The Purpose and Limits of a Husband’s Authority

Why Does God Give Authority to Husbands?

The previous and higher purpose of marriage and a husband’s authority is to teach a theology lesson about Christ and the church. I say “previous” because God didn’t design marriage and then, after that, design to send Christ to save a people, and then realize he could use the first to teach us about the second. Rather, God decided to send his Son into the world to save a people. Then he designed marriage to picture this previous and higher truth. He wanted a common-grace sign embedded in the DNA of creation itself so that people from every tribe, tongue, and nation could see it.

How do we unpack this idea of a husband’s headship? We look to Christ and the church: “The head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). How should a man exercise his headship? By following the example of Christ and the church:


Jonathan Leeman

Through Scripture and engaging stories, Jonathan Leeman shows that godly authority is essential to human flourishing and presents 5 attributes of biblical authority.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:25–27)

Notice, there’s something pastoral in a husband’s role, as he should continually point his wife to the word and the gospel of God. God didn’t give husbands authority in order to insist on their own desires, but to point toward Christ’s desires, as revealed in the Bible.

To be sure, husbands have often cloaked their selfishness by pointing to a Bible passage which seems to give them what they want. But the misuse of Scripture doesn’t negate its proper use. Satan can use the Bible, too. A wise woman, therefore, has no choice but to learn how to read the Bible on her own and through the instruction of godly elders in a healthy church. Otherwise, how else will she challenge her husband’s misuses of Scripture? Finally, of course, a woman should only follow her husband because she follows Christ.

Yet a man who loves his wife as he should prepares her, in a sense, for the coming of Christ, her perfect and all-sufficient Savior. A wife should be able to watch her husband in order to learn what Jesus’s love and authority are like. It’s as if, when Jesus shows up, she’ll more easily recognize him because she’s been watching her husband imitate Christ’s patterns for years.

Husbands exist, in short, to show the world that Jesus Christ loves his people, the church, with a perfect, all-affectionate, and self-sacrificing love. The office of husband doesn’t exist for its own sake but to point toward a higher, more ultimate reality—Christ’s love for the church. Christ’s love for the church is not the symbol that points to the reality of being a husband. Being a husband is the symbol that points to the reality of Christ.

What Are the Limits of a Husband’s Authority?

Several nights before I got married, I asked my pastor for any final words of advice before I got married. He stopped, looked at me straight on, and said soberly, “Jonathan, you will be God’s number one picture of his authority in her life. Never use your authority to harm her, but only to be a blessing.”

The easiest way to summarize the limit on a husband’s authority is the word sin. He cannot ask his wife to sin, nor should he sin against her, whether in the things he does or the things he leaves undone. He can sin in his heart with its desires. He can sin with his words and his hands. He sins anytime he uses his body or words to hurt or to threaten. He can sin in what he asks her to do or not do. He can sin in how he loves or fails to love her. He can sin by failing to protect or provide for her. He sins anytime he glances outside the marital covenant for selfish pleasure, but also when he seeks to use his wife’s body for selfish pleasure—to serve “me” instead of “her” and “us.” He sins whenever he puts his own interests before hers and whenever he fails to give himself up for her: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). For all these things and more, a man will be judged.

A husband’s authority is a jurisdictionally broad authority because it pertains to the couple’s shared dominion. Yet it should be an authority that rests very lightly on her. She should feel its weight from her engaging with the Lord more than from him.

I remember a professor of counseling in seminary teaching our class that the more common sin among husbands was passivity or absence or abdication. Then, when he’s been passive for a long time, and something his wife does frustrates him, he blows up and errs in the direction of violence. Abusive men, he said, often combine long seasons of passivity and neglect with brief episodes of rage and violence. They console themselves by thinking they’re better than they are because of the long seasons of “peace.” But it’s not really peace. It’s selfish neglect. Living with such a man, I heard someone else say, is like living on the side of a volcano. It does not erupt very often, but you live in perpetual fear that it might. You never really rest. The solution to abusive authority, in a broad sense, is partly a matter of teaching husbands their limits. It is to say, you have authority of counsel, not command, meaning you have no place to discipline or act punitively. Yet the other part is to teach husbands what their authority is for: to bless, strengthen, and cause a wife to flourish.

