I sat down across the table from her. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and I was excited to catch up. She was a youth pastor, one of those with an obvious call on her life for ministry.
But as I looked into her eyes, I could see she was worn out. She explained to me that she had been having some problems with her boss. She told me that every time she had a disagreement with him, he would tell her that she had a problem with “male headship in the Church”.
I sat there, shocked that a pastor would know so little about headship in the Church, that he would use it to get his way with his employees. I think I blurted out my response before she had finished her sentence:
“Yes! You should have a problem with male headship in the Church!” We took the rest of our lunch to talk through the theological error this man had fallen into.
I have to admit, since that conversation I have been on high alert for every mention of “male headship” in Evangelical churches. I have heard it in many different contexts, and every single time it was used to elevate men over women – in the family, in marriage, in the Church.
It occurred to me that although Evangelicals are known for diving into scripture and analyzing it word for word, we have failed to do this with “headship” in scripture. Someone tells us it is synonymous with “authority” and we leave it at that – no word study, no look at context, no observing original language.
This has led to 5 myths about “male headship” that have weeded their way into our theology. Although I am far from being the first to write about this, my hope is that this post will help bring false thinking to light and challenge us to dig a little deeper.
Myth #1 – Male Headship in the Church
The Bible never teaches that there is “male headship” in the Church. Yup, you heard me right. Now, the Bible does talk about the head of the Church. But do you know who takes that position? That’s right – Christ.
According to the Bible, Christ and Christ alone is the head of the Church. Men are never given that spot. In fact, to insist on male headship in the Church would be to place men in the spot of Christ, and that verges on heresy.
Sometimes people use the language of “headship” when they are actually talking about leadership in the Church. This usually stems from a specific interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 (a verse that never mentions “head”) & Ephesians 5. 21-33, which speaks of husbands in marriage, but not men in the Church. The confusion of the two topics can lead to significant false teaching.
Myth #2 – Man as the Head of the Household
Did you know that the Bible never says that the man is the head of the household? That phrase is so common in our culture, and even though some of us assume it is taken out of scripture, it’s just not in there. So what does the Bible say?
There are two places in scripture that refer to a husband as “head”: Ephesians 5.23 & 1 Corinthians 11.3. When you read them, you see that these verses are specifically speaking to the marriage relationship between a husband and a wife. They do not say that all men are the heads of all women. They also do not say that men are the heads of Christian communities.
You will also notice that neither one says that the husband is the “head of the house”. In fact, the only thing the husband is called the “head of” is the wife.
So what does it mean for a husband to be the head of the wife? Some believe it has to do with leadership, but…
Myth #3 Headship as Leadership
Did you know that the Bible never says that the husband is to “lead” the wife? People who teach this are actually giving their own interpretation of scriptures that talk about the husband as “head”. They are assuming that the Greek word for “head” means “leader”. This is a common assumption because in the English language, “head” can be synonymous with “leader”. But not all languages equate “head” with “leadership”.
French, for example, is one language in which their word for “head” has no connotation whatsoever with “leadership”. Interestingly, Greek is another language that does not commonly equate leadership with headship. In Greek, “head” can mean “source”, as in the “headwaters of a river” (1 Corinthians 11.3 seems to be an example of this, considering verses 11 & 12 of that chapter). The meaning of “head” in Greek is usually a literal one, but when it is metaphorical, it should be understood through context of the specific passage.
If we read these passages without bringing our Western, English understanding of the word “head” into them, they look pretty different. But then how can we figure out what husband as “head” means in scripture? The second part of that verse holds a huge clue.
“The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church…”
If we want to understand husband as “head,” then we must understand Christ as “head of the Church’. So, how is Christ the head of the Church?
Christ as “head” of the Church is mentioned 5 times in the New Testament:
- Colossians 1.18 – Christ is metaphorical head of the Church, source of life after death
- Colossians 2.18-19 – Christ as metaphorical head of the Church, to help her flourish
- Ephesians 5.23 & 25 – Christ as metaphorical head of the Church, saving her, loving her, giving himself up for her
- Ephesians 1.20-23 – Church is metaphorical body of Christ, Christ provides for Church’s growth
- Ephesians 4.15-16 – Church is metaphorical body of Christ, Christ equips the Church for growth through love
How is Christ described as Head of the Church?
