The Bible very clearly teaches that a husband has a unique authority in a marriage – he is the head of his wife (Eph. 5:23, 1 Cor. 11:3, 1 Tim. 2:12-13). The Bible very clearly teaches that a wife should acknowledge and submit to his loving leadership (Eph. 5:22, 24, Col. 3:18, 1 Pt. 3:1, Titus 2:5). The purpose of this article is not to defend these truths.¹ The purpose of this article is to begin exploring the lines and expressions of authority in biblical, complementarian marriages, especially in order to guard against misuse of that authority.
The ideal is revealed first of all in the Garden of Eden, when God brought together a man and woman in marriage as the climax of His creation. Jesus taught us to look back to God’s garden paradise to see His good plan for marriage (Mt. 19:4-5). What can we learn about authority in marriage, as it was “in the beginning”?
Authority in the Ideal Marriage of Creation
When we look to the sixth day, we find several important truths in this regard. Men and women are equal in essence, dignity, and value, as each fully bears the divine image (Gen. 1:27-28, 2:18-23, 2:24), while they are complementary by design (i.e. distinct and interdependent). Adam’s authority in marriage as Eve’s head is an important part of – though not the full manifestation of – their complementarity (Gen. 2:7 with 1 Tim. 2:12-13; Gen. 2:21-22 with 1 Cor. 11:8; Gen. 2:18 with 1 Cor. 11:9; Gen. 2:23, 5:1-2). This plan for marriage is good and true and beautiful, part of God’s plan for how His glory would fill the earth like waters cover the sea.
The Nature of a Husband’s Headship
It is critical that we understand not only the fact of Adam’s authority as Eve’s head, but also the nature of that authority in marriage. Adam’s authority in marriage means he has a unique responsibility to 1) ensure the family is moving in a God-glorying direction, and 2) secure the well-being of everyone else in the family.² How do we derive this explication of headship from Eden?
Adam received the commission to “work and keep” the garden before the creation of Eve (Gen. 2:15). The words God spoke to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:16-19 prove that this continued to be a unique and/or primary responsibility of Adam, even after Eve’s arrival on the scene to help him fulfill God’s intention for mankind. The command to “work and keep” the garden meant more than primary responsibility for physical provision. The garden was not designed by God merely to be good for food; it was also for mankind’s delight (2:8-9), and especially for man’s enjoyment of sacred communion with God (3:8a). God’s garden design was about more than man’s hunger; it was for his happiness and holiness too.
Consequently, Adam’s working and keeping the garden, as it relates to headship over Eve, meant more than simply making sure she was fed (physical well-being); it also aimed for her ongoing enjoyment of God’s good gifts (emotional well-being) and, most importantly, ongoing enjoyment of God himself (spiritual well-being).3 Adam was called to cultivate this continual happy state of affairs (“work”), and also guard against any threats to it (“keep” could also be translated “guard”). Since Adam was given chief responsibility as human provider and protector in the garden, he should have crushed the serpent’s head with his heel. He didn’t.
Adam also received the divine prohibition about the forbidden tree prior to God’s fashioning Eve (Gen. 2:16-17). Alistair Roberts observes that “on both occasions when God subsequently speaks of the law concerning the tree (3:11, 17), he addresses [Adam] in particular, speaking of it as a law both delivered to him alone and as a law concerning him most particularly.”4 Rightly, then, when the couple transgresses this command, Adam is condemned for not leading his wife well, nor protecting her and the sacred garden, in trusting obedience to God’s word (Gen. 3:6c, 9, 17a). Later biblical authors see what is clear in the book of Genesis: God holds Adam primarily responsible for the couple’s fall (cf. Rom. 5:12-19, despite 1 Tim. 2:14).
