Male headship is stated in Ephesians 5:23 (see also 1 Corinthians 11:3): “the husband is head of the wife.” What is complementarianism and biblical headship, and when were they established? Read this chapter from Your Marriage God’s Way to find out.
Table of Contents
Soon after I became a Christian in my early twenties, a pastor’s daughter told me what she wanted in a husband: a man who would be a spiritual leader and the head of their home. I hardly knew anything about the Bible at this point, so everything she said sounded odd to me. I didn’t object until she started talking about wives submitting to their husbands. That’s when I thought she had gone too far. Sadly, I vividly remember saying, “That is ridiculous! Men and women are equal. How could a husband have authority over his wife?”
I was in for a shock as I started reading the Bible and learning what it says about husbands and wives. Verses kept jumping out at me that supported what the pastor’s daughter said. If you’re unfamiliar with the Bible’s teaching on marriage, or you believe like I did that husbands and wives have identical roles and responsibilities, you might be in for a shock too.
God has a master design for marriage relationships that has very definite purposes and benefits. We live in a culture that is far removed from the beauty and brilliance of God’s plan. While we as fallen people might initially chaff at the ideas of male headship and submission (as I did), and believe it means men and women aren’t equal (as I did), because we live in a society that insists everyone should be viewed identically, it’s important to recognize that in God’s eyes and according to His design, yes, husbands and wives have equal value (more on this later in the chapter), but they have different roles and responsibilities.
Let’s ease into the delicate subjects of headship and submission by considering that twice in the New Testament the apostle Paul stated the headship of a husband:
- “I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3).
- “The husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body” (Ephesians 5:23).
While these verses are found in the New Testament, that doesn’t mean a husband’s headship had its beginning under the new covenant. Neither did his headship have its beginning in the Old Testament under the old covenant. Nor did it begin at the fall.
The husband’s headship has its beginning at creation itself. This is important for us to know, because if we think headship began after the fall, then this leadership becomes part of sin’s curse. But if we understand that the husband’s headship began at creation, we will see it as part of God’s natural, healthy, divine plan for husbands and wives.
Genesis 1:1 proclaims the incredible truth that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and the rest of the chapter gives a grand overview of all six days of creation. God created man and woman on the sixth day. Then, in Genesis 2:7-25, God zooms in on the creation of Adam and Eve because mankind is the pinnacle of God’s creation. We are so familiar with the account that it is easy to miss the significance of some of the details. Therefore, let’s approach this passage as though we are reading it for the first time. It is in this account that God established male headship.
Because God created the animals in pairs, male and female, what would we expect Him to do with the creation of humankind? We would expect Him to create the first man and woman at the same time—as a pair, male and female. But that is not what He did, and in creating man first and woman second, God revealed several important details about His design for the marriage relationship.
GOD’S FIRST COMMAND HELPED ESTABLISH MALE HEADSHIP
After God created Adam, He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work (Genesis 2:15). Creating Adam before Eve meant that God’s first command would be given to Adam alone. Genesis 2:16-17 says,
The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Managing the garden was Adam’s duty, but when Eve was fashioned from him, he had the responsibility of passing along to her what he had heard from God. Then Eve had the responsibility of trusting her husband’s account. God did not have to do it this way. He could have given the command to both of them after Eve was created, but in giving the command to Adam alone, God established male headship in the relationship.
ADAM NAMES THE ANIMALS AND EVE DEMONSTRATING MALE HEADSHIP
In Genesis 2:19-20, we read that God had Adam name the animals:
Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him.
Again, we see God do something with Adam that He could have had Adam and Eve do together. There are two reasons God had Adam name the animals without Eve. First, God wanted man to have authority over creation. In Genesis 1:26, God said,
Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.
God established Adam’s authority by directing him to name the animals.
Second, instead of simply giving Adam a helper or telling him he should desire one, God chose to reveal this lack to him by bringing the animals to him in pairs. This disclosed Adam’s lack of a companion. Adam quickly noticed that the animals were in pairs, but he himself was not part of any pair. As Genesis 2:20 describes, he observed there was no “helper comparable to him.”
With Adam now longing for a mate, God was ready to fashion Eve. Here again, familiarity with the creation account may cause us to miss the significance of certain details. Up to this point, one recurring theme has been God’s creation of living things from ordinary dirt:
- “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
- “Out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow” (Genesis 2:9).
