If you are a conservative Christian, you may be worshipping at the altar of Baal. A conservative is anyone who wants to preserve the existing social order. While a conservative Christian may identify himself or herself as one who safeguards the orthodoxy of Christian doctrine, often there is also blind allegiance to customs having no divine sanction.
When Pharisees taught their disciples to practice “corban,” they did not imagine they were departing from God’s Word. They thought they had graduated to super-spirituality by dedicating to God the material support normally given to one’s parents. They prided themselves in the fact that their new teaching had given God priority over parents. But Jesus said that this was not acceptable because specific commandments given by God had been set aside. It was foolishness to think that God would be pleased with disobedience disguised as dedication (Mt 15:3-9).
Traditions And Customs
In a similar way, Christians have developed traditions and customs that have very subtly diverted them from the teaching of Scripture. The “headship” of husbands is one such tradition. It is often suggested that most family trouble is caused by the failure of male leadership in the home, either because husbands abdicate their responsibility or because wives are bossy. Assertive authority by the husband is regarded almost as a talisman for marital bliss. Male headship has been emphasized by many evangelicals without considering biblical context.
The hard fact is that male domination leads to the hurt and abuse of women and children. Dominance need not be taught to those who are physically stronger and older in years. It comes naturally to them. Traditionally, men have automatically assumed the dominant role in most marriages, while most wives have accepted its Tightness. References are often made to hen-pecked husbands. The fact that there are no references to rooster-pecked wives is indicative of male domination as normative.
Partners In God’s Image
Many arguments about male superiority are based on misunderstanding the creation narrative. Male and female are equally created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27) and are charged to rule creation as equals (vv. 26-31). They even shared the name “Adam” (5:2).
Some have argued that since woman was created after man, she is subordinate. That kind of thinking ignores the fact that God created humans after all other forms of life. Humans were created last, but not least. We may think first is best, but “If temporal priority implied superiority or greater importance, then the animals would be the superiors of humans.”1
The Hebrew term ezer kenegdo (translated “help meet” in the King James Version and “suitable helper” in the New International Version), is best translated “helper corresponding to him.” Ezer appears 21 times in the Old Testament. It means “help” or “succour.” Sixteen times the word refers to God (e.g. Ps 121:1, 2). The other three times it refers to people like kings who come to another’s aid. The word “help” has no connotation of inferiority or subordination. “Helper” does not describe a servant, but rather a powerful ally coming to the rescue.
The second word, kenegdo, is formed by the prefix k meaning, “like” and the root nagad which means “conspicuous/in front of.” Thus the “help” is one who is face-to-face, not standing behind as a subordinate. Joy Elasky Fleming writes,
When the man looks at the woman (and vice versa), he will see someone like himself. He will not see a passive person, like a shadow which moves when he moves. Rather he will see an active person, distinct and separate from himself. They will share a common identity without being identical.2
Fleming suggests that while no one English word captures the meaning of ezer kenegdo, the word “partner” is close, implying both equality and intimacy.3
In considering the woman’s God-given status, Mary Evans writes,
She is taken from man, but her first and primal contact is with her Maker. Woman herself knew God before she knew her counterpart the man... It is wrong to say that woman owes all her existence to man, just as it would be wrong to say that man owes all his existence to dust and is, therefore, subordinate
to it. Both man and woman are portrayed as created directly by an individual and purposeful act of the Creator.4
When God gave humankind the commandment to “subdue” the earth and “rule” all the creatures, he gave it to the man and woman, both created in his image (1:27-28). God did not at any time tell Adam to rule Eve. That was not the created order. Man and woman were created to be equal partners. It was the Fall that disturbed God’s perfect order and brought hierarchy to the relationship.
When sin entered the world, God pronounced curses on the serpent and the ground because of the man. God did not curse the man or the woman. A curse is intentional, but God merely made a prognosis: Though the woman’s “desire shall be for [her] husband and he shall rule over [her]” (Gen 3:16). This was not God’s plan, but simply an observation based on the fact that, by his accusation, the man had alienated himself from the woman whom he had ecstatically claimed earlier as “bone of [his] bone and flesh of [his] flesh” (2:23). God did not curse women to be ruled by men, nor is there any divine imperative for husbands to subject wives to their “ruling.”
Sometimes men and women imagine that husbands have the right to “discipline” erring wives through corporal punishment, much as a parent does a child. The fact that marriage is between equal partners is set aside by this erroneous view.
Even though Gomer played the harlot, Hosea never raised his hand against her. He had ample reason to vent his anger. Instead, he repurchased conjugal rights for himself (3:1-2). In this way, he gave an object lesson about God’s love for Israel. Israel did suffer the consequences of being unfaithful to God, but this was more the result of Israel withdrawing herself from God’s protection than of God taking vengeance.
The prophet Hosea, speaking on behalf of God, said to Israel, “And it will come about in that day’ declares Yahweh, ‘that you will call me Ishi [husband], and will no longer call me Baali [my master]’ “(2:16). The Canaanite gods were all called baal. One of them was Chemosh, who was described as a “detestable” god because men sacrificed their children to him for the sake of their own prosperity (Lev 20:3). The religion of Chemosh taught men that every member of the family was expendable when their own well-being was at stake.
This is not the teaching of the Bible. Unlike Baal, the God of Israel was not a master (slave-owner), but a husband. The contrast between husband and Baal clearly indicates that God did not intend an unequal marital relationship in which one partner was the master.
