Male Headship and Women’s Submission


Authority gender Leadership women in church

Male Headship and Women’s Submission

3 May 2023 Hits:1369

I shared some of my experiences with the Potter’s House Church in last week’s blog. One of the damaging doctrines in that church, and sadly in some other contemporary churches, includes an emphasis on male headship and women’s submission. These are two traditions that go hand-in-hand.

I find it hard to believe that we’re in 2023 and still having to address such things. Women were allowed to vote a hundred years ago, yet women’s rights are still being fought for, even within the church. And so, let’s investigate these doctrines, how the Bible is used to justify and enforce them, and what I believe the scriptures teach.

What is Headship?

The word headship is not found in the Bible. But to be fair, the word Trinity isn’t in scripture either, but the concept is. The idea of male headship is based on Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:3, I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Other translations, like the ESV, say that the head of the wife is her husband. And there you have it, plain and simple. A teaching that has influenced churches as diverse as Potters House, Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, and the Amish Community.

Headship is about leadership, control, and authority. And it is very easily abused. In fact, according to a report by the ABC, “Research shows that the men most likely to abuse their wives are evangelical Christians who attend church sporadically.” What an awful indictment on the church.

Context, Context, Context

After his comment about who is the head of who, Paul dictates the proper use of head coverings and hair length for men and women. I find it interesting that the very churches that teach male headship over women don’t enforce head coverings for women (the Amish excepted) or ban long hair for guys. Just look at some of the famous worship leaders. We Christians can be so selective as we cherry-pick our favourite Bible verses and ignore the bits we don’t like.

So, how should we understand Paul’s statement? First Corinthians is composed of five essays. Chapter eleven begins essay four on worship, particularly how men and women lead in worship and teach in church gatherings. Remember that the Corinthian church was full of zeal but lacked wisdom, so Paul is writing to them to bring some order out of their charismatic chaos. The verse in question is in the context of men and women prophesying (lit. divinely inspired teaching). Ah, so women are allowed to preach, then.

Paul is NOT teaching against women in ministry, nor is he against women teaching the word and leading churches. He affirms these things elsewhere in the Scriptures. For example, Acts records that Greek women of high standing were attracted to Paul’s preaching. Such women would not be attracted to a message that didn’t treat men and women as equals (Acts 16:14; 17:4,12,34). Lydia was the leader of the Philippian church (Acts 16:35-40). Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2) is called a deacon (not a deaconess) and a leader.

In Corinth, Paul lived with Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:1-4). Priscilla was a teacher of scripture and, along with her husband, taught the famous Apollos (Acts 18:26). This is an example of a woman instructing a man, something that complementarian churches like those mentioned above are dead against.

What did Paul Mean?

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is not teaching about male superiority to women or prohibiting women from vocal ministries within church gatherings. So, what does the word “head” mean in this context?

The head of every man is Christ.

The head of the woman is man.

The head of Christ is God.

Complementarians say that “head” relates to authority, but is that correct? The Greek word translated “Head” (kephale) can mean one of three things:

  1. A literal head (cranium, skull).
  2. To have authority or status over (the head of the company).
  3. The source of (e.g. headwaters at the start of a river)

For example, the Jewish New Year is called Rosh Hashanah, meaning “the head of the year.” It doesn’t mean that the first day of the year is more important or “in authority over” the rest of the year. It is the day from which the rest of the year flows. It is the source or origin of the year. With that meaning in mind, we could translate 1 Corinthians 11:3 as follows, I want you to realize that the origin of every man is Christ, and the origin of the woman is man, and the origin of Christ is God. This understanding sits very well with the rest of the scriptures.

It’s all About the Source

The origin of every man is Christ. Jesus is the agent of God’s creation, a truth that Paul affirmed earlier in this letter when writing about Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Cor. 8:6).

The origin of the woman is man, a reference to Genesis 2:21-23 when the woman was taken out of the man’s side. The source of Christ is God means that Christ is the Messiah, and the origin of the Messiah is God.

What About Submission?

Those who tout the doctrines of headship and submission love Ephesians chapter five, especially from verse 22: Wives, submit to your own husbands. But they appear to conveniently ignore verse 21, submitting to one another in the fear of God. The apostle writes about mutual submission without room for domination, control, or abuse. The Greek word hupotassó means “to arrange under.” (Hupo, under; Tasso, arrange). We all do this daily for the healthy running of our society. Obeying the speed limit is a good example.

Jesus submitted to the Father for the plan of salvation. The church places itself under Jesus for salvation. Husbands and wives submit to each other through love and respect, but it doesn’t mean one is more significant. Submission implies that we work together for a common purpose, whether in marriage, the church, the workplace, or society.

In Summary

Paul’s teaching on headship and submission has nothing to do with the superiority of men over women. He is not suggesting that men and women are equal but have different roles, as complementarians teach. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 11, he affirms the equal right of both men and women to teach and preach the word and to lead in church gatherings. By excluding women from active ordained leadership and teaching the Bible, some churches make a grave error that restricts women from their God-given place within the body of Christ and exposes women to the dangers of manipulation and abuse.

Rob Buckingham

Senior Minister

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