The subject of hierarchy in families is sure to raise eyebrows any time it is mentioned. One reason we are often touchy about this subject is our misunderstanding of how God views hierarchy. In the world’s view, family hierarchy is synonymous with domination, control, and superiority. But those things are contrary to God’s ideal for the family. The world’s system ranks people or groups according to importance and responds to them accordingly. In God’s system, to be the greatest means we must become the servant of all (Mark 10:42–44). There should be hierarchy in Christian families, but not in the way we might naturally enforce it.
When God created the family, He began with one man and one woman (Genesis 1:27). He then instructed them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). When Adam and Eve sinned, God punished each of them in different ways. Part of Eve’s punishment was that she would be driven by a desire to control her husband, but God would place the man over her in authority (Genesis 3:16). Although this was part of Eve’s curse, it was also God’s way of protecting women in the future. He had created Eve different from Adam, and, in order for them to work together in complementary ways, only one could be in charge. Without hierarchy, we have anarchy.
Ephesians 5 picks up this theme and elaborates on the roles of husband and wife. Paul begins the section on family in verse 21 with “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” With that mindset in place, we are then prepared to accept the specifics of God’s hierarchy for the family. Without a willingness to live in mutual submission, we will easily distort and destroy the dynamic by which God designed families to thrive.
God gave the husband the role of servant-leader, as Jesus Christ was a servant-leader (Mark 10:45). The man’s responsibilities are to love his wife sacrificially (Ephesians 5:25), care for her as he would his own body (Ephesians 5:28–29), live with her in an understanding way (1 Peter 3:7), and bring up his children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). God placed the full responsibility for the family health on the shoulders of the husband. Husbands and fathers must give an account of their service to the Lord in the way they served, led, and loved their families.
To the wife, God gives the role of helper in the family hierarchy (Genesis 2:18). Rather than indicate subservience to the man, the word helper is also used of the Lord: “We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield” (Psalm 33:20; cf. Psalm 124:8). Jesus used the term Helper to describe the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives (John 14:17, 26). So, while God places the bulk of family responsibility upon the husband, He places a lighter burden upon the wife and instructs her to submit to her husband’s leadership, as the husband submits to Christ in all things (Ephesians 5:22–24). A wise husband seeks his wife’s input on family decisions, but a wise wife knows when to step back after expressing her opinion. Ideally, husband and wife are in agreement about family decisions. But on those occasions when they don’t agree, a wife is freed from the responsibility once she has expressed her views. She can then trust the Lord to work on her behalf through her husband’s decisions, right or wrong. The Lord has ways of protecting an obedient wife, despite whatever consequences He must levy against an erring husband.
After Christ, husband, and then wife, children are last in the family hierarchy. Children are never to rule the roost. Parents who allow their children to run wild, disobey, disrespect, and have their own way are demolishing God’s hierarchy for the family. Ephesians 6:1 says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” When parents require obedience from their children, they are training those children how to respond to God. God does not allow us to run wild, disobey, disrespect, and have our own way without severe consequences. Parents can model their parenting style after the heavenly Father and know they have the best possible example (2 Corinthians 6:18).
God instituted hierarchy in the family for our own good. Christ must always be first and foremost (1 Corinthians 11:3). His Word and His example are to be the standard in a Christian home. As husband and wife both seek the Lord together, they share the leadership role for the home and children. When each member of the family seeks to honor his or her role as a way of honoring God, the family flourishes and everyone’s needs are met.