Kathryn & Carl

November 12, 2009

Dealing with “Headship”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn @ 6:17 pm

Ok, here goes.

First: my acknowledgment that anybody who says they know the answers probably hasn’t really thought hard enough about the questions. I definitely don’t have all the answers, and I’m pretty sure that another 20 years of being female and being a Christian will have refined, pruned, or otherwise molded my views here.

Also, since the conversation came out of a discussion of feminism, I think it’s important not only to talk about “headship” in marriage, but also the basic role and purpose of women as put forward in the Bible.

There are two creation narratives, back to back, in Genesis. The first is Genesis 1:26-29:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.

In this passage, there is no differentiation between male and female. “Male and female he created them.” Women bear the image and likeness of God exactly the same as men do, so also they share the creation mandate to “be fruitful” and “rule” over the good creation God made.

God’s first words to humankind are a message of total unity and lyrical equality. In this narrative, gender is a meaningless concept because all statements are shared. This is important not only because it sets the stage for what comes next (and yes, I know what passage comes next), but I believe there’s a full-circle aspect of history at work. I believe these beautiful verses portray, not only a past Eden of absolute unity, but a heavenly future that will live out Paul’s assertion that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galations 3:28). Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:30 that there will be no “marriage or giving in marriage” after the resurrection, but that we will be “like the angels”—presumably nonreproductive beings whose focus is found in God alone. Sounds good to me.

If you’re going to talk meaningfully about the role of women in history and today, I believe it’s essential to keep in mind the utter irrelevance of gender at both the beginning of time and the end of time.

So, what do we have here in time? We have Genesis 2 with an amplified version of the creation account. Since God is omniscient, we have to assume that he didn’t create man first and then women later because only later did he realize that man needed a partner. Obviously (perhaps most obviously because other Biblical writers pick up on this so regularly), God did this symbolically to show something about how men and women are to relate to one another on earth.

God’s statement about his purpose in creating women is simple: “I will make a helper suitable for [the man]” (Gen. 2:18).

This is a strange shift from the previous passage. Now God tells us that he created the Man as primary and the Woman as helper—which seems starkly at odds with the previous assertion that the genders share equally in image and mandate.

What seems overwhelmingly obvious and important here to me is that there is no logical, human reason for God’s choice to create men “first.” A lot garbage has been written over the years about how women’s brains and bodies show that they’re not “capable” of handling authority (um, motherhood, anyone? What about Sunday school? Who here believes it’s easier to get 50 adults to pay attention vs. 50 children?). While I agree that some studies show that male and female brains are wired differently and frequently correlate to different strengths and weaknesses, the idea that women cannot “compete” with men intellectually or morally is simply not true.

So, why did God choose men to be primary? I dunno. Why did he choose Israel? Why does he allow suffering? Why did he harden Pharoah’s heart and then turn around and punish him for his hard heart?

I don’t know.

That’s the only honest answer I’ve ever heard. You can’t argue if from moral superiority (Paul’s “for all have sinned” kind of puts the kabosh on that… not to mention the equally nauseous idea that women are somehow constitutionally more “moral,” which gets floated by a lot of Christian abstinence groups. As though premarital sex was the only sin worth talking about). You can’t argue it from intellect. You can’t argue it from brute strength (Finally, a quality explanation for why governments are full of middle-aged, overweight dudes…).

Nope. I can’t think of any reason why either men or women should be the “head” over the other. Both are created in the image of God, and each individual person is a riddle of unique talents, struggles, insights, and blind spots. Attempts to see “all” men or “all” women as possessing certain qualities quickly becomes irritatingly reductionistic. To be totally blunt, you can’t even say that all women have vaginas. Look it up, friends. Some girls don’t. And some girls can’t get pregnant, so does that make them less than a woman, since they can’t fulfill what we think of as such a basic part of God’s design for women?

Of course, not.

What I DO see here is the symbolic design of Genesis 2, which calls man the primary and women the “helper.” Ok. The Bible says that, so I accept it.

Now, what does it mean to be a helper?

Here’s where I think a lot of conservative Christianity (to say nothing of other religious or secular patriarchies) gets a little crazy, because I would argue that it’s impossible to have a meaningful, godly understanding of “headship” as an independent concept. Biblical headship as a family system is like a chair with one leg. Not much of a chair.

