You open your Bible, eager to understand God’s design for marriage and family. As you study passages about husbands and wives, you come across the phrase “head of household.” What does it mean? Is the husband always the leader of the home?
Understanding the biblical meaning of “head of household” starts with digging into the original languages and culture. In Scripture, the husband is called to sacrificial leadership, not autocratic control. Wives are called to voluntary submission, not mandatory obedience. And children are to honor both father and mother.
- “Head of household” refers to the husband’s responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect his wife and children. It does not imply dictatorship or superiority.
- Wives are called to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord,” meaning with respect, not as slaves. Submission is voluntary, not forced.
- Husbands must love their wives sacrificially, as Christ loved the church. They do not have license for harshness or selfishness.
- The godly family structure honors both male headship and female equality before God. The goal is harmony, unity, and mutual love.
The Husband as Head in Genesis
After the fall into sin, God pronounces a curse on the serpent, the woman, and the man. To the woman he says, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). What does this mean?
God is describing the damaging effects of sin on the marital relationship, not issuing a command. Now the wife will have a sinful desire to control her husband, and the husband will respond with harsh, autocratic leadership. But this was never God’s original plan.
Even after the fall, Adam is still viewed as the head of his household. After leaving Eden, “Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man'” (Gen. 4:1). The woman bears children, but the man is the head and authority over the family.
When God establishes His covenant with Abraham, He instructs, “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10). As head of his household, Abraham even circumcised his servants. The sign of God’s covenant was given to the males, starting with the head of each home.
Husbands Lead, Wives Submit
The New Testament affirms that the husband is the head of the household and the wife is to submit herself to her husband’s leadership.
God’s design for marriage is laid out in Ephesians 5:22-33. Wives are instructed, “Submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (v. 22) and “the wife must respect her husband” (v. 33). Husbands are commanded, “Love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25) and, “Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself” (v. 33).
Male headship is confirmed in other passages. Colossians 3:18 says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” 1 Peter 3:1 adds, “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands.” The husband is to lead with sacrificial love, provision, and protection. The wife honors her husband’s position as head and willingly supports him in cultivating a godly home.
Authority With Mutual Submission
Does male headship mean the woman is inferior to the man or has less dignity and worth? Not at all. Galatians 3:28 declares, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Yet this oneness in Christ does not erase all distinctions between the roles of men and women, husbands and wives.
The New Testament presents a nuanced view of authority and submission within the family and church. Yes, wives are instructed to submit to their husbands as head. But all Christians are urged to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). And husbands must submit to Christ in how they lead their wives. Authority is not unilateral but operates within a framework of mutual love, service, and humility.
This fits the beautiful harmony of headship and submission in the Trinity. The Son honors the Father as head, while the Father honors the Son. The Holy Spirit yields to both the Father and Son, while empowering them to fulfill their roles. Authority and submission work together, rooted in love.
Like Christ’s Love for the Church
When a Christian husband loves his wife sacrificially, cherishes her, and uses his authority to serve her, he reflects Christ’s love for the church. Jesus gave Himself up for us. He washes us with His Word. He nourishes and cherishes us. This is the standard for a godly husband.
And the church voluntarily yields to Christ as her head. We submit to His authority over us. We honor His leadership. We allow Him to change us into His holy likeness. This models a wife’s biblical submission to her husband. While voluntary, it is not conditional on whether she approves of her husband’s decisions.
When both spouses follow the Bible’s different commands for husbands and wives, it creates a beautiful picture of the gospel. The wife’s submission reflects the church’s submission to Christ. The husband’s sacrificial love reflects Christ’s love for the church.
Responsibilities of Parents
In families with children, the husband is still the head but both parents have important responsibilities. Fathers are told, “Do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Mothers must love and nurture their children. Parents are to train children in God’s ways without anger or discouragement.
Both fathers and mothers are commanded: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6:6-7). Child training is a joint responsibility.
When children obey and honor their parents, they are obeying and honoring God. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise—’so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth'” (Eph. 6:1-3). The whole family works together, with the father as head.
Examples of Godly Husbands
Abraham was considered the prince and high father of his extended family and servants (Gen. 24:2). When he called on them to follow the Lord by being circumcised, they obeyed immediately. Yet when Sarah wanted to send away Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham was distressed, and God told him to listen to his wife (Gen. 21:9-12). He sought her counsel and considered her desires, even while maintaining his headship.
