In Search of Male Leadership: The Logical Inconsistency of Defining a Man’s Initiative in One Way and a Woman’s in Another

Recently I attended a conference on the theology of marriage hosted by Denver Seminary. Over lunch I had a brief conversation with one of the presenters, a megachurch pastor and chair of the theology department at a school in another state. 

We were talking about whether the differences between men and women have to do with leading and following or with something else. My discussion partner explained that he does lead his wife and that this is a very important aspect of manhood in general and his manhood in particular, since he views himself as the priest of his home. As an example of his leadership, he mentioned that he often says to his wife, “Let’s pray.” She usually does the praying, he noted, since she is better at it than he. But his point was that he is doing the leading by suggesting they pray.

This man’s wife is a college professor who also presented a paper at the conference. Obviously intelligent, capable, and accomplished, she was every bit as thoughtful and engaging as her husband. By all appearances the couple is happy and has worked out their relationship in a mutually satisfying way.

Frankly, though, I finished lunch scratching my head trying to figure out how a husband’s suggesting prayer is an example of male leadership. I wondered if it would be leadership if his wife was the one who proposed they pray or if he would call it a suggestion. Or would he describe his wife’s initiative as influence or even support for his leadership? Is making the suggestion to pray a role that only men may fill, though women are free to do most of the praying?

Mostly I’m perplexed by the many explanations of male leadership in marriage that I hear from those who promote a hierarchical view of things. The concept of “male authority” is easier to grasp, since it means a man is supposed to do what he thinks is right when there’s a disagreement. The husband should decide because that’s the way God set things up.

I find the notion of male leadership harder to pin down. Though I understand that most hierarchicalists connect leadership with initiative, my question is why this is viewed as a male trait.

Another example I ran across recently was propounded by a woman. She explained that a few weeks into her marriage her husband asked her to get up early and make breakfast for them. She didn’t see the point and resisted for years. 

After she finally gave in she realized how much starting their day together enhanced their marriage and family life. Now, she writes, she sees that her husband was “leading” her all along but she was refusing to follow that leadership. She goes on to explain how honoring others is a basic Christian principle since God’s word tells us to love our neighbor and look out for the interests of others, so deferring to her husband in this matter should not be considered strange. [1]

I have no argument with applying ideas of honoring others and loving our neighbors to marriage; I have been arguing for as much for some time. Of course we should defer to our spouse just as we are called to defer to other members of the body of Christ. A Christian couple is first of all brother and sister in Christ, after all, so all the principles of Christian community attend first and foremost within marriage. The point of those teachings, however, is that they go both ways. 

Yet here I have pretty much the same question I had with my first example: If the wife had been the one who knew the value of eating breakfast together and had asked her husband to join her for the morning meal, would that be leadership? Or would her initiative be defined as support, influence, or even helping her husband fulfill his leadership role? Or, let’s say he wasn’t interested, perhaps because he simply wasn’t used to eating in the morning or was anxious to get on the road. Would her request be considered nagging, especially if she asked him repeatedly as her husband had of her?

Let’s go a step farther: Would it be leadership if the wife asked her husband to make the meal because her employment required a lengthy commute but his did not? Or would it be considered inappropriate for her to ask him to cook or even just sit down to breakfast, especially if she knew it was something he did not want to do?

In other words, is a particular behavior “leadership” when it arises from a man and something else when it comes from a woman?

However male leadership may be defined by hierarchicalists, apparently Christian men aren’t doing it. Another presenter at the marriage conference said that over his forty years of pastoral ministry women complaining of passive husbands outnumbered those who were dealing with abusive ones “a hundred to one.” 

His point was that the real problem with men is not abuse, but that they are not stepping up. We should never discourage men from being the leaders in their homes just because an extremely small number of husbands take things too far, he seemed to be saying. Vastly more Christian men are passive than domineering and abusive.

What is going on with this scenario? For forty years this pastor taught men that it is their “role” to take the lead yet, at least as far as their wives can discern, they are not doing so. Why is that? Are Christian men passive and irresponsible? Is something out of kilter with guys or have we simply set ourselves up for failure by feeding husbands and wives a tale of “male leadership” that eludes definition? 

I agree that men should step up and take initiative. No one is saying they shouldn’t. Neither is anyone saying that wives shouldn’t get behind their husbands. Good wives love it when their husbands step up and love supporting that initiative. Those aren’t the issues.