On the flip side, I’ve known men who let their wives dominate them. They feared their wives more than they feared God. They let themselves be emasculated. Eventually, their wives stopped respecting them and divorced them. Looking back, we can say that such women received what they wanted: control. But they tore down their houses in the process (Prov. 14:1). They undermined the very gift God had given them to do them good. In the end, these women are hardly happy. Nor do they grow in beauty. God will have words of judgment for them. But he will also share such words with their husbands.

How a Husband Gets to Work

Let me conclude with a word of exhortation to husbands. Husbands, think one more time of Paul’s command to love your wife

as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:25–27)

You are done with the old you. The born-again you is now free to love God and your wife entirely.

Brother husband, you’re not your wife’s sinless, all-wise redeemer. She has one: Christ. Yet Christ died to save the church and to make the church holy before the Father. That was his aim and ambition. Likewise, helping your wife to become holy and one with you must be your uppermost aim and ambition in marriage.

In other words, brother, when you wake up in a funk, or get to the end of a long day and you’re exhausted, or sit and watch her do that thing that annoys you, or she fails to meet your expectations about something, or she spends too much money, or when the well of romantic feelings seems to run a little dry, or even when she fails you in more dramatic ways, you do not sit back and sulk and say, “I’m not satisfied. I’m not happy. I’m not fulfilled.” No, these things are what you expect because God intends you to be the one who loves right there in her sin and folly and (at times) spiritual ugliness in order to love her toward the working out of her redemption. That’s your job. That’s your purpose in her life. When you said, “I do,” you said “I do” to actively preparing her for her coming Redeemer by showing her what he will look like. Put everything else—all the youthful stuff—out of your head. That’s what you signed up for.

How can you do this? Primarily by remembering the redemptive love with which Christ has loved you. Think of how sinful, foolish, and spiritually ugly you were before God saved you. But “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). While we were opposing him to his face, he went to the cross and paid the penalty for all those who would ever repent and believe. And he reconciled you to the Father when you repented of your sins and believed. Now you are justified! You are no longer enslaved with proving yourself in front of your wife. You don’t have to compete. No!

You are done with the old you. The born-again you is now free to love God and your wife entirely. That means . . .

  • You take the initiative in ending arguments by choosing gracious (if need be, apologetic) words. You have nothing left to prove. You are done with self-justification because you are justified in Christ!
  • You take the initiative in spiritual leadership in the home by “having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26).
  • You don’t have to require perfection of her today. You’re playing the long game. The question is not, can you get her to be a perfect wife today. The question is, can you help her to look more like Jesus over the next fifty years by acting like Jesus yourself.
  • Even when she is behaving toward you in some way that is frustrating, and perhaps sinful, you take the initiative in exemplifying the patience and forgiveness of Christ. That is how Christ has loved you.
  • She is your number one priority, more than friends, work, parents, career aspirations, hobbies. Christ didn’t lay his life down for anyone else—only the church.
  • You can never, ever use your authority in any way to hurt or abuse her. For Christ has never abused you.

Love her more than your professional ambitions, your cherished dreams, your adolescent expectations of marriage, your strongly held convictions about who should do what with the toilet seat or how an onion should be cut or who wronged whom first in that last argument. Don’t be a child who says, “She just needs to understand that I’m this way,” or, “If she loves me, she’ll respect how important this is to me.” No, love her as your own body, says Paul. She is bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh, says Adam. You’re taking her and who God made her to be into your own identity. (For what it’s worth, that’s why I like the tradition of the woman taking the man’s last name.)

Brother, you are to lead in your home, and you lead by being the first to die to your own desires, not simply so that your wife’s desires might therefore lead, but so that God’s desires would.

This article is adapted from Authority: How Godly Rule Protects the Vulnerable, Strengthens Communities, and Promotes Human Flourishing by Jonathan Leeman.

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