One of the more surprising aspects of my conversion is that I’ve come to agree with the long-held Christian belief that the husband should be the head of the household. This is a surprising move for a former feminist atheist. When I was in my early 20’s I almost walked out of a wedding in which one of the readings was the line in Chapter 5 of Ephesians in which Paul says that “wives should be subordinate to their husbands.” I could have never guessed that I would one day come to agree with him.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the decision-making process that led me to such a radical change of mind, and I thought I’d share my thoughts in case anyone is interested:
Ironically, it was my background as a career woman that first led me to see the wisdom of Paul’s infamous line.
When my husband and I were engaged I was working on starting a tech business, and I spent a lot of time studying successful organizations to see which practices helped businesses thrive. What I discovered is that one of the most essential components for any human organization is clear leadership. This immediately resonated with me. I had once worked at a company where they tried to have a more egalitarian setup where the four vice presidents were “co-CEO’s” rather than having one leader, and it was a disaster. Few concrete decisions ever got made, the employees were frustrated that nobody had final authority to address their concerns, and the VP’s ended up wasting time in endless quibbling. This also jibed with what I knew from studying anthropology in college: when you look at human organizations — whether it’s an ancient tribe or a community club or a huge business or a local church — it becomes clear that there is a natural human yearning for leadership, and that leaderless organizations don’t thrive. Nobody ever changed the world by committee.
After we got married I decided to abandon my business project, but I quickly found that these lessons carried over into family life as well. And while our goals as a family would be far different from the goals of a business, focusing on things like forming a group of people who love one another and are forces for good in the world rather than selling X number of widgets, I began to think that a clear leader would be required. Although I did have some concerns about what that would involve…
Based on this background of appreciating hierarchy in human organizations, when I first began to seriously explore Christianity I was somewhat open to the idea that wives should let husbands be heads of households, as long as the men’s authority had reasonable limits. After all, one of the key things that differentiates a licit system of leadership from an illicit system of leadership is that there are conditions under which subordinates do not have to obey the leader (e.g. an employee would never be expected to obey a boss who told her to embezzle money).
Though I’d heard plenty of stories of men who used lines from the Bible to become tyrannical rulers, abusing their families while insisting that no objections to their authority could be allowed, I wanted to know if this was based on actual Christian teaching or just individual misinterpretation. As my research into Christianity led me to Catholicism, I began to look closely at whether that belief system advocated for absolute authority for husbands, or for more traditional leadership roles that included conditions to their authority.
Though I’ll admit that I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject and never did pore over every word of Mulieris Dignitatem or Familiaris Consortio, I read enough to know that God revealed through the Church that those lines in Ephesians about wifely obedience were not meant to be taken as all-or-nothing, black-and-white statements and that the nullifying conditions I would have expected to see were there. I.e., a husband forfeits his leadership role if he abuses his wife in any way, tells her to do something sinful, arrogantly lords his power over her, etc. In other words, it is not Christian teaching that wives must blindly obey their husbands under all circumstances.
Another concern I had, particularly about Christian thinking on the subject, was about equality. Did this teaching mean that men were thought to be more intelligent or of higher value than women?
Once again, not only did I find that that was not the official teaching, but looking at other hierarchical systems quelled that concern. It’s not assumed that bishops are more valuable than parish priests, just like a CEO is not assumed to be a better person than the vice presidents.
One thing that is different, however, is that in almost all other systems the leaders are in their positions by merit rather than inheritance, while in the family men are assigned the leadership role by gender alone. As a woman who was once certain that her life goal was to be CEO of a large company, this is something I thought a lot about. I think I’m a pretty good leader. Why should I be assigned a subordinate role just because I’m female?
A lot of thought and research has led me to believe that there is a wisdom to a universal recommendation that the male take the leadership role in the household. For one thing, it is we women who give birth to children, and that requires periods in which we withdraw from the world, such as during childbirth and in the early postpartum period (Jessica Snell once wrote about that here). For that reason alone I think it makes sense for the husband to be the default choice for the household leader, since his biological makeup allows him to be physically available to deal with tough decision-making situations and act as the public face of the family at all times. Also, again from studying anthropology, it just seems clear to me that human evolution has led both men and women to thrive under male leadership, especially in small, intimate organizations like tribes and families. (Which is not to say that I don’t think women can ever be good leaders, of course; I’m just talking about general trends and the ideal situation for certain types of human groups.)
