Misunderstandings About Biblical Headship and Submission












Morning Friends,

I couldn’t wait to share with you the contraption my hubby set up for me on my treadmill. You see it? Now I can stand and walk while I write. Since most of my work is done sitting, with all the writing I’ve been doing I’m definitely acquiring what I call a book butt. I saw an article about sitting becoming the new smoking – in other words, it’s hazardous to our health and decided to construct a little desk on my treadmill so that I could write or read while walking slowly. Saturday I clocked 1  1/2 miles. I’m so excited. Trust me, I don’t walk fast, maybe 1.5 mph but at least I’m not sitting constantly and my body sure appreciates it.

Friday I received a call from someone who wanted me to clear up some questions and confusion she had about headship and submission. I wasn’t able to take her call but told her that I would blog about it this week. Here is a sneak preview of some of my new book, which will be out September 2013 on emotionally destructive marriages.

Misunderstandings about biblical headship and submission

As a young wife, I attended a retreat that was geared around becoming a godly woman. Most of the wives in the room groaned when they heard the “S” word featured as our next topic. No wife looks forward to hearing that God says she must give her husband the final say in all decisions regardless of how capable or stable he is, just because he’s the man.

Throughout the session the speaker emphasized how God created the husband as the head of the home, to be the leader. She said that even if our husband made poor decisions God would protect us and our children if we simply trusted Him and obeyed our husband. Then she proceeded to tell a story where a woman’s husband wanted her to have an abortion. The wife didn’t want to, but she submitted and just before she was to go to the clinic for the procedure, she had a spontaneous miscarriage. “See”, the speaker said, “God was faithful.”

I wanted to stand up and scream “That’s crazy. Don’t’ listen to her” but I was too much a coward at the time to risk such censure from the group. I’m braver today and I’m telling you don’t fall for that kind of simplistic and naive teaching on this very important subject. If you want to get clear headed and be a godly woman, in addition to listening to wise counsel, you must study the scriptures yourself and ask God to help you understand what the Bible says. Jesus tells us that as believers, He gives each one of us the Holy Spirit which He promises, leads us into all truth (John 16:13).

The Bible never says that submission is only a wife’s or woman’s responsibility nor does it say that the husband or man gets the final say in all decisions. These ideas have been misrepresented and misunderstood. Wrongly applied they can cause harm to men, women, and children as well as thwart God’s plan for loving family relationships.

During a counseling session, Natalie asked, “I’ve always been taught that submission to my husband trumps everything, even my children. But when he’s raging out of control, screaming and threatening them and their scared little faces look to me to for help, what am I supposed to do? Does God want me to support my husband or ignore what’s happening because he’s the head of our home?”

The New Testament never describes godly headship or leadership by using an authoritarian, power/over model. Jesus demonstrated headship for his disciples so that they would be crystal clear what he meant. Instead of wielding his mighty power and rightful authority to show them what leadership looked like, he donned a towel and basin and personally washed each of their dirty feet. They were the future leaders of his Church and Jesus wanted to show them that biblical headship meant sacrificial servant-hood. Jesus, or the scriptures never describe biblical headship or leadership as entitlement to do what you want, demand that others do you want you want or to get your own way. The correct biblical terms for those characteristics are selfishness and misuse of one’s power and authority. There are numerous examples of these behaviors throughout scripture but they are never depicted as God’s example of leadership but rather as sin. (Read through the seven chapters of the Old Testament book of Micah for numerous examples of leaders abusing their power and God’s response.)

After Jesus finished washing his disciples feet, he said to each of them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14,15). This concept of selfless servant-hood was so radically different from his disciple’s idea of leadership they didn’t truly grasp what Jesus meant. Later on James and John were arguing about who would have the better seat in heaven and Jesus stopped them and taught them the essence of biblical headship. He said, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus expressly warned his leaders, not to abuse their power just to get their way or boss people around (Mark 10:41-46; Luke 22:25,26; Matthew 23:3,4 italics added).

What Jesus taught was unheard of in Jewish culture. Hierarchy was well established even in the most intimate relationships. Men dominated women, husbands their wives. Paul picked up Jesus’ heart on the subject of headship in marriage when he writes, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). The essence of Biblical teaching on headship is that if you are the leader, your responsibility is to initiate and model servant-hood before anyone else in the family does. As the leader you’re to show the way. You’re to go first. When a leader (whether of a home, a church or a nation) manipulates, threatens, and scares people into doing what he says or to get what he wants, know that he is not behaving as a biblical head, but rather as a bully. As Paul writes, “Love does not demand its own way (1 Corinthians 13:5).

