This is the second in a series of posts on the concept of headship in the Christian church and community. The articles will offer a clear outline and critique of the headship practice and system and will further explore the consequences of headship on men, women, relationships, the church, and the broader world. Catch up with Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of the Headship Madness series.
“Headship” in large sectors of American evangelicalism functions as a theo-political tool. It is the means by which competition in relationships—at home, work, school, and church—is quickly and effectively eliminated. It is also a flexible tool, conveniently subjective according to the one who wields it. Headship therefore takes on a number of faces, manifestations, and applications depending on the theo-political correctness of any given situation. Can employee candidate A take job position B at Seminary C? Well, first things first: does it violate male headship–and violate it according to the seminary president’s definition? Can female Christian Z give her testimony in front of the congregation on Sunday morning? Well, does it violate male headship—according to the elder board’s definition? Can female missionary G go back to seminary and get an MDiv? Well, as long as she doesn’t end up violating male headship during her career—according to how her denomination defines headship violation.
This is the ethical end game of complementarian thought: the headship litmus test. At the logical, philosophical end of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Women in the Church, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, and the dozen other volumes by popular evangelical patriarchalists, what matters most is if man’s headship is violated. If it isn’t, then you’re good to go. If it is, by all means stop (immediately!).
The centrality of headship and its function as a litmus test are central and explicit in the patriarchalist enterprise. Consider Thomas Schreiner, for example, who argues in his review of Philip Payne’s Man and Woman, One in Christ (“Philip Payne on Familiar Ground: A Review of Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ,” JBMW 15:1 (2010):45), that women shouldn’t be pastors, teaching and exercising authority in church, “because such actions violate male headship.” Or consider George Knight, who says “the New Testament commends the activities of women in various sorts of ministries except those that would violate the male leadership principle” (RBMW, 358). Note the obvious assumption that the early church was both aware of this “principle” and saw it as the litmus test for what Christian women could or could not do. These are but two examples.
The irony of this framework is that the theological headship litmus-test is supposed to be derived from New Testament teaching, but in actuality, it does not fit NT theology very well at all. In fact, the NT authors themselves provide all kinds of “litmus tests” for Christian behavior and thought, and few, if any, have anything to do with gender.
Consider Christian thought in Philippians 4:9: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Now I realize some would like to insert “whatever honors male headship” as a subcategory to “commendable” or “worthy of praise,” but it is significant that gender—and certainly not the specific litmus test of “whatever honors male headship”—is apparently not on the apostle’s mind when it comes to how Christians should think.
Or consider the attitude in our everyday actions: “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31); “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17); “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col 3:33). There is obviously nothing to the effect of, “whatever you do, just don’t violate male headship,” though again, one can insert this (supposedly vital) concern between the lines.
And what about litmus tests for the church and the building up of the body of Christ? Consider Romans 14:10-20:
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God." So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. (Romans 14:10-20)
What is the litmus test in these kinds of situations? To use a parallel example, what are Christians to do when women are preaching from the pulpit in some churches? The answer is clear: do not “pass judgment,” but rather “let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” If that means people coming to Jesus through the (female) preaching of the gospel, so be it—so long as it is not a “stumbling block.” (And as if it needed to be said, women pastors are becoming less and less of a stumbling block just as women wearing jeans and teaching at schools became less and less of a stumbling block a century ago. Soon enough, the church will wonder why on earth it ever made a big deal out of such matters in the first place—just as it wonders the same about formerly evil “playing cards,” “dancing,” and other ethical matters.)
The same conclusion is made after one of the most substantive sections in the Bible on the nature of church unity, division, and diversity (1 Cor 12-14): “strive to excel in building up the church…What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up (1 Cor 14:12, 26).”
In summary (and not even the bulk of NT studies has been implemented on this matter), Christians should be driven by the positive desire to build up the church and proclaim the kingdom of God, and the “pragmatic” test of these activities is if they do, indeed, lead to these kinds of results (cf. Stackhouse, Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Understanding of Gender). The negative criteria of headship non-violation—if it is a concern at all for any definition of “headship”—hardly presents itself in the early Christian church as a continual, conscious concern like it does in many of today’s churches. The salvation of the world and the proclamation of the gospel to the nations always takes priority. Male opinion about what is gender/sexually appropriate can wait.
It is unfortunate that many churches miss this. When applications for leadership positions are presented before a board or president, the largest determining factor is often not whether the candidate is good at building up the church and has the necessary gifts/skills, but if the person is female, and if so, how one can get around such a “problem.” May I suggest that women aren’t the “problem,” but it is rather the negative attitudes about women and the perceived threat of obfuscating the sacred (artificial) constructions of “headship.”
The same goes for marriage: instead of finding out how to use the wife’s gifts for the service of God, the husband’s personal interests function as the filter through which every female desire is evaluated. May I suggest that the husband’s best interests are not (and can never) be met if the other half of his “one-flesh” being is continually subordinated and belittled. Because marriage is inherently integral, to injure, ignore, or diminish the other is to injure, ignore, and diminish one’s self. (Thus, ironically in the “headship” passage, Paul says “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies,” Eph 5:28). Indeed, genuine unity in personal relationships precludes the possibility of permanent, unidirectional, linear hierarchy.
Yet, it is this permanent, unidirectional, linear hierarchy of “headship” that is said to be absolutely important to the health of the church—and even the survival of true Christianity. In fact, to fail to press this matter (under the language of “gender distinction,” “difference,” and “biblical roles”) would result in nothing less than the collapse of Western Civilization as we know it.
This is the alarmist tone and argument of Stinson and Duncan in the 2006 preface to RBMW:
Ministers are embracing egalitarianism…their congregations follow the culture rather than the Bible. To this new generation we must stress that complementarianism is cause for celebration rather than apology…a truth to be lived and celebrated, shouted from the rooftops, and proclaimed in the streets……we must promote healthy, heterosexual, monogamous marriages…Contrarily, egalitarianism is part of the disintegration of marriage in our culture…current controversy necessitates a strong restatement of the complementarian position…When God-given distinctives are denied…disaster occurs in marriages, families, and churches. Blurring spousal roles can lead not only to marital failure but also to gender confusion in children…Male-female role relationships…indicate a mega-shift from a Judeo-Christian framework to a pagan worldview. Until about 1970, our culture fed off the residue of traditional Christianity; since that time we have seen a dramatic and rapid shift to an essentially pagan ethos. Unfortunately, this ungodly framework is being imported into the church by self-avowed Christian leaders through their compromise on the subject of biblical manhood and womanhood….Pagan ideas underlie evangelical egalitarianism…Egalitarianism must always lead to an eventual denial of the gospel. When biblical distinctions of male and female are denied, Christian discipleship is irreparably damaged…we need masculine males and feminine females in order to generate the kind of disciples that results in a commitment to complementarianism…Paul’s charge to Timothy, ‘guard the good deposit’ (1 Tim. 6:20), is what keeps complementarians in the battle and gives us the impetus to encourage one another and stand firm. 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.
It is tempting to critique so much in this utterly absurd call to Christian warfare. But the point I simply want to highlight is that this is the rhetoric of theo-political warfare, not biblical study. It is the language of “us” and “them,” not “we as Christians.” What’s at stake is not the preservation of Western civilization, but the preservation of an extremely ancient monopoly on power. Again: headship is a theo-political tool used to eliminate competition in various spheres of society.
And it is, as mentioned in the first part of this essay, “conveniently subjective according to the one who wields it.” In other words, the “Headship Litmus Test” is rigged… See Part 3.