- “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air” (Genesis 2:19).
With this pattern in place, we would expect to read, “The Lord God formed woman of the dust of the ground, and breathed into her nostrils the breath of life; and woman became a living being.” Instead, Genesis 2:21-23 says:
The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And Adam said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
Earlier, God brought the animals to Adam to be named, demonstrating Adam’s authority over them. Adam then named his wife, demonstrating his authority over her: “She shall be called Woman.” This is one more indication of God establishing male headship within the marriage relationship.
HISTORY’S FIRST SURGERY
God performed history’s first surgery by using Adam’s body to fashion Eve, and what modern science reveals about this is fascinating. Every cell in our bodies contains our entire genetic blueprint or DNA. Therefore, God could take some of Adam’s cells and use their DNA to create Eve. The reverse, however, would not work, because men’s DNA contains both X and Y chromosomes (XY), while women’s DNA contains only X chromosomes (XX). If God had created woman first, it would have been impossible to fashion man from woman because there would be no Y chromosomes, which is the chromosome that determines male gender. Adam had the genetic material—both X and Y chromosomes—for a woman to be created from his DNA, allowing for the reproduction of men and women.
Because Eve was fashioned from Adam, she has the unique distinction of being the only part of creation not formed out of the ground. And because Adam was created in the image and likeness of God, Eve was just as wonderfully created in the image and likeness of God. We should also consider that while God created woman from man, He brought forth every other human being since Eve from woman. The apostle Paul explained it like this:
For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man…Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman (1 Corinthians 11:8-9, 11-12).
A final detail of significance is that God’s creation of woman from man involved far more than Adam’s rib. The Hebrew word translated “rib” is tsela. The word occurs 41 times in the Old Testament, but only here in Genesis 2:21- 22 is it translated “rib.” Nineteen times tsela is translated as “side,” and 11 times as “chamber.” Here are a few examples:
- Exodus 25:12—“You shall cast four rings of gold for [the ark], and put them in its four corners; two rings shall be on one side [tsela], and two rings on the other side [tsela].”
- 2 Samuel 16:13—“As David and his men went along the road, Shimei went along the hillside [tsela] opposite him and cursed as he went.”
- 1 Kings 6:8—“The doorway for the middle story was on the right side [tsela] of the temple.”
Eve came from Adam’s side, not just his rib—a fact that is also made clear when Adam, in Genesis 2:23, calls Eve “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”
Why did God choose to create Eve from Adam’s side instead of creating her from the dust of the ground like everything else? God wanted Adam and Eve to understand the unity between them. We see that in the next verse, Genesis 2:24, which says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” At first glance this seems like an odd statement because Adam and Eve are the only two people in history with no “father and mother.” Therefore, this verse is not primarily about them, but is instructive about the nature of the marriage relationship itself.
Genesis 2:24 further supports male headship. Why does the command mention a man leaving his father and mother but not a woman leaving her father and mother? It is because the man is moving out from under his parents’ authority and establishing his own headship—or authority—over his family. But the woman is not doing the same. She is simply moving from being under her father to being under her husband.
This is why 1 Corinthians 11:3 does not say, “The head of every man and woman is Christ.” Instead, it states, “The head of every man is Christ, [and] the head of woman is man.” A wife remains under a man’s authority—first her father’s, and then her husband’s. And these men are under Christ’s authority. This biblical principle is played out at weddings symbolically when the father walks his daughter down the aisle and gives her to the man who is about to become her husband. The imagery is that of a transfer of authority from father to husband.
EGALITARIANISM VERSUS COMPLEMENTARIANISM
Complementarianism is the term used to describe the belief that God has designed distinct roles and responsibilities for men and women that allow them to balance and support each other. Egalitarianism is the view that God does not have distinct plans for men and women, but that they are equal and interchangeable in terms of their roles and responsibilities. Egalitarians reject the concept of male headship in the marriage relationship. Homosexual marriage, transgenderism, and bisexuality are simply extreme forms of egalitarianism because in every case, ultimately they require people to blur the lines between the genders.
