As we return to God's pattern for our families we repeatedly emphasize the leadership of the husband and the submission of the wife. And well we should. These roles in the home have commonly been abandoned in our day, even in the church. Men have ceased to lead, and women have asserted their independence. These deviations from God's design demand correction.
While working to restore biblical roles within the home, however, we must not forget to define these roles in a Christ-centered way. It is not enough to speak of "leadership" and "submission" as if these terms were self-explanatory. What is the nature of leadership? What are the characteristics of submission? If we do not consciously define these roles according to God's revelation in Christ and the Bible, we may find that we are merely borrowing distorted cultural concepts as our guide.
For the Christian every relationship in life is now mediated through the Lord Jesus Christ. The realities of his cross and lordship shape the nature of every encounter we have, whether with co-workers, our neighbors, civil rulers, fellow church members, or our spouses and children. As Paul wrote, "For to me, to live is Christ" (Phil. 1:21). And again, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). To understand and live out our God-given roles in the home we must consult the example of Jesus and his teaching in the Word. The husband should say: "For to me, to lead is Christ." The wife should say: "For to me, to submit is Christ." They both must find out how Christ wants to shape the practice of their respective callings.
Our primary concern here is with the man and so we shall consider further the nature of his leadership. While it is customary to emphasize submission in reference to the wife, this quality is even more important in the man. That's right—the submission of the husband is even more fundamental than that of his wife. This is because of the nature of leadership as modeled and taught by Jesus himself. The most important ingredient of effective leadership is submission.
Before considering the biblical record of Jesus we might note that submission actually lies at the root of godliness, period. The most basic statement of faith is that there is one God. This one living and true God made us and he demands and deserves our worship and obedience. That is why the first of the Ten Commandments is that we must not have any other gods before the Lord (Exod. 20:3). That is why the greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength (Matt. 22:37,38). More fundamental than God's love or holiness or any other characteristic is that he is utterly unique; he alone is God. Therefore he is a "jealous" God who demands our absolute loyalty and submission (Deut. 5:8). The fact that we as Christians are "bought at a price" and therefore not our own (1 Cor. 6:19,20) only accentuates the total demand God has upon us and the need for absolute submission to him.
Leadership Comes From Service Jesus taught a concept of leadership that emphasized this critical element of surrender to God. In response to his disciples' ambition to gain a position of prominence he had this to say (Matt. 20:25-28):
"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Now no one can argue that Jesus Christ was an effective leader. People literally followed him everywhere he went, and he established the most influential movement the world has ever seen. What was the key to his greatness? He first took upon himself "the very nature of a servant" and then "God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name" (Phil. 2:7,9). Jesus' greatness as a leader lay in the yielding of his will to God in the service of the people he came to lead.
His disciples had to learn the secret of submission: the path to greatness in any calling, especially a leadership calling, is a yielding of the will, a humbling of oneself, a voluntary taking on the role of a servant. This is so contrary to the way it works in the world where people in positions of authority "lord it over" those under them, asserting their will and demanding obedience.
The man who would follow Jesus "must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow" him (Lk. 9:23). Self-denial, not self-will—that is the key. Taking up one's cross means a daily dying to self, yielding the will to God, and serving other people. Jesus expressed the attitude well in the garden of Gethsemane where he prayed to his Father, "Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39).
The danger we face in repeatedly stressing the husband as leader and the place of the wife to submit to her man is that we may inadvertently encourage men to take on a spirit of fleshly superiority. There is nothing worse than a self-willed husband and father. His whole family labors under the burden of this petit tyrant who confuses self-assertion with leadership. Jesus' teaching and example is the place to start in correcting this tendency.
The Leader Has to Know How to Follow If a man is to lead his wife and children effectively he must first of all be a submissive man, one who is totally yielded to God. The father's authority in the home is a delegated authority; he is a steward, a household manager, acting on behalf of God who is the true Lord of the home. So to properly carry out his leadership function he must be in a proper relationship with his own superior. If he does not know how to follow his Master, he will not be very good at getting others to follow his leadership. Indeed, he will not be worthy of leading and will either fail to do so or will revert to lording it over his family.
In order to follow the Master a man must be daily receiving his orders from the Master. This means that a man must be in the habit of daily personal Bible reading and prayer, and he must do so not just as a devotional exercise. The purpose for reading the Bible is not just to get some spiritual or sentimental lift for the day; it is to get concrete direction for living his life and leading his family. The purpose of prayer is not to fulfill some religious obligation; it is to pour out his heart and seek God's blessing upon those under his care. A time of personal worship is the vital foundation of family leadership.
