This is the fourth 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 2, Part 3, and 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 this post, I will step back and identify where headship ideology went wrong in its attempt to make sense of the biblical teaching. My primary focus will be on theological methodology.
This is no easy task since it is an area rarely discussed in the “gender wars.” It also tends to be unfamiliar ground to the layperson. Nevertheless, it is an important area that needs to be addressed if we are ever to understand why American evangelicals cannot agree on their theology—whether about gender or anything else.
The Challenging Nature of “Doing Theology”
Perhaps the greatest mistake in theologies (systematic and otherwise) can be characterized by the following words: “imbalance,” “reductionism,” “errors of absence,” or “over-simplification.” All of life and human knowledge is interrelated. No fact or experience exists in isolation from other facts and experience. The universe is an interconnected web in its every aspect and dimension. To build arguments and ideologies as if this were not true is misleading at best, deceptive and untruthful at the worst. We cannot be arbitrarily selective, nor “flat” in our thinking.
Yet, when speaking and communicating, no human can provide sufficient qualifiers for what is being said, nor include all options that are “other there”—if our goal is to communicate. Some things just have to be left out. For example, when I come home and say to my wife, “work was hard today,” I need not go on and on about the exceptions to this assertion—no matter how true they are, for in that case, my point about a hard day would probably not be successfully communicated (it would “die the death of a thousand qualifications”). Communication is never exhaustive and is therefore prone to various misunderstandings, confusion, and errors.
Language itself, furthermore, is limited (conceptually, linguistically, culturally, historically, etc.) and fallible (capable of misinforming, misunderstanding, confusing, and not bearing complete one-for-one correspondence with what is signified, or in translation, etc.). Whatever is communicated through language, then, can only be provisional and adequate for limited purposes.
Even so, language and communication works. My wife (and others) are intelligent enough to assume that when I say “work was hard today,” I am leaving out some things that were not hard (e.g., sitting at my desk, washing my hands in the bathroom, turning off the lights, etc.). Inadequacy and partial portrayals are just a regular part of everyday communication. Nobody gives justice to the full picture all the time. This is an assumption we take for granted, but it is an assumption we should pay attention to.
Why? Because efforts should still be made to mitigate the potential for misunderstanding, even if communication, thought, language, and knowledge are limited, fallible, and conditioned. This is especially true in discourse about God and theology. To their credit, theologians understand this particularly well when talking about distinctive Christian beliefs. It is not adequate to simply say “Jesus is both God and human” and leave it at that. All (or at least, most) possible potentials for misunderstanding should be mitigated, because slipping to the right or to the left leads to various errors—and to a religion that is not genuinely “Christian.” The use of words, likewise, becomes incredibly important, sometimes even to the point where inventing new words (like homoousious) is necessary. Translation also poses a whole new set of challenges that, as best as possible, should be overcome if we value what’s being communicated.
This tempered approach applies to all of theology, because “peripheral” or “less essential” theological doctrines and beliefs are prone to the same kinds of challenges as “distinctive” or “essential” Christian beliefs. However, this often doesn’t happen. Sometimes certain doctrine(s) are treated with less care because they aren’t considered “essential.” Other times, theology simply ends up in the wrong hands. There are many possible reasons. But the end result is the same: a sloppy method and (consequently) a sloppy theology.
The theology of “headship” in complementarianism is a good example of a sloppy theology with a sloppy methodology. This has already been made evident in previous posts in this series regarding the ambiguity of “headship” (cf. my essay in PP, “The Evolution of Complementarian Exegesis”). But it is also evident at the methodological level—the level of “how” we should “do” theology. Let’s look a little closer at what this means…
The “Progressive” Nature of Theology
As noted above, one of the greatest problems confronting the theologian is doing justice to all of the diversity, multi-dimensionality, and qualifications of various theological teachings. Without a deeper, more comprehensive approach, our ideas become simplistic and lack the depth and richness that our convictions, our communities, and our God deserve. But, if we think about it, that’s why time is needed for ideas to unfold: one generation of thinkers and worshippers cannot see everything, much less act upon it. New eyes coming from new perspectives with new challenges need to revisit the same doctrines (and carve out new ones) to put together more and more of the big puzzle. Migliore has helpful words on this point: “theology is not mere repetition of traditional doctrines but a persistent search for the truth to which they point and which they only partially and brokenly express. As continuing inquiry, the spirit of theology is interrogative rather than doctrinaire; it presupposes a readiness to question and to be questioned” (Faith Seeking Understanding, 2). Thus, each generation of scholars, researchers, and faithful disciples of Christ make unique contributions to Christian ideas and identity. The kingdom of God is being built—and that includes our every understanding of God and God’s kingdom.
