Loving > leading

I believe that husbands are called to do more than lead.

I believe a husband bears a greater burden than the weight of responsibility.

I believe my role as a husband is greater than authority: I’m called to do more than make decisions, lead from the front, and ensure spiritual growth.

I believe I am called to love my wife.

I also believe we’ve inadvertently placed the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-La-ble. I believe many of us emphasize LEADING over LOVING. The chief difference between the two? A focus on leading is easy to (inadvertently) twist into a focus on me, but it’s almost impossible to similarly twist self-sacrificial love. And so I’m writingthis post, not for those who agree with me, but for those who disagree. I’m writing to all my close friends, family members, and pastor buddies who’ve ever asked me the question, “So why don’t you think that being head of the household means we’re called to lead?”

Because, I always say with a smile and a wink (since I’m talking to my friends, not my enemies!)–because the Bible says so!

Did you know that the Bible never says that husbands are to lead their wives? Or that the Bible never says that husbands bear a greater responsibility for their family’s spiritual well-being than their wives? Or that the Bible never says that husbands and wives should make decisions together, but when they can’t reach consensus, it is the husband’s job to cast the deciding vote?

(Don’t forget the smile and the wink-we’re all on the same team here!)

If you grew up like me, you may have just said, “Yep, Bible never says ‘Trinity’ either.” And perhaps you’re right; I may have started off poorly. Fair enough–let’s start with what it does say.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Eph 5:25

“Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” Col 3:19

“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” 1 Peter 3:7

When I listen to Evangelicals talk and write about the role of the husband, the most prominent theme is leadership. When I listen to the New Testament talk about the role of the husband, the most prominent theme is love. There’s a reason that everyone has heard the expression, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There’s also a reason that no one has heard the expression, “Absolute love corrupts absolutely.”

But, you say, women are supposed to submit to their husbands–how can they submit if they’re not being led? Funny you should ask, I say with a smile. First of all, we shouldn’t define the role of the husband primarily by what is said to wives. It’s worth saying again–virtually all of our emphasis on leading comes from what Paul and others said to wives, not what he actually said to husbands.

We compound that error by confusing what Paul meant by “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,” (Eph 5:23). We tend to understand this in terms of leadership, responsibility, authority, stewardship, and often an undercurrent of hierarchy. But what was Paul thinking as he constructed his parallel? Let’s let him define his terms: “…just as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her.” If you pay attention, most evangelical teaching on the role of the husband derives from reading between the lines and infusing our definition of “head of the wife.” Ironically, we overlook what he said as we emphasize what he didn’t say. When we pay attention to what he said, it seems likely that Paul was instructing wives to submit to love rather than authority.

Paul could have chosen any number of Jesus’ roles to cast as the example for husbands to follow. He could have chosen the Lion of the tribe of Judah as his dominant motif. It is of inexhaustible significance that instead he chose the Lamb who was slain. The singular example of the life of Jesus was the display of strength through sacrifice rather than through exercising authority.

The same should be true of husbands.

If I’m loving my wife with the self-sacrificial love of Christ, then I value her needs over my own. Jesus devoted his entire life to a goal and objective that served us over himself. What would it look like for a husband to devote his life to a goal and objective that served his wife more than it served him? Perhaps he might choose her career over his own. Her hobbies and interest would certainly take precedence. He’d watch her movies before his, spend money on her bucket list before his, and pursue her dreams before his.

A biblical husband is not best exemplified by his leadership. A biblical husband is best exemplified by subordinating his dreams to those of his wife.

So why do I think being the head of the household means more than leading? In part, because the Bible says so (cheerful wink). But, even more, because I know that I can lead out of my own strength.

But loving is infinitely more difficult than leading. Loving is costlier, loving requires a much greater sacrifice. I may be able to lead by myself, but I will never be able to truly love my wife without Jesus.

Because loving is greater than leading.


About Tim Owens

I'm a husband, father, and Christ follower. I also live in Albany, NY, where I work as a pastor.
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8 Responses to Loving > leading

  1. Chris says:

    Every Man A Warrior baby — we must keep taking men thru it!

  2. ann says:

    What about Genesis 3 when, as a result of the fall, God tells Eve her husband will rule over her? That seems to pretty clearly put Adam in a position of authority. I mean, I’m all for love being most important, as God IS love, but leading a household and sacrificial love seem to go hand in hand…. Jesus washed His disciples’ feet as an example. It was love, and it was leadership. Isn’t the best way to lead in sacrificial love? Isn’t the best way to sacrificially love one’s wife by doing everything you can to lead her closer to Jesus? Just a thought.

