A Brief Reflection on Male Headship

Dr. David C. Ford is a professor at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania.


If then, you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Col. 3:1-2).

I commend you because you remember me in everything, and you maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor. 11:2-3).

Male headship: “The head of a woman is her husband.” I suppose there’s nothing as infuriating to modern feminists as this concept. But I wonder if this ordering would be at least a little less infuriating if it were understood in all its sublime glory as another of the multitudinous patterns that the Creator God has wondrously and wonderfully woven into His glorious Creation, and which even reflects the very being and life of God Himself, as He exists forever in Holy Trinity.

As we all are well aware, patterns of order exist everywhere in our Lord’s glorious Creation, from the paths of electrons and other subatomic particles, to the paths of planets, stars, and galaxies; from the ordering of the seasons to the planting, growing, and harvesting of crops; and in the growth and adulthood of all animate beings, from the insects and fish to the birds and mammals, from the moment of conception to their last breath on this earth. For the Church fathers, all these countless patterns of order all point to the existence of God, the Creator of all this order that is so essential to the peaceful ongoing existence of all things.

Since human beings are also part of the created realm, we can scarcely be surprised that our own existence would also partake of patterns of order—which, when abided by, greatly contribute to our ongoing, peaceful existence while we live on this earth. This is self-evident, even with no reference to the Lord our Creator. Just imagine the chaos that would ensue if there were no patterns of order—no directional signposts—for cars and trains and airplanes to be governed by. Or if one day every driver and train conductor and airplane pilot decided to disregard all the rules and regulations, and drive and direct the train and fly wherever he or she happened to want to!

One such pattern of order in nature is male headship, whereby in marriage, the husband has the duty to be ultimately responsible for the physical, emotional, and spiritual well being of his family, along with having the ultimate responsibility for guiding the ongoing mutual decision-making processes that are necessary for this purpose. The man, generally being the physically stronger, taller, heavier, and deeper-voiced of the two, very naturally has been given this role. The Apostle Paul (1 Tim. 2:13) and the Church Fathers also see a certain preeminence in the authority and responsibility of the husband due to the fact that Adam was created first, and then the woman from his side.

Of course, every husband, as the servant-head, should always be seeking the input of his wife in the decision-making processes, which should always be decidedly mutual, with decisions being reached virtually always by consensus. Similarly, the husband should also be steadily encouraging his wife to contribute greatly to the marital enterprise as a whole, with all her particular strengths and gifts as well.

So it is of paramount importance for everyone to know and remember that this role of male headship, especially in marriage, is meant to be fulfilled with a deep sense and vision of self-sacrificial servanthood. This requires the husband in a real sense to always be laying down his life for his wife and children, which means very often putting their needs and desires ahead of his own, or in place of his own.

St. Paul gives the highest understanding of male headship in marriage when he exhorts all husbands, For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the Head of the Church, His Body; and He is Himself her savior . . . Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her (Eph. 5:23 and 25). This is the context in which Paul tells the wives, Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. . . . As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands (vv. 22 and 24).

In any communal enterprise, a pattern of order facilitates smooth, peaceful functioning, and ultimately success. There would be chaos if every goose tried to lead the flock of geese flying to the south, or if every fish in the sea tried to lead the migration of the school. Just so, there would be chaos if everyone in the tribe tried to act like the chief, or if all those on the ship tried to steer the boat like the captain, or if every soldier tried to give orders like the general, or if everyone in the government tried to grasp the ultimate authority of the president. And when the chief, the captain, the general, and the president fulfill their leadership role not tyrannically, but with deep respect for each one under him, encouraging each one to contribute to the mutual enterprise appropriately, commensurate with their place in the whole scheme of things, then there is great benefit for everyone.

Yet this is not all. For male headship, at the same time, is also set in the context of the mutual submission of each spouse to the other. This same Apostle Paul begins this same passage with these words: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (cf. Eph. 5:21).

Can both of these apparently contradictory precepts be simultaneously true? Can equality and hierarchy coexist harmoniously and effectively? Yes—especially when the upper one in the hierarchy serves the lower ones with self-giving, self-sacrificial love. And the circle is completed with the lower ones receiving that love and service with gratitude and humble cooperativeness.

And also, for those wondering about the rightness of patterns of male headship—especially how that ordering cannot avoid colliding with the equality of each human being, all equally sharing the same human nature—it might be encouraging and helpful for them to see that much of the sheer beauty and profound effectiveness of this pattern comes from the fact that it’s derived from and reflects the life of the very Godhead Itself in Holy Trinity. For the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit absolutely share the same divine essence/nature, and yet the Father always is the first one, and the Son is always the second one, in the unchanging hierarchical ordering of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And, of course, within this hierarchy, the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity constantly serve One Another with ineffable, infinite mutual love.

