FamilyLife Today®

Headship and Submission

with Kathy Keller, Tim Keller | January 17, 2012
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Did God make a husband and wife equal? Kathy Keller, wife of Pastor Tim Keller, explains biblical headship by pointing out that even though the husband is the head of the family, as Jesus was head of the church, the wife also models Christ by submitting to her husband, as Christ submitted to the Father. Kathy reveals how authority and submission honor and glorify God.

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  • Did God make a husband and wife equal? Kathy Keller, wife of Pastor Tim Keller, explains biblical headship by pointing out that even though the husband is the head of the family, as Jesus was head of the church, the wife also models Christ by submitting to her husband, as Christ submitted to the Father. Kathy reveals how authority and submission honor and glorify God.

Did God make a husband and wife equal?

Headship and Submission

With Kathy Keller, Tim Keller
January 17, 2012
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Bob:  Kathy Keller says there is a lot of flawed thinking these days about headship and submission.

Kathy:  If there are husbands out there that are saying, “Yes, I’m the head.  This is good teaching.  I like this head stuff.”  It’s respectful submission between equals.  Submission is something that a wife gives.  It’s not something that a husband can demand.  Christ emptied Himself.  He didn’t grasp equality with God.  It was a voluntary submission.  This proves that headship does not imply superiority, nor does submission imply inferiority.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, January 17th.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I am Bob Lepine.  How should we understand what the Bible has to say about submission, and authority, and headship?  Well, we’re going to hear Kathy Keller exploring that subject today.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition.  I have a sense that there will be some women listening carefully to what Kathy Keller has to say about authority and submission on today’s program.

Dennis:  Yes.  Bob, it’s just thrilling to have a woman who does a great job with the Scriptures in an authentic way—just a very real picture of how marriage works between two people who are imperfect, but the call for your marriage to represent something bigger than just two people meeting one another’s needs.

Bob:  You know, that’s one of the things I was thinking about as I listened to Part One of this message from Tim.  I was thinking about the fact that at the Weekend to Remember ® marriage getaway, we talk on Saturday morning about the fact that marriage should be understood in a bigger context—that your marriage is not primarily about you, your satisfaction, and your happiness.  It’s not that there is anything wrong with you, and your happiness, and your satisfaction; but there is a bigger issue at work.  I think couples need to see that in order to understand the grand design that God has for their marriage. 

One of the reasons I bring that up is because, this week, we’re trying to encourage our FamilyLife Today listeners to take a weekend away this spring and go to a city near where they live or, if you want to travel and go somewhere nice for the weekend, attend one of our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways.  We’ve got a little special incentive to encourage you to do that.  If you sign up this week and identify yourself as a FamilyLife Today listener, you will save 50 percent off the regular registration price.  It’s a buy one, get one free offer.  You sign up, and you come at the regular price; your spouse comes free. 

Dennis:  Or, you can sign up as a couple and get a free registration to give to another couple to come with you.  It would be a great way, I think, to scholarship maybe a young couple who are getting married this spring or next summer.  I have to believe, Bob, this weekend conference really is the finest marriage insurance that you could ever buy to be able to, not guarantee your marriage is going to go the distance, but certainly to equip it to go the distance. 

You know, a number of our listeners have heard us talk about this for years.  They have not been to the conference; and they’ve been married 10, 15, 20 years.  They are wondering, “Why should we go?”   You know what?  Your marriage is the reason why we designed this. 

It helps good marriages become better; and sometimes all of us need to take a step back, and we need to be reminded, “There is something bigger taking place in your marriage,” as you mentioned earlier, Bob, “than just two people meeting one another’s needs.”  There is a noble purpose—it is the image of God.  You’re going to hear about it at the Weekend to Remember.  You’re going to hear some practical training on all kinds of issues, including the one we’re about to hear a message on today on FamilyLife Today.

Bob:  You want to say anything to those folks who are listening who have been to a Weekend to Remember, but maybe it’s been a couple of years since they’ve been?

