Does a husband have unique authority within a family? What is the source of that authority? What is the reason for it? Finally, what is the extent of it? I will argue that every man has been divinely appointed to a position of significant authority in his family with the responsibility of leading his family – wife and children – to be godly, and that this authority includes requiring or forbidding certain behaviors of them.
This is not a complete discussion of family roles and responsibilities; for that I recommend the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood‘s book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which is available from CBMW, online as a PDF, or from Amazon. This essay is intended to answer one simple question: Can a man tell his wife what to do?
It is essential to provide some context when discussing male headship, to prevent misunderstanding. There are two essential things to keep in mind. First, authority is not necessarily a value judgment on the parties involved. Second, we are all in authority and under authority, to some extent.
Christians are commanded to subject themselves to civil authorities in Romans 13:1-7, and the divine origin of civil authority is clearly taught. Hebrews 13:17 establishes that Christians must submit to their leaders, and teaches that religious leaders have a divine calling to watch over our souls. Ephesians 6:5-8 teaches us to obey our employers. Per Ephesians 6:1-3, children must obey their parents. In fact, Christ Himself is subject to the Father’s authority according to 1 Corinthians 15:28. We see authority everywhere. Authority is not unique to families.
This also demonstrates that authority is not necessarily based on merit. For instance, a citizen may be equally or more compentent than a civil authority who he must obey. Being in authority does not mean one is superior, and being under authority does not mean one is inferior. Christ shares the same essence as the Father (Philippians 2:6-7) but is under His authority (1 Corinthians 15:28).
A brief survey of some significant Bible figures will further demonstrate that authority is based on God’s calling, not one’s own merit.
The only thing going for King Saul was that he was tall and handsome. He was a member of one of the least important families of the smallest tribe of Israel. He was hunting for lost donkeys when God called him. He even tried to hide during his anointing ceremony. Christ chose relative nobodies – fishermen, tax collectors, etc. – for his apostles. Moses was a refugee murderer who was slow of speech and timid. Paul was a self-righteous Pharisee who was persecuting Christians when God called him.
Authority is not about merit; it’s about God’s choice. While I don’t think God is capricious or arbitrary, He choses who He will.
A final point to realize about divine authority is that it’s primarily a responsibility rather than a privilege. The responsibility includes the necessary authority to discharge that responsibility. For instance, Romans 13:1-7 gives civil authorities the responsibility to punish evil and reward good. Some of the authority granted to carry out these duties include making laws, punishing offenders, and levying taxes. Religious leaders are given the responsibility to care for and watch over the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4, Hebrews 13:17). They are given authority to teach and preach, to be financially compensated (1 Timothy 5:17-18), to reprove, rebuke, and exhort believers (2 Timothy 4:2), to appoint leadership (Titus 1:5), and so on. The authority granted corresponds to the responsibility given.
Now let’s move from nice, safe, generic discussions of authority and consider a husband’s responsibility and authority with respect to his family and his wife in particular. In addition to establishing the existence of a man’s authority over his family, I’ll try to show the purpose and extent of that authority.
A man’s responsibility to and authority over his wife is established as early as Genesis 2. First, consider verses 19-23. God formed each animal, brought it to Adam, and Adam named it. Then God formed woman, brought her to Adam, and Adam named her. I am not trying to somehow claim that women are no better than animals, but to show the similar ritual that established Adam’s authority. Second, consider the purpose of woman. She was formed as a suitable helper for Adam. Paul refers to this in 1 Corinthians 11:9 when he writes “man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake”.
What was Adam’s responsibility to his wife? We can infer part of the answer from Genesis 2:16-17. God gave Adam the law concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to Adam, not his wife. He gave this law to Adam before the woman was even created. By Genesis 3:1-3, the woman knew the law. We can conclude that Adam had the responsibility to teach his wife the law of God. Further, Genesis 3:6 pointedly mentions that Adam was right there when his wife was tempted, was deceived, and sinned. I think it’s reasonable to see this as a criticism of Adam for not intervening. He should have stomped on the serpent, taken the fruit from his wife, and thrown it away.
