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.

I love history! It fascinates me – not just because it’s a study of past events but rather because of its insights into human nature. As German author Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel put it back in the 1800s, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” I get his point, but one of the things that I’ve learned from history is that you can only oppress a people group for so long. Eventually a champion will arise to be a voice that says, “Enough is enough.” And so the struggle begins. History is littered with examples:

Think of the abolitionist movement in Britain educating the public and rallying against slavery. Champions like William Wilberforce MP, an evangelical Christian with a passion for social reform, and Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave who campaigned for abolition and settled in England. Plus the many slave revolts on the plantations themselves.

Jesus was the ultimate champion who spoke up for the poor, the oppressed, and the outcasts who are often referred to in the Bible as “tax collectors and sinners.” And He got into a lot of trouble for it. He spoke up for lepers, for Samaritans, for prostitutes, for the poor and for women. But it would be many centuries later when women would gradually begin to be emancipated from patriarchal oppression.

Enter Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union in the UK to push for the right to vote, run for public office and work for equal civil rights for women. Britain’s Daily Mail called them the “Suffragettes” – a derogatory term but one the women adopted and wore with pride (much like the word “Christian”). From these humble beginnings in 1903 the Suffrage (or feminist) movement spread all around the world. This was not an issue in Australia which was the first country to give women the right to vote and run for public office in 1895. Women are still not allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia or Vatican City.

The feminist movement has largely been a reaction to male chauvinism – the belittling of women and discriminating against them based on the belief that men are superior. Women then are deserving of less than equal treatment, value or advantage. History gives us many examples of this:

 Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, regarded females as “imperfect males”

 Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian, believed “the woman is inferior to the man in every way.”

 A Jewish male in morning prayer would thank God that he was not made “a gentile, a slave or a woman”.

 The Islamic Koran states (Quran 4:34): “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme.”

 According to Gandhi, “A Hindu husband regards himself as Lord and master of his wife, who must ever dance attendance upon him.”

 John Wesley, founder of Methodist movement, wrote this in a letter to his wife on July 15, 1774: “Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise. Be content to be a private, insignificant person, known and loved by God and me … of what importance is your character to mankind, if you were buried just now or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God?” I bet it was a quiet night in the Wesley Household after that .

 As far as Christians go, Martin Luther would have to be the greatest chauvinist of all time: “Even though they grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for.” 
(Works 20.84). “God created Adam master and lord of living creatures, but Eve spoilt all, when she persuaded him to set himself above God’s will. ‘Tis you women, with your tricks and artifices, that lead men into error.” He goes on to say “We may well lie with what seems to be a woman of flesh and blood, and yet all the time it is only a devil in the shape of a woman.”

History shows us that an extreme is usually corrected by an extreme. There’s no doubt that this is the case with the feminist movement, but it’s an understandable reaction to male chauvinism in an attempt to bring equality between the sexes. There’s obviously still a long way to go, even in Australia, where women are often paid less than men for doing the same job, under represented in politics, business and on boards – and in church leadership.

The Bible teaches that God created men and women equal. Theologian Matthew Henry put it this way, “Eve was not taken out of Adam’s head to top him, neither out of his feet to be trampled on by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected by him, and near his heart to be loved by him.” This is neither chauvinism nor feminism but rather a mutual love and respect for one another that leads to the emancipation of both to be all that we were created to be.

Why are women allowed to speak in the church when the Bible says they should be quiet?  There are two passages of Scripture that teach this very clearly: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12:

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

The word “silent” refers to “The quietness of the disciple who receives instruction.”   “To have authority over,” means, “to domineer or usurp/seize authority”.

On closer inspection of the context and culture of these verses, it becomes clear exactly what the apostle Paul was addressing.  The Corinthian church was out of control.  They were gripped with carnality, lawsuits, immorality and false teaching.  People were getting drunk during the Lord’s Supper and their church meetings were a mess with everyone competing for a chance to use the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  It’s with this in mind that the verses in 1 Corinthians are to be understood: “If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home.”  It seems that the women of the church were asking their husbands questions during the teaching of the Word and, this too, was disrupting the worship service.

The first letter of Paul to Timothy was written to prevent the spread of heresy in the church.  It appears that women were the main culprits of spreading the false teaching and so Paul temporarily prohibits them from teaching until they had been instructed in the Word thus correcting the error that was being taught.  Professor David Sholer puts it this way, “These injunctions are directed against women involved in false teaching, who have sought to abuse proper exercise of authority in the church, not denied by Paul elsewhere to women, by usurping and dominating the male leaders and teachers in the church at Ephesus”.

One of my lecturers in Bible College in the 80s, Spencer Gear, said, “1 Timothy 2:11-12 is not a command to prevent all women from teaching in the church at all times.  Paul’s intention was not to place a permanent limitation on women in the ministry. Rather, these verses were addressed to a problem situation in Ephesus where women were teaching heresy”.

The culture in which a church finds itself also has a large bearing on the matter.  Tony Campolo in his book “20 hot potatoes” says, “If the existence of women preachers created a barrier to non-Christians coming into faith, then it was right for women to refrain from being preachers.  In today’s world … keeping women out of pulpits is having a negative effect upon the propagation of the gospel throughout the outside world, and therefore the policy on the matter which was in place in the past should be set aside” (Pg.39).

If we were to take these passages literally today we would disqualify all women from any vocal ministry in the church.  That would include Sunday school teaching, youth leadership, speaking at women’s meetings, missionaries, singing in the church in any way, praying in prayer meetings and so on.  This would also contradict what Paul wrote a few chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians 11:5, “And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head-it is just as though her head were shaved.”  So, women ARE allowed to speak in the church then!  The “church” being wherever believers are gathered together.

If we were to take these passages literally for all situations we would also contradict the rest of the New Testament, which clearly permits women to minister.  Women ministers include: Anna the Prophetess (Luke 2:36), Dorcas (Acts 9:26), the woman of Samaria (John 4:7), the four daughters of Phillip (Acts 21:9), Priscilla (Acts 18:24-26), the older women (Titus 2:3-4), Phoebe (Rom 16:1, 2), Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2,3), Tryphena and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12).

In general, the gifts of the Spirit, many of which are vocal gifts used in the church, are available to all believers regardless of gender (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-10; Eph. 4:11; Col. 3:16).  Acts 2 also makes it clear that God supports women in ministry: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. 
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

John Stott says, “If God endows women with spiritual gifts (which He does), and thereby calls them to exercise their gifts for the common good (which He does), then the church must recognise God’s gifts and calling, must make appropriate spheres of service available to women, and should ordain (that is, commission and authorise) them to exercise their God-given ministry …”

Finally, if we were to take these passages in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy literally today we would nullify Christ’s work on the cross.  The Old Testament Temple was divided into three sections: The Holy of Holies where the High priest entered once a year.  The Holy Place – reserved for Jewish men only, and the outer court – for Jewish women and gentiles.  This all changed at the crucifixion when the veil that separated the Jewish men from the Jewish women and gentiles was torn from top to bottom (Luke 23:45).  The New Testament allows open fellowship of ALL people who come to God through Christ, whether male or female: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28)

I am so grateful to God for the incredible women that He has called into leadership at Bayside Church – not least my amazing wife, Christie.  The church community would be so much the poorer if we commanded them to remain silent ~ and I don’t like the chances of that happening anyway.