Another concern I had was that husbands in this setup would get a sweeter deal — after all, in this system isn’t it the case that husbands get to do whatever they want while only the wives have to make sacrifices? After having lived in a family where the husband is the head of the household for a few years now, I have not found this to be the case.
Yes, there are times when I think that I am right and my husband is wrong and it’s frustrating not to have things my way; yet these moments are balanced out by the times that I am relived not to have the burden of leadership. When tough decisions have to be made, I don’t envy my husband for being in the position of having to face the consequences of his decisions if things don’t work out. Of course we discuss everything together and I’d support him no matter what happens, but being the head of the decision-making process also means being the head of dealing with the fallout from bad decisions.
Also, in order to hold up his end of the bargain, he is called to sacrifice his own desires in the name of doing what’s best for the family and loving me as he loves himself. He doesn’t get to do whatever he wants any more than I do.
Motivation and tradeoffs
I used to think that having both spouses as equal partners would be a great system because everyone would get what they want. What I’ve seen from human history and life experience, however, is that leaderless systems just mean that nobody gets what he wants.
The theory is that having a co-leader system encourages people to talk about the pros and cons of their views and work together to find solutions. What I’ve observed is that, in those systems, since everyone knows they have veto power and will not have to personally deal with the consequences of a bad choice, when heated disagreements arise nobody is really motivated toward humility and compromise, and the whole group ends up bogged down in a morass of argument and indecision. In systems with a leader, however, the dynamic is different. The leader knows that he will personally have to bear the brunt of a bad decision, so he’s motivated to be humble and seek feedback; the person in the subordinate role knows that it’s not ultimately her call, so she’s motivated to compromise as much as possible to make her ideas appealing.
This is not to say that either system is totally good or totally bad, and both, of course, can be abused if people enter into them with bad intentions. But I’ve found that the advantages of a one-leader family structure outweigh the disadvantages.
The way I’ve come to think of it, the wife is the Chief Operations Officer and the husband is Chief Executive Officer. If you’ve ever seen a COO and CEO interact in a good company, there is not the vibe of a powerful ruler lording his power over an unthinking dupe. In fact, the vast majority of the time they operate as equals and the hierarchical differences are unnoticeable. The only times you might see the CEO use his power to make an executive decision is if he and the COO are stuck in gridlock and a decision has to be made to move the company forward. Sometimes it will be the wrong decision; there will be times where the COO was right and the CEO was wrong. But being able to just get those decisions made and move forward is worth the tradeoff of the fact that the CEO will occasionally be wrong.
The supernatural element
There has also been a part of my conversion on this issue that cannot be explained in terms of logic and reason. It’s nothing I could prove to a skeptic, but I have seen God work in my life in a big way on the occasions when I’ve sacrifice my own preferences in order to let my husband have the tiebreaking vote. Even when I am just sure that I am right, when I am positive that the fabric of the universe will tear apart if things don’t go my way, when I step aside and turn the decision over to my husband, things have this uncanny way of working out for the best.
Love, not laws
My motivation for writing this post isn’t to tell other people what they should do, but only to offer a glimpse into how my own thinking has changed on this hotbutton topic over the year. I don’t deny that there are very real challenges that come with letting your husband be the head of the household — especially for women who are married to men with challenging personality types — but would only suggest that such a setup has more advantages than it may seem at first glance.
I’ve found that submitting to my husband’s authority is not about power and control, but about freeing up everyone’s mental energy to live and love and focus on what really matters. As with so many other things, these ideas about household structure that I once saw as oppressive and cold rules I now see as just part of a prescription for living a life of love.
- Abigail, a former radical feminist and Smith College Debate President writes about her experiences with being obedient to her husband.
- I recall that Tienne had some great posts in August 2007 and September 2007 about duty and marriage when she found that she desperately wanted to give money to the poor but her husband didn’t think they could (the first post about it was here).
- Bethany Hudson explains that obedience is not servitude.
- Mrs. Anna T has a thought-provoking post about husbands as heads of households from a Jewish perspective. All her thoughts on the subject can be found here.