“Headship” without strong teachings about both God and love is just abuse dressed pretty for church. And, nowhere in the Bible are women called to accept abuse from their husband as an act of worship, pleasing to God.

Ok, but before we get back into what headship is or isn’t, let’s finish talking about what it means to be a helper.

First of all, being a helper doesn’t mean being a slave. In the epistles, Paul frequently describes himself as a “slave” to the gospel, or a “slave” to Christ—even sometimes a “slave” to other believers in his efforts to help and encourage them. Sometimes, Paul gives the negative example too: unbelievers are “slaves” to their sin nature, and even those of us who are free still struggle against our old “master.”

But, nowhere in Paul’s advice to husbands and wives does he describe the marriage relationship as in any way similar to a slave/master relationship. Nor does Paul use a parent/child relationship model. Paul is perfectly comfortable telling children to “obey” their parents. In fact, although Paul tells wives to “submit” to their husbands, he never once tells them to “obey” their husbands. Unlike slaves or underage children, women are not their husband’s property, they are their husband’s helper.

A helper who does not think but simply takes orders is a helper only in the most shallow meaning of the word. I believe a biblical wife/helper is one who not only helps implements the family goals, but helps her husband to shape, create, and identify them. A husband is not a CEO and a wife is not the head of HR, folks. Marriage is too intimate for any business allegory.

The symbols God does give us in the Bible are almost exclusively those of Christ and the Church. (Although, I think it’s interesting that the “man is the head of woman” passage in I Corinthians is talking about church order, not marriage. Clearly, there are implications for marriage in there, but it seems significant to me that Paul’s purpose is not really focused in marriage… and as even Paul points out later in the chapter, all men today are born from women, so it gets a little muddy). As the Church respects, values, appreciates, and relies on Christ, so women are told to respect, value, appreciate, and rely on their husbands. Sounds fab to me. Husbands are told to love, sacrifice for, and protect their wives. Also sounds fab.

I have no idea how that’s supposed to support the notion that husbands make all the decisions.

Nor am I advocating a sort of egalitarian, every-other-decision marriage. I guess what I’m saying is that a husband who loves his wife more than himself and a wife who respects and trusts her husband may not be running into all that many tough, dig-out-the-trenches decisions. Most of our decisions as a couple stem from conversations anyway—we will have a conversation about something and end with a mutual decision. I respect Carl’s ability to make decisions just as much as Carl respects my opinions. For me to walk out of the room and say, “well, let me know when you decide” wouldn’t be fulfilling my role as a helper either.

In our first 9 months, Carl’s never made a choice that I felt was wrong/sinful (and yes, I can see the rolling of jaundiced eyes. I know). He’s made choices I wouldn’t necessarily make, but since when am I infallible either? Now, certainly if he chooses something that produces pain in my life, I will let him know so we can figure out how to resolve it. Individual situations may be unpleasant or difficult, but I don’t believe that long-term suffering is the hallmark of any healthy marriage.

In times of peace and prosperity, then, headship works like spiff. The problem is that many marriages don’t experience much peace or prosperity, and ALL marriages go through problems. And, that’s where I have to be blunt and say that I don’t really believe “headship” was the best model to go with. I don’t believe that giving fallen mankind verses that compare men to the Messiah and women to sinners was the most merciful choice God could make.

I’m not saying he was wrong. We know that God is God, and God is love. I have no alternative to offer, no ideology to promote instead, only the simple fact that millions of women have been abused and mistreated and had verses like that shoved in their face as justification.

I believe that there are some ways in which headship is like the existence of suffering in the world. We can’t know why God chose some things. Simple answers only serve to deny reality and belittle people’s suffering. To insist that women always find deep fulfillment in patriarchy is to deny too much reality.

I’ve heard lots of anti-feminists argue that Christian women should find a deep joy in patriarchy because that’s what God created them for. Excuse me. That’s not what God created them for. That’s a system God put in place to organize marriage and church relationships. Our deepest purpose, male or female, is to be in relationship with God. Husbands cannot save us or be saved for us. Husbands cannot give our lives ultimate satisfaction or meaning, husbands cannot fulfill us or carry us off into happily ever after. Marriage can be great, but happily ever after is heaven, people. Not earth.