    • Tim Owens says:

      ann, great questions. for me, Gen 3 is another reason why it’s so important to see the role of the husband primarily in terms of loving rather than leading. Like you said, the husband ruling over the wife is a result of the fall. The subordination of the wife is part of the curse of sin! I believe the redemptive work of Jesus is undoing the curse in all aspects of life. i tend to approach this from a pretty practical perspective. So, where have i seen more abuse: from people going overboard with leadership, lording it over others, abusing power, etc? or from going overboard with love? yes, leading a household and love do seem to go hand in hand, but in my experience (as a husband and talking with other husbands) it’s easier to miss the sacrificial love than it is the leading the household part.

  3. Daniel Vance says:

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but I would be curious to hear your interpretation of Ephesians 5:21-23. I’ll lay my cards on the table first: “submitting to one another in Christ” in this passage almost certainly does not refer to reflexive submission in the relationships described in the ensuing verses.. In no other circumstance that Paul gives in this passage (5:21-6:9) are the relationships equal in power/authority. Fathers are warned against harshness; but very few would argue that fathers should submit to their children. Masters are told not to threaten slaves, but even fewer would argue from this passage that masters ought to submit to their slaves. I understand that “submit” can be a charged word in our society, but I think it is an exegetical folly that passes understanding to maintain that Paul is teaching egalitarianism in this passage based on the fact that he instructs husbands to love their wives. Jesus loved His bride (we/us/me!) but I, nor the constituent members of the church, are surely not equal to Him in authority or position. I understand that there is not full equivocation in this examples, and I certainly hope I don’t conflate them; I do not consider my dear and accomplished wife Laura to my slave or my child, but I find the teaching that the wife’s position is co-equal with the husband’s to be severely lacking in exegetical heft, and willfully dismissive of the flow of thought and other examples cited in this passage.

    I want to re-iterate that I don’t necessarily disagree with *this* post; quite the contrary, I wholeheartedly endorse it. Nor am I a rabid complementarian; but I am curious about your exegesis of this often contentious passage, and especially how it relates to your thoughts above.

    • Tim Owens says:

      Dan–first of all, brutal game last night.

      Now, onto your questions. My interpretation of Eph 5:21-23, the ‘headship’ verses? I’ll try to give it a brief stab. First of all, I agree with you that Paul wasn’t teaching egalitarianism here. Like you said, every other social relationship that Paul mentioned in ch 5 included a pretty firm heirarchy.

      So my interpretation is that Paul wrote to the people of Ephesus, telling wives to submit to their husbands, husbands to love their wives, children to obey their parents, fathers not to exasperate their children, slaves to obey their masters, and masters to treat their slaves with respect and fear. The interpretation is actually pretty simple–what did Paul say to the people of Ephesus?

      I think it’s the application you’re getting at–how do we apply Paul’s words to 1st century Ephesus in the 21st century? I believe that the universal principle in Paul’s words to husbands was a revolutionary, counter-cultural admonition to love their wives sacrificially. In a culture where women weren’t equal citizens, this was, as I like to say, “crazy talk.” How do we apply “headship” and “wives submit to your husbands in everything?” I honestly chalk the ‘submit in everything’ up to being culturally limited.

      It’s clear that Paul was both teaching Christian values AND trying to provide new converts the space to work out their salvation within the real context of their society. I think this is clear, largely due to his instructions to slaves and masters, which I would find offensive if someone said them today. However, in his day, and in his context, Paul was being counter-cultural and revolutionary in his admonitions to slaves and masters. I think his instructions to women about submitting in everying were culturally appropriate in a context where women had no rights, no access to education, and apparently struggled with gossip.

      I do not interpret Paul’s instructions to submit in everything as a principle to be applied across ephochs, just as I do not interpret Paul’s instructions to slaves and masters to be applied in the same way.

      Now, as we turn our attention to the question of headship, I personally find the slate much clearer. Many scholars (perhaps inadvertently) define headship solely within the context of Paul’s admonition to submit. I do not believe that we need to do so, or even that it is best to do so. Unlike the admonition to submit in everything, it does not seem that Paul’s words about headship are culturally limited.

