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Who's the Head of My House?

If I could find the words, I'd tell you

My telephone rang during dinner last night.

"May I speak to the head of the house, please?"

"That depends," I answered, "on whether you think that's my husband or me."

A short silence followed. Finally the salesman said, "I can talk with you, ma'am."

Gee, thanks.

Being called "ma'am" makes me feel old. But worse than that, I hate the idea that one person in a marriage is automatically considered to be "over" the other. And it's not because I'm what Rush Limbaugh calls a "femi-Nazi," although I am a 40-something woman with a brain, an education, and a job. I cringe when the concept of "male headship" comes up, not because I'm opposed to it, but because so few of my friends understand it.

A lot of people from my generation automatically assume that headship implies some kind of inequality at best and domination at worst. For decades, many of them have heard Christian authorities present a hierarchical understanding of headship that bears little resemblance to the biblical description: "The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church … " (Ephesians 5:23).

If you back me into a corner and make me say it, I'll confess: my husband, David, is the head of our home. Privately, I'm proud of this because my husband is a rare and wonderful man who understands and practices the concept of servant leadership. Instead of concentrating on the verses in Ephesians that call for wives to submit to their husbands, he focuses on the verses that immediately follow them: an injunction to husbands to lay down their lives for their wives, loving them as they love their own bodies. The result is that I hold the utmost respect for his opinions, desires, and plans and have no fear in expressing my own.

Publicly, though, I'd hate to tell a stranger that "David is the head of our home" because I don't think most people would understand the mutual love and sacrifice those words represent. Instead, they might think of my tenderhearted husband as an iron-fisted dictator and me as the meekly obedient wife (boy, would they be mistaken!). Most couples with successful marriages who adopt the label "male-headship" evidence this type of loving mutuality.

Many of my married friends call their marriages "egalitarian." But you know what? I hate that term too. It brings to mind a cold, 50-50 contract. The quickest way to pollute a God-honoring, mutually submissive relationship is to start keeping score. An equal, 50-50 split is an impossibility that leads to constant scrutiny of who is (and isn't) holding up their end of the deal. Who changed more dirty diapers this week? Who put in longer work hours? And which work hours are harder, the ones in the office or the ones at home with our kids? Who's the biggest martyr?

God calls married partners to live like Christ with one another—and that means two people continually looking for the way of unselfish service. Is that hopelessly idealistic? For a Christian married to a non-Christian, it may appear an impossible dream. After all, it could be excruciatingly difficult to submit to someone who chronically abuses his power, and it would be equally difficult to lay down your own desires for a wife who disrespects your leadership. But Christians have to aim for godliness, and we rely on a power bigger than ourselves to enable us to live together with this kind of grace.

Meanwhile, how am I supposed to talk about my marriage if the most-often used terms—"headship" and "egalitarian"—seem so inadequate? It's time for Christians to come up with new and better language so this important concept won't be muddied with misconceptions for the next generation of married couples.

The language of the business world might work: My husband and I are equal partners serving as president and chairperson of our life company. Well, maybe. Actually, the word mutuality appeals to me. The passage in Ephesians 5 is prefaced with these words: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."

Until my suggested lingo catches on, I won't be saying much about who's in charge at my house. But I'll keep on respecting and submitting to my true-headship husband and trust that he'll keep serving God by laying down his life for me.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Compromise; Leadership; Marriage; Submission
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 1997
Posted September 12, 2008

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