Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Headship of the Reformed Husband
by Engelsma David
The feminist movement and the insubordinate wife are getting all the attention in conservative circles today. They are being blamed for the disturbance of marriage and the family.
This is understandable. The feminist movement is powerful in the world. It makes obvious inroads into the Reformed and evangelical churches. Denying the headship of the man in the church, feminism necessarily rejects also the headship of the husband in the home. Any movement that "liberates" the wife and mother from submission to her husband is indeed an enemy of marriage and the family, as well as a disturber of the peace of the home.
The trouble is that another threat to the home is easily overlooked. This threat is not a whit less destructive of marriage and the family than the independent or rebellious wife. It is every bit as prevalent in conservative churches, including the Protestant Reformed Churches, as is the danger of the unruly wife. This is the wickedness of the abuse of his headship by the husband and father.
Christ the Lord calls the Christian husband and father to headship: "For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church" (Ephesians 5:23; cf. I Cor. 11:3). This headship is authority over the wife and, by implication, the family. This is proved beyond any question by the comparison in Ephesians 5 between the husband's headship over his wife and Christ's headship over His church. To deny that the headship of the husband over the wife in Ephesians 5:22-33 means authority in the human family is to depose Christ from office in the church. That headship is authority is confirmed by the proper response on the part of the wife: submission (w. 22, 24) and reverence (v. 33).
Christ authorizes the Reformed husband and father to govern his wife, children, and household. This is his responsibility. He will give account to Christ in the Day of Judgment.
The husband's headship is not absolute authority. It is not the right to treat wife and children as the man pleases. It is rather the right, and duty, to treat wife and children as Christ pleases. Christ is Lord of the wife, children, household, and husband. The will of Christ determines the nature of the husband's headship, the manner in which the headship is carried out, and the end, or goal, of the headship. Every husband knows this will of Christ, for Christ has plainly revealed it in Holy Scripture. He has plainly revealed His will concerning the husband's headship in Ephesians 5:23: "even as Christ is the head of the church."
The headship of the husband is a headship of love. It is a headship of the love with which Christ loves His church. The authority of a husband is strictly qualified, controlled, and directed by love, indeed by such love.
The husband has the right to regard his wife as dear and precious to himself. He has the right to give himself to and for his wife, sacrificing himself. He has the right to live his life, not apart from his wife or at the expense of his wife, but with her and through her. He has the right to treat her by word and deed with tenderness: "nourishing and cherishing (her)" (Eph. 5:29). He has the right to make her welfare the purpose of his married life with her. In and by this relationship of love, he has the right to govern her life.
Although his headship over his children differs in certain respects from the exercise of that headship over his wife, the nature and purpose of the father's authority over his children are the same. It is an authority of love that aims at the children's earthly and spiritual good. Good instruction and discipline will be a special feature of the father's rule. Patience with the children's weaknesses and pity for them in their troubles will characterize a Reformed man's headship over the family. In and by this relationship of love, he has the right to govern their lives.
The wife must be able to see Christ in her husband.
The children must be able to see their heavenly Father in their dad.
This is Reformed headship. The Lord Christ demands it of every man who marries. Every married man has vowed before God that he will be such a husband and father, for this is one of the marriage vows. The ability to carry out this headship is a precious grace of the Holy Spirit for which a young man should earnestly pray before he marries and for which all husbands and fathers ought to pray as long as they live. The Spirit works this grace in covenant lines, so that good headship is handed down from father to son. The boy grows up seeing his father treating his mother and the children in the right way. Under the blessing of the Spirit of the covenant, the boy learns how to be a Christian husband and father himself.
Headship is abused. Headship is abused in conservative circles. I am not now referring to the shortcomings of all husbands and fathers, even the holiest, which shortcomings are a grief to them. Nor do I refer to sinful deeds against wife and children that all husbands and fathers sometimes commit, which they confess both to God and to their family. But I refer to a wicked way of life that is ongoing in marriage and family, to a pattern of conduct on the part of the "head of the home" that never changes because it is never repented of.
One form of the abuse of headship is the failure of the husband to live with his wife and children. He eats and sleeps in the same building alright, but there is no involvement with the family, no care for their life, no interest in their doings and problems, no daily oversight. Work and recreation are his love. This head must not be surprised that there is a lack of response when he does try to assert his will in the home. A body does not respond to a distant, disinterested head.
A worse form of the abuse of headship is harsh, cruel rule. The husband and father governs by threat and force. He rages. He ridicules and belittles. He is always critical, never praising. His physical discipline of his children consists of battering them in an outburst of anger, rather than spanking them in the love that desires their holiness. He may even dare to hit, or otherwise lay rough hands on, his wife. There is submission in the family. It is the submission of terror. Wife and children cower in the presence of this hateful, hurtful head.
No man may justify this tyranny by appeal of his headship. Christ gives no on this kind of authority. This is devilish perversion of headship.
Such a husband is a fool. Mistreating his wife — his own flesh — he is actually hating himself (Eph. 5:28, 29). If he thinks to achieve his wife's willing obedience in this way, he only deceives himself. A wife cannot be browbeaten into willing obedience in this way, he only deceives himself. A wife cannot be browbeaten into willing obedience. She must be won by love. Christ draws His wife by cords of love.
The cold or cruel father foolishly ruins his own flesh and blood — the children of his own body. It is likely that he sets in motion an abuse of headship down through his generations, as his sons follow his example. There is blessing in the covenant that is healthy for the family from generation to generation. There is also judgment in the covenant as the sins of fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation.
This is not to say that a young husband in the church may excuse his own wretched behavior toward his family on the basis of the bad example of his father. No one may regard himself as a helpless victim. The Word of God instructs him clearly enough how he is to live with his wife, regardless of the example of his father. The Word imperiously calls him to take Christ as his pattern, not his disobedient father. There is a Holy Spirit who empowers every believer to be the loving head that the Word requires. In the Day of Judgment, God will hold every husband fully responsible for failing to be a head of his wife in the love of Christ. The Judge will not accept a plea of "extenuating circumstances."
There is, and must be, help for wives and children in the church who suffer under husbands who abuse their headship. This help is at the same time help for the sinning husbands who, if they continue in their grievous wickedness, will be damned. The help is the church. Specifically the help is the sharp preaching and firm discipline of the church. The preaching gives positive, detailed instruction to husbands as to the proper exercise of headship. It also pointedly warns against the abuse of headship. This preaching works repentance and a change of behavior of a brutal husband, or who sees the children being injured by a cruel father, must tell the church, that is, the consistory. The elders must not turn the woman away because of the problems that the case promises. They must take hold of the matter. They must work with the sinning husband.
The wife who suffers at the hands so that he repents and changes his conduct. They must keep a close watch on the family for some time in order to be sure that the husband does not fall back into his old ways.
Such oversight of family life is the church's business. Christ has called her to guard the husbands and fathers in her fellowship against their spiritual and eternal ruin. Christ has also called her to protect the helpless wife and children against the oppressor.
In these wild, bewildering times at the end of the ages, the Reformed church must be the defender of marriage and the family.
She must oppose feminism, proclaiming the church-like submission of the Christian wife.
With equal determination, she must oppose selfish male dominion, proclaiming the Christ-like headship of the Christian husband.
David Engelsma is a professor of Dogmatics at the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Church. David is a very gifted Christian writer, a quality that is not an exception among the ministers of Protestant Reformed Churches (Herman Hoeksema, Homer Hoeksema, Herman Hanko, Ronald Hanko, Robert Decker, Barry Gritters, Steve Houck, Angus Stewart and many others). This article is originally from the Standard Bearer Volume 70, Issue 11 of March 1, 1994.