      Which brings us to the question, HOW DO WE APPLY THIS? I honeslty don’t know. I’m umcomfortable with terms like ‘spiritual authority,’ because they really hvae so little exegetical support–the concept of one individual having direct responsibilitty for the faith choices of another individual isn’t a very biblical concept. I guess leadership principles make a lot of sense when we’re talking about headship, but to what degree? most people today apply this within a context of the husband working and the wife raising kids, but in Paul’s contexts many couples also functioned as business partners–tentmaking, farming, etc. So, does the 21st century husband who works, decides where the family will live (due to his career), and where they will go to church function as a head? Does the 21st century husband who allows his wife to do the finances fail to function as the head? Does the modern husband who learns from his wife who has more education fail? and on and on and on.

      Basically, I find Paul’s teaching on what exactly headship means incredibly vague. I find his vagueness multiplied exponentially by the vast differences between his context and ours. I believe in headship, but am hesitent to jump into what others have read into the text. For example, you said that your wife’s position isn’t co-equal. In what sense? in an ontological sense? in an authoritative sense? in an economic sense? in the area of responsibility? The only example that Paul gave to explain headship was that the wife should submit to their husband in EVERYTHING. I don’t know anyone today who demands that their wives submit to them in everything, and yet they remain confident they know exactly what Paul meant by headship. Even as they ignore his instructions for how to apply the headship of the husband in their home.

      So i believe I’m the head of my wife. And I honestly don’t know how to apply it. But I don’t really worry about that, because Paul never instructed husbands to worry about applying their headship. He just told us to love our wives. I have decided not to let what is unclear cloud what is clear. Paul’s instructions to husbands clearly centered on sacrifice and love, not on leadership.

      So while I don’t think paul was teaching egalitarianism to the Ephesians, I do think he allowed for it, in a different cultural context. Similarly, I don’t think he was teaching abolitionism in ch 6, but I do think he allowed for it, in a different cultural context.

      i wrote this almost stream of conscious while the kids were napping. Drew just woke up so I’m off without even one read-over. hope it makes sense and is helpful!

  4. johnandellen says:

    Tim, I love reading your blog! Hardly know you in real life but i’m getting to know a small part of you by what you write. Great post. Barely ever is this emphasis on Loving taking up more air-time than Leading, so it’s very refreshing, for me personally. I need to be reminded of Jesus’ standard of Love. -John

  5. Daniel Vance says:

    Tim, I appreciate your application about what Paul allowed for as opposed to explicit teaching. That is indeed a helpful distinction, and one with which I agree. As I posted on your facebook, even if complementarians concede this point (two notes on that: 1; they should, because it is pretty obviously the correct interpretation unless one is arguing for the resumption of slavery, and 2; “concede” might be poor diction because it is not a battle, but a discussion), I still think that “headship” provides a sticky wicket for the egalitarian position. Kudos to you for admitting your not sure what it means–I am not either–but it must mean something. And any normal reading of that text–especially when we consider how Paul uses the analogy of the body in other passages–must conclude with the concept that “headship” implies some type of primacy/leadership/authority; even if that offends modern feminist sensibilities (and I am not using “feminist” in a FoxNews/Limbaughesque sense–I hope I am using it as you would).

    You asked how my wife’s position is not co-equal with mine (ontological/authoritative/economic/responsibility?). Take this for what you will–and please know that I am not some knuckle-dragging troglodyte who has is playing power games–I provide 100% of our finances (of course I couldn’t if she wasn’t at home with the kids). Our children know that I am the “heavy” when it comes to, shall we say, the executive and disciplinary components of family life (of course this would be far less effective if Laura did not support me). Laura, who is a gifted woman and has a similar education to mine, has numerous ministry positions in our church, but unlike me, she has never taught doctrine to a mixed assembly or preached–nor does she have the desire to, lest you think I or our church are repressing her. We both teach our children the Scriptures, but when we are all together as a family, I almost invariably “lead” the prayer or do the teaching–and this, too,is her preference. I don’t know if that is helpful at all, but it is a realistic picture of the practical outworking of how our marriage functions. It is not as if we filled out a prenup with our exegetical positions on gender roles before our marriage, but six blissful years in, this is how it has played out; and I can honestly say that to my knowledge–and I do ask her about this–we have no complaints about this situation.

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