The Bible makes it clear that although men are the “head” and the two have become “one” in marriage, God has never stopped dealing with people as individuals. In our souls, we are alone with God.

The story of Sapphira (Acts 5) reads like a primer on this issue:

1Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.3Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”

5When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

7About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

9Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

10At that moment she fell down at his feet and died.

“With his wife’s full knowledge.” Luke informs us here that Sapphira is an active participant in the deception. This implies that she could have, and was even morally obligated, to refuse. After her husband is struck dead, Peter even gives Sapphira a second chance to make the right choice, but Sapphira sticks to her man. Her reward? God strikes her dead too.

Two things are interesting to me. First, God treated Ananias and Sapphira as individuals, even though they agreed to sin as a couple. Men and women have always loved to hide behind a good excuse, but, unfortunately, even “headship” isn’t a good alibi for crappy behavior.

Second, God clearly expects women to weigh their husbands’ decisions against the truth and to refuse to cooperate with evil.

I don’t know how we got to the place where we recognize “lying” as sin but fail to recognize brow-beating, selfishness, violence, and sexual humiliation as sin.

Should a wife divorce her husband because he bullies her, calls her stupid, refuses to consider her needs in his decisions? I wouldn’t rush to the courthouse (although I think it’s pure evil for churches to teach women to “submit” to a husband’s physical or sexual violence. That’s a terrible misreading of Paul’s advice to women), but I think a wife should absolutely and respectfully address the situation if her husband chooses to sin against God or against her. Jesus gave a pattern for intervention among believers in Matthew 18:15-17, and while I agree that the marriage relationship is more intimate than the brotherhood of believers, I don’t see how that would nullify the pattern here:

15“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

The point isn’t that we rush out to air our dirty laundry to the church. Obviously, I think people need to be careful about making accusations or pressing charges against another believer, especially one’s spouse. The point here is that there should be no secret violences, no private and pervasive evils allowed to fester in the church. A husband who is beating his wife doesn’t need to be brought to repentance by seeing his wife’s sweet endurance. He needs some church discipline.

(My negative examples here have all been about men because we’re talking about women’s roles, but I definitely believe there are evil, abusive women who also need curt and swift correction. I would never want to belittle or ignore the men and children who suffer from the verbal, emotional, sexual, or physical abuse of women. Evil is not gender specific).

So, here we are. “Headship” is the system God put in place, but I would argue strongly that headship is not quite so simple as we often hear it explained. To sum up some of the points here (in no particular order):

  1. Headship does not mean that women are servants, slaves, children, or employees. The role of wife is not justly comparable with any other human role on earth. This is why most explanations of roles (he’s the president! She’s the vice-president!), are reductionistic and unfair.
  2. Unlike Christ and the Church, men and woman share equally both in their sin nature and their image bearing, which means that, also unlike the Christ and the Church, wives are expected to weigh their husbands’ choice against the truth, and refuse to cooperate with evil.
  3. Christ will never fail us or betray us, but humans do occasionally. We should not ignore or assist that failure by stressing headship over either love or justice in our churches or marriages. Headship cannot healthily exist without being balanced by love and freedom. A wife who has no choice whether or not to agree to her husband’s decision is not a wife, but a slave.
  4. The “helper” status of women, which is undeniable in the Bible, ought to be seen as a design feature for earth only. In the beginning, God created male and female to share equally in his image and in their position as masters of the earth. In the future, gender will again be meaningless. This doesn’t mean we should ignore our role as helpers, but it should certainly inform our sense of identity and purpose.

And, because this is now crazy long, I’ll have to talk about the “keepers at home” issue in another post.

Finally,this ramble is certainly not meant to be exhaustive on the topic. I didn’t get into the gender-specific curses after the Fall or all of the Pauline passages about husbands and wives (or a lot of other things), but it’s a rough outline of where my thinking is currently on the topic of headship in marriage.

Again, the reason I wrote about this at all was because of a debate in the comment section of a post from last week, re: whether or not feminism was compatible with Christianity (or useful), so clearly the headship ideas I’ve talked about here are those that most closely relate to feminism.

As a fairly conservative Christian as well as a feminist, I’m very willing to acknowledge that my feminism is not particularly mean stream, but any feminist literature I’ve read is always quick to mention that there are as many different kinds of feminism as their are feminists. Feminism is a cavernous umbrella term for lots of discourse about women’s issues.