The issue here is why so many wives complain their husbands aren’t taking initiative and whether it’s more a matter of misdirected expectations. My thought is that the Evangelical emphasis on male leadership over the past generation may have had the opposite effect, paralyzing men and keeping them from working out life’s problems in partnership with their wives. 

If experience is any indicator, men are more likely to step up in marriages characterized by mutuality than in those that follow rigid gender roles. I don’t know if it’s because their comfort level is increased when they don’t feel the pressure to make so many “final” decisions, or if they simply have a greater sense of accountability to their wife in a marriage of equals. 

Either way, my experience is that men take more initiative – sometimes a lot more – when they let go of being the one and only leader. Wives do better too, stepping up, solving problems, and working together with their husbands rather than burdening them with unreasonable demands or even fighting against them. And, before long, the couple has settled into a comfortable pattern of initiative-taking that leaves neither spouse overburdened or overlooked.

Tim and Anne Evans, after counseling hundreds of struggling couples for decades, agree that this over-emphasis on male leadership may actually be the cause of a lot of male passivity.

Many church leaders default to telling husbands they do not lead right, pray enough, parent the kids well, lead in devotions enough, manage the finances effectively, or provide the spiritual cover they are responsible to provide over their wives. 

Our experience is many husbands get frustrated and desert – they may check out emotionally, physically, spiritually – and others just give up. Regrettably, some husbands get so discouraged, they reach the conclusion that I’ll never be the spiritual leader my wife wants and church leaders say I’m supposed to be, so why bother? And they invest their time and energy in other interests.[2]

Part of the reason may be that societal changes have made a man’s risk-free exercise of leadership obsolete. In previous generations a man could walk in the door, announce he had resigned from the Navy or was running for political office, as former President Jimmy Carter did, without it once crossing his mind that he ought to consult his wife before taking such steps. A man could simply do what he thought best, no questions asked.

That world has long since vanished, at least in the West. Nowadays wives are more likely to speak their minds, push back, and resist decisions that do not consider their needs or have not been properly thought through. In his book A Full Life Jimmy Carter says that he now finds it inconceivable that it did not occur to him to consult Rosalynn before giving up a good income to try to make a living out of farming or forever sacrificing his family’s privacy by going into public service. 

The challenge for men with the way things are now is that taking initiative is accompanied by deep risks: the risk of his wife’s resistance, the risk of his wife having a better idea, the risk of her unhappiness about what he wants to do, the risk of being viewed as incompetent. Yet the Bible never teaches that the husband has to have all the answers or is the only one who ought to be hearing from God and suggesting solutions. We have put way too much pressure on men and restricted women far too much. 

Through their highly successful marriage counseling service Tim and Anne Evans have discovered that couples do best when they understand their union as one of co-leadership. They base this view of marriage on two facts: the dominion mandate was given equally to the man and woman in Gen. 1:28, and male dominance only comes into play after the fall.

Let’s go back to my final example and turn the tables one last time: What if it happens to be the wife who is being passive and irresponsible? Would her passivity, her refusal to pull her weight, take initiative, or solve problems be considered a lack of leadership? Or would it be identified as a lack of submission to her husband’s leadership? 

I suspect that for those who promote a hierarchical view of marriage her behavior would never be considered a lack of leadership. Rather, it would somehow or other be tied to submission. 

So there you go. Looking at typical illustrations, my search for a definition of male leadership seems futile. Exactly the same behavior is defined in opposite terms, depending on whether it arises from a woman or a man. Though I try, I cannot make sense of the concept from the examples I am given.

And I find that fully illogical.

[1] Emily Jensen, “Wives, Honor Your Husband’s Preferences,” The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, November 13, 2015, https://cbmw.org/topics/marriage-public-square/wives-honor-your-husbands-preferences/

[2] Tim and Anne Evans, Together: Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage (Colorado Springs: Real Life MInistries, 2014) 155-56.

21 thoughts on “In Search of Male Leadership: The Logical Inconsistency of Defining a Man’s Initiative in One Way and a Woman’s in Another

  1. Thanks for delving into this!!
    A few yrs ago I had a “rant” post where I noted how I saw on social media a photo of a husband reading the Luke 2 Christmas story to his family AND a reply was: “I can‘t truly express how beautiful this picture is. A man being the spiritual leader of his family.”
    So…apparently reading the Bible to your family makes you the spiritual leader? Thus if a mom/wife reads the Bible to her family that would make her the spiritual leader too, right? Uh-oh. According to some, a woman should not be the spiritual leader. Therefore, the mom/wife had better avoid all Bible reading to her family as she will be usurping her role and becoming leader! Well, of course not. But how is it that a man and woman doing the SAME thing are NOT doing the same thing?!?!

