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Published Date: October 11, 2023

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Let God Reign: Ditching the Umbrellas of Hierarchy

Chances are that you have seen some version of the “Umbrella Illustration” that claims to depict God’s “divine order” for authority within the family. Some versions include more umbrellas than others, but the original illustration came from Bill Gothard and consisted of three umbrellas: Christ at the top, followed by the husband, then the wife. Rain trickles down from the edges of each umbrella. Underneath all the umbrellas is a hand, which is God the Father’s. 

This is a recreation of the umbrella illustration often attributed to Bill Gothard and IBLP.

I was first exposed to this illustration when I attended Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts (renamed the Institute of Basic Life Principles) in the late 1970’s. Gothard taught authoritatively with charisma, and the principles he explained seemed to make a lot of sense. He talked a lot about authority. Obeying without question the God-given authority in your life (which the umbrellas helpfully illustrated) would protect you from Satan’s attacks (symbolized by the rain). Stepping out from under the umbrella over you would bring terrible things as you would not be “covered” or protected from attacks. 

There were many illustrations peppered throughout our seminar notes, but the Umbrella Illustration has been the one that has spread far beyond its origin, manifesting itself in various forms.1 All these forms emphasize the same thing: a hierarchy of authority we must not rebel against.

But those who obsess about authority – who has it and who shouldn’t have it – are violating Jesus’s command to his disciples: Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that (Luke 22:25 –26a).2 Jesus pointed out that these pagan leaders claimed their authority for the benefit of those under them. (How many times have you heard that the husband has authority over his wife for her benefit?) Then Jesus tells his followers not to be like that. Instead, Jesus tells them to be servants to each other.

Paul illustrates what this looks like in Ephesians 5–6, but the Ephesians lived under Roman rule – and Roman society expected everyone to follow traditional “household codes” which held that wives, children, and slaves must obey their husbands, fathers, and masters (who held all the power in those relationships).  Thus, Paul had to describe things in a way modern Christians might not expect.  Wielding power as in the Greco-Roman household codes was not compatible with being Christlike.  But as part of a minority religion, Paul could not tell people to violate these codes without risking being seen as subversive to the State.3 He needed to tell believers how to live Christlike lives while adhering to the culture of the society they lived in. 

So Paul told all believers they should be submitting to each other (Ephesians 5:21). The Greek word for submitting used here, hypotassomenoi, is a participle in the masculine plural, which means it applies to either a group of men or a group of men and women. It cannot be used to refer to only women. It is also in the middle voice, a grammatical construct that English does not have. Used this way, it does not mean “obey,” but is more like “cooperating together,” or “being considerate and supportive of each other,” as in Philippians 2:3–4.4 In Ephesians 5:22, Paul did not use a verb, but said “wives to [their] own husbands” as an example of what the submitting in verse 21 should look like.5 This cooperating together in an unselfish manner (including, but not limited to, decision-making) is called “mutual submission.” 

Paul then noted that husbands are “the head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church, his body, of which he is the Savior” (Eph. 5:23). There are two things going on here. First, head and body were commonly used together in the first century Greco-Roman world as a metaphor for unity. Since Paul talks about unity repeatedly throughout Ephesians, it is fair to consider he is using this metaphor here. Second, though “head” in English figuratively means authority or leader, the Greek word for head, kephale, did not. Rather, kephale had a common figurative meaning of source of life. Paul indicates he’s thinking along these lines when he writes that Christ is the head of the Church, his body, of which he is the Savior (verse 23). A Savior is not exercising authority. A Savior saves, extending life to those in danger of losing it.6  

In verse 25, Paul tells husbands to love their wives, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Paul did not say husbands were like Christ to the Church in all ways that Christ is to the Church. Paul specified Christ’s life-giving love and sacrifice for the Church. Paul wrote Philippians at about the same time as he wrote Ephesians,7 so Philippians 2:6-8 shows us even more specifically what Paul had in mind when he told husbands to be like Christ. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave, and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Christ submitted to our needs when he gave up his glory and became human flesh, even dying for us.  

In Ephesians, Paul was telling men who had all the power, all the rights, all the privileges, to give these up for the benefit of their wives, and to love their wives as their own bodies (remembering that male bodies had more respect and privilege than female bodies did).8 In short, he called husbands to submit to their wives just as much as wives to husbands. We need not replicate a patriarchal pagan culture to follow Paul’s instructions. We need to discern the underlying principle (mutual submission and love) and apply that to our lives. 