I hope you noticed how often I have used the words “responsible” and “responsibility” above. Adam’s headship meant he was primarily responsible to ensure the family kept moving in a God-glorifying direction; it was his responsibility to secure the well-being of the family. Fundamentally, headship is a responsibility, not a privilege. It is a burden to bear, not an advantage to flaunt. Adam’s authority in marriage is a God-centered and Eve-centered thing, not some kind of “upper hand” for Adam’s own benefit.
Furthermore, the language of “primary” is important to note as well. Eve participates significantly in safeguarding the well-being and God-glorifying direction of the family (see Proverbs 31!), even as Adam has a special responsibility to make sure these things come to be. She is created to be his “helper” (2:18; cf. 1 Cor. 11:7-8), to support and join him in his mission to glorify God and see others blessed by God’s goodness.
Adam’s loving, serving headship over Eve is not the only concept of authority that is meant to shape their marriage together. There is also an authority that they stand under together, as well as an authority that they share and are called to express together. That first line of authority in the ideal marriage of creation is very clear: Adam and Eve stand together under the authority of God. Both are His creation. They are His image bearers. While Adam is primarily held responsible for the Fall, still both are held responsible. We often apply this principle of God’s authority to male headship with an eye on the wife’s submission; she is not free to follow the husband’s leadership into sin. But we must also strongly emphasize how this applies to a husband. He is not free to sin against his wife in any way in his role as marital head.
In addition to the authority they stand under together, we see in Eden an authority that Adam and Eve share and express together. After blessing Adam and Eve, God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:28). God gives Adam and Eve authority to have dominion on and over the earth – together.5
Egalitarians use this text as a club to try and obliterate Adam’s unique authority within the marriage. Obviously, that isn’t the right move. Complementarians, however, cite this text as an affirmation of the equality of man and woman’s dignity and value as image-bearers (a good thing!), but may underemphasize the shared authority that God grants man and woman here. Too often, the only authority in marriage recognized in Eden is Adam’s headship. But we must hold these things together: Adam and Eve are called by God to exercise authority together over their home and all other spheres of their shared life, as a co-regency; yet within that one-flesh partnership of co-regents Adam bears the burden of serving as head.
In heavy-handed misuses of a husband’s authority, he (functionally) takes his wife out of the compound subject of Gen. 1:28 and puts her on the other side of the verb. But we do not read, “God blessed Adam, and said to him, ‘Subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing on it, including Eve.’” In a complementarian marriage, the wife is not merely the highest-ranking official in the realm where the husband has dominion. She is queen of the castle, ruling beside her husband, striving with him to exercise dominion over all aspects of their shared life together for the glory of God and good of those under/around them. Both are upper management in their household (1 Tim. 3:4-5, 12, 5:14; cf. Prov. 31:10-31).6
Balance is needed here. The concept of joint rule does not flatten out distinctions between the two. As stated above, this shared authority in marriage does not cancel out male headship in it. Adam possesses a divinely granted, non-reciprocal, benevolent authority over Eve. He is the leader (bears the burden of primary responsibility) within their co-regency. They are not joint “heads” as they exercise this joint rule. Neither does their co-regency mean they play precisely the same parts in “subduing and filling” their shared dominion (Gen. 1:28). Eve shares in this worldwide rule by leaning in to those things that are distinct about how God made her as a woman, complementary to Adam, enabling them to fulfill the Genesis 1:28 commission in a way he couldn’t on his own, and couldn’t with just a duplicate of himself.7 Thus, a husband is called to lead his wife to the end that they exercise dominion together in their home and shared life (their “world”), each with their own emphases and specialties. In this way, a husband serves as an authority over his wife while they submit to authority together and express authority together.
Authority in the Ultimate Marriage of the New Creation
In teaching us about authority in marriage, God’s Word does not only invite us to look to creation. We’re also told to look to the redemption we have in Christ. This shouldn’t surprise us, as Adam and Eve’s marriage in Eden was meant all along (just like all subsequent human marriages) to point beyond itself to the ultimate marriage of Christ and His church. It’s a profound mystery now revealed: the divine design of marriage, found in Gen. 2:24, refers to Christ and the church (Eph. 5:31-32). As in creation, so too in redemption – complementarianism in marriage is affirmed. Husbands have a unique authority in marriage as head, following the pattern found in the Garden of Eden and found in Christ’s relationship to His bride, the church.
