Of Headship and Headaches

Power StruggleIn the classic movie farce Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon, disguised as a woman, dances a tango with a gent who thinks Lemmon’s a lady, and a lovely one at that. But the man has one complaint. “You’re leading again!” he keeps pointing out. Accustomed to taking the lead as a male, Jack’s now finding it hard to dance as a follower. But unless one of them yields, the tango’s going nowhere.

That’s funny on film; not so funny in life. Because while power struggle in marriage can be source material for countless jokes, it’s also, in fact, a serious to severe problem in way too many homes. Lots of Christian men feel beaten down by wives who dominate them, and many Christian wives are frustrated with passive husbands who refuse to lead. Likewise, plenty of husbands horribly abuse their authority in the home, and too many wives think submission means blind obedience so, accordingly, they put up with things they shouldn’t.

Questions over headship are old, often argued, and sure to stir up controversy if you bring them up. But should it really be a subject so taboo we raise it at our
own risk?

We Believe It. We Just Don’t Fully Get It

Full disclosure: I still don’t get it. I’ve never been able to nail down how submission and headship are meant to play out in marriage. And yet I’m pretty satisfied with the arrangement I have in mine, one that’s admittedly imperfect but still built on mutual submission, pretty good cooperation, and a notable absence of Me Tarzan You Jane role designations. She’s an amazing cook; I can clean a kitchen or a house in a flash. We’re both reasonably good with tools; I’m a flop at electronics and detail work; she handles the books; we’re both good in the yard when we get to it. She’s a girl’s girl who loves bright colors, revels in shoes, and dresses meticulously.  I’d rather wear the same clothes  daily. We’ve settled into our strong points, built the system around them, and it’s worked for
28 years.

So we’re equals, no doubt. But if I take scripture seriously, then yes, I do feel responsible to take the lead in our home, spiritually and directionally, while providing for my family, enforcing rules and boundaries as needed, and generally seeing that things get done and everyone’s taken care of. So I guess I’m guiding
the tango.

But I’m LOL at the very notion of calling Renee “submissive.” She’s as gracious a wife as I could ask for, and she’s a diva, a very strong and strong-willed lady with high intelligence and razor-sharp creativity. She runs a business and a household, she’s an independent self-starter, never shy about airing her opinions (especially when they run counter to mine) and holds her own with people of all sorts. Truth to tell, she was doing great before I came along, so I’ve no doubt that while she loves me deeply and cherishes our bond, she’d also be fine without me.

In short, her letting me lead is an act of courageous, extraordinary graciousness. But she wants me to, without being a jerk, just as I want her to let me lead, knowing I’d be bored to death with a wife who didn’t have her own mind, and who didn’t speak it.

But Power Struggles Happen

Still, the “You’re Leading Again” issue does come up in our house, and I suspect couples have faced it since time immemorial. Because when Eve accepted forbidden fruit, sin turned the human experience into something it was never meant to be. Read God’s description of what life would be like because of sin; it’s pretty bleak stuff. (Genesis 3:16-19) And part of that bleakness, He said, would be the Who’s Got the Upper Hand? power struggle:

“Your desire will be to your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3: 16)

The Hebrew word translated “desire” is found only three times in the Old Testament, and commentators are divided as to what it means. Some say it indicates a wife’s desire to have a husband and a head; others say it means a woman will want to usurp her husband’s headship. Considering that the same word is used when God told Cain in Genesis 4:7 that “sin’s desire is for you, but you should rule over it”, I’d go with the power-struggle interpretation.

Because authority’s not easy. If a husband takes seriously his role described in Ephesians 5, he’ll realize he’s his wife’s slave, commissioned to love her as Christ loved the church. Which means, among other things, attending to her needs, building her up, and never letting her go a day without feeling loved.(Oh, and dying for her, by the way, as Christ died for us, a not-too-minor detail easily overlooked by men.)

A Smart Man Makes Full Use of His Gift

And he does all of this fully realizing he’s been given a wife because he can’t do it on his own, and that she brings gifts and capacities he lacks. That’s why she’s there.

I’ve learned this the hard way, being by nature independent and ashamed to ask for help, which is awfully stupid when you’ve got a partner like mine. My wife is one smart, creative woman, an invaluable co-laborer and a literal treasure.

She understands computers, websites and Facebook; I’m utterly bewildered by all three. She handles bills and records with ease; I loathe paperwork to the point of viewing it as Satanic. She’s creative; I’m black and white. And so on.

Neglecting all she brings into this union is akin to having an MBA Executive who’s educated and competent, then refusing to utilize him. I need my wife for reasons that are emotional, physical, professional and spiritual. So if I’m smart, I’ll serve her well, and make full use of her partnership.