- Giving abundant life
- Helping her flourish
- Saving her
- Loving her
- Giving himself for her/dying for her
What don’t we see in these passages?
- authority over
- decision making
Many other times when Christ is called the “head” of something, Scripture adds language to explain that he is also in authority over that thing. This “authority over” language is missing in every single instance of Christ being the head of the Church.
Christ as head of the Church has nothing to do with leadership or authority, but with love, sacrifice, death, and giving of life. Likewise, a husband as “head” of his wife would refer only to giving himself up for her, sacrificing for her, to give her a flourishing life.
For clarity’s sake…
Was Christ a leader? – Yes.
Does Christ have authority over humans? – Yes.
Are those the traits of Christ that husbands are called to mimic as “heads” of their wives? – No.
This is a servant role, not a leadership one.
Myth #4 Headship as Decision Making
Fun fact: scripture does not give husbands any sort of decision-making authority over their wives. In fact, the only scripture that addresses decision making in the husband-wife relationship instructs them to make that decision together equally (1 Corinthians 7.1-6).
Let me say this one more time, because I think it’s important – The only spot in scripture that explicitly addresses decision making in a marriage calls the husband and wife to make that decision together equally.
Scripture doesn’t give the husband a “trump card” in decision making. He doesn’t get the final say, according to the Bible. If we follow the example scripture sets, husbands and wives would make decisions together, through prayer.
Myth #5 Headship as Being in the Driver’s Seat
Too many times have I heard people equate a husband as “head” o his wife to having authority over here, because “someone has to drive the car”. Guess what? Marriage is not a car. Marriage is a covenant relationship. Plus, you can always pull over and switch drivers.
While there were no cars at the time the Bible was written, interestingly there is a vehicular example in the Bible of what two people coming together in this covenant relationship should look like – two oxen, equally yoked, pulling a cart or a plow. They must be equal, or the cart will be pulled off course.
In the scriptural example, we are not the drivers of the marriage at all. We are the oxen. The oxen do not decide where the cart goes – the farmer does. We put in the effort to make it work, and God decides where He will take it, and what He will use it for.
Men don’t belong in the drivers seat. Neither do women. God does. Remember, we are called to live differently.
The Evangelical myths of “male headship” teach that men have some sort of authority over women in the Church, community, and home. I believe the prominence of these myths stems from a failure to study the topic thoroughly. The Bible itself does not give men an over arching authority over women. In fact, it tells us that a husband is to show his wife the life-giving sacrifice Christ showed to the Church.
The world favors men. The Bible tells Christ followers to favor others – husbands to their wives, wives to their husbands, believers to one another. In this way, everyone is sacrificially loving and being loved. Egalitarians speak to this in their theology of mutual submission.
My youth pastor friend made a great observation during our lunch together. “If Christ followers are generally called to self-sacrifice, servanthood, and humility, this grasping for male authority doesn’t seem to fit.”
As Christians, we are not called to exert authority over people. We are instructed to love, serve, and lay down our authority as Christ did.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 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 man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” Phil.2:5-8
– I Believe in Male Headship by Gilbert Bilezikian
– Kephale and Male Headship in Paul’s Letters by Margaret Mowczko
– Co-Leadership in Marriage by Tim and Anne Evans
– Jesus and a Woman’s “Place” by Kate Wallace
It has been argued that Numbers 30 addresses husband-wife decision making. Our response reflects personal correspondence dated 3/14/2016 from Karen Winslow, Ph.D. Professor and Chair of Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific Seminary:
It is important to point out that the context of Numbers 30 isn’t marital decision making, but guidelines for Israelites surrounding offerings & oaths to God. God says that he will not hold a woman to an oath that her husband thinks she should not or could not fulfill. Num 30:3-8 seems to be protecting women from breaking such an oath.
Numbers 30 is clearly speaking to a specific culture, and a very specific context of sacrifice & oath taking. It should not be used as a model for marital decisions today. Consider the rest of Numbers. Do we reference its many chapters on animal sacrifice as a model for our worship today? Do we throw out all who are sick among us? Do we offer a grain offering when we are jealous? Do husbands put their wives through an ordeal of drinking water, dirt, and ink when the husbands are jealous? Surely not. Why then would we pick only the portion about women’s oaths to apply to marital decision making today and dismiss the rest as culturally irrelevant?