The Nature of a Husband’s Headship
Ephesians 5 is the main portion of Scripture that teaches how complementarianism in marriage is redemption-shaped. Wives are called to submit to their husbands as head, as the church does to Christ. Husbands are called to love and lay down their lives for their wives, as Christ does for the church. In keeping with the twofold nature of Adam’s authority explained above, husbands are called to nourish and cherish their wives (Eph. 5:29). Being one-flesh with her, the husband is called to attend to his wife’s needs and hurts and desires as if they are those of this own body (Eph. 5:28-29a). The husband should love his wife especially by pursuing her spiritual well-being, just like Christ does (Eph. 5:25-27) for the bride that he counts as his own body (5:28-32).
There is one way that Ephesians 5 goes beyond the paradigm we have in the ideal marriage of Adam and Eve, though it is the logical post-Fall application of that design established in Eden. Following the pattern of Christ, husbands are called to love their wives sacrificially, as Christ “gave himself up for” the church (Eph. 5:25). This means husbands pursue the health, happiness, and holiness of their wives at the expense of their own health and happiness, if necessary. I assume that kind of sacrifice and tradeoff would never have been necessary in the bliss of Eden. But in a fallen world, where there is often suffering and shortage (of various kinds for various reasons), a husband may need to lay down his life, in a sense, and sacrifice himself in various ways for the nourishment, cherishing, and sanctification of his wife. This comes at his expense in one way or another, but it is his burden to bear as the loving head. Of course, a godly wife will desire to sacrifice in various ways for her husband’s good (cf. Eph. 5:1-2), but he is responsible in a primary way to ensure that all the others in the family are provided for, protected, and flourishing, as much as he is able.
Thus, there is a special crown that the husband wears as the head of his wife, but it’s not a crown worth coveting; it is a crown of thorns.8 If he is called to love, nourish, cherish, sanctify, and spiritually beautify his wife after the pattern of Christ, who “gave himself up for her,” then his call as head is to take up a cross and lose his life for her sake. He pursues her welfare no matter the personal cost (and it will cost), even unto death. The biblical picture of the husband’s headship is not sitting on a throne over his wife; it’s hanging lifelessly on a tree for her, because he loves her.
When God creates a new heavens and a new earth, a marriage will take center stage, just as it did when He created the current heavens and earth. God will once again bring a bride to a man, the second Adam (Rom. 5:14, 17-19), the Last Adam (1 Cor. 15:22, 45), as the church takes her place at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:1-6). Wondrously, in keeping with the pattern of Genesis 1, Christ graciously enters into a kind of co-regency with his bride, as his people are made to reign with him (2 Tim. 2:12, Rev. 5:10, 20:4, 20:6, 22:5; cf. 1 Cor. 6:2, Dan. 7:18, 27, Mt. 19:28). Of course, this does not cancel out or put an end to the church’s submission to Christ as her loving head (Col. 1:18, Eph. 1:22-23, 4:15, 5:23, etc.). May it never be! Christ will continue to bear the burden of responsibility to lead his people in a God-glorifying direction and secure their well-being for all eternity. But Christ is not the heavy-handed kind of head that treats his bride like a footstool, a fate reserved for his enemies (Ps. 110:1). Christ is the kind of head that invites his bride to sit with him on his throne (Rev. 3:21) and share in his rule (Rev. 2:26-28 with Ps. 2:6-9). In this ultimate one-flesh relationship of Christ and the church, complementarianism continues on for eternity. For endless days, then, we will see the wisdom, beauty, and glory of God’s design for authority in marriage – one-sided headship and joint rule – as it was in the beginning.
