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Volume 15, Issue 1: Husbandry

An Honored Guest

Douglas Wilson

The headship that God grants the husband in marriage is widely discussed, but is not widely understood. Often both sides of the debate, whether traditionalist or feminist, share the same misunderstanding. Their differences arise because one group embraces the misunderstanding while the other rejects it.

Unfortunately, many conservative husbands do not grasp the organic nature of their authority in the home. They have read that the husband is the head of the wife, but they then fill this language with connotations derived elsewhere—from their stint in the Army, from the shift manager at work, or from leadership techniques of Tammerlane. In short, they think that head of the wife means boss of the wife, end of discussion, where's my supper? Or my sex, as the case may be.
In referring to the organic nature of authority in the home, I mean that true scriptural authority is living, supple, and complicated. Secular denials or counterfeits of this tend to be simple and rigid. Egalitarian feminism is simple to understand, and because of this it has all the subtlety of a wood fence. It has no way of accounting for how men and women actually are. By the same token, masculinist domineering is equally simplistic. Perhaps the nature of these two positions can be seen through a comparison to their political counterparts. Feminism is like strict democracy—a flat horizontal line. Masculinism is like a divine right of kings monarchy—a straight vertical line.
But a biblical marriage is more like the lines of a complex Celtic design. It is like a feudal monarchy, with the monarch having true authority in his assigned realm, but with the vassals having a different but equally true authority in their respective realms. In feudalism, those in authority owe certain things to those for whom they are responsible, and those under authority have the right to demand it. Those under authority owe certain things to their liege-lord, and the one in authority has the right to require it of them. But all the persons involved in this are equally bound in an organic constitutional way. No one person is absolute.
And this is why those husbands who think that headship means their wives should never offer a contrary view are wrong. This is why husbands who think their wives cannot require certain things of them are wrong. This is why husbands who believe that their wives have no court of appeal outside the marriage are wrong.
The husband delegates responsibilities to his wife, but he does so as an instrument of the already established scriptural constitution of the home. In other words, he must delegate to her what the Scripture requires. He may not delegate to her a responsibility which Scripture assigned to him. An example of the former would be a delegation of the responsibility to manage the home. An example of the latter would be an abdication of his responsibility to go to war to defend his household, making her go instead.
The apostle Paul teaches this principle clearly. "I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully" (1 Tim. 5:14). The phrase "guide the house" is a translation of one Greek word which literally rendered would be house-despot. The wife is the mistress of the domain; this is assigned to her by God. The husband can (and must) delegate this complex web of responsibilities to her. He has no right to withhold such a delegation.
Paul says something similar elsewhere. "That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed (Tit. 2:45). "Keepers at home" renders one word which would literally be house-guard. A wife therefore has true authority over her home which no one, including her husband, can take away from her. She must be obedient to him, as this verse states, but this is a clearly delimited obedience.
This can easily be misunderstood or misrepresented, but it is still necessary to emphasize. In a certain sense, a husband (as the head of his wife) is an honored and permanent guest, but he should learn to see himself as a guest. He wipes his feet at the door, he eats what is served to him, he seeks to conform to the pattern established by her—as she in her turn seeks to honor him.
He has authority—where Scripture gives it. She has authority where Scripture gives it. In a Christian marriage, Christ is the Lord of every micro-realm. As Lord, He has assigned these realms of authority to each. Relating these authorities to one another is a complicated dance requiring grace, humility, and love from all the dancers.This means that in certain areas in the life of the home a godly husband is active and engaged. In others, he is to delegate and get out of the way. In yet others, he is to delegate and then do as he is told. But as in everything that Christians do, such "telling" is to be done with grace. A peevish wife is no more scriptural than a cantankerous husband.
A wife has authority over her husband's sex life (1 Cor. 7:4). She has authority over his food (Prov. 31:14). She is responsible for his clothing (Prov. 31:21). She is supposed to stay out of his fishing gear though.
So is the husband the head of his wife the way Christ is the head of the Church? Absolutely. Is he the boss man? Not even close.

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