There are some rumors floating around the Internet about the idea of headship in marriage. If you’re not familiar with the concept of ‘headship,’ it is a principle found in the Bible that Christians have taught down through the ages related to God’s design of the marriage relationship. The hubbub surrounding ‘headship’ in 2017 is that it feels pretty patriarchal. By “patriarchal” I mean what people who use the term “patriarchal” mean. Those spreading rumors about headship are of the opinion that the culture which informed the writers of the Bible, the leadership decisions of Jesus and Paul, and the generational practice of the church from the New Testament forward was patriarchal in nature—male-dominated by domineering males. The liberation movement spawning this new teaching on headship is intent on showing the world that “patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity.”[1]

There are many people who look at the way the world works today and simply dismiss what the Bible says as outdated. There are others who want to hold onto the Bible and the spirit of the age. Particularly as it relates to sexual ethics and the Bible, you can find multiple voices advocating for various manifestations of a ‘third way.’  Matthew Vines in his book God and the Gay Christian asks his readers to embrace a ‘third way,’ in order to revise the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality.[2] Sarah Bessey does the exact same thing in her book Jesus Feminist, where her declared purpose is “to take a step out of those debates, to pursue a third way: a redemptive way.”[3] The debates she is talking about, and the teaching she’s intent on revising, relate to the Bible’s teaching on gender roles in the home and church.

Two places in the New Testament explicitly address male headship in marriage. These verses both head up long passages in their contexts describing gender roles:

1 Corinthians 11:3
But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.

Ephesians 5:23
For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.

As the language of these texts state, the husband is the head of the wife. It is hard to work around this in the text. And by hard, I mean impossible. The Greek verb translated “is” is in the indicative mood in both texts. This makes it a statement of fact, not a command or an exhortation—a reality. Bessey’s call is for “mutuality” in the marriage relationship, instead of male headship. In talking about her own marriage, she says,

“But then who is the spiritual head of our home? Only Jesus. Only ever our Jesus. Like many other Christians throughout the ages, we believe Scripture teaches mutual submission in marriage, and so we strive for our marriage to be a reflection of the original God-created order—we endeavor to make our marriage a restoration of oneness, of equality, of two lives in the concert of playing second fiddle to one another…”[4]

Bessey states in the introduction to her book that she believes the Bible is God’s word. The note I wrote as I was reading that page in her book was, “If ‘only ever your Jesus’ is the head of your marriage, why don’t you listen to what he said when he clearly stated in His word that the husband is the head of the wife?” To hold onto the Bible and a “third way” which contradicts the seven major passages in the New Testament that teach on gender roles (in the home and church), you have to figure out a way around those texts. Enter the Greco-Romans!

To explain what Peter[5] and Paul[6] were doing when they taught male headship in marriage, Bessey says (please read this quote carefully):

“The Greco-Roman household codes, in effect at the time of the New Testament, were another link in a heavy chain of patriarchy extending throughout history…Peter and Paul worked within imperfect systems because ‘with Roman officials looking for every excuse to imprison Christians, any challenge would bring scrutiny and persecution for the early Church. The Apostles advocated this system, not because God had revealed it as the divine will for Christian homes, but because it was the only stable and respectable system anyone knew about’ at the time.”[7]

Yes, you read that last paragraph correctly. That is actually written in her book. Her argument is that Paul and Peter shirked the divine will in their Scripture writing in order to accommodate a cultural system so that Christians wouldn’t bring any more heat on themselves in the courts of Nero and other treacherous Roman Emperors. Instead of challenging the spirit of the age and the halls of Rome, Peter and Paul bowed their knee to the cultural systems in place. The argument there is that Peter and Paul knew that “any challenge would bring scrutiny.” Any challenge of the ruling order of the day would bring scrutiny? That just drips of the ethics and perspective of the early church, am I right?

Does this interpretation meld with the example of Jesus and his followers that we have in the New Testament? Does it seem to square with John the Baptist standing up to Herod and having his head chopped off? How about Jesus, who spoke the truth to all the ruling powers of His day, and was nailed to the cross as a result? Or what about Peter himself who said, “We will obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), and was imprisoned and eventually martyred for his trouble? How about Paul who preached the counter-cultural gospel all over the known world and wore the proof of it in the scars on his back?

The hubbub about headship is what it is because professing Christians in the West are cowering to the spirit of the age. Survey Christians outside Western Europe and North America and you will find that the church in no other part of the world has a problem with the Bible’s teaching on headship. In fact, it wasn’t until about the last century in America that the Bible’s teaching on this has come under scrutiny. As Kathy Keller says,

“Consider the enormous hubris in appointing our present cultural moment as the yardstick against which God’s Word must be measured. And whose cultural moment are we talking about? Christians in non-Western parts of the world find no difficultly with these so-called “texts of terror.” Instead, they struggle with “turning the other cheek” and “loving those who hate you.” Now that’s something that sounds preposterous in places where cruelty beyond imagining is the daily norm.”[8]
The hubbub over headship is because Christians in the West are cowering to the spirit of the age. Click To Tweet

Go to part 2

[1] Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist, p. 14.

[2] The first two ways according to Vines are 1) Be a practicing homosexual and not a Christian, or 2) Be a Christian and not a practicing homosexual. The way he advocates is ‘be a Christian and a practicing homosexual.’

[3] Oddly, in ‘stepping out the debates,’ she actually takes one side (egalitarianism) and drags it as far left as humanly possible into liberal feminism.

[4] Ibid, p. 74.

[5] 1 Peter 3:1-7

[6] Ephesians 5:21-33, Colossians 3:18-19, 1 Corinthians 11:3ff

[7] Ibid, p. 76. She is re-quoting Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe of the Women’s Bible Commentary in this quote.

[8] Kathy Keller, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles, p. 28.