Spiritual Headship

by Jimmy Akin

in Moral Theology

A correspondent writes:

I was wondering what our belief as Catholics are concerning a question my Husband has. He says that the man of the household should be the "spiritual leader" of his family. He is not Catholic, and only turned "fundamentalist/independent" 5 years ago. Before that I was the sole source of my families (we have 1 daughter) faith building. Our daughter (who is 12) is very active in the church, and loves the faith as I do. She is an alter server, reader, and sings on Sunday morning Mass services. So, I was wondering where -if it does say -in the Bible that the man should be the spiritual leader of the family, since I don’t want to go to my husbands new church and feel that we are rooted in the Catholic faith. How do I explain to him that this isn’t going to happen, and possibly refer to scripture in explaining this to him?

This is a sensitive subject, and I hesitate to comment on it without having the space to explore the subject thoroughly and make sure that what I am and am not saying is clear. Nevertheless, I’ll try to answer as best I can. First, some basic principles:

  1. Men and women are equal in God’s eyes. They have equal dignity, and Christ died for both genders equally.
  2. Husbands and wives have an equal right to the goods of marriage and equal responsibility toward making the marriage work.
  3. There are differences in the genders. For example, men tend to be larger and stronger than women, while women have longer life-spans and more agility.
  4. These differences manifest particularly on the level of statistical averages, and the remarks I am about to make are to be understood in this light. The average trends do not always hold on the level of individuals (e.g., some men are physically smaller than some women, some women are physically stronger than some men).
  5. Some differences between men and women are non-physical. For example, though the genders are of approximately equal intelligence, women have greater verbal aptitude than men, and men have greater spatial aptitude than women.
  6. One of the differences between the genders is that men are designed for physical competition and combat in a way that women are not (it goes along with being larger and stronger). They are correspondingly configured mentally and emotionally. Put negatively: Men are more aggressive, more competitive, and less risk-averse on average than women are. Put positively: Men tend to have a stronger leadership drive than women.
  7. The differences between the genders translate into a corresponding differentiation of roles. For example, men are generally better suited to roles that require greater physical strength (e.g., being a weight lifter); women are generally better suited to roles requiring greater agility (e.g., being a gymnast).
  8. In a few cases, the differences in roles is absolute: Only women can give birth; only men can be priests.
  9. In most cases, however, the differences do not lead to an absolute division of roles, and in any given marriage whichever partner is better suited for a task is usually the appropriate one to do it.
  10. In general, men are configured physically and cognitively to serve as the primary leader/protector of the family, while women are configured physically and cognitively to serve as the primary nurturer/caregiver. (Though it is to be immediately pointed out that men also need to nurture and care for the children. Both parents have equal responsibility to make sure the children get what they need as they grow and develop. Men are by nature configured to be the secondary nurturer/caregiver for the family, just as women are configured to be the secondary leader/protector.)
  11. Apart from the siring and bearing of children, however, the distinction in roles within marriage is not absolute. Many spouses are in situations where one spouse refuses to, is ill-suited to, or is incapable of fulfilling the typical roles just described. For example, some women have husbands who are physically or mentally incapacitated and unable to fulfill the functions that typically would be expected of a leader/protector–or, the husband may refuse to fulfill these roles, or he may simply be less suited to them than his wife. In the same way, some husbands may have wives who are physically or mentally incapacitated and unable to fulfill the functions that typically would be expected of a nurturer/caregiver–or, the wife may refuse to fulfill these roles, or she may be less suited to them than her husband.
  12. In such atypical cases, the good of the family must be provided for, and this frequently means that one spouse may need to fulfill an atypical role for his or her gender. E.g., a woman with an alcoholic husband may need to exercise the primary leadership he is incapable of exercising responsibly; a man with an alcoholic wife may need to provide the primary care for the children that she is incapable of providing responsibly.

The above points form the natural law foundation needed to answer your question. With them in mind, two things should be pointed out:

First, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition recognize the difference in gender roles just described. For example, this is evident in Scripture passages such as the following:

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God [1 Cor. 11:3].

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. 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, 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. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband [Eph. 5:22-33].

Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior. Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are now her children if you do right and let nothing terrify you. Likewise you husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker sex, since you are joint heirs of the grace of life, in order that your prayers may not be hindered [1 Pet. 3:1-7].

These passages have to be applied with some care. There are elements of these passages that are culturally conditioned. For example, the 1 Corinthians passage is part of a longer, culturally-conditioned discussion of women’s head coverings in church.

More fundamentally, these passages are directed toward the typical situation described in point #10, above, not the atypical situations mentioned in points #11 and #12. But the passages do recognize the natural law situation and the fact that, under normal circumstances, men are the natural leaders of the family.

They do not say that the husband is or should be the spiritual leader of the family, but this is clearly implied (e.g., by Christ being the spiritual leader of the Church, by men being able to serve as priests, etc.). So your husband has a point: Men should be the spiritual leaders of their families.

However, we have already noted that there are atypical situations. Not all men are able (or fully able) to exercise leadership functions, the spiritual one included. The passage from 1 Peter is directed toward one such situation: that of a Christian woman with a non-Christian husband (most likely he would be a Jew, since Peter is addressing Christian Jews living outside Palestine; see 1 Pet. 1:1). Such a husband obviously cannot fully be the spiritual leader of his family (and he wouldn’t be the spiritual leader of it at all if he were a pagan rather than a Jew). In such a situation, the wife is still called to recognize his leadership role where he is capable of exercising it (hence Peter’s exhortation to her), but not where he is incapable of exercising it.

