I Believe in Male Headship

by Gilbert Bilezikian

I believe in male headship unabashedly and unreservedly. I cannot evade the issue or rationalize my way around it. The headship of husbands is clearly and unassailably taught in the New Testament. Moreover, the Bible clearly declares that the response of wives to their husbands' headship is submission in everything. Indeed, the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. As the church is subject to Christ, so wives must be subject in everything to their husbands (Eph. 5:23-24). This precept is not given in Scripture as a recommendation, a suggestion or a piece of advice that may be optionally followed. It is an absolute mandate that requires the same level of adherence as any of its commandments.

Coming from an advocate of the reform movement called egalitarian or, more accurately, non-hierarchical complementarian, the above statement sounds regressive. For this reason, I also caution against citing it without referencing what follows.

A basic rule of sound hermeneutics requires that no biblical term or concept be infused with meanings foreign to it. For this reason, the meaning of head in the New Testament must be defined from within the New Testament itself. It cannot be assumed that the value of head in the English language as authority, leader or master carries over automatically into the New Testament's use of the same word head.

There is no doubt that, among his multiple functions in regard to the church, Christ is authority, leader and master over the church since the scope of his universal lordship includes the church. Therefore, what is under scrutiny is not the concept of the lordship of Christ over the church. Rather, it must be determined whether the word head, when used to describe Christ's relationship to the church, carries the same meaning of lordship or whether it is invested with a different value. The glib assumption may not be made that, because head denotes authority in English, it also does so in the language of the New Testament.

Fortunately, the meaning of head can be easily determined within its scriptural use with reference to the headship of Christ in relation to the church, his body. Whatever function the head of the church performs in connection to the body defines the meaning of the term head in the New Testament.

The word head is used five times in the New Testament to define the relation of Christ to the church. As will be shown below, the use of head is consistent in all of those texts.

Eph. 1:22-23. The passage that immediately precedes this text exalts the supremacy of Christ in his session. But in relation to the church, the role of Christ is described as being appointed as head for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. The headship of Christ is never over the church in the New Testament. Here, it is for the church. As head, Christ gives the church fullness. He provides for the church's growth. The function is not one of authority but of servant provider of what makes the church's growth possible.

Eph. 4:15-16. Christ is the head from whom the whole body grows and builds itself up. The function of the head in relation to the body is to provide it with growth. Headship is not an authority role but a developmental servant function.

Eph. 5:23. The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. As head of the church, Christ is its Savior. If head had meant authority, the appropriate designation for Christ would have been "Lord" instead of "Savior" which is consistently a self-sacrificing, life-giving servant role in the New Testament.

Col. 1:18-19. Christ is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead. Through his blood, shed on the cross, all things are reconciled to God. In a passage that celebrates Christ's supremacy over all creation, this text describes Christ as the source of the life of the church through his resurrection from the dead and because of the reconciliation obtained through his self-sacrificing servant ministry at the cross. Headship is not defined in terms of authority but as servant provider of life.

Col. 2:19. Christ is the head from whom the whole body grows. The function of head in relation to the body is not one of rulership but of servant provider of growth. Christ as head to the church is the source of its life and development.

This survey indicates that head, biblically defined, means exactly the opposite of what it means in the English language. Head is never given the meaning of authority, boss or leader. It describes the servant function of provider of life, growth and development. This function is not one of top-down oversight but of bottom-up support and nurture.

Parenthetically, it must be briefly noted that Christ is also head of every power and authority (Col. 2:10). Believers are given fullness in Christ who is head of (not "over" as the NIV has it) every power and authority. Christ is the source of growth for believers just as he is the source of the life of powers and authorities which he has created (1:16).

This meaning of head as source of life is verified in the one remaining reference to Christ's headship in the New Testament. In 1 Cor. 11:3, Christ is not head for or of the church, his body, but he is the head of every man. This text is made of three carefully sequenced and studiously related clauses: the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. The question must be raised as to whether the meaning of head in this text is consistent with its use in the other references surveyed above or whether it has suddenly changed to mean something different in this one passage.

Sometimes, the word head in this text is carelessly infused with its meaning in the English language to obtain this hierarchical order: God head over Christ--Christ head over man--man head over woman. This top-down vertical chain of command would then go as follows: God-Christ-man-woman.

However, such results are obtained by manipulating the biblical text. In order to make the text say what the Scripture does not teach in this passage, its three clauses must be taken out of their original sequence and rearranged. The Apostle Paul knows exactly how to structure hierarchies in perfect descending order (see 12:28, for instance). In 1 Cor. 11:3, he is not structuring a hierarchy. In keeping with the theme developed in the immediate context, Paul is discussing the traditional significance of origination. The sequence that links the three clauses is not hierarchy but chronology. At creation, Christ was the giver of life to men as the source of the life of Adam ("by him all things were created" Col. 1:16}. In turn, man gave life to the woman as she was taken from him. Then, God gave life to the Son as he came into the world for the incarnation. When the biblical sequence of the three clauses is not tampered with, the consistent meaning of head in this verse is that of a servant function as provider of life.

Two additional considerations must be taken into account in order to get at the real meaning of head in the New Testament. There are scores of references in the documents of the New Testament to leaders from all walks of life: religious leaders, community leaders, military leaders, governmental leaders, patriarchal leaders and church leaders. Never is anyone of them designated as head. A profusion of other titles is used, but head is conspicuously absent from the list. The obvious explanation for this singularity is that head did not mean "leader" in the language of the New Testament.

The second observation relates to the constitutive elements of the human person according to the New Testament. Again, it contains scores of references to the elements that make up the human being. The functional components of personality are body, flesh, psyche, spirit, mind, conscience, inner person and heart. Head is never cited as the governing center of the person. In the New Testament, that function generally devolves to the heart or to the mind. Only once is there a reference made to the head aspiring to wield authority over the body only to deny emphatically its right to do so (1 Cor. 12:21).

Head is used figuratively in relation to the body only in the five references surveyed above and always with the meaning of servant provider, never with that of authority. When the New Testament metaphor of headship is understood generically and is protected from corruption by meanings foreign to the text, it describes perfectly the relation of Christ to the church and of husband to wife as servant life-givers. The fall had made of Adam ruler over the woman (Gen. 3:16). Christ makes of husbands servants to their wives in their relationship of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21). For this reason, I believe in male headship, but strictly in its New Testament definition.