Ephesians 5:23 makes it clear who should be the head of a household according to God’s design for the family: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” But we err when we disregard all the aspects of headship. A head cannot function on its own. It is as dependent on the rest of the body as the body is on the head. God is careful to define headship by comparing it to Christ and the church. That headship role is best fulfilled when the husband “loves his wife as Christ loves the church and gave himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25–30).
Ephesians 5 assumes a married couple, with the husband as leader and the wife as supporter; however, many modern households do not fit that model. Some are headed by a single parent, others by a grandparent or an older sibling, and still others have some other construct. With that in mind, how do we define who should be at the head? Scripture is consistent in teaching the chain of command. The elder member of a household should be the head whenever possible. In Old Testament times, the eldest son received a double inheritance, called the birthright, upon his father’s death. But he was also held responsible for the welfare of the entire household (Genesis 27:19; Deuteronomy 21:17).
Children are commanded to obey both parents, not just the head of the household (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20). An undisciplined child brings shame and disgrace to his mother, not just his father (Proverbs 10:1; 29:15). Wise parents agree on rules and discipline in front of the children. Any disagreements should be held behind closed doors so that parents can present a united front. As far as the children are concerned, a mother and father working together are the heads of the household.
Here are some principles relating to what it means to be the head of a household:
1. A head goes first. Godly leadership is servant leadership (see Mark 10:44). The head of a household is to be the role model for everyone else. If he/she wants the family to speak kindly and respectfully, he/she must model that type of speech. If a husband wants his wife to honor him, he must honor her. If a single mom wants her children to have a good work ethic, she must demonstrate what that looks like to them. Headship is not a dictatorship. The head of a household seeks wisdom, prays through issues, and then gently instructs the rest of the body in the direction it should go. If the senior member of a household is not functioning as a healthy head, the entire family suffers.
2. A head takes responsibility. When God handed out roles for the family, He placed the heaviest burden on the men. Headship may sound like superiority until we actually read God’s expectations. The head of a household is responsible before God for the spiritual and emotional well-being of the family. God judged Eli for not restraining his wicked sons. Eli knew about their evil actions but did nothing about it, so God held Eli responsible as the head of the household (1 Samuel 3:13).
3. A head receives 51 percent of the vote. Two people will not agree on everything, no matter how closely aligned they are, and when there is a stand-off, who gets the deciding vote? God has decreed that it should be the head of the household, the husband if he is present. Of course, a wise head will consult his wife. Heads do not know everything, even though they carry the weight of responsibility for the decisions. So it is only smart to seek counsel and advice from the woman he pledged his life to. And, if she is a godly woman, she will share her studied opinion but then let her husband bear the weight of the decision on his own.
God designed the family, and He knows best how it functions. When we apply His standards of love, submission, responsibility, and servant leadership, the family thrives (Ephesians 5:21–33; Colossians 3:18–20; 1 Peter 3:1–7). When a husband steps up and assumes the mantle of responsibility God has placed on him, the rest of the family finds it much easier to fulfill their own roles so that the family is a testament to God’s design.