We have looked to creation and redemption to see the Bible’s
teachings on authority in marriage. Until our lives and earthly marriages are
over (Mt. 22:30), husbands and wives are called to relate to one another in
ways that reflect this glorious design. Husbands are called to lead, love, and
sacrifice for their wives as loving head. Wives are called to submit to their husbands’
leadership and support their endeavors to live for God’s glory. Each one does
this as they strive to rule over their “world” together, in joint submission to God, playing their small part in
the glory of God covering the face of the earth as the waters cover the sea. A
husband must learn to exercise headship over his wife maintaining this posture:
sitting enthroned beside his wife over the “world” God has assigned to them, and
bowing the knee beside his wife before the throne of God.
1. Readers who are interested in learning more about that topic can find teachings on this website that explain and defend the biblical view “complementarianism” against it’s challenger, “egalitarianism.”
2. This explanation of male headship is adapted from Ray Ortlund’s definition: “In the partnership of two spiritually equal human beings, man and woman, the man bears the primary responsibility to lead the partnership in a God-glorifying direction.” Ray Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), pp. 86-104.
3. Too often, husbands can feel self-satisfied in their headship simply because they go to work and successfully “provide” financially for the family. This isn’t enough. If a wife is well fed and warm, yet is miserable and spiritually floundering under her husband’s leadership, he is falling far short of God’s plan for male headship. If a husband does not return home after his paying job, and then work for his wife’s happiness and holiness at home, then he may need to rethink whether or not he truly works at his job motivated by her well-being. Does it make sense that the only expression (or even the main expression) of a husband’s love for his wife are those times when he is away from her, “working hard” for a paycheck?
4. Roberts goes on to say: “Notice also that on both occasions when God subsequently speaks of the law concerning the tree (3:11, 17), he addresses the adam in particular, speaking of it as a law both delivered to him alone and as a law concerning him most particularly and the woman only by extension. The difference between the adam and the woman here helps to explain how the woman could be deceived, while the man was not (the serpent plays off the information the woman had received first-hand in 1:29 against the formation she had received second-hand from the adam).” Alistair Roberts, “Man and Woman in Creation (Genesis 1-2),” in Complementarianism: A Moment of Reckoning, 9Marks E-Journal, Dec. 2019 edition, p.37.
5. “While [Eve is] assigned to the man as his helper and thus placed under his overall care and responsibility, the woman is the man’s partner in ruling the earth for God.” Andres and Margaret Kostenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical Theological Survey (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 36.
6. The Greek expressions beneath the English “manage household” in 1 Tim. 3 and 5 are not exactly the same, but both clearly communicate an exercise of authority. The Greek word under the husband’s “management” of the household in 1 Tim. 3 is proistemi, which means “to exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct, be at the head of” (Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 870). The Greek verb under the wife’s “management” of the household in 1 Tim. 5 is a compound of “house/household” and “lord/master.” The noun form of this verb means “master of the house,” as in Mt 10:25, 13:27, 13:52, 20:1, 21:33, 24:43; Mk 14:14; Lk 13:25.
7. Again, the distinctions in God’s words to Adam and Eve in Gen. 3:16-19 point us in the right direction, to begin sensing God’s intended complementarity in how the two could fulfill the Gen. 1:28 commission in a differentiated and interdependent manner. (The differences between men’s and women’s bodies suggest these things as well). Alistair Roberts’ article, referenced earlier in this article, is a worthy read along these lines.
8. I take the picture of the husband’s headship as a crown of thorns from C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves. Lewis uses this imagery powerfully: “The sternest feminist need not grudge [the male] sex the crown offered to it…in the Christian mystery. For…[it is] of thorns. The real danger is not that husbands may grasp [it] too eagerly; but that they will allow or compel their wives to usurp it.” I found this quote and imagery of Lewis as it was used and developed in Christopher Ash, Married for God: Making Your Marriage the Best It Can Be (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 85-86.