“Headship” does not imply domination, for domination is fallen behavior. Since this is so, Christians should expect the New Testament to say something different. It does.
Ephesians contains Paul’s most elaborate statement on Christian social conduct (5:21-6:9). He prefaced his instructions on human relationships in the church with the words, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21). His emphasis is on mutual submission. Even those placed in higher positions in the social order must practice humility toward those placed lower. Such humility is a mark of reverence for Christ, who alone is Master. We are all brothers and sisters (Mt 23:8). No one in Christ has mastery over another.
Most conservative preachers who advocate strong male headship, ignore this aspect of Paul’s teaching. This is a total violation of context. One cannot escape the fact that Paul’s instructions about mutual submission are placed just in front of his instructions for Christian households. More than any other relationship, it is in regard to marriage that Paul sets forth his case for mutual submission.
Paul told wives to recognize the husband’s role of headship in the family. He drew a parallel between the submission of wives to husbands and the submission of the Church to Christ. This is a call to voluntary submission, not something that can be demanded or forced on wives by their husbands.
In Christ, “there is no longer male and female” (Gal 3:28), and wives and husbands are “joint heirs of the grace of life” (1 Pet 3:7). Given that emphasis, women may cast aside the patriarchal norm of human society. It is in this context of women rejecting the social order and thereby causing dishonor to Christ that Paul counsels voluntary submission.
Modern educational and vocational opportunities for women have arisen as a result of the Christianization of society. It has brought women a new sense of worth, but men have not been able to accept women’s equality. This unwillingness on the part of men has often expressed itself by mental cruelty or physical violence, and has led at times to the destruction of families when women have called a halt to abuse.
Servant Of The Family
Paul was most radical in what he said to husbands. (Coincidentally Paul had three times as much to say to husbands as he had to say to wives, contrary to what one might guess by the time many preachers spend preaching at wives!) Men often focus on Paul’s teaching on the husband’s headship in the family. It is curious that Paul made no reference to male headship in his instructions to them. Paul did not say to husbands, “You be the head. Exercise your authority. Take control.”
Paul told husbands to be like Christ in love and sacrifice (v. 25), nurturing and caring for their wives (v. 29). Paul demanded servanthood. This is Christ-likeness for husbands. Christ is servant to the church (Jn 13:1-5, 13-15) though he is Head of the Church (Eph 5:23). So too the one who is recognized as head of the family must serve the family. In making this equation, Paul echoed the teaching of Christ that the one who is the greatest must be the servant of all (Mt 20:26, 27).
A true servant does not perceive himself as head. Therefore the husband’s self-perception ought to be that he is the least important, the most expendable. This attitude translates into action. He ought to be the one who does the work of a servant for his family: nurturing them and caring for them.
Our society does not give women equality of status with men. If Christians are to be counter-cultural, Christian husbands must demonstrate the difference of being in Christ. Instead of asking, “Who is boss in the home?,” both husbands and wives should be asking, “Who is the servant?”
The consequences of the Fall are reversed in Christ. Christ redeems men and women out of their fallenness. “If anyone is in Christ, he [or she] is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17). If the order of the old creation was good, the order of the new creation is far better. Jesus said that in heaven we do not marry, but are as angels (Mt 22:30). We get a foretaste of the life that transcends sexual differences when we consciously give them up as people in Christ. Though women are “weaker partners” physically and often socially they are to be seen as equal participants in grace and treated with consideration and respect (1 Pet 3:7).
Writing to husbands, Peter said that the secret of having prayers answered is to regard wives as “joint heirs of the grace of life” (1 Pet 3:7). Jesus said that if two agree on earth about what they are praying for, God will answer them (Mt 18:19). This definitely ought to be the experience of husbands and wives. If the prayers of married partners go unanswered, it is because they fail to be united as one. God will not favor one of the partners in a marriage and discriminate against the other. He intended them to be “one flesh.” He does not want them “put asunder” (19:5, 6). God does not answer prayers that divide. So many families do not experience the blessings and joy of having prayers answered because husbands do not want equal shares in grace. They want more than their fair share.
Unwittingly, these husbands want God to be like Chemosh, a god who allowed men to treat other members of their families as expendables. Other family members existed only to decorate men’s lives or to make their lives more comfortable and safe. Wives and children existed for the sake of husbands as if they were possessions, things he could dispose of at will.
Today, by emphasizing male headship as superiority and a right to practice inequality in power and privilege, many Christians worship not at the altar of the one true God, but at the altar of Baal. They imagine Christ to be like Baal when they draw parallels between Christ and domineering heads of families; and between the church and self-effacing wives. They have forgotten that God foretold the coming of a day when his people would learn that God was not like Baal at all, but wanted to be regarded as a loving, kind husband. If God did not want to be regarded as master, surely he does not wish one partner in a marriage to be the master.
Hear the Word of the Lord: Put away the strange god Baal from among you. Revere Christ alone. All of you are brothers and sisters. Practice mutual submission. Let the one who leads, lead in being a servant and doing the work of servant.
- Joy Elasky Fleming, Man and Woman in Biblical Unity. (Minneapolis: Christians For Biblical Equality, 1993), p.6.
- Ibid, p. 10.
- Mary J. Evans, Woman in the Bible. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), pp. 15-16.