As expected, church history can be (legitimately) read as embodying this narrative. For certain centuries and certain Christian circles, the doctrine of Christ’s atonement was/is about Christ’s victory (Christus Victor) and ransom. In a different century and/or branch of Christianity, the atonement was/is primarily viewed as “penal substitutionary atonement.” The same is true for bibliology. Surveying history and Christian tradition, one can find dozens of views about what the Bible “is” and how it functions (e.g., prophetic word, record of revelation, written revelation, authoritative canon, community interpretive tradition, spiritual map, ethical guide, doctrinal standard, reliable witness, etc.). Any doctrine or theological topic, in fact, exhibits this great flowering.
Of course, the clearest witness of this variety is not church history, but the scriptures themselves. Richard Muller notes this (and many other things) when discussing the atonement doctrine:
The New Testament provides not one but several ways of describing the atoning work of Christ: it is a ransom paid for sin, a sacrificial expiation of sin, a substitutionary act that puts Christ in our place under the divine punishment for sin; it is the victory of Christ over the powers of evil; it is the redemptive manifestation of divine love; it is the act of the second man or new Adam becoming the head of redeemed humanity in Adam’s place. All of these approaches to atonement can be found in the New Testament and all, most probably, can be linked exegetically to the demand of particular life-situations on the preaching and interpretation of the gospel. They are, thus, not to be viewed as mutually exclusive, nor are they to be viewed as easily harmonizable into a single theory. Throughout the history of the church, theologians and churchmen have drawn selectively on these models of atonement and have brought the gospel to bear on various situations and contexts in which, perhaps, not all of the various models would have been readily understood. (Muller, The Study of Theology, 205)
Christians who do systematic theology in the simplistic fashion of arranging propositions extracted from Bible (e.g., Hodge, Grudem, Reymond, Sproul) may find this assessment distasteful. Everything, we are told, should (in theory, if we were perfect creatures) be “harmonizable.” Everything must “fit” into a perfectly coherent whole. Theology is not an organism of dynamic, overlapping metaphorical spheres, but a flat science of “summarizing and organizing biblical data,” drawing universal, abstract conclusions in the superior form of propositional assertions, affirmations, and denials. The discipline of theology is not primarily to be thought of as a grand theodrama or anthology of life-changing stories, nor an eternal discourse, an interpretive framework, a spiritual and ecclesiological embodiment of truth, or set of theo-grammatical rules for the Christian community; rather, theology is simply the “system of facts” contained in the inerrant autographic text of the Protestant 66-book canon. Little more, little less.
I am not the first to suggest that this is just not how (good) theology is done. It never has been. And the most influential theologians of the past two centuries have been those who could see beyond the unrealistic realisms of Modernism. God is just too big and the scriptures are too deep. All of our ideas, languages, and concepts must be viewed as human, because they are.
To put it differently, the complex must remain complex if we wish to unite ourselves with the truth. “When because of limitations or weakness,” Herman Bavinck writes, “a theologian is faced with the choice either of simply letting the truths of faith stand alongside each other or, in the interest of maintaining the systematic form, fail to do justice to one of them, we must let the system go. Theologians must resist the temptation to let a system rule” (Reformed Dogmatics, abridged, 10). Similarly, Oden advises: “Since Christian teaching rests upon both truth-seeking and clarity of communication, it requires qualities necessary to those disciplines…an intellectual balance that brings complex materials into meaningful focus” (Classic Christianity, 192).
This means that sound Christian theology is inherently nonreductionistic—not in the sense of rejecting singularities (e.g., “Only Christ is Lord”), but that the Christian must internally implement multiple models and metaphors, not to mention multiple languages (e.g., figurative, literal, symbolic, propositional, descriptive, prescriptive, assertive, reflective, etc.) to be successful. This is largely because the sources of theology bear the same, multi-faceted character (e.g., the scriptures, for instance, have many genres, authors, occasions, religious frameworks, vocabularies, etc.). Some models may be more prominent than others (depending on various factors), but there are always more—because God and knowledge of God is so great and high that our language and linguistic tools cannot exhaust the infinite one. Thus, the scriptures provide the basic, ground-working models of “what God is like” (and other interrelated, theological realities), but it is still only a start. (Hence, God is—truly and genuinely—“like” “Aslan” in Narnia; Christ is like Neo in The Matrix; Satan is like the Joker in The Dark Night, etc.). We continue to unfold revelation in new, powerful ways.
