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How Submitting to Christ's Headship Makes or Breaks Leaders

1 Corinthians 11:3 addresses confusion about what it meant to be an equal part of the Body of Christ, and how this Body is rightly organized by mutual submission to Christ, the head.

Contributing Writer
Updated Feb 16, 2024
How Submitting to Christ's Headship Makes or Breaks Leaders

In 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul emphasizes “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

Why does Paul make this statement in his letter to the Christians at Corinth? What does this mean for us today?

We must infer from the content of his letters that the Apostle was addressing confusion about what it meant to be an equal part of the Body of Christ, and how this Body is rightly organized by mutual submission to Christ, the head.

Poor Leadership and Leader Alliance Issues In Corinth

In his article “10 Issues the Gospel Solved in the Corinthian Church,” Andy Naselli talks about this church’s background--there was no background. They had been Christians for no longer than three years. Even mature Christians need to hear the truth over and over, but an infant church would have been especially vulnerable to backsliding and false preaching without mature members to keep them on track.

Without solid Christians to disciple new believers and discipline this church, and with tremendous influence pushing in from the city around them, the Corinthian Christians were challenged. While the wider church network at Ephesus and the Christians at Philippi seemed to enjoy better leadership (suggested by the joyful tone of his writing), at Corinth, power was being abused.

Certain members of the congregation were “marginalizing poor Christians” and some “were dividing over church teachers. They embraced the values of their Roman society”, wrote Naselli, and the solution was simple: apply the gospel.

Naselli continues: “‘Christ crucified’ is the power and wisdom of God (and confounds Roman values). God uses church teachers to plant and water the church, but God alone gives the growth. So don’t boast in particular church teachers because they are merely servants of Christ. Boast in the Lord.”

Who’s The Boss?

Who was the “head of the church” in the opinion of Corinthian Christians? We can infer from Paul’s instructions that some husbands abused their power; some wives henpecked their husbands; masters beat slaves; slaves fled from their masters—and therefore, they were not acting in accordance with submitting to Christ.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians instructs wives to “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” (5:22) But how could a Christian woman, who has been freed from slavery to sin, now embrace this kind of submission to one who is her equal in Christ? This would be a puzzle if it were not for Paul’s explanation of our status before God.

We are co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), yet He is also Lord (1 Corinthians 8:6). Within the Body of the Church there is still an order, whereby Christ is the Head and all believers, living in Christ. Both yield to his authority and share in the same rewards of His grace: “In him you also, when you heard the [...] gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Marriage is a reflection of that order when the husband and wife are believers with the eyes of their hearts set on Christ. They can enjoy equality and a healthy and God-glorifying friendship, yet also operate as a team, with the husband leading. This is possible if both parties are keen to live in obedient submission to Jesus, which is a beautiful submission for our good and His glory. The master-slave relationship can also reflect the correct order of things. Jesus did not abuse authority or abuse people. Godly relationships reflect the attitude of Christ toward his people when Christians remember who the ultimate Bridegroom is and the ways in which he treated people His Bride: he loved sacrificially and He led truthfully.

The Equality of the Body of Christ

As though he suspected this teaching would be misunderstood and abused to assert power over one another, Paul wrote later in the letter “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, [...] so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12-13). Every Christian, regardless of social or marital status, is part of the wider body. Every part of that body shares the same Spirit and the same privileges of salvation by faith in Christ.

An excellent description of how Jesus taught His followers to treat others is found in Rudy Gray’s article “Treating Others the ‘Jesus Way.’” Gray enlarges on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7 and provides important background to what Paul was saying about the responsibility of leadership, but also the humility expected of leaders. “It is important to help a fellow believer remove the speck from his or her eye . . . But we cannot effectively help someone until we are in a spiritual position to help. When we do offer help, whether it is in the form of loving confrontation or strong counsel, we must be merciful.”

Good and Bad Leadership

So the work of a husband is to be the spiritual leader of the household, but also to be rooted in this truth: that good leadership is a form of servanthood. Jesus said that he came to serve, not to BE served (Matthew 20:28).

If Christ is the head of the husband, then it is much easier for the wife to agree to let him lead because the husband will behave in a Christlike way. The same would have been true of slaves and masters back in their time: a master who loves Jesus might free his slave, yet the slave--seeing in his former master a man with the heart of Christ--might return to him freely. 

Neither “head” is the true Head which is Jesus, and neither master nor husband can offer leadership within the marriage unless he is willing to also examine himself daily and act from a position of humble servanthood to the benefit of those who rely upon his leadership.

When a husband tries to take control from a prideful and controlling posture, women fight for freedom from their marriages or vie for leadership in their homes. When an employer mistreats employees, they leave or they perform fearfully; they make mistakes and come to loathe their jobs.

When someone in a position of leadership fails to keep his or her eyes on Christ, and forgets who his or her Lord is, the leader can expect dissension. He can anticipate a breakdown of the order of things.

However, in the case of a marriage, if a husband adopts Christ’s attitude towards his wife, as the Head of the marriage union, then he pursues his wife’s best spiritual interests by trying to guide her back to her Savior if she is drifting. If he is leading well, she wants to follow. She is not coerced but is free to follow her husband’s lead. He is patient, loving, merciful, but he also takes charge and sets boundaries.   If his leadership is appealing, and she is a discerning woman, she will WANT to cleave to him.

The Lord does not abandon sinners; the husband and wife do not abandon each other when they struggle with sin unless that sin is dangerous. But there is more responsibility placed upon the husband to cleave to Christ and to anchor the family in Christ in the face of storms arising from within the marriage or from the culture around them. He must be rooted in the Word, in prayer, and in fellowship. Wives should find protection with their husbands.

Employers provide the same shelter for their employees. Although he or she sets expectations for employees, if those expectations are not met it is the employer who assumes responsibility, perhaps by providing discipline, instruction, or even a pink slip. Good employers seek the best for their workers; they aim to serve them by approaching every challenge from a redemptive perspective.

All the while, both parties stand on equal footing where the Lord is concerned. The boss is not the “head” but represents the head, which is Christ, whether employees are believers or not, to the glory of the Father and with the hope of reflecting Christ’s servant-minded and loving attitude.

The Better Leader

A body is useless and directionless without a head. A body is vulnerable if that head is damaged or disobedient. Consider a real brain injury, such as when someone experiences concussion. Balance, direction, vision, decision-making, emotions: all or some of these areas can be damaged, leading the injured party to injure others or to inflict self-harm.

The Head of the Church has to be Christ, the only one who is mighty to save; the unchangeable one who is never injured, tainted, or swayed. 



Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Boonyachoat

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.


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