Husbands and Headship

This is a companion article to “The Weapon of Submission,” which can be found by clicking here

When you were a child did you ever wish you could be an adult? To a kid, it looks like adults make their own rules, break them when they want to, and watch television after bedtime. What’s not to love? It’s the same for many single men who want to be husbands. On the surface being a husband looks simple. You chose what your household will look like, your wife submits, and you all live happily ever after. Then reality hits.

Just as a child learns that being an adult is harder than it looks, many husbands face the same lesson. What looks like a paint-by-numbers kit for godly headship is anything but. The Holy Spirit’s words to husbands are both clear and profound, simple in direction but multi-layered in application. The apostle Peter, no stranger to married life, helps husbands in their task when he says, “Husbands, likewise, dwell with [your wives] according to knowledge, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered” (I Peter 3:7).

Peter’s words help men understand how to fulfill Paul’s command to love their wife as Christ loves the church. He begins by saying that a husband should “dwell with them according to knowledge.” The term “dwell” means more than “live with;” it refers to being yoked together in a marriage in a household. This agricultural picture is rooted in the language of the Torah, going back to the command to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and have dominion over it.” Just as planting a garden begins with harnessing the animals for plowing, a fruitful household begins when a man is yoked with his wife in marriage. This eliminates the idea that a husband can pull one way and the wife can remain still. They must work in tandem or else the cultural garden will not be fruitful.

Many husbands think simply having and expressing their vision for the home is enough. But his vision must be tempered by his wife; otherwise, they will not be pulling in the same direction. He can demand submission and get what he wants in the short term, but immediate gains will be lost unless the couple is joyfully pulling together. Attaching Bible verses to your expectations doesn’t magically give you the upper hand. Husbands, your wife must be won over to your vision – not through rational arguments alone but by wisdom, patient leadership, and sacrificial love. The sweet fruits of marriage take time and there are no shortcuts.

Dwelling with a wife “according to knowledge” enhances the picture. Peter is using wordplay here because the term “to know” in Scripture has multiple levels. The first time we read it is a reference to physical intimacy, where “Adam knew Eve and she bore a son…” But physical intimacy is only the first layer. Dwelling with her according to knowledge means being a student of his wife for the rest of his life. He’s not the kind of student who gathers facts just to pass a test, but like an art student who receives a lifetime pass at the Louvre Museum in France. There are things about his wife he will not know until they have been married ten, twenty, or thirty years, etc. A wife cannot be led well unless she is first known and understood by her husband.

“But I already know her,” a man may say. Let’s ask a few questions. What blesses her the most? What encourages her? What is her biggest fear in life? What does she enjoy doing together with her husband? In what area does she wish her husband would grow? These are just a few of many questions that can only be answered when you grow together. It requires time, sacrifice, and listening, but this is where life together really begins.

Next, Peter says a husband must give honor to his wife as unto a weaker vessel. It’s ironic that this phrase, which is meant for the blessing and protection of a wife, is the most often attacked. He is not making the (obvious) point that men are physically stronger than women. He is saying that a wife’s foremost contribution to the household is not strength (that’s the husband’s contribution) but beauty. Although he doesn’t use the word “beauty” in this verse, he referred to it a few verses prior (3:3) when he says that a wife’s adornment or “beautification” should not be foremost in hair and makeup but the pursuit of inner loveliness that will last forever. That’s still in view here. Honoring the wife as the weaker vessel doesn’t mean, “Treat her like damp paper.” He’s saying, “prize her as a precious, beautiful vase.” This type of honor requires that a husband gives her his priority and special attention. He must care for and respect her as God’s unique gift to this household. He must know his wife’s weaknesses and strive to encourage and build her up in those areas, while not pushing her too far. Being the head of the home means that a husband simultaneously appreciates and helps his wife grow in inward beauty.

Peter then explains why husbands should treat their wives this way. The first is that they are heirs of the grace of life together. Good work reaps a harvest and that harvest will be shared. God’s blessings come in abundance, but sourness in marriage limits our ability to receive them. Not only does being yoked together increase our capacity to take dominion on the earth; it adds to the blessings we receive. It’s no longer the husband or wife alone who enjoys God’s gifts; being married puts them on the path of mutually enjoying one another’s blessings. This mutual sharing must begin with the hard work of relationship building: giving and forgiving, communicating and encouraging, patience and prayer.

A warning concludes the exhortation, “that your prayers will not be hindered.” Just as a wife who won’t submit to her husband is refusing to submit to God, a husband who doesn’t lovingly communicate with his wife cuts off his communication with God. That’s why a man’s relationship with his wife is the most important earthly relationship for him to cultivate. This is not to say that a wife being angry with her husband means God is angry with him. But a man can’t fulfill God’s call to dominion without nourishing his relationship with his wife.

No marriage is perfect, for no two people are perfect. The role of a husband as the spiritual head is made more difficult by the fact that his wife, like him, is a sinner. But marriage is not about becoming the textbook example of a “perfect home.” The final purpose of marriage is to imitate Christ and His relationship to the church. A husband’s job is to demonstrate to his wife, children, friends, and neighbors how Jesus leads His bride. The demonstration is made through thousands of small, quiet acts when a man sacrifices his fleshly wishes for the good of his wife and family. These words of Peter don’t promise a lifetime of bliss with no problems, but they do teach husbands how to participate in God’s renewing work, beginning in the home and extending throughout His world.

Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor at Trinity Reformed Church. He taught history for fifteen years and has served in pastoral ministry for eleven years. He is married to Amanda and they have four children: Phoebe, Simeon, Emmaline, and Olivia. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, and fishing.