This is the first 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 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.
“Headship” in American evangelical Christianity is probably most popularly known as an amalgam of ideas and attitudes related to male authority, control, and power, especially in the context of marriage. Although there are various paradigms surrounding the concept, the “complementarian” or “traditional” model(s) might very well stand out as the most influential and common—though this may change with the removal of the “American” and “evangelical” modifiers. Nevertheless, the readers of this blog are probably most familiar with American evangelical versions of Christianity and find themselves largely involved in that tradition, so it is only fitting that I focus on “headship” within that interpretive framework.
In such “traditional” and/or “complementarian” models, headship functions little more than a modern vestige of ancient, sexist, androcentric patriarchy. Headship = male authority (an authority that women, by virtue of being created female, do not have). Traditionally, this manifested itself in everything from male-centered property rights in British common law (Western tradition) to the age-old “alpha male” chieftain who ruled the local tribe (ancient and “primitive” cultures). To one degree or another, men have ruled. This further reflected itself in religious circles, like Christianity, in the form of languages, customs, rituals, institutions, symbols, beliefs, doctrines, and relationships that favored men over women.
In more “traditional” Christian models, “headship” consists of the following paradigm: “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants,” while “a woman receives, surrenders, accepts.” (This quote comes from Fidelity by Douglas Wilson, a Board Member and Professor of the classical-western-liberal-arts New Saint Andrews College) Not being restricted to the bedroom, men literally conquer and colonize the world as a way of extending their God-given headship in marriage into each sphere of society. (Women, in contrast, simply constitute the malleable raw material of creation necessary for the growth and promulgation of male pursuits.)
Softer versions of this same ideology attempt to limit male domination to certain spheres. Headship in marriage, family and church? Yes. But headship in educational institutions, the workplace, and “non-combative” military ventures? No (or at least headship functions “differently,” whatever this means). Complementarianism, since its inception in 1977 to today, finds itself in this playing field, continually debating how potent headship is and where to draw lines.
As far as marriage is concerned, however, there is a general complementarian consensus. In the name of “headship,” husbands make “final decisions,” orient family dynamics and activities around his priorities and career demands, and generally “set the tone” for the entire relationship.
But, don’t take my word for it, because at this point, the rhetoric does all the talking. In Andreas Köstenberger’s words, “man is created first and is given ultimate responsibility for the marriage relationship, while the woman is placed alongside the man as his ‘suitable helper’…the man carries ultimate responsibility before God as the head of the woman” (God, Marriage, and Family, 23, emphasis original). In Robert Saucy’s words, men must always have “ultimate responsibility and leadership” in marriage and church (Women and Men in Ministry, 162). In Ray Ortlund’s words, “the man bears the primary responsibility to lead the partnership in a God-glorifying direction” (RBMW 86). In Piper and Grudem’s words, “the calling of men [is to] bear the primary responsibility for teaching and leadership” (RBMW, 70).
Aside from my personal disbelief of how easily people (Christians!) can attribute the term “ultimate” and “primary” so casually and repetitiously to human beings (and only male persons at that), it is clear that women are considered existentially “secondary”—if that word is to have any meaningful sense. If women are subordinate by nature (“The woman’s being created after man, as his helper, shows the position of submission that God intended as inherent in the woman’s relation to the man,” RBMW, 185) and men have “ultimate” and “primary responsibility” for both the marital relationship and its relationship to God, that woman is “secondary” in relation to both God and human beings appears an inevitable conclusion. However, it is interesting that these same authors regularly deny that they believe that women are “secondary”—as if stiff-arming a pejorative term is sufficient to separate one from the pejorative concept the term represents. But many people are not so easily fooled, just as they realize “complementarianism” has more to do with patriarchy than it has to do with complementarity. (See Rebecca Groothuis, “Complementarianism—What’s in a Name?”)
As a faint reflection of a larger, long-held tradition, headship ideology in complementarianism has a natural appeal to such societies as the 20th and 21st century American West. With one foot in the 1800s where women in the US couldn’t vote, couldn’t work a job beyond the seven to eight jobs legally permitted, and barely had property rights, and another foot in the postmodern era of teenage mini-skirts and female CEOs, many Christians find the “traditionally-based” headship mentality of complementarianism a perfect balance between yesteryear and the emerging new world. One can pay respect to tradition and explore newfound freedoms at the same time. Two different generations of Christians can be mutually satisfied. Thus emerges the eclectic culture of modern-post-modern evangelicalism where a Christian woman can teach theology at college, but not in her own church. A female Christian missionary can initiate, “plant and colonize” (“masculine”) new churches overseas, but not nurture (“feminine”) those same congregations as a pastor. A Christian woman can personally, legally and spiritually commit herself to her husband for life, but cannot “personally” and “directly” influence him at any time during that relationship (Piper and Grudem, RBMW, 51).
Why not? Why can a woman do some of these things and not do the others, given her biology? The answer is simple: because such behaviors would “violate male headship”—or at least a superficial construction of what headship originally meant. Enter the “Headship Litmus Test.” (See Part 2)