* * * * *

A Presbyterian minister and seminary professor in Virginia, Rev. Robert L. Dabney, way back in 1879, prophetically anticipated the pervasive modern error of claiming that equality of nature must necessarily result in and lead to equality/sameness of function. Hence he wrote about the dangers of a marriage based solely on equality, and not on a combination of the equality of the husband and wife along with the headship of the husband:

The rival interests and desires of two equal wills are inconsistent with domestic union, government, or peace. Shall the children of this unnatural connection be held responsible to both of two sinful but coordinate and equally supreme wills? Heaven pity the children” (quoted by Gaustad and Noll in A Documentary History of Religion in America, vol. 2, p. 38).

And for a beautiful and powerful description of male headship in marriage as exemplified by the Bridegroom Christ Himself and His love and care for His Bride, the Church, here is a marvelous passage by St. John Chrysostom:

For He espoused her as a wife, He loves her as a daughter, He provides for her as a handmaid, He guards her as a virgin, He fences
her around like a garden (paradeison), and cherishes her like a part
of His own body. As a head He provides for her, as a root He causes
her to grow, as a shepherd He feeds her, as a bridegroom He weds her, as a propitiation He pardons her, as a sheep He is sacrificed,
as a bridegroom He preserves her in beauty, as a husband He provides for her support (On Eutropius.II, PG 52.410D-411A; NPNF 1, IX, pp. 262-263; Women and Men in the Early Church: The Vision of St. John Chrysostom, second, revised and expanded edition, p. 42).

What wife would not be tremendously blessed and content to have a husband loving her and providing for her through an understanding of male headship like this?! And what husband could fail to be wonderful if, with the constant help of the grace of God, he aspired to and prayerfully strove to put into practice such a vision for male headship in his marriage?!

* * *

As a footnote, with male headship being such an integral part of marriage (and as Christians would say, a God-ordained marriage, lived in accord with godly principles), we can readily see from this, along with many other reasons, that from the Christian perspective a so-called same-sex “marriage” is indeed impossible. For with two men, it’s impossible to have one who is not the head, since neither one is female. And with two women, it’s impossible for one of them to be the head, since neither one is male. (And we could add, if one of the men in a gay couple tries to be the “wife,” or if one of the women in a lesbian couple tries to be the “husband,” this would be an exceedingly unnatural and fruitless attempt to change one’s God-given sex and hence the natural roles given to that sex. But changing one’s sex can never be done, since the DNA in every cell in the human body reveals the sex of that body.)

Dr. David C. Ford


John Platte2/26/2019 4:48 pm
While it is certainly true that "wide acceptance" is unlikely, the huge fissures in our society are opportunities. Everyone feels the vacuum left by the lack of men's leadership, and many are dissatisfied with the answers supplied by gender studies majors. Strong shepherding men will surely be persecuted, but will also find much dire need. So many families are withering, so many childhoods are uprooted or rootless due to believing the misperceptions and lies about men! Some of those in crisis are ready to hear and accept the message that we need our men to be strong.
Rdr Andreas Moran2/26/2019 12:31 pm
I concur in Fr Raphael's comment, and see a wider problem for men, especially perhaps younger men, who, in these times of #MeToo and supposed confusion about gender, may wonder what role they are supposed to have, let alone know how to fulfil their traditional role or even whether they any longer still have a traditional role. However, we should not let media coverage distort our perception of the extent of these matters. But gender issues are nothing new - think back to Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and John Fletcher! I suppose, though, that the Church's teachings on gender roles and relationships are unlikely to gain wide acceptance today.
fr raphael vereshack2/25/2019 5:31 pm
I am wondering if the current spate of abuse cases by men is at least partly due to no longer understanding the shepherding role of the man within the family. Without this understanding, in present circumstances this role is deformed into one of power which is closely related to sensuality.
David Ford2/24/2019 4:34 am
Thanks for posting this, Jesse and Mother Cornelia! May it be helpful for many!
Fr William (Bauer)2/23/2019 7:54 pm
Some years ago my wife (now of 42 years) and I were having an argument. In its midst she stopped and said: "Well, you are the head of the household." The argument ended there. I was aghast. I asked" "Where did you learn THAT?". She responded that she had heard it at her regular prayer group meetings. I said that she ought to keep on going to those meetings.
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