This will be one of those posts that is bound to go down like a hotdog stand at a vegan festival. Nevertheless, I feel that it is important enough that I should put it out here. The idea that there should be a hierarchical structure within our churches and marriages separating men and woman is so deeply ingrained in our culture that few are even willing to consider that it might actually be unhealthy for us. Even now I can hear the objectors saying things like “but doesn’t it say somewhere in 1 Corinthians that the head of every woman is man” and elsewhere that “wives should submit to their husbands?” and the answer of course to both of those questions is yes, it does affirm both of those things in the Bible and we will address those scriptures and others as well in their proper context as this article progresses to gain a better idea of what scripture is actually communicating to us. For now though, I want to back up a bit and lay the correct framework for this conversation to be set in.
Let’s start with the idea of oneness that is so prevalent in scripture. Going all the way back to Genesis we see that mankind was created in God’s image. God created and named humans ‘Man’ or ‘Adam’ (5:2). This does not come across in our English translations because the Hebrew word usually gets translated into multiple English words (man, mankind, Adam, human etc) but the reality is that Adam and Eve were meant to be one much like the godhead is one. Eve was bone of her husband’s bone and flesh of his flesh, God’s ideal had no hierarchy, man ruling over woman would only come later as a result of the fall. We see this in verse 16 in Genesis 3 where God tells Eve that part of the curse now on creation would include her desire will be to control her husband yet he would rule over her. The very first thing we read after God stops speaking in this section of scripture is that Adam named his wife “Eve” (in verse 20) and then God goes on to make them some clothing to hide away their nakedness. In some way then, Adam and Eve had experienced an immediate separation in oneness as a result of their sin.
It’s important to note that man ruling over woman was part of the curse because Christ came to redeem creation from the effects of the fall and as Christians we have generally taken to working with Christ in this. Paul says that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. So we seek to prolong life with medication and healthy living; we invent ways of making child birth safer and less painful and we build machines that make farming easier. Yet the only part of the curse we have seemingly sought to uphold is that “man is to rule over woman”. So with that in mind let us go back to some of the most often cited scriptural arguments against gender equality and see if there is possibly a better way of understanding those verses in light of the rest of scripture.
But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. – 1 Corinthians 11:3
This is probably the most famous of the ‘headship’ verses; we also see something similar in Ephesians 5:22 as well though so we will take a closer look at both passages. It is pretty clear in both instances that man is the head of woman; what is unclear though is exactly what that means. In English, we use the word head to refer to someone in a position of authority; we have titles for such persons as ‘Head coach’, ‘Head of Department’ and ‘Head Chef’. But we have to understand that to a first century Greek-speaking Jew the word ‘head’ did not carry that connotation at all. To speak of the head as a person who was over others would make no more sense than it would to directly translate the word ‘cool’ in reference to something you considered to be awesome. Rather, when scripture refers to man as the head it should be understood to be saying that man is the source of woman. This should be obvious just by paying attention to the context of what Paul was saying. Consider verses 8 and 12 from the same chapter:-
For man did not come from woman but the first woman came from man...for although the first woman came from man, every other man was born from a woman, and everything comes from God.
Paul is not in 1 Corinthians 11 saying then that men are to exercise authority over woman at all, rather, he is addressing a woman’s authority to pray and prophecy (see verses 5 and 10) because she is from man just as man is from woman (see verses 11 and 12a) and both are from God (verse 12b). Notice also how verse 12 reverses the order by saying that every other man is born from a woman, the idea expressed is not one involving hierarchy.
Likewise, Ephesians 5:21-33 can be read in a similar manner to 1 Corinthians 11. Most people summarize this portion by simply saying that woman should submit to their husbands and husbands in turn are called to love their wives. But there is so much more going on here than our 21st century eyes can see. Let’s start with verse 21 which says:-
And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
The next 12 verses should be read in light of that statement; following this Paul reiterates to the woman that they should submit to their husbands as to the Lord. Then to the husbands he takes things even further, in Paul’s day woman were seen as little more than a man’s property, they had no rights, although a man could easily divorce his wife a woman could not do the same, a woman could not even testify in court. Into this context Paul says that a man should love his wife in the same way that Christ loved the church (verse 25). The whole idea here (as well as in chapter 6) is not about levels of authority but about following Christ’s example in serving and laying down our lives for others. When one loves as Christ does as husbands are instructed to do, it is almost impossible to see the difference between submitting and loving. Paul’s message to the husbands in this portion of scripture is not a ‘how to rightfully rule over woman’ but rather a reminder of his complete unity with her in Christ.
For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself (v28)...a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one (v31).
Like the verses about men being the head of woman, there are several scriptures that tell woman to submit to their husbands.1 Peter 3:1 and Titus 2:5 would be good examples. Interestingly, my NLT says in 1 Peter 3:1 that wives “should accept the authority of their husbands” which is a far cry from what the Greek actually says. Perhaps the translators decided the opposite of ‘submission’ was ‘to have authority’. This is simply not something we can conclude to be consistently true though, if scripture tells us to “be subject one to another” then everyone is to be under one another’s feet, assuming the role of a servant as we lift others up and serve the body.
The New Testament consistently calls us (not just woman) to submit to one another, children to parents, wives to husbands, slaves to masters, citizens to governments etc not because slavery, governments and male dominance are good things but because in doing so we are following Christ’s own example (Luke 2:51, 20:25 etc). And just as the New Testament calls for submission to one another it simultaneously and consistently warns us against exercising authority over others:-
"And Jesus called them to him and said to them, 'You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.' – Matthew 20:25-28
Even the church elders in chapter 5 verse 5 of 1st Peter are told to be subject one to another, they are warned in verse 3 not to lord over people but instead to lead through their example alone. The issue of trying to lord over another person is the same thing that Paul addresses in 1 Timothy 2:12 when he says that he does not permit a woman to rule or to have authority over her husband. The issue here is not a rebuttal of equality but of one trying to usurp another.
Following Christ’s example
So are wives supposed to submit to their husbands? Absolutely! Are husbands the heads? Yes! Now in light of everything I have said so far let us reconsider how we understand both of those answers. As followers of Christ, we are not called to exercise authority over anyone. Rather, we are called to love, serve and lay down our lives for everyone. The greatest must be like the least, the first as the last, take for yourself the lowest seat at the table and so on.
Husbands - love your wives as Christ in His self sacrificial way loved the church (1 John 4:10, John 3:16, Romans 5:8). Headship does not mean that you are the final and chief decision maker in your marriage. In fact, the only example in the New Testament we see regarding decision making within a marriage calls for mutual agreement (1 Corinthians 7:5). Interestingly, the verse just before this one is another which suggests mutual submission and equality (The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife).
In conclusion, Christ came to overturn the curse and we should live in light of it and work with Him as ministers of reconciliation. If you are using headship and submission as a means of getting your own way then you do not understand headship or submission.
Christ’s prayer for the church was that we, like mankind before the fall, would be one as He and the Father are one.
I am not only praying for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe that you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. – John 17:20-23
And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:27-28