Correct doctrine does not inoculate against sin. Just because the right things are taught sin does not magically disappear. It is easy to believe that if we just teach a biblically grounded view of courtship then all we have to do is set those two young ones lose, following our courtship rules, and all will be well. Or if we have the right liturgy then the parishioners automatically become more righteous. Or if we teach our daughters modesty then all will be well and so on. The trouble with this perspective is that the problem with sin is rarely knowledge. Sin lives within us. Whatever system we have (and some are better than others) we bring our sin into it. Many pastors and parents function as if teaching the right doctrine automatically sanctifies. But it doesn’t. And this why a pastor must preach to his people, not just the right doctrine, but also that right doctrine must translate to right living.
In our church we teach headship and submission. It is a biblical concept. It is one of the key issues of our day, along with numerous other male/female, husband/wife issues. But teaching headship and submission is not a vaccine against headship submission sins. In fact, someone can believe in headship and submission and have a terrible, unbiblical marriage. Here are two specific sins that crop up when a church teaches headship.
There will be men who are drawn to this teaching because they are tyrants. They use headship as a shield for accountability. They love headship because they think it means they get to do whatever they want. My wife is my servant and I am the master. These men are often over-controlling, easily offended, lack real accountability, think their children are too good for anyone else, etc. They keep their wife really close because who knows what will happen if she drifts. They speak in terms of protection, but what they really want is control. They speak of their sins in generic terms instead of specifics. They are good at cultural critique, but not good at self-critique.
There is no magic bullet for this type of man. But two things can help. The wife needs to know that she can come directly to the elders if her husband is involved in grievous sins. In fact, she has a moral obligation to do so. This can of course, be misused by petty, bitter wives. But I would rather a wife come to the session and the session say, “No it is not a big deal” than her hide his sin because she does not want to “undermine her head.” In our membership interviews we tell congregants that we teach headship and submission. But we also tell the wife that she has direct access to the session. She does not need her husband’s permission to come to us if there are sins he is refusing to deal with. It can be hard to know when to come to the session, especially in a church where supporting your husband is important. The session needs to create an open avenue for women to come to them if there is a problem in their marriage.
Second, the men need to be held accountable by the session. Tyrants hate accountability. A tyrant will have other men involved in his life, but they will not be men who actually hold him accountable. They will have friends or younger men they can teach, but no one who teaches them. A man who refuses to allow other men, who can hold him accountable, into his life is functioning as a tyrant.
The second sin you get in churches that teach headship is men who don’t want to lead or don’t have the courage to lead their homes, but they want to look like they are leading. In these situations the wife is the one running the show. But she will do everything she can to make sure no one knows that and so will the husband. In public they will say and do all the right things. The husband will talk about leading his family. The wife will talk about following her husband and how much she listens to him. But the reality is that the wife is one setting the direction of the family. She is the one constantly bringing up doctrinal issues or church issues that must be discussed because they are “so important.” She is the one suggesting a course of action. The husband is reacting to his wife not leading her. This woman, especially in churches that teach headship and submission, will often be quiet and compliant. She is not going to destroy her image with outbursts. But in the walls of her home she is the boss. As a pastor friend says, “The rooster rules the roost, but the hen rules the rooster.” If there is a problem in the home the wife will use her husband’s headship as a shield for her own sins. And the husband will allow this to happen.
As with the tyrant, there is no easy answer for this type of a scenario. A man being sweetly pushed around by his wife will often rise up for a moment and try to lead, usually when someone challenges him. But he will eventually be put back in his place. The trouble here for ministers is that no one likes to make women mad. Few people get as angry as a Christian woman called out for her sins by a male minister. But if the pastor does not have the courage to stand up to women then how can the husband do it? This pretend, hypocritical headship is often intractable. The best a minister can do is urge the men to Christ-like leadership, call upon the women who have usurped their husbands to repent of their sins, preach the Word, and pray. I was talking to a long-time minister about this issue and asked him if he had ever seen a situation like this turned around where the wife became submissive and the husband became the leader. He said no. I won’t say it is hopeless. Nothing is with Christ, His Spirit, and the Word. But the evidence is slim that couples can get out of this cycle.
Every marriage will exhibit these sins from time to time. No husband is excluded from being a tyrant. No wife is excluded from usurping her husband from time to time. Leading without being a tyrant is hard to do. Making suggestions to your husband without taking the reins from him is hard as well. So how do we work on this? The main requirement for escaping either cycle is to believe the paragraphs above could describe you. If a man does not believe he could be a tyrant or doesn’t believe he could be pushed around by his wife and if a wife does not believe she could run the show through subtle manipulation then all hope of change is lost. As with most things, the beginning of change is the terrible realization: that picture which I hate might be a self-portrait.