Dennis:  Well, life has a way of changing us.  If enough water goes under the bridge, it’s probably time to paddle back upstream, and go back to the headwaters, and just take a refresher course and be reminded of why you two married in the first place.  You know, kids have a way of wearing a husband and a wife out and taking their attention off of one another.  Being parents today in this culture—it’s all “hands on deck”.  To get away from the kids for a weekend—it is survival time, in my opinion, for marriages.  Come join us for a Weekend to Remember. Take advantage of this special offer we’re making for this week only.

Bob:  This week only, FamilyLife Today listeners can register for the conference and, if you buy one registration, you get a second one free.  You pay for yourself, and your spouse comes at no additional cost.  It’s a half-price offer, and you can take advantage of it by going to  Register online. 

First of all, find out when the conference is going to be in a city that you want to go to or near where you live.  Once you know the date and the location, you can register online.  Just make sure you type my name.  Type “BOB” in the key code box on the online registration form.  That way, we’ll know you’re a FamilyLife Today listener; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY.  Register over the phone and just say, “I heard about this special offer on FamilyLife Today.”  We can answer any questions you have about dates and locations, and we can get you registered over the phone as well. 

The offer is good this week only—so we need to hear from you.  Get in touch with us and plan to attend one of these Weekend to Remember marriage getaways this spring.  They kick off here in a couple of weeks, and now is a great time to make your plans to attend one of these upcoming weekend getaways. 

You mentioned the subject we’re going to hear today.  This is one of those subjects that causes people to stiffen up a little bit sometimes when it gets addressed.

Dennis:  It’s good that we’re hearing a woman speak and come out of the Scriptures about this because Kathy Keller is not only a pastor’s wife—Pastor Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Pres in New York City—but she also has her MA in Theological Studies from Gordon Conwell Seminary.  She and her husband Tim were married in 1975.  They have three sons.  I think she just does a really good job of identifying with women and, at the same time, exhorting men to do a good job of truly being a leader that’s worthy of respect.

Bob:  And I think we’ll hear her husband sprinkled in a little bit as she speaks on this subject as well.  Here are Tim and Kathy Keller.

Kathy:  [Recorded message]  “Wives, submit 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 of which He is the Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Gospel reenactment sounds swell; but that means that as in any play, the players have to take on roles.  In marriage, the husband and the wife both take on the role of Jesus.  The husband takes the role of Jesus as He’s the head of the church.  The wife takes on the role of Jesus as He is the Son, submissive to the Father, for the sake of our salvation. 

Now, the foundation of these roles is in creation.  If you look at Genesis, Chapter 1, verse 26, we see that male and female are equally given the mandate to care for the world that God has made.  In Genesis 2, however, we see a more detailed and personal account of the creation—involving making Adam first, then Eve as the helper suitable for him. 

The first creation account talks about how God says, “Let Us make man in Our image and Our likeness.  Let them rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air.”  God created man in His own image, the image of God.  He created them male and female.  He created them in total equality of male and female.

Genesis 2 then—there’s this thing like, “Adam first, then Eve; and she’s the helper?”  Like, “What happened to the equality?”  The word “helper” in the Bible, azer,—I’m not sure, you Hebrew scholars, if I’m pronouncing that right—it is more frequently used of God.  You may have heard this; but in the Bible, the word azer—the helpmate word that is used of Eve in Genesis—is most often used of God—God, our help. 

A helper can only help out of strength.  The helper helps because he or she has qualities that are needed by the person who doesn’t have those qualities.  It is a position of strength.  It’s not like “assistant”—you know, “God’s my assistant.”  “My wife is my assistant.” It’s a helper who helps out of complementary strengths that the husband doesn’t have.  Okay, that’s a tangent; but we needed to do it.

Okay, it’s in this way that we reflect the mysteries of God.  The classic formulation of the Trinity is that the Son is ontologically equal with the Father. That means, in His essence—He’s equal with the Father.  But He is economically—and that means, in his function—subordinate.  Being made in the image of a Triune God—it takes two people to take on those roles of headship and submission.  Husbands and wives, like the Father and the Son, are complete coequals in dignity, in gifts, in value, in power, in strength; but you’re different as to roles.

