Headship Madness: Headship In the New Testament | CBE International

You are here

Headship Madness: Headship In the New Testament

Part 5
On June 29, 2015

This is the fifth and final in a series of posts on the concept of headship in the Christian church and community. The articles offer a clear outline and critique of the headship practice and system and further explore the consequences of headship on men, women, relationships, the church, and the broader world. Catch up with Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4 of the Headship Madness series before reading Part 5.

In the first three segments of this series, I outlined some of the functions of “headship” in American evangelicalism—especially as it functions in “complementarianism.” In the fourth essay, I outlined how the entire “theology of headship” is based upon a faulty methodology. Two verses, with a metaphor and a load of presuppositions about a “man’s job,” create a system, culture, and theological method bent on patriarchy. In this final essay and conclusion of the “Headship Madness” series, I will provide a cursory look at these two major “headship” passages.

Ephesians 5

As I indicated in the previous entry, many (perhaps most) American evangelicals are completely unware of the following facts when it comes to Ephesians 5 and “headship”:

1. Ephesians 5:22 comes after 5:21, and 5:21 is about mutual submission (“submit to one another”). This is significant because v. 22 flows out of the thought of v. 21. So, however we interpret v. 22, it must be in the context of v. 21. If we do not do that, we are no longer doing thorough “exegesis” and reading the scriptures rightly.

2. Ephesians 5:22 does not contain the word “submitting” (ὑποτασσόμενοι) or any form of “submit” (ὑποτάσσω). It is only found in v. 21. This means that 5:22 depends upon v. 21 not only contextually, but also syntactically. (Hence the NLT, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. For wives, this means…”; Hence Lexham’s Syntactical Greek New Testament, where v. 22 is a “segment clause” placed underneath the “sentence” of v. 21. Etc.)

3. For the above reasons, it is a terrible mistake for Bible publishers and editors to insert a paragraph break (and/or heading) between Ephesians 5:21 and 5:22. This runs against the most basic linguistic rules. The pro-complementarian ESV translation (produced by the pro-complementarian publisher Crossway) has both a paragraph break and a new heading (as does the similarly conservatively-positioned NASB, HSCB, NET, and NKJV), creating the illusion (desirable, for some) that the command for wives to submit to men’s “headship” has nothing to do with the mutual submission of the previous verse. The KJV, RSV, NRSV, NIV (2011), NLT, NCV, MSG, TLB, NLV, AMP, CEB, GNT, VOICE and others rightly do not do this, for it is not grammatically warranted (and because, of course, they are not under as much theo-political pressure by complementarian constituencies).

4. Wives are not commanded anywhere to submit to anyone’s “headship,” but rather, to their actual living, breathing “husbands”—first and foremost “out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21). Similarly, “headship” is not strictly a biblical word, nor does the metaphor, found in but two places in the NT, warrant the superficial, universal-hermeneutic of “whatever doesn’t ‘assault’ male headship is permissible for women to do.”

5. Husbands are nowhere in Ephesians said to have (or exercise) authority over their wives. The only place such an assertion occurs is in the largest chapter on marriage in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 7. But there, women are said to have the exact same authority over their husbands: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (This is a good example of an “egalitarian marriage.” Complementarians have yet to explain why sex in marriage is egalitarian, but everything else about the marital relationship is not.)

6. Most of the gender-specific commands in the Bible are not exclusive to the other gender. Remember the Ten Commandments and “you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”? It may shock some, but yes, this also originally applied to women not coveting their neighbor’s husbands—even though that specific command is absent from the Decalogue (and to my knowledge, the entire OT). The same principle applies throughout the Bible. In 1 Timothy 2:9, women are commanded to “adorn themselves in modest apparel.” There is no parallel command specifically for men. Does this mean men are “off the hook” and can dress how they please? Of course not. In Titus 2:3-5, older women are told to teach younger women to “love their children.” There is no parallel command for older men and younger men. Does this mean these men are “off the hook” for loving their children? Of course not. In Colossians 3:21 (and Eph. 6:4), fathers are told to not “provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” There is no parallel command for mothers. Does this mean it is okay for mothers to provoke their children? Of course not.

And yet, when we get to Ephesians 5 and wives are told to submit to their husbands, we’re supposed to believe that this can’t apply to husbands submitting to their wives. (Go figure). Why?—especially since “it’s okay” that wives “love” their husbands (the supposedly universally, distinctively masculine mandate)? For those not entrenched in patriarchalism, the hermeneutical double standard is obvious.

