Get Your Head on Straight

The following is a post by Bread for the Bride blog author, Cheryl McGrath.  Cheryl is a sensitive and thoughtful writer whose richness in the word of God is rare.  Cheryl disagreed with my recent post, “Get Your Head on Straight.”  (Please read my post before reading Cheryl’s). After discussing things, I asked her to write a guest post in which she gives her view on the topics I wrote about.  I’m not sure our views are that opposed to each other.  I welcome the chance to enlarge this conversation so please let me know what you think after reading both posts.


Firstly, I’d like to thank Teague McKamey for offering me the opportunity of writing a guest post for his blog, The Voice of One.  Teague recently posted some comments about male headship which, as a follower of his blog, I challenged.  After some discussion Teague has graciously (and bravely!) asked me to put forward my own views on this subject.  As a Christian blogger myself, I know it’s no light decision and a huge display of trust to open your blog site to someone else, especially one whose views differ somewhat from your own.  For that, though our views may continue to differ, Teague has both my sincere gratitude and respect.

What the Bible actually teaches about women’s role in the church and the home is a very wide –ranging subject and one that is often hotly contested.  I will not attempt here to cover the whole subject but try to focus my comments on the topics of male headship in marriage, submission of wives and traditional teachings about hierarchy in the home and church.  Further articles expressing my views on these and related subjects can be read here and here.

Let me start by saying I minister frequently to women whose Christian experience has been hugely impacted by the traditional teaching that God ordained that wives are to be submissive (obedient) to husbands, and/or that women need male ‘covering’ either through a father, husband or brother.  It is difficult to over-emphasize the damaging results of such teaching in the lives of individual Christian women and in the church in general.  Having said that, I wish to be very clear that this kind of teaching is not wrong because women are being damaged by it; rather women are being damaged because this teaching is wrong.

1.Male Headship in Marriage

The scriptures most often quoted to support the ‘wives must submit to husbands’ teaching are 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:22-24.  I will come back later to 1 Corinthians 11:3 later. For now let’s examine the Ephesians passage from the point of view of context and culture:  “Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church;  and He is the Saviour of the Body, therefore just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” (NKJV)

The culture in which we are reading these words differs greatly to the culture relevant to the Christians living in ancient Ephesus, to whom Paul wrote his letter.  In that cultural environment marriage was very often nothing more than a legal arrangement used by men as a means through which they could sire legitimate heirs devoid of any commitment to their wives.  It was common for men to have several mistresses and wives were kept simply for the purpose of childbearing and rearing.  Hence Paul’s further admonition in verses 25 to 33 that husbands should love their wives ‘as themselves’, a new and radical idea to the new converts he was addressing whose cultural history did not include a close relationship between spouses.

Returning to verses 22-24 there are several things to note.  Firstly, when we hear the words ‘submit’ and ‘subject’ in the English language, our minds immediately understand them as ‘obey’ and ‘obedience’.  The word Paul used, however, was ‘hupotasso’, which when used in the middle voice as it is here, we now know means “to give allegiance to or be supportive”.  There is no inherent idea of obedient submission or subordination in this word in the way that it has been traditionally interpreted and taught in the Christian church.  I will say more about the word ‘head’ later.

Furthermore, the original text of verse 22 actually states: “ wives to your own husbands as to the Lord.” That’s right, the word ‘submit’ is not there.  It was added by translators trying to fit the phrase to their own cultural understanding.  Please remember Paul did not write letters with chapters and verse numbers! The verse is actually joined to the previous verse 21, which in the original text ends with a comma, not a full stop or period.  The correct wording of verses 21 and 22, which is one undivided statement, is therefore:  “support one another out of respect for Christ, wives, your husbands as the Lord.”   We can get the gist of the kind of marriage Paul was promoting amongst the new Ephesian disciples when we remember Colossians 3:18 in which he wrote:  “Wives, (submit to) be supportive of your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”  

There is so much more than can be said about the interpretation of this crucial passage but let me just add this. Throughout his earthly ministry Christ continually affirmed the women he encountered, who otherwise existed in a society in which, from birth to death, they were regarded as the possessions of men.  His male disciples were amazed at his revolutionary attitude toward women (John 4:27).  Furthermore, all indications are that in the early church women were viewed on an equal spiritual footing with their husbands and male brethren.  For instance, if we take a close look at the story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 we see that Sapphira was given opportunity to account for her actions separately and on equal terms to her husband.  There is no suggestion that as a wife she was expected to submit to her husband or that such an expectation may have been a mitigating circumstance, making her less responsible for their joint deceit.