The New Testament fills out our understanding of this.  In Philippians 2 we see that Jesus did not cling to his equality with God; but He emptied Himself in order to be our Savior, to become a servant and die to save His people.

Long ago, when I was struggling with this teaching, and I did struggle with it, I had to ask myself this question, “If it’s not an assault on the dignity, and value, and equality of Jesus to take the subordinate role to His Father in order to accomplish our salvation, how on earth can I be hurt or devalued when asked to play the Jesus role of subordination in my marriage?”  The answer is, “I can’t be.  It’s not going to hurt me if it’s defined by Jesus rather than by a cultural understanding.”

Of course, you woman can retaliate saying, “Well, Jesus was being submissive to a perfect and loving Father.  I’m being asked to be submissive to a flawed and sinful man.”  That’s why the Bible is so very careful to explain to men that they must also act like Jesus in their marriages—the Jesus who suffered and died out of love for his bride, the church. 

That means that number one, biblical headship involves servant-hood.  You all don’t have Bibles here, so just write down if you’re taking notes, First Corinthians 11:3; and I’ll read it real slowly.  “The head of every man is Christ.  The head of the woman is man.  And the head of Christ is God.”  Okay.

First Christ’s headship over man is clearly one of authority; and yet, his authority expressed itself by His sacrificial death in order to meet our needs.  A head’s job is to use their authority to please, meet needs, and serve.  A head does not get all the perks, all the privileges—you know, choose control of the remote—all this—pick the color of the car you buy, etc.  Your headship is expressed in servant-hood, primarily.

Number two, biblical headship involves voluntary respectful submission between equals.  If there husbands out there that are saying, “Yes, I’m the head.  This is good teaching.  I like this head stuff”?  It’s respectful submission between equals.  Submission is something that a wife gives.  It’s not something that a husband can demand.  Christ emptied Himself.  He didn’t grasp equality with God.  It was a voluntary submission.  Whereas Christ is a higher order of being than human beings, the Father and the Son are equal in power, greatness, and dignity.  The Son’s not inferior to the Father at all.  This proves that headship does not imply superiority nor does submission imply inferiority.

What are we supposed to conclude about headship from this Christ-to-mankind and God-to-Christ analogies?  Headship is something given by one person to another.  The giver is equal to the receiver; and the receiver has a real and final authority but uses it only to serve, and please, and build up the giver.  It is not used for yourself because that’s not how Christ used His headship.  He didn’t use His headship to say, “You know, I’m going to sit here and you’re going to serve Me.”  He stripped himself and washed His disciple’s feet and said, “Look what I’ve done, and I’m the Master.  I’m giving you an example,” and, you know, “Get it into your heads.  I’m redefining what leadership, what authority means.  It means serving.”

Now, in marriage, this means heads may never use authority to please themselves.  A head may never overrule his spouse simply to get his way or do what he wants.  A head sacrifices his wants and his needs to please and build up his partner.  Go back to Ephesians 5 if you want a lot more detail about that.

Headship sometimes involves tie-breaking authority.  I would say maybe more than sometimes—it’s rarely—involves tie-breaking authority.  But it does.  In a marriage, you only have two votes; so the occasions do arise when there’s like an impasse, “Yes; no.”  Okay, how do you break the stalemate?  It can only be broken if one party has the authority to overrule; but there can’t be a misuse of that so that it’s done so that, “I can get my way.”  The only time that a husband can use his authority to overrule is with knowing he has the responsibility and the accountability to God to only be doing it in order to serve and to take care of his wife and his family.

Why does God direct in His Word, though, that headship goes to the man?  Why not to the women?  Well, if it did, then the men would be sitting here saying, “So how come I’m submissive?”  The reason that the Bible gives is, “It points us to the Trinity. We’re made in the image of the Triune God.” 

If you want to put it in perspective, ask this question, “Why did Christ have to be the One Who came and died?  Why not the Father?  Why not the Holy Spirit?  Why did He have to give away His authority?”  We don’t know.  We’re not told.  But the one thing we are told in Philippians 2 is that it’s a mark of His greatness—having humbled Himself, His name will be exalted above every other name.

