“Headship” And Its Discontents

“Headship” And Its Discontents

by Noel Bouché

Some time ago, our team was speaking with a twenty-something single woman, and the conversation turned to her struggle with the idea of “spiritual headship” as it relates to marriage, and what that meant for her future, particularly her choices about vocation and relationships. Having grown up with a particular type of marital dynamic and household roles modeled for her, it was clear that “headship” as a concept was far less a doctrinal lamp unto her feet than it was a metaphysical vice ever threatening to squeeze her person into some unnatural form.

I’ve also had many conversations with men—young and old—about their struggle to exhibit “headship” within their families. Usually, the sense of inadequacy and ineptitude is rooted in a feeling of not “measuring up” to a standard of what they refer to as “spiritual leadership,” defined by some mix of activities worthy of the busiest Vacation Bible School coordinator, relationship coach, and financial advisor all rolled into one.

In both cases, a dispiriting and sometimes crippling angst is evident. So what to do? Here are two steps toward a fresh perspective on the matter: 1) focus on the Head, and 2) focus on the foundation.

Focus on the Head

Here’s an interesting starting point: “headship” isn’t biblical. As in, the word itself is not in the Bible. And here’s a related phrase that isn’t found in the pages of Scripture: “spiritual leadership.”

Far from splitting hairs or throwing the baby out with the bathwater, dispensing with words and phrases not found in the Scriptures can help us better focus on words that actually are in the Bible—in this instance, the word “head” as used in the context of the marriage relationship by the apostle Paul: “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3).

Speaking in terms of who is positioned as “the head” instead of haggling over the characteristics and proper performance parameters of the concept of “headship” is helpful in two ways. First, it focuses the discussion on Jesus, Who is “the head” of every person, male or female. Second, it frames the role of “the head” in marriage through the lens of the actions and attributes of a flesh-and-blood person—again, Jesus—rather than a theological theory.

And to rightly view the nature of those actions and attributes, we ought to…

Focus on the Foundation

There are two biblical illustrations used to describe how Jesus is “the head” of His people—one fairly obvious, the other not so much.

“The head” in one illustration is… the head. It’s positioned at the top of the body, and all of the body grows up into it (Ephesians 4:15). This picture is the one many of us have in mind, and while accurate as a matter of biblical infallibility and meant to encourage us in knowing that our words and actions have profound impact, our human fallibility easily misconstrues the meaning of the metaphor.

It can appear to grant license to self-important bombast; the head, after all, is the only part of the body with a mouth… when really the mouth is given to speak life. It can appear to grant license to domineering control; the head, after all, dictates to the rest of the body through a central nervous system dependent upon the brain… but the brain is designed to move, serve, and respond to the body. It can appear to grant license to a gendered arrogance; the head, after all, sits at the top… but Scripture reminds us no member of the body can function fully without the others (1 Corinthians 12:21). It’s easy to see how such attitudes could lead to a narrow-minded focus on “keeping one’s head above water”—no matter if the other parts of the body are submerged and flailing… when really the true intention behind God’s design is one of loving and giving.

There is another illustration depicting Jesus as the head that can add to our understanding of the head in deeper ways. Paradoxically, this illustration places that role at the bottom. Psalm 118:22 says that “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and the word “cornerstone” is the English translation of the Hebrew phrase “head of the corner.” The cornerstone was the first and most important stone laid in the construction of a building; the rest of the foundation stones, and indeed the stonework done on top of it, relied on the cornerstone being steady, strong, and true. All other stones were set in reference to it, and it determined the position and soundness of the entire edifice.

Six books of the New Testament make clear that Jesus is this prophesied cornerstone, the “head of the corner” upon which everything is built, including our spiritual lives and communities. He is “the head” that “though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). Indeed, a servant at the bottom of the structure, half-hidden in the dirt; the “head of the corner” Who lowered Himself to empty Himself for His metaphorical spouse, the church—a lowering and emptying husbands are to emulate (Ephesians 5:23-25).

This vitally important head at the bottom of the enterprise is responsible for three primary things. One, to be present, for without its presence the structure crumbles. Two, to be whole, and in that wholeness provide steady support for others. And three, to be true, and in that aligned placement to set the position for the rest of those that comprise the structure.

But what about leadership? What about authority? It’s tough to make an argument that a “head of the corner” fulfilling its purpose is not the very definition of “leading by example.” And authority… well, it’s interesting to note that the English word “authority” comes to us from a Latin term meaning “one who causes to grow.”

If we can be but present, whole, and true, we will see much growth in and around us—and a demonstration of the life of Jesus flowing through us that will fill others with inspiration, not angst. For He is the head—as in head of the body who moves us to love like Him, and He is also the “head of the corner” the steady base to build on.

Check out our podcast episode, What’s a Man To Do?


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