    I loved this paragraph from your post: Either way, my experience is that men take more initiative – sometimes a lot more – when they let go of being the one and only leader. Wives do better too, stepping up, solving problems, and working together with their husbands rather than burdening them with unreasonable demands or even fighting against them. And, before long, the couple has settled into a comfortable pattern of initiative-taking that leaves neither spouse overburdened or overlooked. — YES!

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    1. Thanks for sharing another example of the illogicality of so many definitions of male/spiritual leadership in the home/family, Laura. The question is why some people find it necessary to define it in this way. Can’t we encourage men to be men, fully partnering with their wives, without using words in nonsensical ways? I love the men in my life – my husband, brothers, son, grandsons, father, friends, and pastors, and I want them to flourish in every way. But I don’t think it does anyone any good to play games with reality. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am egalitarian in my understanding of Scripture. Some years ago, I took the Love and Respect video class and read the book even knowing they were not egalitarian. I did learn some good things from the class such as how important being respected was to me and how devastating being disrespected was also.

    I also got access to their forums where class attendees asked questions and were given answers. I was amazed by how often the exact same activity got classified differently in the answers depending on whether it was done by the husband or the wife. So I can confirm your observation that this disparate classification of identical acts depending on one’s gender seems to be common in non-egalitarian groups. I find that very strange and even Orwellian.

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    1. That’s very interesting, Donald. That has been my experience, but it’s noteworthy that others have observed the same phenomenon. I would be interested in hearing from more individuals on this issue and also on my suggestion that it may actually be easier for men take initiative in egalitarian marriages. Thanks for commenting.

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  3. This is a wonderful article, and one that I agree with. Here’s another side to it.
    My husband and I have raised two sons. I was called into ministry a year before I got married. Some men have mistakenly thought that I was an overbearing and domineering woman, possibly because I was always studying the Bible and getting excited about the scripture and speaking freely about them to whomever would listen. The problem with that was I was a single 20 year old woman speaking about my calling and the Scriptures in a Baptist Church. So, when we announced our engagement, I got a lot of bad advice. I didn’t listen to them though, I went directly to all of the “marriage ” verses to find out how I should be as a wife, and something I never saw was that my husband would be my spiritual leader. In fact, he told me years later that he felt God calling him to be my help mate! He was being called to support me in my calling.
    Well, that lasted for about two years, honestly. I used to do evangelistic concerts where I would preach the gospel between songs. Some would get saved, and my husband and I were doing this ministry together. It was all good until we asked the leadership of the church we were attending to support us financially with $200 a month so that we could go out and evangelize. This was a pivotal point in my husband’s spiritual life, I believe. In short, they threw a truck driving training book in his face and told him to man up, get a real job, and take care of his family. They said things like, he should stop letting me wear the pants, etc. They insulted and offended him right out of service to God. From that point on, pretty much, he proceeded to try to “provide” for the family. My two sons were mainly raised by me ( I homeschooled them both) because hubby had to make money. They have married two very different women. On of my daughters in law is very quiet. She is a songwriter, singer, poet, etc., but like i said, very quiet. I think her parents might have raised her with the whole “husband is the leader” thing. My son knows better than that, but he wants to do the right thing by his wife, which I think she wants, so he might be walking in that role of leader to her…which I cringe at because in marriage, we are called to be one flesh, never one spirit. Anywho, I digress. My other son is so passive that his wife actually does domineer him sometimes. This is equally disturbing to me. Now, this daughter in law has actually questioned my right (as a woman) to pray in a mixed gathering of men and women, like at Thanksgiving dinner! She’s been taught to defer to her husband’s leadership, will literally preach it, and then also treats her husband like a child! Ugh!
    The whole thing boils down to this, just stop teaching this error of anyone except Jesus being Lord over all of us who follow Him. I also think that the real and present danger to teaching women that they need a spiritual leader is that they end up, inadvertently, going straight into idolatry. We have only One mediator between us and God, one leader, one provider, one protector, and His Name is Jesus!
    Thanks for thinking through and articulating your thoughts on this very important topic.
    Shalom, Big D
    Ps very sorry for the length of this comment😳

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    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Big D. Your story breaks my heart but, unfortunately, I don’t think it’s at all uncommon. I hope you and your husband have recovered from the way you were treated and have worked out your marriage in a mutually satisfying way. I know that Christian leaders who are so adamant about this whole topic believe they are doing the right thing. Sadly their convictions lead them to behave in domineering and unchristian ways at times.