You could actually make the case that, in asking women to be submissive, that they are actually being given a greater calling than the men and will be exalted more highly for it.  I’m just saying, “You could make the case”; I’m not making the case.  Of course, men are also given the job of following Christ in His role as head of the church rather than in the role of submission to the Father.  So men and women, we both get to play Jesus in our marriage.  I’ll just summarize this way.

First, Jesus revolutionizes the role of submission, which could be called serving through subordination.  He shows us willing submission.   It’s not begrudging.  In Hebrews 10:7 He says, “Here I am.  I delight to do Your will, O God.”  Philippians tells us that He will be exalted because He didn’t hold on to His status of rule—but He became a servant.

Second, Jesus revolutionizes the role of headship, which can also be called serving through leadership.  Just as he shows us willing and not begrudging submission, He shows us ruling of one equal over another that always has service as its goal.  Jesus never abandons His authority over us, but He dies for us.  His authority leads to His sacrificial death.  He only uses his power, and He always uses his power only, for our good and at His own expense.  That’s what men are being asked to follow.

Third, and last, the biblical pattern calls both parties to submit.  Many godly couples have come to realize that the biblical pattern is equally difficult for both parties.  The woman and the man both have to submit to their roles.  Many Christian men would gladly give up their tie-breaking headship authority.  It’s hard.  It’s difficult, and a lot of men would be just as happy to back away from it and not assume headship.  It’s a hard role.  It’s hard to be a good head in your family.  The man has to submit to his role, just as much as the woman has to submit to her role.

Now this Trinity-based view of gender roles is not easy to communicate in the modern world today.  The concept of “in one’s self, being equal” but “in one’s vocation and relationship, subordinate” is difficult to explain, especially to someone fuming over the mere idea of gender-based roles at all; but we can have a separate night on that some other time.

I’m sure there’s still questions in your minds, but let me just try and preempt the most common question so that I don’t get 50 or 500 of them, all saying the same thing.  A woman would probably say—many of you women are probably saying in your minds, “Okay.  I get what you’re saying, but my husband doesn’t.  He thinks his authority is a blank check to get his way in every circumstance.  He’s controlling, threatening (maybe even abusive).  Am I supposed to submit to all of this?”

The answer is, “No!”  Your submission to a husband who is sinning against God is to oppose him.  Remember, you’re supposed to be helping, serving in your submission.  You don’t have the motivation of trying to be just as mean to him as he is to you and oppose him so that you can have the upper hand instead of him.  That puts the shoe on the other foot, but it doesn’t solve anything.  It doesn’t change anything.  The opposition has to come out of the motivation of First Corinthians 13, “Love is patent.  Love is kind.  Love is long-suffering.” 

If he’s abusive, call the police—I mean, if necessary—but with the motive of trying to serve and save him—not punish, or dominate, or threaten him because then there hasn’t been any Jesus-role in your action, just like there hasn’t been any in his.  It doesn’t save the marriage or save the person.  That’s just an attempt to hit that question before it’s asked, but you can still ask another one if you have it.

Okay, Tim.  Back to you!

Tim:  Kathy and I will now go more quickly through the next set of topics.  So “Planning and Planting.”  Purpose—“What are you there for?”  Roles—“Who’s who?”  That’s the basis.

Bob:  [Studio]  Well, we have been listening to Kathy Keller, the wife of Tim Keller, pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, talking about authority and submission and what the Bible has to say about that.  She and her husband have written a book together called The Meaning of Marriage, which we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.  You can go online if you’d like to receive a copy.  Our website is  That’s, or you can call toll-free 1-800-358-6329 to request a copy of the book.  Again, our toll-free number is 1-800, FL-TODAY.

And honestly, even if you’ve heard some of these things before, to hear them from a different person, with a different perspective, brings a freshness to what you’re hearing.  In fact, I was thinking about the fact that at our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways, Dennis, we have a number of couples who present the material.  Couples will often come one year and hear two couples who share what’s going on, but the next year you can come back and hear two different couples share.  It’s almost like you’re at a completely different event, even though a lot of the principles are the same.  You’re hearing new illustrations, new insights that you didn’t hear the year before.

