IV. Practically speaking, what is the nature of headship in marriage?
The Church doesn’t say that headship requires women to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, or to provide a hot dinner every night, or to be the slave of men. In fact, the Church isn’t too specific about what it means to be the head of the household.
What we do know is that men as head of the household, as husbands and fathers, are called to:
- Unity with one’s wife. She is, after all, the “body” in the analogy of Ephesians 5. Although husband and wife remain two distinct persons, they are united in a new, sacramental way in marriage.
- “The essential goal of the love of Christ for the Church is her sanctification” (TOB 91:6). The same can be said of husband for wife. Husbands are called to lead their wives and their family to eternal salvation.
- Love their wives self-sacrificially. What this means on a practical level is different in each concrete situation. Perhaps it means playing a sport less competitively if his wife is learning how to play with him. Perhaps it means enjoying some of the wife’s favorite activities simply because she enjoys them. Perhaps it means spending time with one’s children, even when the husband feels tired. Perhaps it means dedicating time for prayer each day to be a better servant-leader. Whatever the concrete actions are, the overarching principal is to be a man who loves unconditionally.
- Guardian of children. “Guardian” here does not refer to a mere legal role. Rather, the husband/father is called to guard and protect his children, to lead them along the path of the Lord, to protect them from harm, and to reflect God’s love to them.
- Be a provider and protector for the family – physically, spiritually, emotionally, etc. This does not mean eradicating any sort of painful experience, difficulty or trial. It entails being discerning about God’s path for the family, sacrificing to ensure that the family is cared for (whether the practical means entail work, budgeting, sacrificing for the other’s good, spending time with the other, etc.).
- Be the defender of the dignity of the family.
Each of these characteristics of the man who is the head of the household may be lived slightly differently depending upon the situation. Each of the overarching themes or tasks are vital to the family, who deserves to be prayerfully and humbly led in the service of love.
V. An example
I have long appreciated this example of a young married couple I knew years ago. The wife was a stay-at-home mom who volunteered for a local organization, compiling statistics for them and typing feedback forms. She needed to pick up the latest forms, but her husband told her not to go. At first glance, this sounds like a patriarchal man who derived pleasure from ordering around his wife, monitoring her comings and goings. In reality, what he said to her was this: “I don’t want you to go pick up those forms. It’s so cold outside, and since you’d have to bring our son with you, I know it would take a long time to get him ready, drive 40 minutes and pick up the forms in the cold. I’ll pick them up tomorrow on my way home from work, so you don’t have to.” The wife said yes. You could say she was “submissive.”
But to what was she submissive? She was obedient to her husband’s desire to look out for her and their son, to will their good. He had the humility to seek her good over his. She had the humility to receive his care and his protection.
This example illustrates a key factor in headship. It’s about love and about service. It takes humility and grace, both to give and to receive.
I think it’s safe to say that this order of a marital relationship challenges our post-Fall tendencies. Women have more of a temptation to take control, to dominate, to do things “our way, the best way,” to disrespect men by making them feel irrelevant. But men have a different temptation – to sit back, to not fight or risk or sacrifice, to become complacent (ie. “perpetual adolescence” of young men today).
So, the headship in marriage is an opportunity for both men and women to grow in holiness – for men to grow in their giving, for women to grow in their receiving. One is not easier than another. This order in marriage safeguards that both husband and wife will have to grow, to sacrifice and to love.
VI. Final Note
It’s important to mention, as well, that the beginning of Ephesians 5 speaks of mutual submission of husband and wife to one another, rooted in Christ. The relationship is not such that only the husband gives, only the wife receives. Both give, both receive. But to preserve unity, there must be order within the relationship, and therefore, there is a priority to the husband as leader-head-giver, and to the wife as receiver-body. Both husband and wife learn from each other. Both support one another. Both sacrifice for the good of the family.