      Your comments about your sons’ marriages demonstrate the desperate need to teach couples how to partner together. It’s so interesting that the daughter-in-law who is the most conservative is also the one who dominates her husband at times. I have seen that as well. Somehow the whole hierarchical system of marriage that is supposed to solve the problem of differences actually pits husbands and wives against one another – at least it seems that way to me.

      Thanks so much for reading and for weighing in. God bless.

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  4. Thank you for this! I am realizing this is exactly what happened in our marriage. I tried to tone down my strengths while being frustrated with hubby for not doing what he “should” as a leader when in reality he was leading just not the way it was supposed to look! Those expectations really can cause a lot of men to just step back rather than up.

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    1. ps — ( couldn’t figure out how to edit) and yes the idea that men and women doing the same thing leads to disparate responses is absolutely true! Women speaking in class or up on an issue or (gasp!) preaching/teaching is seen as a power play or being to opinionated, etc while for men it’s considered manly.leading

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  5. Thanks for commenting, Holly. I’m so glad you figured out what was going on in your marriage and learned to appreciate your husband for who he is. I think lots of men are frustrated with the way the church can box them into certain ways of being a man. It sounds like you’re married to a great guy.

    It took me a long time figure out that this is what was going on in my marriage too! I love the way my husband steps up now and appreciate him so much. At this point in our lives was also have two married children and another who will marry this year. More than anything I want them to experience a healthy partnership with their spouses.

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  6. I was talking about this yesterday but in the context of children’s behaviour. A little girl who is telling other children what to do is often seen as bossy (bad), whilst a little boy leading an activity is seen as being in charge (good). It is a real struggle in society as a whole and Church in particular to see how to overturn gender stereotypes so that every one can be their most true self.

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    1. That’s an interesting observation. The challenge when raising children is to help them develop in healthy ways without labeling their behavior with terminology that has traditionally been negatively associated with a particular gender. Thanks for the insight.

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  7. Hi Sarah

    I appreciate your logical thinking!

    I have an off-topic question. Do you have any church recommendations in the Denver area? I live in a north Denver suburb, and I realize that you live south, but I’d be interested in any feedback on churches from you. Thank you!

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  8. The whole leadership fraud that is put on men is pathetic.
    Most men have NO leadership skills or training. How many have led or won at anything athletic? Very few. Being in a huddle and calling a play and giving confidence to your team mates, running the pick fence in basketball and winning. So “The Church” puts the burden of male leadership / headship on men when they have NEVER led anything in there life! And now men are in a married relationship with a woman they love but don’t yet understand, plus they know so little about the bible and their own relationship with Jesus and this idiotic teaching tells them “lead away brother! ” Good luck with that! No wonder when men share at men’s meetings that their marriages aren’t great and they’re unfulfilled, they been given an assignment that can in no wise be completed.
    But if they mutually partner and submit one to another, then they both have a basis for success and love and a very fulfilled marriage.

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    1. I appreciate your perspective, Gregory. My husband would echo your experience in men’s groups. It makes me sad when I think of all the unnecessary struggle in so many marriages.

      I really do believe we are setting people up for failure, in spite of those who insist that leading/following is the way to have a happy marriage. I just read an article today written to help women respond to husbands who are behaving irresponsibly like children. I keep thinking that if this is the result after teaching “male leadership” for over 40 years, then something is wrong with the whole idea.

      You hit on this from another angle, but women have also been fed unreasonable expectations for their husbands’ “leadership.” I have seen this cause nothing but frustration. As you said, mutuality truly does lead to a fulfilling marriage for both husband and wife, and there is absolutely nothing unbiblical about it.

      I am certain neither Peter nor Paul intended to contradict Jesus with their marriage teachings, and everything Jesus taught about relationships between believers was mutual. We need to read those passages in light of what Jesus said.

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