Because truthfulness depends upon this variety (or “plurality”), one must be careful not to give too much weight and power to one particular model or metaphor—especially if it becomes a defining and despotic model. Jesus is God “the Son,” but Jesus is also the sent one, the “Word” (Jn 1:1), and the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). None of these “mean the same thing,” which is precisely why dozens of images, metaphors, and concepts are provided in the scriptures: to expand our minds and hearts. (Just imagine how much would be lost if a church decided to utilize and speak in terms of only one metaphor when it comes to God or Jesus!)
John Goldingay makes many of these important points in his excellent work, Models for Scripture (15-16):
…a multiplicity of models is commonly required to do justice to its subjects. ‘An endless number of metaphors and models…is no ‘death by a thousand qualifications’…Rather, it is life by a thousand enrichments.’ [Ramsay] Varied models offer independent, though not necessarily rival, accounts of their subject. It is less appropriate to seek to interweave them or argue for one rather than another, more appropriate to consider questions such as what aspects of the object they represent well, what aspects of the model need to be ignored because nothing corresponds to them in the object…The question for such an overarching model threatens to compromise the important principle of diversity of models…If one model can overarch the whole, it will not be one of the traditional ones…
Complementarian Theologies of “Headship”
It is at this point that we can finally step back and look at a theology like complementarianism and say, “oh my goodness, this is really sloppy!” In the case of “headship,” the references of “husbands” being the “head” in but two places in the scriptures (1 Cor. 11 and Eph. 5) function as the dominating model and metaphor for the doctrine of marriage, the marital relationship, and the theological process by which we evaluate anthropology and gender. All other concepts, teachings, and metaphors in and outside the Christian scriptures are filtered through this one metaphor—and its accompanying complementarian perspective. (Call it the “headship-prolegomena litmus test”!) This is an unbalanced, reductionistic, and simplistic approach. And it bears all of the marks of a theology born out of contemporary culture wars, not centuries of scholarship and contemplation.
As tempting as it is, we will not spend pages documenting specific examples of headship theology running against the grade of sound theological methodology. Instead, let us briefly observe some of the cultural and psychological results of this unbalanced approach. Here are some of my thoughts from a recent podcast interview:
I have to say Chris, this is one of those areas where evangelical culture and media is extremely influential. I have encountered so many Christians who could recite Ephesians 5:22 to you by memory, but if you were to ask them if they have ever heard of Ephesians 5:21, the very previous verse which says that Christians should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, they’ll say, “oh, no, Paul said that?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten that reaction. And I think that’s important—what certain churches have highlighted. I have asked so many Christians, “so what’s the largest chapter on marriage in the New Testament” and they’ll say, “oh, Ephesians chapter 5.” And that’s not correct and I’ll say, “well actually, it’s 1 Corinthians 7.” And they’ll say, “1 Cor. 7? Well what’s that?” It’s like that chapter doesn’t even exist in their memories. And I’ll say things like “did you know the word “submit” in Ephesians 5:22 isn’t actually there, it’s inserted by translators carrying over the word from verse 21?” And of course they’ll say, “no way, well what does Ephesians 5:21 mean?” And then I’ll ask things like, “so, did you know the only passage in the Bible that says husbands have authority over their wives is the same passage that says wives have authority over their husbands?” And, I’ll get the deer-in headlights look. And then I’ll ask things like, “did you know that almost every gender-specific command in the Bible applies to the opposite gender?” And you get the same look there too. And these are people Chris, who have been going to church their entire lives.
And so, this tells me, that only one side of the story has been told. Why do evangelicals easily remember the command of wives submitting to husbands, but not of submitting to one another? Why don’t people who have been doing Bible studies for decades know that 1 Cor. 7 is the largest chapter on marriage in the scriptures and that it is unashamedly egalitarian? Why don’t they know that the word “submit” isn’t found in Ephesians 5:22 but in Eph. 5:21, and so their translations that have paragraph breaks and headings between these two verses are extremely misleading?
So, long story short, when one turns to the largest sections on the nature of marital love in the Bible, whether the Song of Solomon or 1 Cor. 7, the picture that emerges is very, very different than the one that people have been told. And they haven’t been taught to think critically about what Paul really meant in Ephesians 5 and Colossians about submission and about how obviously, laying down your life is a tremendous act of submission and that is exactly what men are commanded to do for their wives. And most importantly, they haven’t been taught why Paul is even giving this kind of instruction in the first place. What prompted these commands? I’ve heard sermons, lectures, and conference presentations on Eph. 5 and similar texts and hardly any of them do the basic work of exegesis and bother to ask, “what prompted this instruction in the first place?” Instead, they just kind of assume, oh, this is contextless, universal, unencultrated, eternal theology that I can just copy and paste and follow and life will be dandy.
In the next (and last) post in this series, we will sketch out the contours of what “head” means in 1 Cor. 11 and Eph. 5, and then draw some final conclusions. See Part 5.