On a number of occasions, Jesus reproved his disciples and the religious leaders for missing what was important to God. He said things like “their teachings are merely human rules,” and “you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Mark 7:5-8, 8:31-33). In Isaiah 55:8, God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” Clearly, it is easy for us to lose sight of God’s ways and resort to our own default way of doing things. The popular concept of “headship”—the idea that the man is the leader of his wife and family and that he exercises authority over his wife as her spiritual covering and priest—is one such example of this. “Headship” is a word you won’t find in Scripture and, I believe, is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and Paul on the kingdom of God. Consider three of these foundational teachings.
Love One Another
Foundational to God’s kingdom are two things—love God with everything you are and love your neighbor as yourself. Loving your neighbor is second only to loving God, and the two are inextricably linked. Christ himself demonstrated his love for others by laying aside his deity to become a servant. And Paul exhorts the Philippians to imitate Christ’s behavior when he said: “In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”(Phi. 2:5-8, TNIV).
Jesus taught his disciples that those who want to be great in God’s kingdom must become a servant and whoever wants to be first must become a slave (Matt.20:25-28; Mark 9:35, 10:41-45; Luke 22:24-27). Mark’s record of this teaching is especially telling. After instructing his disciples to be servants, Jesus takes a child in his arms and says, “Whoever receives one child like this in my name receives me.” To illustrate his idea of a servant, Jesus implies that his disciples must be willing to serve the least of the least, such as a child who has no status or power. Not only that, in these same passages, Jesus also says that “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.” Jesus literally says that those who want to be great in the kingdom will not exercise authority over others. How can the “headship” definition of leadership meaning “authority over” be compatible with Jesus’ teaching? If Jesus taught that the greatest in the kingdom of God do not exercise authority over others, how can husbands exercise authority over their wives and still be following Christ’s example?
Read through the lens of Jesus’ teaching on authority, a verse like Galatians 3:28 covers more than just our spiritual standing before God. It also covers our standing with one another. We are no longer to view each other according to outward appearances. In the new creation of God, one’s racial, economic status, and gender are irrelevant to a person’s inclusion and calling in the kingdom of God. This is why Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus in the same way he would receive Paul. Yes, Philemon has every legal right to punish Onesimus, but Philemon now belongs to Christ and so does Onesimus. And if Philemon would receive Paul with respect, generosity, and gentleness, then he should receive Onesimus in the same way.
In the same way, Paul reminds husbands that as the “head,” they are one with, or united to, their wives. A husband should treat his wife with the same respect and care he would accord his own body (Eph. 5:29). Like Onesimus’social status, a wife’s gender is irrelevant to her inclusion in the new creation. She is a fellow heir with her husband. So although in Roman society the husband was legally lord over his wife, children, and slaves, Paul teaches that in Christ, a husband must respond differently. Just as Christ laid aside his robes in order to wash the disciple’s feet, his new response should be to lay aside his legal rights and serve his wife.
We know that God, in Christ, has created one new humanity. In this new creation, all are members of one body (1 Cor. 12), all are filled with the Holy Spirit (Jer. 31:33), all have the same father (Matt. 23:9), all have the same teacher (Matt. 23:10), and all have the same master (Matt. 23:8). Though there is diversity in the body of Christ, we are not separated because of it. The teaching of headship does not lead to unity, but to separation. It describes believers in terms of their alleged differences instead of their commonalities and ascribes roles according to these differences. But in the new creation, all people, both men and women, are heirs of the promises of God, all are exhorted to be filled with the Spirit, all are urged to be subject to one another, and all are given spiritual gifts for the edification of the community.
Christ is Sufficient for All
Do women need a covering of authority over them in order to be safe or obedient to God? Some have even gone so far as to say that obeying a husband is the same as obeying God or that women gain authority through submission to their husbands. But Scripture does not teach one way of sanctification for men and another for women.
Scripture teaches that Jesus’ death and resurrection are completely sufficient to provide new life to every believer. No other action or work needs to be added to what Christ accomplished on the cross. Paul said to the Galatians, “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal. 5:2). Again Paul says, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation” (Gal. 6:15). Just as the Galatians did not have to become circumcised to be full members of the body of Christ, women do not need an additional covering from another human being. Christ’s atoning work is completely sufficient for salvation of both women and men, and the Holy Spirit is completely sufficient to lead, empower, and protect every member.
I believe that headship is merely an old wineskin—a human rule—that cannot contain the full flavor and potency of the new wine of the Holy Spirit that is present in the new creation in Christ. The wineskin of “headship” attempts to add an additional “system of works” to the finished work of Christ, by means of one human exercising authority over another. The wineskin of “headship” seeks to usurp the place that only God should have in believers’ lives. Rather, God’s new wineskin is the example of Jesus, who “made himself nothing” in order to serve. “Headship” says someone has to be in charge. But God’s ideal is that we be like-minded, having the same love, being of one Spirit and of one mind, and considering others above ourselves. God’s ways are so much better than ours. Why would we want to settle for less than God’s best?