King Saul is an example of a man who failed to keep under the authority of God. The Lord placed him in his position of authority over the nation of Israel. He began to enjoy the reins of leadership and soon forgot who had placed them in his hands. On two occasions he disobeyed the Lord (first, by offering a sacrifice that only the priest was authorized to offer; second, by not destroying all of the booty from a victorious battle as God had commanded—1 Sam. 13,15). Each time he felt justified in stepping outside the bounds God had prescribed for him—after all, he was king! But the Lord removed him from his position of authority. Saul heard these words from Samuel the prophet: "To obey is better than sacrifice ... rebellion is like the sin of divination ... because you have rejected the voice of the Lord, he has rejected you as king" (1 Sam. 15:22,23). God replaced self-willed Saul with David, "a man after God's own heart."
A man's home is not his kingdom to do with as he pleases. God will not use a self-willed man. He is looking for men whose hearts are fully committed to him (2 Chron. 16:9).
He Submits to Other Men, Too A submissive man is one who willingly, joyfully submits to authority in his life. Besides the Lord himself, this means he must submit to any others whom the Lord has placed over him. He must submit to his employer and work for him as for the Lord (Eph. 6:5). He must submit to civil authorities, even when they are not exemplary men themselves, because God has placed them in authority (Rom. 13:1). He must submit to the leaders of his church and expect God to work through their authority over him (Heb. 13:17).
The man who dishonors his boss and cuts corners at work, the man who speaks disrespectfully of elected officials and cheats on his taxes, the man who sneers at church authority and leaves a church rather than yield to correction—such a man is living in a state of anarchy. He cannot expect to successfully hold the position of authority in his home. A man who lives in rebellion himself will tend to create a home characterized by either tyranny or anarchy. A man who submits to others where he ought has taken the most important step to being a leader himself.
The importance of church authority deserves special emphasis at this point. For the Christian man the church is his spiritual family. It is the primary arena in which he can practice the virtue of submission on the human level. As he is trying to learn how to lead his family it is essential that he be learning how to yield to his fathers and brothers in the Lord in the local assembly. Peter challenges us with these words: "Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble'" (1 Pet. 5:5).
Too many homeschooling fathers have developed an independent streak which undermines their ability to be good leaders. This independence is not surprising actually: homeschoolers are by nature a very independent lot or they wouldn't be doing what they are doing. Add to this the fact that many homeschoolers feel out of place in churches that do not understand or accept the choices they are making, and you have the ingredients for an understandable, but nevertheless dangerous, declaration of spiritual independence. Many families do not even worship with a church anymore, choosing rather to simply worship as a family on the Lord's Day. Except for an exceptional transitional situation, such independence from spiritual authority is a form of anarchy. A man's devotion to the body of Christ is no more optional than his devotion to his family (Rom. 12:10; Heb. 10:24).
He Even Submits to His Wife and Children The submissive man, then, must submit directly to God on a daily basis, living a "crucified life" in which he says "not my will, but yours be done." He must also submit to those in his life who have been given authority over him. But there is more: the submissive man must also submit to his wife and his children.
Obviously we are not saying that he ought to abandon his place of leadership. No, a good leader will exercise initiative, take responsibility, and give direction—but he must also submit himself to those he leads. What we mean is that while he sets the pace and directs the affairs of his household the godly father will do so in a way that places the family's welfare above his own comfort and convenience. He must often sacrifice for their benefit, saying no to his own desires. This is part of the dying to self we discussed above.
When Dad comes home tired after a long day he would naturally like to relax and do something he enjoys, like read the paper or take a nap. However, chances are good that his family has something else in mind. His wife may need to tell about her frustration with the kids' math lessons. She may want him to tighten the railing on the basement steps before one of the kids takes a tumble. The children will, no doubt, want Dad to play or talk or help them with their projects. In other words, the man will have a choice: do what he wants or what they want. Since his role as family leader will be better achieved by serving the family, he must die to himself and say to his Master, "Not my will, but yours be done."
The essence of leadership is putting aside his own will in order to do what is best for the family. Sometimes that will mean being forceful and aggressive and leading where even his wife may not want to go and he may prefer not to go. More often, however, it will involve days filled with small decisions to yield his own will for the sake of the others in the home. Being a leader is not being served, but serving, and giving one's life for others.
So the expression you may have heard, "servant leadership," is a good one and captures the nature of true leadership in any sphere, especially in the home. But it must become for us more that just a term; it must be a description of the way we actually live among our families. Because it is not just the wife who must submit. It is everyone, and especially the head of the home.