What does it mean for men to lead in a relationship?

relationships-logoRELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#9 in a series)
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Men are supposed to lead in a relationship, right? What does that look like?

I can’t answer this question without thinking of a scene from one of the most successful romantic comedies of all time, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). Toula’s father Gus has forbidden her to see her non-Greek boyfriend. She’s understandably distressed, thinking that her father, as the head of the household, must necessarily have the last word. But her mother promises to intervene on her behalf, saying, “The man is the head. But the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”

And don’t tell me you don’t know exactly what she means.

Male leadership of households has a history that spreads across centuries and cultures in ways that have nothing to do with the Bible. For many Christians, the idea of male headship is supported by what Paul writes in Ephesians 5, one of the most contested texts in all of the New Testament. Some view Paul as being in support of patriarchy, and may even use his words to justify all manner of dominance.

My own view is that Paul’s words actually undermine the patriarchal norms of his day. It’s a matter of social context. If we read Paul against the background of more egalitarian modern norms, he may sound hopelessly chauvinistic — especially with his talk of wives submitting to their husbands. But if we read him against the background of the norms of the Roman Empire, he sounds like a radical.

Take slavery as an example. Many readers are troubled that Paul doesn’t explicitly challenge slavery, especially when he has a golden opportunity to do so in the letter to Philemon. But imagine a Roman prisoner preaching against slavery from his cell. The institution was deeply embedded in the fabric of Roman society, and some estimate that half the population of the empire was made up of slaves. An apostle who preached living at peace with one’s neighbors could hardly condemn slavery openly. What he did instead was to try to win Philemon over by helping him reimagine his relationship to his runaway slave Onesimus: You’re brothers in the Lord now — what are you going to do about it?

That’s how we should read Ephesians 5: Paul teaches male headship in a way that superimposes the gospel on a patriarchal society. Look at the terms by which he teaches what it means to be the head. Love your wife as Christ loved the church, with a self-sacrificial love. Care for your wife like you feed and care for your own body. That’s hardly your garden variety patriarchy. And even when Paul speaks of wifely submission, he does so in the larger context of mutual submission to one another in Christ.

All that to say this: I don’t think what Paul teaches about headship directly supports much of what people mean by men “leading.” There’s nothing intrinsically wrong, for example, with men taking the initiative in leading family prayers and devotionals, if this is done lovingly. But Paul simply doesn’t say anything about this, and I would put such decisions under the heading of Christian freedom.

And just to be clear: what if she actually wants him to do the things we typically associate with the role of spiritual leadership in the home? He should take that need seriously, even if it makes him uncomfortable. That’s not the neck turning the head. That’s sacrificial love.

In short, in terms of household organization and roles, there isn’t one right biblical prescription for who should do what. The primary goal is to live according to how the gospel of a crucified Christ transforms our understandings of love, power, and respect. Within that, we have a great deal of freedom.