This situation is not the same as yours since your husband is a Christian, but it is analogous in that he does not share the fullness of the Christian faith (i.e., he is not a Catholic). To the extent that he shares Christian truth, he is capable of serving as spiritual leader (e.g., by leading the family in prayer, provided the prayers are compatible with the Catholic faith and he’s not trying to covertly "preach at" you and your daughter through them). However, until such time as he becomes a Catholic, he is impeded from fully exercising spiritual leadership. In particular, he is impeded to the extent that he tries to alienate you or your daughter from the Catholic Church–which simply is the Church that Jesus founded and the only one that maintains the fullness of Christian faith and grace.

You and your daughter have an obligation to maintain your Catholic faith and practice, and he must respect that. Even if he does not recognize the Church for what it is, he must recognize your conscience in the matter, and it would be a violation of your conscience to abandon Catholic faith and practice. In this regard, there are a few Scripture passages you may wish to show him.

First, in explaining your perspective on the matter, you may wish to point to the reply of the apostles when they were told to stop preaching Jesus:

We must obey God rather than men [Acts 5:29].

You must obey God by maintaining Catholic faith and practice, regardless of what you husband might say, just as also the women Peter was writing to must continue Christian faith and practice regardless of what their husbands might say.

It also might be helpful for your husband to reflect on Romans 14, in which Paul is dealing with controversies among Christians at the time (e.g., whether it was okay to eat certain foods, whether it was necessary to observe Jewish holy days). Paul pointes out that, apart from the question of which side was right in these controversies, each side must follow its conscience, and for either side to violate its conscience would be mortally sinful. (For example, in 14:20 he speaks of "destroy[ing] the work of God" by getting a person to do what his conscience says is wrong.)

As you explain this to your husband, try to understand also where he is coming from: In Protestant circles it doesn’t matter nearly as much what church one belongs to. As a result, it is a much more normal thing for wives to begin attending their husband’s church in Protestant circles. This is more reasonable because by switching from one Protestant church to another one is not abandoning the Church that Christ founded. However, you as a Catholic are not in that situation. For you it would be abandoning Christ’s Church to join another church, and he needs to understand and respect the situation you are in, even if he does not share your beliefs about the Church.

It also may be useful for your husband to reflect on the fact that no successful leader–inside of the family or out of it–continually insists on his prerogatives as a leader. Successful leaders follow the servant-leader model provided by Jesus (Mark 10:42-45), and appeal to their authority as infrequently as possible. Unfortunately, too many Christian husbands try to use the verses above as tools to get their way on trivial matters, and in so doing they undercut their ability to serve their family and provide it authentic leadership that is pleasing to Christ.

I hope this helps, and I encourage my other readers to keep your situation in prayer!

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{ 9 comments }

James Green January 30, 2007 at 8:52 am

Wow, what an answer! I have had questions concerning this also and have been trying to do some research on the internet about men being the spiritual leaders in their families. It has been difficult trying to filter through the discussions especially when women challenge the idea as being demeaning towards women or somehow they are being oppressed. Angie Lewis has some interesting articles on the subject but I think you answered everyone’s concerns, (including the feminists)on the subject. Thank you.

Jim March 20, 2007 at 4:26 am

Some good thoughts and scriptures references are incorporated into this answer. Very consciensously written. Beware, however of interjecting “man’s interpretations and considerations” – such as “the Catholic church, which “is” the church that Jesus founded and the only one that maintains the fullness of Christian faith and grace”. This statement is not scriptually sound and, therefore, should not be included as part of the answer to this challenging question.

bill912 March 20, 2007 at 4:44 am

“This statement is not scriptually sound…” How?

LarryD March 20, 2007 at 7:21 am

Beware, however of interjecting “man’s interpretations and considerations” – such as “the Catholic church, which “is” the church that Jesus founded and the only one that maintains the fullness of Christian faith and grace”.
So if it’s not the Catholic Church, then which one is it?

Anon March 20, 2007 at 7:32 am

“This statement is not scriptually sound” (but my comment is).
Got it.

Tim J. March 20, 2007 at 7:39 am

Oh, let’s not get into that, here. It is way off topic.
This is a Catholic blog, and we don’t have to allow every post to turn into a debate about Church Authority just because a non-Catholic questions it in the combox.
Suffice to say, when you drop in on a Catholic blog, you can expect most of the commenters to behave like Catholics and take the authority of the Church as a precept, not a conclusion to be debated.
There are posts where Church Authority is properly debated, but this ain’t one, IMHO.
If you reject the authority of the Catholic Church, then;
1) Go discuss Spiritual Headship on a Protestant blog, or
2) Accept the fact that Catholics will be Catholics and don’t turn every discussion into a debate about whether the Catholic Church has a right to exist.

Hrvoje June 27, 2007 at 4:08 am

I just ran into this blog. What a great place, and what a great author it has!
I’ll be putting this one in my “regular visit” category.

Wesley November 25, 2007 at 8:04 am

The article is simply mind-blowing. Excellent!

Louis M. November 27, 2007 at 9:30 am

Mr. Akin,
Thank you for this wonderfully thoughtful reflection on a sensitive question. I, too, have had questions on the issue but never had such a good answer succinctly laid out.
Another interesting comment I have heard (I believe from Christopher West) is the idea that “submission” in these passages has a positive denotation. It derives from the Latin “submissio” which is a combination of “sub”–under, and “mittere” (the infinitive)–to send. A literal translation of “submissio” would be “under the mission (or the sending) of”. So for the wife to submit is for her to place herself under the mission of the husband; his mission is defined in the Ephesians passage as: “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, 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. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself…”.
In other words, to submit to husband = to place oneself under his Christlike mission to love.
I thought that was an interesting reflection too.
Louis

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