Hyper-Headship in Marriage
This is the final post in a three part series about the types of issues I see the most in pastoral counseling. Those three are: Anxiety, Pornography, and Marital Oppression. Here is the Introductory Article which began the series.
We all know the passages. We’ve heard at least a portion of them read at nearly every wedding: “wives submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5), “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does (1 Cor 7), or “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” (1 Pet. 3) But what is beautiful, unitive, reciprocal, and blessed by the Lord’s design and in his economy of Ephesians 5:21, "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ”, is weaponized and used to oppress in certain marriages. Passages meant to be applied to oneself, are turned and used to coerce desired behavior from one’s spouse. And what the Lord meant for mutual blessing and loving, voluntary deference between spouses, is leveraged by oppressors to serve themselves. This is a grievous distortion of God’s plan for how those united in marital union are to humbly care for and serve one another.
What we are speaking about is oppression in marriage. What it looks like from one marriage to the next will be cloaked in many different garbs—constant conflict, a depressed and docile wife, isolation, perpetual walking on eggshells in the home, and the list goes on. But what is central to all of them is the notion that the wife must serve the wants, desires, needs, and whims of her husband. In other words, men who control their wives.¹
In a Christian marriage, such a posture is often “justified” by the Scriptures, and yet another form of oppression is invoked: holding down the woman by an appeal to authority. Horrifically the authority appealed to in this case is God himself! Yet this is not what God has ever had in mind. Such a picture of marriage is a curse, not a blessing (see Genesis 3:16). And Jesus himself said:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”
This, after all, is what Ephesians 5:21-33 calls the godly couple to: gracious service of the other—not dominance and obedience. In fact, nowhere in Scripture does God call wives to obey their husbands, not even at the time of the patriarchs—a command which is clearly given to children of their parents.² And yet, in oppressive marriages, the expectation is functionally one-sided: woman, you better obey, or else.
Now, the “or else” may not be physical violence—often it’s not. I cannot tell you how many times wives have spoken in my hearing: “I wish he would just hit me, that would make things so much clearer”, or some variation of this nightmare of an existence. This is the heart of oppression. One spouse using his position as a means to diminish the other, and foster an environment that is desirable to him, no matter the toll it is taking on the other members of his household. Because after all, he’s entitled.
Church, we need to see these patterns in marriage for what they are. We must take off our conservative-blinders, thinking this is but a slightly more controlling way than how a godly home ought to be structured. May we please call this what it is? This is a satanic ordering of the home! Instead of people using their influence for the sake of ministering to and caring for others, one’s influence is used to serve oneself, to prop up one’s authority, to idolize one person as the “king of my castle”. Loving requests are distorted into commands or orders, and those under such influence languish, suffering, longing for deliverance.
But instead of rescuing as redeemers ought—functioning as ambassadors for the Redeemer—the church tells the wife to patiently bear up, be more submissive, and walk in godly conduct so that without a word you might win your husband. Oh, and husband, be kinder next time. In such a scenario, we are effectively helping people oppress their wives in more socially acceptable ways. Friends, the church must hold oppressors accountable—not functionally endorse them. Shepherds must draw lines and protect women and children, and not only after physical violence has taken place.
But for the men who use oppression in the home, such a position is not given up easily. Words of “repentance” may be quick, but genuine change in this area will be seen over a considerable length of time. Think of how personally beneficial having everyone obey you must be—you can do no wrong and you’re not held accountable—while simultaneously you can hold everyone in your home accountable for all the “wrongs” you do not like. It’s lordship. And being a small god, no matter how limited one’s sphere of authority may be, is a much more enticing place than the type of self-denying service described in Ephesians 5:25ff. Laying down one’s life, dying to self, cherishing, washing, caring for, and coming alongside of, all takes a lifetime of Christ-like character! Yet the preceding way of life is easy—all you have to do is give commands. Such a disposition will not change over night, but the fruits of repentance will be obvious. Or they will not. And where change is not overt and enduring, may robust accountability and protection of Christ’s lambs be our primary concern.
(I had the privilege to interview with Pilgrim Radio on these three prevalent counseling issues. You can listen to the full interview here)
¹ I acknowledge that oppression in marriage may take the form of the wife oppressing the husband. However, statistically this is rare, and due to differences in size, strength, and even position, oppression from a wife to a husband often functions differently than what I am describing in this post. I have counseled several cases where the wife was verifiably abusing the husband, but I can count those exceptions on one hand. Far more frequently, dominance flows from the husband toward the wife.
² Some may cite 1 Peter 3:6 as a case for wives being commanded to “obey“ their husbands, with the patriarchal position women found themselves in, being propped up as the ideal standard for all time, as Sarah is commended for calling Abraham “lord”. It must be noted how the verse is presented as a narrative example and not in the form of a command, and that the principle of submission is what is enduring and not the particular of calling one’s husband “lord”.