If you’ve been following along on Instagram, you know that we’ve been working slowly through a conversation on our gender theology. Week by week, we’ve tackled one topic at a time and I’ve loved having the space and the interaction for the discussion. This week, we’re going to discuss “headship” and the problems with using the term and I wanted to be able to share links with you.
I attempted to choose leading complementarian thinkers and theologians to give you the best views that there are. I have also tried to find definitions of headship or a related topic. When I point out how I disagree with them on this topic, I am not discrediting them as people or their ministries as viable parts of the kingdom. I encourage you to read all the posts for context and tone.
In this article published by The Gospel Coalition, Wayne Grudem discusses decision-making in the life of the complementarian couple. He says, “If there is genuine male headship, I believe there is a quiet acknowledgement that the focus of the decision making process is the husband, not the wife. Even though there will often be much discussion and there should be mutual respect and consideration of each other, ultimately the responsibility to make the decision rests with the husband.”
Grudem does not define what “headship” is, just that if it exists, the focus in decision-making rests on the husband. He cites no reference to Scripture to back up this position. We are supposed to assume that this is what “headship” means to him. Later in the article he also contrasts “male headship” with “female submission” instead of comparing “head” to the wife being the “body,” though he does reference loving the wife as his body.
Another TGC article quotes John Piper as saying, “Leadership means we must take the lead in reconciliation.” He goes on to say “So husbands, your headship means: Go ahead. Take the lead. It does not matter if it is her fault. That didn’t stop Christ.” Again, I have a hard time connecting these thoughts on headship back to Ephesians 5 or 1 Corinthians 11 for that matter. The passages don’t talk about men or Christ taking the lead. They talk about love and laying down self. Please hear how this sounds to wives. Even though he says, “I don’t mean that wives should never say they are sorry,” if wives are constantly told that what is important in their marriage is male headship and that means that men take the lead in reconciliation, is the wife supposed to pursue reconciliation or wait so that her husband can lead? These are genuine questions that we have to answer. I have heard similar questions from women.
In this clip from Desiring God John Piper defines “headship” as “the divine calling of a husband to take primary responsibility for Christ-like servant leadership, protection, and provision in the home.” He goes on to define submission, stating that women are “made for” it, as “the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and to help carry it through according to her gifts.” These are definition that most of us have probably heard in some manner, but Ephesians 5 calls the husband to love his wife, to cherish her, not to lead her; nothing in his definition talks about love. Women are told to submit to their husbands, not to their husband’s leadership. As a society, we like to believe that we only are called to submit to leaders (and we are called to do that) but if we back up to Ephesians 5:21 (or 1 Corinthians 16:15-16), we see that submission is the basic posture of a believer. We submit to other people, not to other people’s leadership. Also in Ephesians 5:1-2, all believers are called to love as Christ loved.
Words have uses in context. They don’t have simple meanings that carry over everywhere. (Think of the many uses of the word “key” as an example. We can mean “florida keys” or “key lime pie” or “key piece of evidence” or “key to a lock.” We find meaning in context.) We cannot say that because “head” often does mean “leader,” that every time “head” is used that it does, in fact, mean “leader.” In the Ephesians 5 passage, head and body are the parallel. The husband is the head of the wife and the wife is the body of the husband.
JD Greear defines submission and spiritual leadership in various ways in this article. “What submission to your husband does mean is that you allow him the space to steer the family.” “Spiritual leadership means the husband has the burden of responsibility.” “If your husband is not a spiritual leader, your submission to him in this way can help call him up into this kind of leadership. As a wife, your submission creates a vacuum that serves as an invitation. And when your husband does step up, you need to encourage him. Say things like, “That’s what I love in my man. Leadership.” Then watch him come alive.”
I do appreciate his statements at the beginning of this article about what submission doesn’t mean. But for the rest of this, I would love to have a conversation with him where he explains how he gets this from a text that says nothing about leadership or responsibility. We cannot copy over everything we know about Christ and the church into this one metaphor (Christ is also described as the firstborn of many brothers and sisters). Christ is literally God, perfect and able to atone for our sins and redeem all of creation. He stands above all. We have to stick with the comparison that the text actually makes.
(I would also disagree with the idea that submission creates a vacuum. Or that submission is anything other than simple obedience for everyone. I do not find it helpful to frame anyone’s obedience as a way to manipulate others to do what we think they are supposed to.)
Let’s pause for a moment to evaluate Ephesians 5. verse 26-27 describe how Christ gave himself for the church. “to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless.” This church includes men and women. He makes us holy. He presented us to himself. Husbands do not do this again for wives. There are many verses that teach us that sanctification and cleansing and holiness come from God alone (1 Corinthians 6:11; Philippians 1:9-11; Colossians 1:21-22; 1 Thessalonians 3:11-12, 5:23-24; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 10:10, 14, 22; 2 Peter 3:14; 1 John 1:7, 9; Jude 24-25 for starters). Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 5:28, “In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies.” Not to cleanse them or make them holy (because Christ does that) but AS Christ did those things-through giving Himself-husbands love by giving themselves.
Owen Strachan lists 10 ways to exercise Christlike headship and before we even get started with this, I would like to point out there is a big difference between being something (a head) in relation to your wife being something (a body) and “exercising something” over someone else. Most of his list sounds great so if you read it and find yourself nodding along, join the crowd. The only problem is when you realize that he is directing these statements at men and not women as well. Women also should be training themselves to know the Lord in a vibrant way. They should lead in apologizing; we’re certainly not called to wait for someone else to go first. Women also put themselves in harm’s way because believers are called to do this (John 15:12-13, Ephesians 5:1-2, 1 John 3:16-17). Women are also called to die to themselves daily.
His first point is that “Christlike male headship means that you see the spiritual nourishment of your wife as your primary duty.” My first question is one of practicality. Some things are great in theory but work out horribly in real life. This is one of them. What about husbands who aren’t believers? Who aren’t faithful disciples of Jesus? Who is nourishing the women who are single or divorced or widowed? What is the wife actually is a more mature follower of Jesus? What if she knows more about the Bible? I have heard many stories of women who have been discouraged from learning more about theology because “how will their husbands be able to lead them?” What do men have that allow them to give out “spiritual nourishment” to their wives that is just innate in them as males instead of learned and practiced through life as it is for women?
I’m going to leave this last link for you to dissect on your own. Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss it though.
Headship as a word is not in the Bible. This is not always a problem; the word “trinity” is not in the Bible either. The problem is that, unlike the Trinity, there is no one understanding of what “headship” means. What we say of “headship” must apply to God and Jesus as well and these varied definitions could not. However, a head/body metaphor of union and oneness can fill in all the spots.
As one final note whenever Christ is called the head of the church, the church is also called the body. (Ephesians 1:22-23, 4:15-16, 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 2:19.)