My marriage was killing me. Either my marriage needed to end or my belief in this “all-loving God” who had “allowed” my husband to abuse me had to end. Thanks to the “godly” Christian counsel I received, I attempted to submit to emotional abuse in order to be faithful to God and to my marriage. But this was a far cry from what marriage was meant to be. My marriage could not be approved by a loving God. Submission to an abusive man results only in destruction and death.
God bless you if your headship and submission debate is about finances, dishes, and typing but for many women in this world, this debate is life and death. And while it is intriguing to read the academic debate about Bible translations and the implications and intentions of what was written thousands of years ago, I cannot help but wonder why the debate has blatantly ignored a discussion about what sort of fruit is being produced.
The truth is, the headship debate is generally a non-issue in a real love relationship. “But marriage is a love relationship,” one might object. “It’s a covenant, God’s idea.” That’s how God intended it, yes, but whether a marriage actually reflects God’s intention is up to us. God gave us free will, and that means we decide whether marriage is a love relationship or not.
Love is a choice. Abuse is a choice.
The reality is that some marriages produce death and destruction because they are relationships based on power. The moment headship becomes about divinely entitled leadership, love leaves the room.
Value and Power
The distinguishing characteristic of a love relationship is the value placed upon the parties involved. Both parties should hold equal value, and this should be reflected in their actions. The power dynamic in a love relationship really shouldn’t matter. The power balance of a relationship shifts over time in the course of life’s journey. Try to spank a thirty-year-old child now and see how well that goes—power has shifted.
Value, however, is unchanging. While the world has taught us to believe that our value is a reflection of the power we hold, that is false. Our real value comes from our maker; the fact that we reflect God and are created in God’s image. God loves us because we are God’s and God is love. Furthermore, we have become children of God, righteous through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Value is given to us by God. It is given equally to all, and value comes with a calling to hold others with the same esteem that God gives us.
Because we are equally valuable, we have a responsibility to recognize the image of God in others and not to pursue a position of power over someone else, dominating and making ourselves large by diminishing the person God created them to be. To leverage a power imbalance this way is to restrict one person’s value and inflate another’s. A marriage defined by a power hierarchy is a marriage defined by a value imbalance. Love has been lost.
God’s gift of freewill gives us the choice of whether we respond to people as valuable, or as a means to an end; from a position of power to dominate.
The Logic of Headship
That is where the debate about headship, defined as divinely-sanctioned leadership, becomes a problem. At the root of the headship debate is a dispute about the value of the parties involved in the relationship. Man is “the head” because of a divinely-granted superiority in value, which justifies his power over women. Yet this system was somehow orchestrated by the same all-powerful God who became a fully human baby to bring about salvation and to demonstrate his love to the world? How can this be?
One is an act of power (pursuit of dominance). The other is a demonstration of value that overrides and even reverses any power imbalance: “For God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son. . .” (John 3:16, emphasis mine).
Did the divine, all-powerful, all-knowing God in his perfect love, who gave up power to reconcile humanity with God, also impose hierarchy as the defining feature of marriage, the closest earthly example of a covenant relationship?
This would make marriage almost the exact opposite of God’s own example of covenant love. The logic simply does not follow.
Headship, as divinely-created leadership, doesn’t make sense because it is simply not God’s intended model of marriage. It is a reflection of a human quest for power at the expense of love, and justifies the abusive actions of a man who hides himself in church pews. He is the head, and she should submit to whatever games are being played in the marriage. Believe me, love has absolutely nothing to do with it. Sin has everything to do with it.
The inequality between men and women was a curse women inherited as a result of sin. Genesis 3:16b states “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.” This was not the divine order; it was not God’s intent at the time of creation.
It is a curse that was defeated at the cross of Calvary.
The fruit of any marriage should illustrate God’s intention for a love relationship; a picture of what the marriage stands for and who it represents. But an abusive marriage produces bitterness, hurt, anger, sorrow, and in its extreme, death. It’s a reflection of the imbalance of value among the parties in the relationship.
To abuse a wife is to take away her worth. To belittle a husband is to show him contempt. To mistreat children is to devalue their humanity. To abuse, one must be certain of one’s own superiority and the other person’s lesser value, justified any way possible. “Male headship” and “wifely submission” do just that for an abusive man.
As for submission, I have no issues submitting to someone who loves me as Christ loves the church (Eph. 5:25a). Submission itself is not the problem. The Bible states “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). It is a call for mutual submission as a reflection of the value each person possesses. This is biblical submission.
One thing is certain: a man who values me and God would not stop me from speaking my mind or living out my purpose and calling. He would never slap me around or treat me with disrespect. He would never shout that he is the head of the family, so I must do, say, or look like what he wants. Women are never called to submit to a man like this, or even to a man who exerts control more benevolently.
And we as Christians must deal with such abuses from the perspective of justice, not simply with the goal of preserving a marriage. For while God hates divorce, the psalmist reminds us, “he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:12–14). A true covenant relationship built on love cannot tolerate an imbalance of value. There is no room for injustice in godly marriage.
The question is, will we continue to debate headship, love, and power without considering its fruit? Or are we going to embrace biblical mutuality and start demonstrating a powerful love?
Perhaps if we were less occupied with battling each other and started working together (as God intended), we would remember who the real enemy is and become much more effective at shining God’s light in this world.