Jesus didn’t only model headship for us, he also modeled submission. In the Garden of Gethsemane anticipating the crucifixion, Jesus’ prayed that this cup of suffering would be removed from him. He dreaded the cross; he wanted God to find an alternate way to save humankind. Yet, Jesus submitted himself when he prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Throughout his life, Jesus always wanted to do what God wanted. He said his will was synonymous with God’s will. (See John 4:34; John 6:37; John 5:3; John 17:17.) Now in his agonizing moment during his garden prayer, Jesus felt differently. This was the first time he didn’t want to do what God wanted but he chose submission to God’s will and his Father’s perfect plan. God didn’t force Jesus to submit, Jesus chose to. Jesus said, “No one takes my life, I give it (John 10:18).

In the same way, biblical submission can never be forced. It can only be done by the one who chooses to submit her (or his) will to another. When we voluntarily give our will to another or to God it’s called submission, when someone forces our will to be given, it is not biblical submission. The correct terms are intimidation, coercion and bullying. Submission isn’t necessarily agreement; it’s yielding your will to another for a greater good. The good might be unity in the family (or body of Christ) or honoring and pleasing God.

The apostle Paul writes in Philippians that we must be intentional if we don’t want selfishness to rule in our relationships (Philippians 2:2-4). He then uses Christ’s example for us to see how that works. Paul writes, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).

Jesus modeled both headship and submission in volunteering for the servant’s place and yielding his will to God. This describes the working together of headship and submission, the husband sacrificially leads his wife in servant-hood (through example) and the wife sacrificially yields her will in servant-hood (through example). Both are servants of the other and of God. When only one is the servant or the other is the master or god, the marriage isn’t working as God intended.

Since the fall of Adam and Eve, human beings have been vying for power and control over one another (Genesis 3:16). This was not God’s original plan but the result of sin. Biblical headship doesn’t mean you get your way all the time and submission doesn’t mean you have no voice or choice in the matter. The scriptures validate the mutuality of marriage and the dignity and value of each individual no matter who they are. As Paul plainly wrote, now there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man or woman (Galatians 3:28).

We may have different roles and responsibilities but one is not over the other. Mutuality of servant-hood, submission, and sacrifice are the biblical model for the trinity and for godly relationships, including marriage.



  1. Amy on September 24, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    This is such an excellent post about such a hard subject among Christians.
    I was in an emotionally and mentally abusive marriage for 20 years before my ex-husband finally walked out. Ten years into our marriage I became a believer and spent the next 10 years trying to make sense of the whole submission thing. As a new believer I too was told over and over, that no matter what my ex-husband did or said, I was to go along with it and God would protect me and my children. Imagine my surprise as the years went on and there was no change in my ex-husband and no relief in mine nor my children’s lives from his abuse. He continued to lord over me because the men in the church were teaching him wrongly what it meant to be the headship in the home. My ex would tell me over and over how marriage was like a work relationship…there could only be one boss, and he was it.
    Thank you for the work you do in helping define what a Godly marriage should be. It was your book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, which really helped me to understand what was and had been going on in my first marriage.
    And I’m happy to say, that after my divorce God brought a wonderful Christian man into my life and I am now in a healthy marriage. I’m just now seeing how unhealthy my first marriage was and am so grateful for the blessings God brought to me, not because I chose to continue suffering, but because I chose to step out in faith.
    I look forward to your new book…and I think my husband needs to build me a stand on the treadmill for my laptop too!

  2. Michelle on September 28, 2012 at 12:43 am

    Thank you Leslie for this blog, for speaking clearly on a topic that has been the source of pain and confusion for so many women. It has taken me years to un-learn what the church has taught me regarding submission and women’s roles.

    In addition to the verses you speak of, it has helped me to realize that God does not only call wives to submit, but he calls us to stand firm! Right after that passage in Ephesians 5, Paul goes on to say “Stand firm, with the belt of truth…the breastplate of righteousness…the gospel of peace…” (Eph. 6:14-17). And Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Although the church has often told me I should follow my husband, I have learned that Christ calls me to follow Him.

    I love reading your blogs, and I hope to read more about knowledge and discernment…knowing when to submit, and when to stand firm. Some have told me I should submit to my husband in all circumstances except sin, but I don’t see it that way. If my husband has expectations that I do what he says, all the time, he may not be asking me to specifically sin, but his expectation is still selfish and if I let him micromanage me, then I am not fulfilling God’s desire for me to “carry my own load.” (Galatians 6:5) This is such an important topic, and I am thankful for the many insights I have learned from your writing. You are a blessing!

  3. Dale on October 18, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    Amen, Leslie. I have been thinking this way for a long time, but haven’t found anyone who has finally put it into words. The church in general has surely failed and has been promoting bullying. This is refreshing. After being in an emotionally destructive relationship for 20 years, I finally ended up in divorce,went to seminary and am now a Biblical Counselor.

  4. Kathy on October 19, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    AMEN!! This is so good. I’m so thankful and blessed to have a husband that gets this. Wonderful. Thanks!

  5. Tera on May 20, 2021 at 2:27 pm

    I appreciate this post. I do wish you had gone into 1 Peter 2:13 -3:2. That “likewise”.

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