Q&A: Are Husbands to Lead Their Wives?

Q: Bronwen, my friend says that husbands are created by God to be leaders of their wives and families. When I asked for her biblical evidence of this belief, she said 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. These passages do seem to say quite clearly that men are to manage their families (which is the same as leading, right?). Is this correct, or is there another way to understand these passages?

A: The assumption that God has given us certain set gender roles, particularly within marriage, is quite common within Christian circles. Those who believe in “biblical” gender roles accept that God gives men alone the role of leadership of their wives and families. Ephesians 5 is one of the main passages cited as foundational in this belief in separate roles in marriage.

It is less common to hear 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 – passages about eldership/leadership in the church – used to support the idea of men as the leaders of their families. These passages are more frequently used to explain who may lead the church. But some aspects of these passages may be understood as supporting men as leaders in the home (if you interpret the Bible in a complementarian way).[1] We need to ask: do these passages provide a legitimate reason to say that God gives specific, permanent roles in marriage, based on the sex of each spouse, or not? In particular, are men always and women never given a leadership role in a Christian marriage? To answer this question in the context of these two passages, we will also have to take a look at the question of whether Paul intended them to exclude women from eldership/church leadership.

Take a look at 1 Timothy 3:1-7

To help make it clear, all the male words are in red:

1 Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever (some translations: “a man who”) aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”

Seems fairly conclusive, doesn’t it? Count up all the references to “he,” “him” and “his.” (I counted twelve, or thirteen if you include “man” in the alternate translation of verse 1.) And Titus 1:5-9 is very similar. Hmmm. Men are to be overseers, and part of that is leading/managing their families well – that seems quite clear, right? But it isn’t. Read on!

“One-Woman Man”

Let’s start by looking at the phrase “a one-woman man.” This is the literal, word-for-word translation of the phrase the NIV 2011 translates as “faithful to his wife”). This is a well-known Greek idiom for marital faithfulness, excluding the legitimacy of both adultery and polygamy.[2] Paul was not a politically correct writer of today, who might say something rather complicated like, “faithful to his wife or faithful to her husband” to ensure that everyone is clearly included. That sort of expectation in written language didn’t exist at the time. In New Testament Greek, masculine forms of speech were a default used to describe groups of people of both sexes.[3]

Here’s a handy tool for deciding whether a biblical phrase about men is meant to exclude women: what would happen if we said the phrase did not apply to women? In this instance, imagine if we said, “Paul tells men to be faithful to their wives, but he does not tell women to be faithful to their husbands. Therefore, it’s okay for women to be unfaithful to their husbands.” Very clearly this is not what Paul meant! If women hold positions such as eldership, would Paul expect a woman to be faithful to her husband? Of course he would!

Paul’s equation for the leadership qualification he is discussing in this phrase is not:

Male + faithful in marriage = ticks the box for this leadership qualification

Instead, it’s this:

Faithful in marriage = ticks the box for this leadership qualification

Paul was not setting a formula for a hierarchical order in marriage, but was instead advocating for marital fidelity.

Male Pronouns – “Not In the Greek”

Okay, so what about all the other cases of “he” and “his” in this passage – surely those tell us quite clearly that Paul expects the leaders he’s discussing here to be men? It’s this simple – they’re not present in the Greek text.[4] Yes, you read that correctly – they’re just not there. Let’s try looking at the passage with a bit of a twist to help illustrate this point. Next to every gendered statement which is Not In the Greek, you will see “(NIG).” Next to an idiom, you will see “(idiom),” with the words underlined to demonstrate which words are part of the idiom. Fairly straightforward, yes? So here’s the passage again:

“Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever (some translations: a man(NIG) who) aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife (idiom), temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He(NIG) must manage his(NIG) own family well and see that his(NIG) children obey him(NIG), and he(NIG) must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his(NIG) own family, how can he(NIG) take care of God’s church?) He(NIG) must not be a recent convert, or he(NIG) may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He(NIG) must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he(NIG) will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”

That makes it quite clear, doesn’t it? There is not one masculine pronoun to be found in the Greek. None! Although “he” and “his” are noticeably absent, Paul repeats the gender-inclusive term “anyone” twice in this passage.

So, overseers (or elders – whichever translation your church tradition favours) of either gender should be above reproach, faithful in marriage, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach and so on. Overseers/elders of either gender should manage their own families well, seeing that their children obey them, but in a way that is worthy of full respect. The management of Christian families and of God’s church[5], is a role for faithful men and women.

In Titus 1:6, the phrase “a man whose children believe” would be more literally translated “having believing children.” That passage also has many examples of he/him/his in our English translations, none of which are in the Greek.

No Proof of All-Male Leadership

These texts, in the original Greek, were not aimed at either gender specifically. There is no suggestion in either passage that they are targeted only at men. Therefore, they cannot be used to uphold the leadership of men over women in the church or family.

The ideal for Christian marriage in the New Testament is a mutual partnership, in which both husband and wife voluntarily yield to the other in love (Eph 5:21-33, 1 Cor 7:2-6). The “two become one” union (Mark 10:6-8) doesn’t need a permanent leader and a permanent subordinate. One spouse or the other may lead in circumstances where it is necessary, according to their gifts and personal situations. The New Testament presents the husband and wife as coheirs – equal in marriage and in salvation (1 Peter 3:7). The main role of a Christian husband presented in the New Testament is to love his wife and treat her with consideration, not to lead her. Christian mothers and fathers may both take a role of leadership in their relationship with their children.

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[1] Complementarians are Christians who believe that the Bible teaches that men should hold leadership roles in the church, and husbands should have leadership over their wives. Biblical egalitarians believe the Bible teaches that leadership is based on giftedness rather than gender, and that marriage is an equal partnership of husband and wife.

[2] Philip B. Payne, “Does One-Woman-Man in 1 Timothy 3:2 Require That All Overseers be Male?” https://www.pbpayne.com/does-one-woman-man-in-1-timothy-32-require-that-all-overseers-be-male/

[3] Philip B. Payne, “The Bible Teaches Equal Standing of Man and Woman,” Priscilla Papers, vol. 29, no. 1, 2015. http://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/bible-teaches-equal-standing-man-and-woman?page=show

[4] Mowczko, Margaret, “Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders, http://www.cbeinternational.org/blogs/pauls-qualifications-church-leaders

[5] For a more detailed look at the question of women elders, see Margaret Mowczko’s posts, “Were there Women Elders in New Testament Churches?” http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/women-elders-new-testament/ and “Were there Women Elders in New Testament Churches? Part 2” http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/elders-in-new-testament/

 

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4 thoughts on “Q&A: Are Husbands to Lead Their Wives?

  1. I have read in a couple of articles now that the phrase “one woman man” is an idiom. I have been trying to find where I can get that information for myself. I really enjoyed reading this blog.

    Like

    1. Hi Susan, thanks for your encouraging message. If you enjoyed this post, I do hope you will sign up to receive my latest posts by email.

      Here are some links for you about “one woman man:
      https://www.pbpayne.com/does-one-woman-man-in-1-timothy-32-require-that-all-overseers-be-male/
      http://margmowczko.com/pauls-qualifications-for-church-leaders/
      https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/bible-teaches-equal-standing-man-and-woman

      I’m not sure if these links go as far as you want in answering your question. If not, I think it would be worthwhile leaving a comment on Philip Payne’s first article listed in the links I’ve given you here, and see what he says.

      Like

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