Old Testament law explicity gives a husband authority to override his wife’s vows in Numbers 30:1-16. A man’s vow was automatically binding, as was the vow of a widow or divorced woman. But the vows of an unmarried girl in her father’s house were subject to his approval, and the vows of a married woman were subject to her husband’s approval. It’s not hard to understand the responsibility behind this authority. Men are responsible for the spiritual well-being of their households. Since a widow or divorced woman’s vows were just as binding as a man’s, we can see that God is not making a value judgment about men and women. Men’s vows are no more important than a woman’s vows. This law is about the authority of a husband or father, not the relative worthiness of men and women.
A man’s authority over his wife is clearly established in the New Testament. 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 teaches us that “the man is the head of a woman” and “the woman is the glory of man.” It also gives clear instructions, based on that hierarchy, about religious practices both in this passage and 1 Corinthians 14:34-36.
Ephesians 5:22-33 teaches that “the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church” and consequently wives should be subject “to their husbands in everything.”
This passage is particularly helpful because of the parallels it draws between a husband’s duty to his wife and Christ’s relationship to His church. Particularly, husbands are commanded to love their wives “just as Christ also loved the church”. In the same sentence, Paul elaborates on Christ’s love for the church. Specifically, he mentions Christ’s sanctification and glorification of us. We men are also commanded to love our wives as we do our own bodies, specifically by nourishing and cherishing them just as Christ nourishes and cherishes the church. A husband cannot spiritually care for his wife just like Christ does for the church, but the husband’s responsibility for his wife’s spiritual condition is hard to miss.
Considering his responsibility to look after his wife’s spiritual well-being, what authority is a husband given? His wife is to be subject to her husband, just like the church is subject to Christ, in all things. She is to respect and obey him.
Two concrete examples from the Old Testament should serve to demonstrate a man’s responsibility to lead his family spiritually, and what that leadership looks like.
Near the end of his life, Joshua called the Israelites together to speak to them. He reviewed God’s dealings with Israel and then challenged them: “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15).
It is not recorded or implied that Joshua consulted with his wife – or any other member of his household – before making this declaration. He understood that he had a divine right and responsibility to lead his family in the ways of the Lord.
This was not a hypothetical or vague commitment. He both required and forbade things of the members of his family. They were forbidden to worship false gods or do any of those things associated with the worship of false gods. They were required to keep the law of God. This was not an idle commitment. But it was his right and duty to make it.
The patriarch Jacob exercised his authority in an even more explicit passage. In Genesis 35:1-4, God tells Jacob to move to Bethel. Following God’s call, Jacob commands his family, among other things, to “put away the foreign gods which are among you.” This is particularly significant because we know from Genesis 31:19, 32-36 that Jacob’s wife Rachel was one of them who possessed idols. Jacob apparently felt no compunction in commanding her to get rid of them, and he buried them under a tree in Shechem. He unilaterally made the decision. He did not consult her, make a suggestion, or use any other such wimpy approach. He knew what was right, commanded his family, and expected obedience. Such bold actions are not called for in most situations, but when it is called for, a man must be willing to exercise his authority.
What does this mean to Christian husbands in 21st century America? We must realize that, like Christ does for the church, we have a duty to care spiritually for our wives. I am ultimately responsible for the spiritual nourishment of the members of my family. I cannot guarantee the outcome, but I am responsible for the effort. Like Christ, I must nourish and cherish my wife spiritually. This may include making decisions that affect her personally and directly. Just like Jacob commanded Rachel to get rid of her idols, a husband may have to command his wife to rid herself of things that are sinful or causing her to stumble. As under Old Testament law, a husband may forbid his wife from some spiritual undertaking that he sees to be a rash commitment or otherwise inappropriate for her.
The husband is never scripturally referred to as the “head of the house”. He is the head of his wife and has a responsibility to her greater than his general responsibility to lead his entire family. Biblical headship is far more than strategic decision making. It involves nuturing, teaching, and caring for the members of ones family, and that includes the wife.