I also feel that it’s important to mention that I believe men should be active in thinking about, talking about, and resolving what it means to be masculine too. I’m a feminist because I’m a woman and that’s my identity, but as a sister, friend, wife, and hopefully someday mother to men, I hope I will continue to learn about and be supportive of healthy masculinity too.

I see value in feminism in two areas: First, as it critiques the abuses of patriarchal thinking in Christianity, and second, as it speaks to global politics about the failure to include women in basic human rights. Being a Christian and a feminist is difficult, but I can’t say it’s any harder than being an American and being a Christian.

We all have a long way to go.



  1. Golly…that’s well thought out. Looking forward to the keepers at home bits. So far, I’m with you all the way…

    Comment by botanyhead — November 12, 2009 @ 8:35 pm | Reply

  2. Amen! This is brilliant. I agree 100%. Maybe I don’t understand what “feminism” means to you because I think you nailed this one.

    Comment by Andrea — November 13, 2009 @ 10:38 pm | Reply

  3. Lol. I’m glad to hear it. And, I guess we’re full circle now, because what I was *trying* to say in my original post was that I think a lot of peeps have pretty wack ideas about what feminism has been all about for the last 150 years…

    Pretty sure none of us are HUGE Pat Roberston fans (fundamentalist televangelist type), but his definition of feminism as “a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians” kind of gets to the heart—in horrifyingly hilarious fashion—of what a lot of people think.

    It’s been interesting, eye-opening, and thought-provoking to read more about the feminist movement over the last few weeks. I would encourage people to read the feminists in their own words instead of through the jaundiced eyes of anti-feminists or conservative Christians. There will be conclusions you disagree with (I have my own list), but don’t let that stop you from examining the facts, experiences, and voices you find.

    Headship in marriage is, to my way of thinking, a bizarre excuse for not giving women the respect, courtesy, equality in education and opportunity, and legal protection we give to men.

    When God created Adam and Eve, he created a couple, already born into their relationship. I believe that a woman takes on the role of “helper” when she chooses to marry, not before. My reason for this is that if you say a woman’s identity is as helpmeet from birth, you are saying that a woman’s true identity can only be fulfilled in marriage or in her relationships with men (her father first and husband later).

    But, we are all created in the image of God, designed for relationship with him first. Marriage is a great thing, but it’s not for everybody, nor should it be seen as the only way to live a fulfilling life as a woman. In marriage I gained a new set of responsibilities, problems, and privileges, but none of that has changed who I am at the core.

    As Jane Eyre says, “as we stand before God, we are equal.” And if our intrinsic value is the same, why shouldn’t our laws reflect that?

    Comment by Jane — November 14, 2009 @ 1:19 am | Reply

  4. Good old Jane Eyre! Way to capture it. This has been so interesting…listening to where you, I and Andrea all fall in relationship to “the issues.” Its comforting to me that we’re closer than I thought. Polarity has a way of separating people.

    Comment by botanyhead — November 14, 2009 @ 9:02 am | Reply

  5. Agreed.

    I’ve been reading up on the OT examples of “headship” at work in marriage: Sarah, Jael, Abigail, etc.

    As far as I can tell, the only appropriate use of the headship trump card is when a husband is acting correctly and his wife is not.

    If they’re both in the right, authority is unnecessary. If the husband is in the wrong, authority is nullified (see Jael and Abigail).


    Comment by Jane — November 14, 2009 @ 3:59 pm | Reply

  6. I’ve always seen headship as being kind of like a tie-breaker vote in areas that don’t involve moral decisions. Like if I want to paint the house blue, and Gene wants to paint the house yellow and we talk and talk, and we just can’t agree, then in the end I need to submit to Gene’s headship and let him get the yellow paint.

    But as soon as it involves disobeying the Lord, then I would no longer have to submit. (“We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).) I think it’s exactly like any other authority. I will obey the government when it tells me to pay taxes and drive no faster than 25 mph on our street, but if they tell me I can’t own a Bible or attend church, then I have to disobey. Same with my husband. If he were to tell me I had to lie or steal something, etc. then I wouldn’t do it.

    Comment by Andrea — November 14, 2009 @ 9:39 pm | Reply

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