In studying the Old Testament, we uncover the unmistakable narratives of women who took leadership and teaching roles among God’s people. Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah stand out as impressive examples of these OT women leaders. Similarly, in the earliest days of the Christian church, women were teaching and proclaiming Christian doctrine to men. Anna, Priscilla, and Mary were listed as outstanding among the apostles (Junia). Women even prophesied before the congregation of God’s people (the daughters of Phillip).
Do these women have counterparts in the church today? And is the husband really meant to be an authority over his wife? Is that supported by Scripture? Or does God intend for husbands and wives to be co-leaders of their families and households? These are the questions we must address when we approach the issue of “male headship.” It is impossible to separate the questions of gender roles in the home and church, because our beliefs about them intersect, affecting both spheres.
The Bible does teach the concept of male headship. However, a persistent misunderstanding exists about what that means both for the family and the church. To the Greek-speaking early church, ‘headship’ never meant leadership, because ‘head’ never meant leader.
Paul, in his much-debated words designating men as the head, would not have been saying that men alone could be leaders and teachers in the church. This would be very odd coming from a man who praised female “co-laborers,” noted Junia as an outstanding apostle, and knew that his right-hand-man Timothy had been schooled in theology by two women (Lois and Eunice).
When you consider the stakes of being mistaken about “male headship,” it is certainly worth a good hard look at the theology behind patriarchal Christian practices. The church has encouraged an unbalanced mode of family governance and mistakenly eliminated half of the Christian population from education and employment in the ministry of proclaiming the gospel—all of this based on the misunderstanding of a single word.
Source, Not Leader
The word that is translated as ‘head’ in the Bible (kephale) is used a handful of times in the New Testament. In Greek, it literally means the head of a body. When used metaphorically, it generally functions to describe Christ as the head of the church. A handful of times, it refers to a husband as ‘head’ of his wife or of man being the ‘head’ of woman. We tend to assume that the analogy implied by ‘head’ is ‘leader’ or ‘superior,’ based mostly on cultural values and linguistic practices. In English, we use phrases like “head of State” and “head of a household,” to connote authority. We clearly mean leader in these contexts. But Greek is not English. In Greek, the connotation of ‘head’ is not leader. Rather, it refers to the origin of something; its life-giving source, as we see here:
“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you. Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God… In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (1 Corinthians 11:1–3, 11).
The idea of a life-giving source is the proper meaning of ‘head’ in this passage. Never are we taught in Scripture that God the Father is the leader of Christ, but we are taught that Jesus was “begotten” of the Father. This passage further indicates the balance intended between the sexes, for the first woman came from a man, but after that, men were born of women.
The best example in English of the true meaning of ‘head’ in the New Testament can be found in the term ‘headwaters.’ The headwaters are the geographical source of a river. They pour out, giving life to a stream that eventually grows into a much bigger body of water. There is something fascinating about the humble beginnings of a great and mighty river—people want to know where it comes from. That is one reason why European explorers spent decades trying to find the Mississippi headwaters. Finally, Henry Schoolcraft enlisted the expert help of Ojibwe locals who, of course, had known the location of the Mississippi headwaters for many years. Schoolcraft called the source lake “Itasca,” a word he invented by merging the Latin words veritas (truth), and caput (head). I include this fact to point out that it is not only Greek, but also Latin which carries the meaning of ‘source’ in the literal word ‘head.’ Schoolcraft’s TruthHead Lake means only that it is the true source of the Mississippi, not its leader.
If you have ever been to Itasca State Park in Minnesota and waded across the shallow headwaters of the Mississippi, let this be your word picture as you consider this view of headship—a life-giving, pouring-out, source or origin—the kind of headship which was modeled by Christ himself.
The Source of the Woman
You may be thinking, “I accept that Christ is the source or origin of the church, but how should I understand man as the ‘source’ of woman?” Good question. When man (universal) is called the ‘head’ of woman, it is a historical reference to the formation of Eve from the rib of Adam. Historically, Adam came first. And Eve came from him. But in the process, a real part of his body was given up. Likewise, Christ gave up his body and his blood so that the church might be born. When a husband is instructed to act as the head of his wife, it does not mandate hierarchy. It simply means that he is to pour himself out sacrificially as Jesus did for the church. This life philosophy extends far beyond a call to risk life and limb for family in life or death situations. There is an everyday reality that accompanies this kind of self-sacrificing ‘headship.’ Christ-like men are the ones who change diapers and clean the toilet at home, laboring, leading, and serving beside their wives, not the ones who believe that God has ordered the world with men on top and women below. And men are not called upon to merely imitate Adam, who simply gave up a rib. Men are called to imitate Christ, who poured out all of his blood and gave up his life. Jesus embodied sacrificial service in his life and ministry. He gave up every type of earthly comfort—warmth, rest, predictability, house and home, power, and position. He washed dirty, stinky, warty feet—the undesirable job of a slave. He suffered and died on the cross like a criminal. He did all of this to give life to the church. So extreme was his self-sacrificing service that it is easy to see why we cannot even comprehend how we are to follow that same example, and simply miss the whole message.
The Bible tells us that “Christ, though he was God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the very form of a slave” (Phil. 2:6-7). So, the question remains. Are we to follow the pattern of Christ who so incomprehensibly upset the hierarchal order of the world? Or are we to uphold a supposedly God-ordained hierarchy?
We must ask ourselves. If Jesus sat on the elder board at church, would he prohibit women from joining the assembly? Would he be overly concerned about offending the gender roles supposedly implemented by God at creation? Or might he be the kind of person who would allow a prostitute to burst in and wash his feet with tears? Might he be the kind of God that would welcome the full exercise of female gifts in his church?
This Jesus whom we are called to imitate does not lord his authority over his church. He goes after our hearts in unconventional ways. He is our source, the source of the water and the source of the blood which created the church, a body of washed and redeemed people flowing through two thousand years of history. This is the headship of Christ.
The Power of a Life-giving Source
The mighty Mississippi accomplishes quite a lot in a day. At New Orleans, the equivalent of 166 semi-truck loads of water are dumped into the Gulf of Mexico each second. But each year, half a million people are drawn to visit the humble source of this river—the headwaters in Itasca State Park. It is an insignificant-looking stream that children can wade through, so narrow that a two-year-old can toss a stone across. Much like the king of the universe’ birth in a barn among livestock in a backwater, nowhere town—the headwaters are easy to overlook. Yet, when I visit them, I am reminded that the church functions much like this river—a mighty network of life-giving sources all flowing out of the one true head. May all those that encounter us be encouraged by our Jesus-inspired self-sacrifice. May they be emboldened to go looking for our source.