Mutual submission, rather than hierarchy, is the truly Christlike way to live. There have been numerous attempts to modify Gothard’s Umbrella Illustration to reflect this, usually showing one large umbrella labeled Christ with an entire family underneath it. Christ’s umbrella does not leak, so it should be the only one we need. 

But I think we need to get away from umbrellas altogether.  

In his umbrella illustration, Gothard used rain to symbolize Satanic attacks. But in the Bible, rain is almost always portrayed as a blessing from God.9 Ancient Israelites depended on rain to grow their crops, water their livestock, and to satisfy their own needs. Rain was a much-desired blessing, not seen as an attack to avoid. In light of this, it is ironically accurate that Gothard chose the metaphor of the umbrella. Hierarchy can and often does keep us from experiencing many of God’s blessings.   

Immediately after Paul wraps up his instructions about household relationships with the statement that God “doesn’t distinguish between people on the basis of status” (Eph. 6:9b, CEB), he launches into how to deal with Satanic attacks. And it’s not with umbrellas.  

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  

 (Ephesians 6:10-17) 

Used with permission from Josh Staller, Artist.

Satan’s attacks are arrows of fire, not drops of rain; we defend against them by taking up the shield of faith – not putting ourselves under someone else’s umbrella. Paul is not talking only to men, saying that they are then to protect women and children. He doesn’t even say that parents put on armor to protect their children. No, Paul tells all believers – woman or man, married or single, adult or child – to put on their own armor of God.  

All believers can do this because the Holy Spirit lives in every believer, and it is the same Holy Spirit in women as in men, in children as in adults. There is no reason for any of us to be hung up on who has or should not have “authority.” The only spiritual authority any of us have is the authority of the Holy Spirit working through us. 

Ephesians 5 and 6 show us that each and every believer should stand together in cooperative unity, dressed in the full armor of God and using our shields of faith to defend against the flaming arrows of the Evil One – not holding umbrellas that keep God’s blessings of rain from drenching us through and through. 

Photo by wavebreakmedia on Shutterstock.

[1] Some illustrations add an umbrella for children underneath the wife, and others add an umbrella for pastors above the husband, saying that pastors oversee husbands (implying pastors need not concern themselves with over half of their congregation). 

[2] All Scripture quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted.

[3] See Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul  (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 139, 142 – 145, and Patricia Gundry, Heirs Together:  Applying the Biblical Principle of Mutual Submission to Your Marriage (Grand Rapids: MI, Suitcase Books, 1980), 76, 96.

[4]Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

[5] The verb form hypotassomenoi looks the same in both the middle and passive voices, so one must tell from context which voice is meant. In the passive voice, it means something like “obeying,” but it would be impossible for all Christians to always be obeying each other. In the middle voice, hypotassomenoi means something like cooperating together in an unselfish manner, which is something all Christians could always be doing with each other. Some believe that the submitting that all Christians do in verse 21 is different from the submitting that wives do (i.e., in their view, obeying) in verse 22. But since in the oldest manuscripts there is no verb at all in verse 22 (which then must “borrow” the verb from verse 21 because that’s how Greek works), what wives are doing in verse 22 must be exactly the same thing that all Christians are doing in verse 21. What’s more, since this participle is written in the masculine plural, it cannot be something only women are to do. Thus, it makes the most sense to understand hypotassomenoi in verse 21 as being in the middle voice where Paul calls all Christians to treat each other unselfishly in cooperative unity. The fact that unity is a major theme of Ephesians also reinforces this understanding. 

[6] See also Colossians 2:19, where Paul talks of Christ as the head, giving life to the rest of the body. 

[7] The traditional view is that Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon while he was in prison in Rome (Acts 28:16, 30) in AD 60 – 62. See J. Daniel Hays and J. Scott Duvall, eds., The Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2011), 836, 848.

[8] I am indebted to Marg Mowczko for the observation that husbands loving their wives as their own bodies means treating their wives with the respect and status their own male bodies enjoyed. 

[9] See Deut. 11:13-14; 28:12; 32:2; Job 5:10; Psalm 68:8; Isaiah 45:8; Hebrews 6:7; which are just a few of the many verses portraying rain as a blessing. 


Other Resources

Selfless Marriage: Ephesians 5:21–33
A New Kind of Household
How the New Testament Turned Marriage in the Ancient World on Its “Head”