To hold to egalitarianism, people must reject the plain teaching of Scripture that describes the differences between men and women, including the affirmation of the male headship. The Scripture most cited by egalitarians is Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” But using that verse to support egalitarianism requires taking the passage out of context—all the preceding verses clearly deal with salvation. Everyone, whether Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, or female is saved in the same manner—by grace through faith apart from the law and works (Galatians 3:1-25). What’s more, if Paul were saying men and women are identical in terms of roles and responsibilities, he would be contradicting numerous other scriptures he wrote outlining the differences between the genders.
Bible scholar James Fowler explains:
Egalitarian assertions are based on false premises. [Identical] responsibilities and authority produces the chaos of no one having ultimate authority or responsibility. The egalitarian premises of socialistic communism are unworkable. Identity, value and worth are not found in gender function, but in a personal Being beyond ourselves.James Fowler, “Women in the Church,” Christ In You Ministries 1999, http://www.christinyou.net/pages/
womeninchurch.html (accessed March 7, 2016).
Complementarianism, on the other hand, recognizes the gender roles in Scripture are meaningful and, when embraced, promote spiritual and emotional health that allows people to reach their God-given potential. Scripture says, “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27; see also Genesis 5:2; Mark 10:6). The emphasis is not on God’s creating people but on His creating two different types of humans: one male and one female. Other Scripture passages reveal to us the distinct plans God has for each, and we will look at all of them in this book. While men and women equally share God’s image and together have dominion over creation, God designed them differently to accomplish certain purposes that He intends for them to fulfill.
A common criticism of complementarianism is that it is chauvinistic—it identifies one gender as superior to the other. Egalitarians insist that a difference in roles and responsibilities implies a difference in equality. But it is possible for two people to be different and equal. Men and women do in fact have the same value and significance before God, even though they are not identical in their roles or responsibilities. This is clearly evident to us in the Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. The three persons have distinct roles to fulfill, but they are all equal. Pastor David Guzik states:
In our day, many say there is no real difference between men and women. This makes sense if we are the result of mindless evolution, but the Bible says “male and female He created them.” To God, the differences between men and women are not accidents. Since He created them, the differences are good and meaningful. One of the saddest signs of our culture’s depravity is the amount and the degree of gender confusion today. It is vain to wonder if men or women are superior to the other. A man is absolutely superior at being a man. A woman is absolutely superior at being a woman. But when a man tries to be a woman or a woman tries to be a man, you have something inferior.
We cannot expect the secular world to agree with God’s Word and embrace complementarianism. The real tragedy, however, is when Christians hold to an egalitarian view, seeing no differences between men and women’s roles in the home and the church. Such individuals may not condone unbiblical forms of sexuality such as homosexuality and transgenderism, but because egalitarianism blurs the lines between men and women, it makes it easier for the world to further blur the lines and do away with gender distinctives and undermine God’s Word. Just as men are needed in the home and the church in crucial ways, so women are needed in the home and the church in crucial ways. But the way each gender is needed is different, and we must maintain the distinctions if we are to obey God’s Word and experience the best of marital bliss the way God intended.
In chapter 5, we will take a closer look at Genesis 2:18. For now, let’s appreciate how God called Eve “a helper comparable to [Adam].” This affirms that God’s calling for Eve—and all wives—is a truly noble calling. The Hebrew word translated “comparable” is neged. Other Bible translations say “suitable for him” (NASB, NIV) and “fit for him” (ESV). The literal translation of the Hebrew text means “opposite” or “contrasting.”
Men and women were designed to fit together perfectly in all ways—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. When a husband and wife become one flesh on their wedding day, they are two people who complement and complete each other. As Genesis 2:24 says, “A man shall…be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Together, they become something stronger and more magnificent than they could ever be alone. The strengths of each compensate for the weaknesses of the other:
- When a husband thinks about his wife, he should see her as God’s suitable companion for him.
- When a wife thinks about her husband, she should see herself as God’s perfect fit for him.
We should give thanks to God for His wonderful design and do everything we can to fulfill the roles He has given us. Only then can we truly experience healthy, joyful marriages.
The world wants to throw counterfeits at us, so we must keep in mind that the blueprint is in the Bible. God is all-perfect, all-loving, and all-wise. As the Author of marriage, we can trust His plan. His way allows husbands and wives to experience all the blessings He desires for us.