Job was “blameless and upright” as head of his household, continually interceding for his children and offering sacrifices on their behalf (Job 1:1-5). His wife disappointed him during his trial, but there is no indication he was harsh or uncaring toward her.
Joshua, leader of Israel after the Exodus, declared publicly, “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Josh. 24:15). He led his family in serving God with courage and faithfulness.
In the New Testament, Cornelius, a Roman centurion, is described as “a devout and God-fearing man, who was respected by all the Jewish people” (Acts 10:22). As both soldier and head of his household, he managed his family well and was fully devoted to God.
Examples of Godly Wives
Sarah obeyed her husband Abraham, even when it involved leaving her homeland. She referred to him respectfully as her “lord” (Gen. 18:12). Yet she also felt free to give her husband advice, which he considered thoughtfully because of his trust in her.
Ruth chose to follow her mother-in-law Naomi to Israel after being widowed. She humbly worked to support them both, eventually marrying Naomi’s kinsman Boaz. As his wife, Ruth worked faithfully beside him in the fields and fulfilled the duties of a helpmate.
Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila, traveled with the apostle Paul to share the gospel. In their marriage they were true partners and fellow workers in Christ, yet Aquila was still referred to as the head of their household (Rom. 16:3-5). Both used their gifts while respecting their roles.
Lydia, a successful businesswoman, came to faith in Christ under Paul’s teaching. After being baptized, she then invited Paul and his companions to stay in her home. Though a strong leader in the church, she submitted herself to God’s commands for biblical womanhood.
Modern Application for Household Heads
In the modern Western context, how do these biblical principles for husbands and wives apply? Here are some key implications for men seeking to be godly household heads:
- Strive to reflect Christ in how you love, lead, and sacrifice for your wife. Avoid harshness or passivity. Know her desires and seek her counsel. Help her grow in faith and gifts.
- Take responsibility for the primary spiritual leadership of your home. Set a tone of love for God’s Word, prayer, and worship. Lead in moral and ethical integrity. Model repentance and faith.
- Provide materially for your family’s needs through honest work. Seek to protect your wife and children. Make them feel secure and valued. Demonstrate wisdom and planning for the future.
- Parent with patience, compassion, consistency, and biblical training. Do not treat your authority abusively. Discipline in a spirit of restoration, not anger. Admit mistakes and ask forgiveness when needed.
- Cultivate open communication and understanding with your wife. Control through intimidation or threats has no place. Headship does not entitle you to be demanding, demeaning, or unkind.
- Uphold your wife’s dignity and value before the Lord. Esteem her gifts. Seek her counsel. Be humble and loving in how you exercise leadership.
As husbands live out sacrificial, Christlike love and leadership, wives are enabled to flourish as helpers and stewards of the home. The family displays the gospel.
Questions for Discussion
- Husbands, do you currently view yourself as head of your household? How well are you fulfilling the Bible’s commands for a husband? Which areas need growth?
- Wives, do you struggle with submitting to your husband’s leadership? What fears or hurts hinder you? How can you encourage your husband as head, even during times of disagreement or failure?
- Children, do you willingly obey your parents? When you resist their authority, how does it damage relationships and dishonor God? Ask God to help you honor both father and mother.
- singles, how are you preparing now for future roles as husband, wife, or parent? Are you allowing God to shape your character to lead or submit in a marriage? Wait on God’s best and follow His Word.
The Bible’s beautiful design for marriage continues to provide practical guidance and gospel hope, even for modern families. By embracing the husband’s headship and the wife’s submission, both rooted in sacrificial love, couples and families can thrive.
As husbands follow Christ’s selfless leadership, wives uphold their respectful partnership, and children honor their parents, the home becomes a display of the gospel. Although challenging in a sinful world, God’s plan remains good. May our families strive to follow His loving purposes for male headship and female helpmeet support.
When husbands and wives reflect the Bible’s different commands, the home will grow in unity, understanding, and mutual love. Even in a hostile culture, we can model the relationship between Christ and His church. Led by the Spirit, let us build Christ-centered homes to the glory of God.