7. The apostle Paul defines husbands loving wives and being the “head” in terms of love and submission: laying down one’s life. This is precisely the point. The giving and receiving and reciprocity in the marital relationship is an embodiment of the “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” in verse 21. Of course men submit, they are already doing that in the church via 5:21 (and 1 Cor. 16:16), in relation to government (Rom. 13:1) and other institutions (1 Pet. 2:13), to slave-masters (1 Pet. 2:18), and, if they are young, to elders in the church (1 Pet. 5:5). All of these obviously apply to women, too. But the point is that submission is anything but a distinctly feminine disposition. Men submit to other people, women, entities, and structures all the time—and it’s not contrary to their “masculine nature” or a disgrace to their manhood. It’s just a part of being a creature on this planet.

As to why the Apostle gave the specific commands that he did for each gender, there are many good exegetical commentaries and theological books that provide reasonable explanations. These need not be discussed here and now. As to “the point” of the passage, a possible chiastic structure may indicate “that he might present to himself the church in all her glory” as the centerpiece, or perhaps “the mystery” of Christ and the church highlighted at the end.

These observations alone dismantle the traditional narrative that Ephesians 5 establishes a permanent, personal hierarchy between husband and wife. Combined with 1 Corinthians 7 and the Song of Solomon (considered the “ideal” marriage according to most exegetical commentators and theologians—and it is undoubtedly egalitarian in character), the “biblical” picture of marriage emerges as a partnership of equals.

1 Corinthians 11

1 Corinthians 11 is similar to 1 Tim. 2 in that it is riddled with many intriguing puzzles. There is no need (or space!) to go into all of them. Instead, I want to focus on some key issues surrounding “headship.”

The sense of which “husband/man is the head of a woman/wife” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is not entirely clear. Perhaps it is in an historical-existential sense (in the Genesis narrative, Eve physically came from Adam; see this physiological sense of “head” below), although no one can be quite certain. Paul does not define being the head here in the same way that Ephesians 5 does (submission, love, laying down one’s life), and to make matters complicated, it is difficult to know the sense in which “God is the head of Christ”—especially in Paul’s world. Now, in the theological realm of various developed theories of “hypostatis” and “procession” and “emanation” and 4th-12th century Trinitarianism, perhaps we can carve out something really nice. But that is somewhat speculative, if not artificial. God (the “Father” we presume) is not the head of Christ in the sense of ontological origination; God did not “create” Jesus physically or otherwise—though, to the credit of the theologizing just mentioned, in some sense, Jesus “came” or was “begotten” from God the Father.

The same term “head” (κεφαλὴ) is used for Christ in Ephesians 4:15-16, “from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” It also appears twice in Colossians 2, first in v. 10 (“you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority”) and then in v. 19, (“holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God”). The sense of “head” here (esp. in v. 19) may be something to the effect of “source of life,” or “source of provision” (Moo, The Letters, PNTC, 230; cf. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 501-504; Morris, 1 Corinthians, 149), or something else. “Head” in v. 10, like in other places in the NT, may refer to “authority” or “pre-imminence,” or it may not.

In any case, there are strong physiological connections associated with “headship” in Paul’s writings, so the big-picture, Eve-from-Adam, Woman-from-Man sense in which man is the “head” of woman may be the sense of 11:3. This is particularly favorable since 1) Paul specifically mentions woman’s existential origination from man in verse 9 and 2) the sequence in verse 3—man’s origin from the creative hand of Christ (Gen. 2:7), followed by woman’s origin from the side of the man (Gen. 2:21–23), culminating in Christ’s origin from God at his incarnation into the world, is chronological and not ranked by authority. As Groothuis notes, “If this verse were speaking of a chain of command, it should rather say first that God is the head of Christ, then that Christ is the head of man, and finally that man is the head of woman—as do all the diagrams that we have seen illustrating this concept. But instead, the ‘head’ relationships are listed in chronological order of origin” (Women Caught, 159; cf. Bilezikian, Community 101, 167). As badly as one wants to simplify matters and suggest that every time “head” is used in the NT, it always means “leader” or “authority,” this is not tenable. (For a response to Grudem’s misleading work on the term, see Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians; Cervin, “Does κεφαλὴ Mean…” 85-112; Perriman, “The Head of a Woman,” 602-22).

