A Husband is Not His Wife’s Shepherd

The Bible compares the relationship of a husband and wife to that of Christ and the church, implying that a human marriage is somehow a head-body connection like that of Jesus and his bride. We read that a man is the “head” of his wife like Christ is the “head” of the church, and we assume we comprehend what is intended. Not only do we know how Christ functions in relation to the church, by leading and directing and providing, but we also understand what it means to be the head of a corporation, head of state, or the head of a household.

It’s as plain as day.

Or is it?

I am convinced that the marriage analogy is designed to tell us something very important about who the God of the Bible is in relation to humanity, but it isn’t the only analogy God has granted us for that relationship. In describing the beauty of who Jesus is to his people, the New Testament includes not only Bridegroom and bride but also Savior and redeemed, Lord and servants, Great Shepherd and sheep. Other parts of Scripture reveal God as King and Father and human beings as his subjects and children.

There’s a lot more to this divine-human relationship than can be encapsulated within one human analogy.

That is what should be plain as day.

Each description tells us something unique – a different aspect – of our connection to this God of the universe. Jesus saves us from sin but also has a rightful authority over our lives. He leads us and protects us and provides for us, yet also loves and pursues us like a man does his own beloved.

We grasp the purpose of the different analogies at some level, but when it comes to comparing the divine, eternal “marriage” of God and his people to human marriage, we tend to import more than was ever intended.

When we conflate the varying analogies into one big idea, two things happen. First, we lose sight of the point of the differences, like when Jesus becomes merely our Savior but not our Lord, or our Friend but not our King. Second, and this is what I want to look at today, we misunderstand in what way human marriage is like Christ and the church, and in what way it is not.

Traditionally there hasn’t been much confusion related to a human husband being akin to Jesus as Savior, at least in the sense of having some part in saving her from sin. Some have recently suggested, however, that a husband, like Christ with his own bride, does play a unique role in his wife’s sanctification process. I talk about the mistakes inherent in that line of reasoning in my post “Are Husbands Supposed to Get their Wives Ready for Jesus?” But for the most part this has not been an issue.

Historically, though, it was assumed that a husband functioned as his wife’s “lord,” with authority over her life. This is the traditional view of marriage assumed by most cultures throughout most of history.

A husband’s authority is also the traditional interpretation of what it means for a husband to be head of his wife. Written into marriage vows, a woman promised not only to love and honor her husband, but also to obey him. Moving beyond biblical teaching, where a wife’s submission but never her obedience is enjoined, cultural assumptions imported Jesus as Lord into Jesus as Bridegroom, and applied this concept to human marriage.

Most people today, including hip newlyweds Harry and Meghan, break with tradition and drop the obedience line from the bride’s vows. Some Christian groups still practice this type of authoritarian male leadership where men and women believe women obey God by obeying men, but they are a minority.[1]

In our modern context, for those who hold to a unique role for men, the husband’s authority is most often softened to leadership. According to this view, in addition to their work of protection and provision men are designed by God to lead women, and women are designed to be led by men. The male role is one of direction and guidance as a “servant leader,” and the female role is one of responding to that leadership by affirming and embracing it. Men’s leadership of women, therefore, is an essential component of manhood.[2]

This is seen as extremely important, since it is the way we properly symbolize the relationship between Christ and the church. If we lose sight of the unique leader-follower relationship between men and women, so the reasoning goes, we undermine our view of who Jesus is in relation to the church.[3]

The last thing anyone wants to do is undermine our understanding of Jesus as our Lord and Leader. I’m not convinced, however, that we must insist on men leading women in order to retain a proper view of Jesus.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying men shouldn’t lead; of course men need to step up and take initiative. My question is whether it’s true that men should be doing all or most or even just the most important “leading,” and that women are created to be led by men. I wonder also if, perhaps, what has happened is that we’ve mixed the analogies.

My thought is that we are confusing Jesus as Bridegroom with Jesus as Shepherd, and then assuming that the combined concept applies to human marriage.

Who is Jesus as our Great Shepherd? How is his shepherding of his people described?

Jesus describes it himself in John’s gospel.

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. (John 10:2-4)

Jesus goes on to explain how the Good Shepherd protects the sheep and is willing to lay down his life for them. But what I want you to see is that as our Good Shepherd Jesus not only knows us and cares for us and protects us, he also leads us. And we know him and follow him.

The leading-following aspect of our relationship with Jesus is derived from the shepherd-sheep analogy, not the bridegroom-bride analogy.

David talks about how the Lord functions as our shepherd in that Billboard smashing hit, the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:1-4)

The image of the Lord as our shepherd stresses the idea that God leads and guides us, that we listen to him and follow him, and that we can trust his leadership for he has our protection and provision in focus.

