Due to some of the responses that we have received from our series of articles on “The Curse and the Search for Significance,” I’ve decided to write yet one more short piece on how we may deal with the Scriptures that speak of the right kind of headship and subordination in the Body of Christ, and within the marriage relationship. Marie and I are clear that there is a God-given reality of order and subordination in Christian marriage. The issue here is not whether there is order, but whether we will embrace the false and oppressive order that arises out of our fallen, bent posture. The hopeful alternative is that we would look to the Holy Spirit to guide us into a right and truthful order that will bring liberty to the family of God.
One of the key passages in Scripture that comes into focus here is 1 Corinthians 11:3, which states that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” This verse is held in tension and balance by verse seven of the same chapter, which says that man “is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.” So, there is a role of headship by Christ and men that leads to glory for men and women. Let’s examine these things a bit more closely.
First of all, the initial issue should not be to address the nature of the submission of the wife to her husband, or the issue of the submission of Christians to their leaders. To address those issues first is to put the cart before the horse. In order to understand headship within the context of marriage and/or Church leadership, we must consider the nature of the headship that Jesus exercises over the Church. In Ephesians 5:25 and following, the Apostle Paul gives us a clear and compelling model for headship that sets the context for the issues of submission that face us. I am convinced that if we followed the principles of Jesus’ love for His Bride, we would have no issues of brokenness and separation in marriage, or conflict in matters of spiritual leadership with the Body of Christ. Let’s look at the style of Jesus as the head of His Bride.
First of all, Jesus gave Himself for the Church. There is so much emphasis on building large ministries and fulfilling visionary dreams at both the corporate level of the Church as well as in the personal arenas that leaders have lost the self-sacrificing element that is essential if we are to be Christ-like leaders. I’m not talking here about the sacrifice involved in tirelessly building the infrastructures of institutional Christianity; rather, I’m speaking of the selfless laying down of one’s life for the sake of the Beloved. Jesus came to His place of authority precisely because He sacrificed His own life that those He loved might come to salvation, the fullness of their identity and destiny in God’s purposes. Jesus said in John 15:13 that the greatest kind of love is to lay down one’s life for his friends. Jesus sacrificed everything that was life to Him—His position in heaven, His relationship with the Father, His dignity, His right to be honored and worshipped—everything life-giving to Jesus was laid down for the sake of serving and redeeming the ones He loved.
In most Christian marriages and in many Christian ministries that I’ve observed, the emphasis is not on laying down one’s life for the Beloved, but in getting the Beloved—the individual’s wife or the members of the congregation—to lay down their lives for the sake of the husband’s career or the corporate vision of the ministry. Rather than making the Bride the focus of ministry, leaders are adopting the value of having low-maintenance Brides that don’t get in the way of the vision being achieved. The emphasis is not on the leader or the husband laying down his life; it’s on the Bride laying down her life for the sake of the career or the ministry vision. It seems pretty backward to me! No wonder the wives or the church members have a difficult time submitting to the leaders!
Secondly, the priority of Jesus in Ephesians 5:26 is to wash and cleanse the Bride with the water of the Word of God. In other words, the highest priority of the husband/leader is to stand before the Lord to hear His word concerning the Bride, and to speak these words of blessing, identity, significance, and destiny over her until she comes into the fullness of those things. The first role of the husband/leader is to listen to the Father about the Bride, and then in a posture of great humility call her forward into the truth revealed from the Father’s heart. Where are the husbands and Church leaders that labor in prayer over the identity and destiny of their wives and congregations? I don’t see that happening much in marriages or in Church structures. Again, much more energy is given to convincing the Bride to be a good team player, to promote the vision, and to give her resources to the successful realization of the family or corporate vision. She is called upon to sacrifice so that the husband/leader can fulfill his destiny. Beloved, this is not what I see in the Scriptures concerning Jesus’ style of leadership.
In the third place, Ephesians 5:27 tells us that the highest priority of Jesus is that His Bride become glorious, that she grow into maturity free from spot or wrinkle, so that she might stand before her Beloved in the fullness of beauty and grace. Where are the husbands who would make the spiritual, psychological, and physical beauty of their wives their top priority? Where are the Church leaders who demonstrate that the maturity and fully expressed giftedness of their people is the priority of their time and energy?
Well, we say, this is simply not realistic in the world in which we live. The husband has to earn the income, and there simply has to be sacrifice on the part of the wife and family in order for him to ascend the corporate ladder. Oh, there is lip service paid to the idea that it’s all done to provide for the family, but in the face of divorce statistics and Christian counseling demands that statement rings pretty hollow. In fact, most of the striving up that proverbial ladder is not for the sake of the family, but for the purpose of personal recognition and identity. We as husbands and leaders do not generally spend ourselves for the purpose of presenting the Bride in all her glory and fulfillment. We need to begin to ask the question: how do we exit the rat race and begin to exercise our leadership in the way that Jesus modeled it? How do we begin to be obedient to the commands of Ephesians 5 in our own marriages? What does it mean when it says that my priority as a husband in the image of Jesus is to make my wife glorious, and present her in the fullness of her beauty and destiny?
My suggestion is that if we husbands and leaders would begin to exercise our headship in that way, the issue of submission would cease being a problem for the wives and congregations. The thing that makes me want to follow Jesus is that I’ve become convinced that He has my best interest at heart, and that He will do everything in His power to make me glorious at the end of the day. As I become convinced of that, then I can bow my knee to His leadership and gladly endure the process of glorification that He lays out for me. As I see His model of leadership, I gladly lay down my life for His purposes even as He has laid down His life for me. He has demonstrated His willingness to do everything it takes to make me glorious; how can I do less than anything He asks?
That is true headship, true leadership in the image of Christ. Perhaps it’s time to begin to ask how we can walk this out in the crucible of our real relationships, and allow the chips to fall where they may with regard to the “success” of our careers or ministries. Who knows, maybe the Kingdom of God might come on the earth after all.