But the submission thing doesn’t come easily to any of us, and my sweetheart will be the first to admit she’s no Natural Born Submitter. In fact, when we took our marriage vows, she literally and hilariously choked on the word “Obey”, a lovely memory I never get tired of reminding her about.

And So —

All of which is to say that in a perfect, sinless world, no human authority would be needed. But since headship has been commissioned as a necessity, it needs to be accepted and utilized properly. If I don’t die for my wife, I’ve no reason to expect her to follow my lead. If she insists on taking the overall lead, we can expect the dance to be thwarted. And if both of us forget Who we ultimately answer to for the way we’ve treated each other, we’ll surely miss the mark.

And there’s the bottom line. At the judgment seat of Christ we’ll both answer for the way we’ve handled the spouse God entrusted us with.

Like you, we’d both like to hear a “Well done, good faithful servant” when we give an account of our marriage. May every struggle we have, meanwhile, point all of us back to that unalterable, and hugely consequential, truth.


  1. Darla Meeks says:

    My two cents about all this submission stuff.

    Let’s remember that there is a level at which Christians are neither male nor female before God…and Paul also said that all Christians, irrespective of gender, are to submit to one another. And when Jesus hears the prayers of His beloved bride and answers them, He shows Himself to be the humble servant King…meek and lowly of heart. It’s okay for men to give in to their women’s desires every now and then. It is okay for him to submit to her as a Christian, also (assuming she is also a Christian).

    I believe the scripture that says “Your desire will be to your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3: 16) is the result of original sin…a female controlling lust for security in marriage leading to abusive male domination. It is about the woman’s loss of her livelihood in the garden in which she depended only on God for her daily bread. After the fall, she lost her Father-daughter relationship with her provider God, and her loving playmate relationship with Adam. Rather, she began to depend on Adam instead for her daily bread. (We know that abused women who are financially dependent on their abusers often believe they are in love with that abuser…until they are no longer financially dependent on them…then, somehow, that emotional dependency evaporates.)

    This is, of course, all about money…and disobedience was always about the love of that which is valuable.

    Of course, the man, who also no longer depends on God for his daily bread, has to look to the infertile soil and the sweat of his own brow…to make it or not depending on his own abilities and his best fortunes, whatever they may be.

    The person I depend on for my daily bread has power over me…and if it is a fallen male, he will rule over me abusively. We see this in domestic abuse cases where women are financially and emotionally dependent on an abusive male. The word “desire”, of course, is the woman’s lust for a man to make her the center of his universe and give her a comfortable life…by hook or by crook. It has led to all kinds of sinful machinations to attract and keep a man.

    Blessed Jesus was sent to deliver ladies from our desire to control men (either by libido or manipulation or guilt or deception or whatever) in order to get our needs met (material or emotional). Likewise, He was sent to deliver men from the dependence on their own sweat to provide for themselves and their families…rather, he is to call on a good Father who clothes the lilies of field so richly, and feeds to birds of the air…even though they never work for it.

    As a celibate woman, this deliverance has given me the freedom that St. Paul discussed. The Scripture tells us much about joy, but happiness is almost never discussed except in direct connection to celibate single hood. I don’t need an earthly husband to take care of me…the Lord has given me a garden to tend, and the earth brings forth its bounty as I live in His care. (My career is a good one, and is in no way a hardship…I don’t break a sweat…though my unsaved colleagues definitely do…) He has given me people to serve, and my labor has only to do with matters of the Kingdom…I don’t worry about my livelihood. Jesus is the best husband ever, and the most faithful Head of my household.

    If I were to marry a man at any time in the future, it would be a call to service. A man is not something I particularly want or need…I might feel important about assisting a man of God who needs me. I think that is a healthy compartmentalization that is Biblical. After all, the man is not made for the woman…and women need to stop looking for men to rescue them. The woman is rather made for the man…it is the man who is in need of the help that God created inherently in the woman for him. Adam was always the one in need, and it was always intended for Eve to have that power over him to make him her carefree, loving playmate.

    • Darla, I what you’ve written here in response to Joe’s piece. You are brave to write what you did because as you probably know, many women, even Christian women, would take issue with your findings and conclusions. That is especially true given the culture we live in. Stay true to the Word, and may God bless your witness for Him.


  2. I must take issue with one point: (“She’s creative; I’m black and white.”) You’re writing is as colorful and creative as I’ve ever read! Go Joe!

  3. The best description of the man-wife tango I’ve ever heard. Will print to read again and discuss with my own Joe. See if it helps… Ann is right, never seen a man write so creatively as you do. Totally unpredictable, and very thorough. Thank you, thank you.

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