Yet a human husband is never compared to Jesus as shepherd, never called a shepherd, and never instructed to lead his wife.

Other human entities are identified as shepherds, however. In the New Testament church leaders are specifically called and likened to shepherds. This is, in fact, the word that is translated “pastor” in the one occurrence of the word in our English Bibles. There is no separate word “pastor” in biblical Greek; the word is “shepherd” (poimēn).

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors [shepherds] and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. (Eph. 4:11-12)

Sometimes even though the word poimēn (shepherd) does not occur, the idea is intrinsic. In the New Testament, leading a church is regularly described as shepherding a flock. We see this in Jesus’ challenge to Peter in John 21:15-17 and Peter’s challenge to church leaders in 1 Peter 5:1-4.

In his heartfelt farewell to the leaders of the church in Ephesus, Paul described the church as a flock that the leaders must guide away from the harm church members would suffer if they followed the wrong people.

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:28-30, ESV)

In the Old Testament religious and civic leaders are sometimes called shepherds,[4] mostly in contexts of God’s judgment upon them for their abuse of power. Jeremiah had very strong words for the self-serving shepherds – or leaders – of Israel and its surrounding nations. [5]

Weep and wail, you shepherds; roll in the dust, you leaders of the flock. For your time to be slaughtered has come; you will fall like the best of the rams.The shepherds will have nowhere to flee, the leaders of the flock no place to escape. Hear the cry of the shepherds, the wailing of the leaders of the flock, for the Lord is destroying their pasture. (Jeremiah 25:34-36)

Note how “shepherds” is synonymous with “leaders of the flock.” When someone possessed a leadership role, they were understood to be functioning like a shepherd. Hence the analogy.

There is a strong leadership component encapsulated by the word shepherd that is not found in the Greek word for “head” (kephalē). We assume there must be, because in English there is: the “head” of something is the boss, the leader.

Yet that’s not the way kephalē functions in New Testament Greek. If you’ve never noticed, the many leaders in the New Testament – whether civic leaders, Jewish religious leaders or leaders in the early church – are never called heads (kephalē). They are rulers (archon)[6], authorities (exousia)[7], leaders (hēgoumenos)[8] and, by analogy, shepherds (poimēn).

But they are never called heads.

The leader-follower aspect of God’s relationship with us is embodied in the shepherd-sheep analogy, and that analogy is never applied to the human marriage relationship. Neither is it ever used of a one-on-one relationship between human beings, but only of the leadership of a group of people (most often by a group of people). The idea that one individual is designed to be led by another, or ought to personally lead another, is not supported by scripture.

We need to keep these facts in mind when we discuss what Christian marriage looks like. Yes, human marriage reflects the relationship between Christ and the church and yes, Paul said a husband is the head of his wife. But I do not believe that means a husband is the “leader” of his wife.

In my next post I’ll get into details on the meaning of the word “head” (kephalē) during New Testament times by looking at how it was used by other writers of the time.

In the meantime I want to leave you to ponder how Jesus is called a shepherd but a husband is not. I’ll leave you to think about whether you’ve conflated Jesus as head with Jesus as shepherd, applied the combination to human relationships, and permitted this idea to negatively impact your life.

Thanks for reading and hope to see you next time.

[1] A good overview of those who practice this view from the perspective of an outsider looking in is Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce. First-hand accounts of the abuse suffered growing up in such groups can be found in Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future by Elizabeth Esther, and I Fired God: My Life Inside — and Escape from — the Secret World of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Cult by Jocelyn Zichterman. A book that explicitly teaches the authority of a husband over every area of his wife’s life is Created to be His Help Meet: Discover how God can Make Your Marriage Glorious by Debi Pearl.

[2] See John Piper’s definitions of manhood and womanhood in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991/2006): “At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships,” 35; and “At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships,” 46.

[3] See, for example, J. Ligon Duncan and Randy Stinson in the preface to the 2006 edition of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, xiii: “So much is at risk in this debate: the health of the home and the church; the way in which we understand the Christ-church paradigm; how we apply God’s word to the Christian life; and the way we raise masculine sons and feminine daughters.”

[4] Paul L. Garber, “Sheep, Shepherd,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 465, notes that the shepherd analogy is applied to leaders in both “state and religion” in the Old Testament, although primarily in a negative assessment.

[5] Other prophets echo Jeremiah’s judgment on the self-serving “shepherds” of Israel. See Is. 56:9-12; Ezek. 34:1-10; Zech. 11:15-17. See also Jeremiah 23:1-2.

[6] Examples include Luke 18:18, Acts 4:8, Colossians 1:16 and Titus 3:1.

[7] See, for example, Romans 13:1-2, Colossians 1:16 and Titus 3:1.

[8] A participial form of the verb hēgeomai. See Hebrews 13:7, 17.

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