Dennis:  Yes.  And as Kathy illustrated in her message, there’s a couple of areas we’re not naturally good at that we take almost 90 minutes at the Weekend to Remember to focus on—and that is, the responsibility of a husband and the responsibility of a wife.  We break the men and women into separate groups.  It drives the women crazy not to be hearing what the men are being taught at that point! 

But, Bob, we are not naturally good husbands or good wives.  We need training and need to be equipped.  What Kathy just took about 15 minutes to do on the broadcast here today, we take almost six times more time at the conference to walk you through a biblically-reinforced practical job description for a husband and a wife in the marriage relationship.  We need that training.  We desperately need to know what it looks like.  We need to hear from others who are making their own set of mistakes and are willing to share them with us.  That’s what our speakers do.  They are very authentic. 

This is not some kind of theoretical marriage conference.  This is a conference where real people are being authentic. Sharing out of their successes, certainly; but some of their best lessons they have to share with you are out of their failures  I just encourage you to take us up on this offer that Bob’s about to make because we’re only offering it this one week.

Bob:  That’s right.  It’s a two-and-a-half-day getaway; and if you contact us this week and let us know where you’d like to go and when you’d like to go there, we’ll get you signed up for one of these getaways.  You buy your registration fee at the regular price.  You spouse comes at no cost—buy one, get one free.  It’s just for FamilyLife Today listeners, and it’s just good for this week.

Probably the best thing to do is go online at  Click the link for the “Weekend to Remember”.  Look around and find out when the conference is going to be where.  See if you can make one of those locations and dates work for you, even if you have to travel a little bit.  Sometimes it’s fun to get out of town and head out somewhere nice for a weekend.  Once you’re ready to register, as you fill out the registration form online, type my name—type “BOB” in the online promo code box.  That way, we’ll know you are a FamilyLife Today listener; and you’ll qualify for the buy one, get one free special offer.

Or, if it’s easier, just call 1-800-FL-TODAY and ask about when the conference is going to be in any particular location.  We’ll let you know about that, and we can get you signed up over the phone.  Just mention that you listen to FamilyLife Today and you heard about this special offer.  That way, you’ll quality for the buy one, get one free opportunity.  Again, it’s this week only.  So we hope to hear from you.  We hope you’ll plan to attend an upcoming FamilyLife Weekend to Remember marriage getaway.

And keep in mind, we are hearing about a lot of U.S. servicemen and women who are returning home after a long deployment overseas.  For a lot of them, it can be tough to get back into the groove of marriage and family.  There’s some conflict that emerges there.  That’s why we’ve established a scholarship fund here at FamilyLife. W e would love to scholarship thousands of our servicemen and women this spring at our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways. 

We’re asking you to help make that happen by making a donation to our “Finally Home to Family” scholarship fund.  Go to FamilyLife  Click on the “Finally Home to Family” link and make a donation.  Your money will go toward helping a serviceman, a servicewoman, and his or her spouse attend, as our guests, at a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. 

Donate online at; or if you’d like to, you can text your donation. Type the word “HOME” and send it via text message to 28950—again, the word “HOME”.  Send it to 28950.  We’ll send back instructions on how to make a donation via text message.  Thanks for your support, not just of FamilyLife Today, but of these servicemen and women as they return home.

And we want to encourage you to be back with us again tomorrow when we’re going to hear Part Three of Tim and Kathy Keller’s message about marriage.  We’ll hear them talk about conflict and communication tomorrow.  I hope you can tune in.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today

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Episodes in this Series

Biblical Foundation For Marriage Day 3
Making a Marriage Work
with Kathy Keller, Tim Keller January 18, 2012
What does it take to make a marriage really work?
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Biblical Foundation For Marriage Day 1
Planning and Planting
with Kathy Keller, Tim Keller January 16, 2012
Marriage is a lot like a garden. Whether there's rain or drought, it's going to take a lot of work.
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