” When we use the word head figuratively, we mean “leader” or “chief” or “director”; the one who has authority in a given situation or structure. In other words, the head is the boss.
There are seven passages in Paul’s epistles in which kephale is used figuratively. Five of them refer to Christ as “head” of the Church (Eph. 1:22–23; 4:15; Col. 1:18; 2:9–10, 19). Here kephale used figuratively means “exalted originator and completer,” “source or beginning or completion,” or “one who brings fullness.” There are other Greek words that mean “boss” in our sense of the term. None is used to describe Christ’s relationship to the Church—only kephale is.
Two passages speak of the husband as kephale, “head,” of the wife: 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23. Here the word kephale carries the same meaning, in an analogous sense, that it has in those passages in which it is applied to Christ. Paul often used the head-body metaphor to stress the unity of Christ and his Church. In nature, of course, head and body are dependent on each other for their fullness.
See in Ephesians 5:25–27 what Christ as kephale of the Church does for her: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her . . . that he might present the church to himself in splendor . . . that she might be holy and without blemish.” Christ gave himself up for the church to enable her to become all that God created her to be.
Now look at what the husband’s being kephale for his wife means: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (emphasis added). Not many husbands are called upon to literally die for their wives, but all husbands are called by God to sacrificially serve their wives.
It is clear from Scripture that the husband’s being head of his wife does not mean he is to be “boss” or that he is to dominate his wife. Being “head” means giving his wife sensitive, intelligent leadership. But note: It’s to be leadership that grows out of loving consultation between the spouses. As head, the husband provides for and cares for his wife (and of course the children). He bears primary overall responsibility for the family.
According to Scripture, there is only one way in which a husband can truly serve his wife as head: “The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” In order to be truly head of his family, a husband must himself be submitted to Jesus Christ. His service as head consists above all in his responsibility to mediate the love of Jesus Christ to his wife and children.
Equality between Spouses
But if the husband is to be the head in the marriage, how can there be true equality between the spouses?
For Christians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In other words, human distinctions mean nothing. And yet husbands are called to be heads of their wives. How can this be?
Let’s start with a necessary distinction between something we call status and something we may call subordination. Status is what we are eternally in the eyes of God. Status is what Paul has in mind when he rejects all human distinctions. That wives are told to be subject to their husbands has nothing to do with their status.
Subordination, on the other hand, refers to a role or function that God calls us to fulfill. Two persons can be absolutely equal in status (what they essentially are as persons) while one person plays a role of subordination to the other. In Scripture, status and subordination are two separate issues. The Bible does not draw any necessary connection between them.
We are created in the image and likeness of God. The human family therefore is supposed to be modeled after the divine family, the Blessed Trinity. Think about the Trinity for a moment. God the Father has revealed that the Godhead is one God in three Persons, all of whom are perfectly, eternally equal in divinity. God the Son is eternally equal to the Father: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” as we say in the Nicene Creed. Yet the Son is also subordinated to the Father. He is subject to the Father. According to 1 Corinthians 15:28, “When all things are subjected to him [Christ], then the Son himself will also be subjected to him [the Father] who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one.”
So also the Holy Spirit: He is fully God, like the Father and the Son, and eternally equal to the Father and the Son. Yet, in the drama of our redemption, the Holy Spirit is also subject to the Son. Thus the Son and the Holy Spirit are simultaneously equal to the Father and subject to the Father. Yet their subordination to the Father—that is, the role they play in relation to the Father—in no way detracts from their status of equality with the Father.
Likewise, in Christian marriage, the wife’s role of subordination in no way detracts from her status of absolute, God-given equality with her husband.
Now go back to Ephesians 5:22 and read the other eye-opener: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.” Reading this verse causes some people to go into orbit and denounce Paul as a woman-hater. Those who have this response haven’t an inkling of what Paul actually is saying. Moreover, they take the verse completely out of context.
The opening line of the key New Testament passage about the relationship God intends to exist between husbands and wives is this: Husbands and wives should “be subject to one another.” The wife “subjects” herself to her husband by accepting his role as head. That is, she cooperates with him in filling that role of service to her and the children. The husband, on the other hand, “subjects” himself to his wife by accepting—and doing his best to fulfill—her needs for love and care, provision and order, day after day, so long as they both shall live. God intends that there should be mutual subjection of husbands and wives.
Here is a whimsical example of how this works. The wife says to her husband, “Honey, I subject myself to your headship of service. Now, please subject yourself to my need to have the garbage taken out and to have this dirty diaper changed.”
The Wife’s Natural Superiority
One final point: Why is the husband, rather than the wife, called to be head in the family?
One obvious reason is that since the wife bears the children and takes the lead in their nurturing, the husband has more freedom to fill the role of head. Another reason is that, in times past at least, the greater physical strength of the man has better qualified him for service as head of his wife and family.
But there’s a deeper reason. A couple may choose to reject the whole concept of headship for the husband. They may simply affirm—as many couples today do affirm—that “because we’re both persons, we’re equal—and equal in our marriage.” But the truth is that on the natural, human level, what they are saying is false. On the natural level husband and wife are not truly “equal.” In any given culture, past or present, a wife may or may not have equal civil rights with her husband. But in the marriage itself, as wife and mother the woman fills a role that is more central—more important to the spiritual and emotional life of the family—than the role of the husband. His is very important, of course, but the wife’s is more so.
Thus, on the natural level, there is an inescapable, inherent inequality between husband and wife within the marriage. (Remember now, we already have noted that in the eyes of God there is perfect equality between the spouses.) If spouses insist on their natural equality, they cannot truly share in that spousal complementarity that, as Pope John Paul II has so often reminded us, is God’s plan for the marriage relationship. Only in true complementarity can husband and wife achieve true oneness.
That’s the fact. Now allow me offer an opinion about headship and the natural inequality in marriage. This opinion is not specific teaching of the Catholic Church, but it is in full harmony with what the Church does teach about marriage:
God bestows headship on the husband in order to bring the husband up, so to speak, to a position of full equality with his wife on the natural, human level. The wife is called by God to share in bestowing headship on her husband. She does this by lovingly consenting to her husband’s filling that role. She does this by helping him in every way she can to carry on his service of headship. Then, when they are truly equal on the natural level, they become capable of that complementarity that enables them to become one on the deepest level.
This, in broad outline, is God’s revealed plan for the Christian marriage relationship. May he grant to all married persons the grace to embrace and fulfill that plan fully and continually.