All of these observations get clouded when it comes to verse 11, which reads, “therefore a woman ought to have authority on her head.” Why? Largely because most translations insert the words “symbol of” before “authority,” and it is assumed (through a patriarchal lens) that this must reference man’s authority over woman, symbolized by something (hair, head covering…baseball cap, sunglasses, etc.) The problem is that, as Gordon Fee points out, “there is no known evidence either that exousia is ever taken in this passive sense [103 NT occurrences, Philo, LXX, Josephus] or that the idiom ‘to have authority over’ ever refers to an external authority different from the subject of the sentence” (First Epistle, 519). So the chances that man’s authority over woman is being discussed here is, exegetically speaking, virtually zero. Thus, even complementarians and/or CBMW members like John Frame (DCL, 629) and James Hurley (“Did Paul Require,” 206-212) concede that woman’s authority over herself is being talked about, not man’s authority over woman. (Cf. Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter, 533; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 524-526; Morris, 1 Corinthians, 152; Keener, Two Views, 339; Ramsay, The Cities, 203; Barrett, A Commentary, 250; Bruce, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 106; Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 301-313). Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner summarize the matter this way in The Pillar Commentary (edited by D. A. Carson): “The woman’s head is not one over which others have authority. God has granted her authority to pray and prophesy. She exercises that authority in a dignified way by respecting both herself and the rest of the congregation through the avoidance of provocative attire or any dress or behavior which would bring shame on herself, others, or God…” (533).

After such an assertion of woman’s authority, it is unsurprising that in the next verse (11:11) Paul makes sure that readers know that woman is not independent of man.

Schreiner, a die-hard complementarian who refuses to budge on this seminal passage (and the others), makes an odd retort at this point in his argument:

“Paul begins verse 11 with However. In verses 11-12, he guards against the misunderstanding that women are somehow inferior to men. But he would not need to say this if he had just affirmed women’s authority and right to prophesy in such strong terms in verse 10.”

This makes no sense. Paul isn’t guarding against the idea that women are somehow inferior to men in 11:10, but against the idea that they are separate from one another—which is what we would expect if verse 10 is talking about woman’s authority as one specifically distinguished from man (v. 8-9). As Payne and Horrell note:

“The translation, ‘However, woman is not independent of man,’ implies that something in verse 10 might lead women to feel justified in asserting their independence. On subordinationist interpretations of ἐξουσία (‘authority’) of verse 10 as the husband’s authority, there is no such thing in the preceding context. On these interpretations one would expect Paul to begin, ‘However, man is not independent of woman,’ since they regard everything preceding verse 11 as affirming man’s authority over woman. The translation, ‘However, woman is not independent of man…,’ suggests that by itself verse 10 entails the independence of woman, which is only possible if verse 10 is an affirmation of the authority of woman.” (Man and Woman, 191)

“Paul’s specific and contextual concerns clearly motivate the whole passage: he uses the word [‘head’] precisely because his concern is with the way in which the [head] must be attired in worship. He follows the assertion of woman’s secondary place in the order of creation (vs. 8f.) not with a command for her to subordinate, but with an insistence that her correct attire is a sign of her [authority] to pray and prophesy. Paul’s purpose seems to be the establishing of ‘proper’ distinction between men and women rather than with male superiority or authority. The practical issue of attire is uppermost in his mind.” (Cited in Ciampa and Rosner, 510)

This interpretive correction of 11:10-11 has forced scholars to re-think the meaning of the previous three verses since the entire section hangs together by a string of conjunctions. If 11:10 is speaking of woman’s independent right to exercise authority in the church gathering (like when she prays or prophesies), it makes no sense to interpret vv. 7-9 as re-asserting/establishing the kind of permanent male authority over woman characteristic of traditional, patriarchal perspectives. Rather, these verses are probably there to say that man and woman are distinct in their natures as demonstrated by their different origins, that this matters for church order (contrary to some of the Corinthians), and that women in particular—Christians praying and prophesying in the presence of God’s people—are fully human, authority-bearing creatures (contrary to those undervaluing or overlooking the ministry of women; cf. Bailey, Paul, 308-313).

What, Then, of “Headship”?

If the “headship” passages of Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11 do not amount to what Christians have traditionally been told, from what does one derive the “headship” theology of complementarianism?

At this point, the arguments become severely degraded in terms of quality and focus. Various male leaders in biblical history, male language, male prophets, the presence of male authors in Scripture, and all of the other examples of patriarchy are equated with “male headship,” and therefore serve as “proof” and “examples” of such headship. But the problem is obvious: patriarchy is not the same as “headship,” at least how Paul understands it. Further, there are no limits to this methodology (how does one know headship is not being affirmed if it can be found anywhere men exert influence, have authority, or act?)

Nevertheless, as we have learned, in the complementarian model, headship = patriarchy, androcentrism, and sexism. This is an unfortunate development of systematic theology.

Conclusion

I admit that I have not spared a sharp pen in this five-essay series on headship. Perhaps it is because the consciences, gifts, and activities of faithful women around the world have been miserably vexed and flayed all in the name of “biblical headship.” I and thousands of others reading this blog bear witness to such abuse. To think it is all done in the name of serving God, acting Christ-like, and following biblical teaching…good heavens.

As the great Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck noted in Our Reasonable Faith, woman was created as a companion, “not as mistress and much less as slave, but as an individual, independent, and free being, who received her existence not from the man but from God [1 Cor. 11:12c], who is responsible to God…” (189-190). Man and Woman are created equal; one does not have an inherent “say so” over the other, or a more direct relationship to God than the other, by virtue of their sex. In commenting on the US Declaration of Independence and the meaning of “all men are created equal,” New Jersey Supreme Court Judge Andrew Napolitano says, “no [person] has a mandate from God to rule over other [people]….no [person] is endowed with rights superior to anyone else” (It’s Dangerous to be Right When the Government is Wrong, 15). If only Christians followed this basic principle in their marriages and churches!

Those in the Southern Baptist Convention and countless other Protestant-Evangelical organizations, institutions, and churches are obligated to oppose this reality of equality. Millions of evangelicals are instead required to believe that “…the man carries ultimate responsibility before God as the head of the woman” (Köstenberger, God, Marriage, and Family, 23, emphasis original), and that “the man bears the primary responsibility to lead the partnership in a God-glorifying direction” (Ortlund, RBMW, 86), and that in church “the office of pastor is limited to men” (Baptist Faith and Message); those ordained must be “male in gender” (EFCA, “Credentialing”). (Similarly, Catholic Christians must definitively assent that “the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his Church” (Pope Paul VI, Anglican Catholic Church, that church offices “consist exclusively of men in accordance with Christ's Will”).) “Submission” after all, is “inherent in the woman’s relation to the man” and this respect for male authority is “violated if a woman teaches doctrine or exercises authority over a man” (Schreiner, RBMW, 105). Yes—the very act of teaching doctrine and theology is an exclusive right reserved for those with XY chromosomes. This is God’s permanent law on earth—and dissenters will not be tolerated.

The good news is that the Church is more robust and intelligent than is often supposed. Many Christians realize that obligated confession, coercive techniques, and threats of unemployment are non-Christian, no matter what labels are given or what motives are provided. Patriarchy can hide behind “headship” (against all biblical senses) or “complementarianism” (against the typical meaning of complementarity), but it cannot hide forever. Ultimately, as Bavinck further noted in 1928 during the women’s suffrage movement, “The soul of the woman has awoken and no power in this world will bring it back to its former state of unconsciousness.” Egalitarian theology is, to borrow from George Lindbeck’s perspective, one of those “temporarily conditional irreversible” doctrines that is here to stay. Slavery used to be acceptable and was regulated by Christian teaching. But it is now unacceptable, and Christians should oppose it, despite the lack of biblical commands to do so. There is no going back. Slavery will never become acceptable in the future. Similarly, there is no going back to “traditional roles” for women, where women are considered subordinate/submissive by nature. To do so is to oppose what’s right, here and now, as God has brought creation to where it stands. (This is especially true since there is far more scriptural and theological support for patriarchy’s abolishment than slavery’s abolishment.)

The question is, how long will Christians hold on to the vestiges of ancient, tribal culture and its alpha-male chieftain? When will Christians become the gift-oriented organism of the church, the body of Christ, where Jesus himself is the life-giving head? When will men let go of their grip on power and authority for the benefit of themselves, others around them, and the kingdom of God?

Note: This post previously named Andrew Napolitano as a Supreme Court Justice, which references his position as a New Jersey Supreme Court Judge. It has now been clarified. 

Join the Cause

Barring women from using their God-given talents is an injustice that diminishes the gospel and its impact in the world. CBE International works to inspire and mobilize Christians with the Bible’s call for women and men to co-lead and co-serve as equals.

Learn More