The real tragedy is that such a large part of the Christian church, in its quest to justify a belief in the inherent right of males to lead in all structures of society, has taken what was written to Christians in a vastly different society, pulled it out of cultural context and made it a” law” affecting all Christian wives for all time. In the same letter Paul gives advice to slaves, (often translated bondservants), and masters (Eph. 6:5-9), yet most Christians would be hard pressed to find any relevant application for these instructions today.  The New Testament letters written by Paul, Peter and others are inspired writings addressing both practical and spiritual matters affecting the early church.  God intended us to interpret them through the eyes of the Spirit of grace and revelation, not turn them into the letter of the law with which to subjugate other believers.

2. Hierarchy within Marriage and the Godhead

Many Christians adhere to the traditional church teaching that there is a ‘chain of command’ in the Godhead, not realising this teaching has its roots in the fourth century heresy of Arianism which held that Christ is eternally subordinate to the Father.  This doctrine was officially rejected by the early church at the Council of Nicea in AD325.  (For an in depth, historical and scripturally based study of this subject please see Kevin Giles article here.)

The main scriptures passages used to support this view are found in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” , and Ephesians 5:23:  “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.”

The Greek word translated ‘head’ in both these verses is the controversial word ‘kephale’  In the English language the word ‘head’ can mean leader, someone in charge, or having authority over others, and this is how we tend to interpret what Paul was teaching.  However, none of these concepts are inherent in the word ‘kephale’, which simply meant ‘physical head’ or ‘source, origin”.  There is a Greek word meaning ‘ruler, leader or commander’ and it is ‘archon’, but Paul, a fluent Greek and Hebrew speaker, chose not to use that word.   To quote one scholar: “For Paul and his correspondents the use of the word kephale as a synonym for ruler or authority would have been as meaningless as attempting to do the same today with tete in French, or Kopf in German.”*

Paul was writing in a time when various pagan beliefs predominated across the Greek speaking world. One of these was that women were made of a different, more inferior substance than men.  Another was that Eve was a mother-goddess, superior to Adam, and that she created humanity.  Remember many of the Christians to whom Paul was writing had formerly held these beliefs.  I believe, as do many, that in using the word ‘kephale’, or ‘source’, Paul was speaking against these beliefs by teaching Adam was the physical source of  Eve, just as Christ is the spiritual source of the church. The woman and man are physically the same substance, she being “bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh” (Gen. 2:23), just as the church is the same spiritual substance as Christ, being “of His flesh and of His bones” (Eph. 5:30).

With a correct understanding of ‘kephale’ 1 Corinthians 11:3 also takes on quite a different meaning. “But I want you to know that the head (source) of every man is Christ, the head (source) of woman is man, and the head (source) of Christ is God.”  Paul is not in this verse describing a chain of command in the Godhead.  If he was it make no sense that he uses the order Christ-man-God rather than God-Christ-man. Christ, who is the source of all creation (Col. 1:16, 17), is the source of the male, the male is the physical source of the woman, and God is the source of Christ (in His incarnation only).

Scripture clearly teaches there is no submission, subordination, ranking, or chain of command within the Trinity.   We do not worship three gods rolled into one, we worship a God who is One and expresses His perfect Oneness through three Personalities equal in authority, power and will.  All three members were instrumental in creation and they are eternally One (Gen. 1:26, Deut. 6:4, Jn 10:30, Jn 17:22).  There is no need for any member of the divine Trinity we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit to submit or defer to another member, because they are One in will and intent (Is. 44:6).

During the time of His human incarnation Christ, who is God, submitted to and became willingly subordinate to the Father (Phl. 2:5-9).  He chose to humble Himself in order that humanity could be delivered from sin and death. However, in eternity Christ is equally God with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and He has risen as fully God and fully man (John 1:1-3, Col. 2:9, 1 John 5:20; Titus 2:13). He was equal God before His incarnation and remains equal God in His resurrected state. This has been a core tenet of orthodox Christianity since the Council of Nicea which decreed Christ to be “the Son of God, begotten of the Father (the only-begotten;  that is of the essence of the Father, God of God), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

It is not unusual for those who support a doctrine of God-ordained male headship in marriage to also promote a ‘chain of command’ doctrine concerning the Godhead.  One teaching tends to support the other. It is also not unusual that such teaching goes hand in hand with the belief that God originally created the man to lead and the woman to help and submit.  There is not space or time here to explore all the reasons why I believe the Genesis account does not support this belief, or why I believe the first woman was created equal to her husband in everything, including in authority.  That’s another subject for another time.

At the beginning of this article I stated: “This kind of teaching is not wrong because women are being damaged by it; rather women are being damaged because this teaching is wrong.”  There are many men, both leaders, husbands and fathers, who sincerely seek to ‘head’ their families wisely and lovingly. They are deeply disturbed and appalled by the fact that these verses are so often used to justify abuse against females.  However, dealing with an error by saying male authority is God ordained but is simply being misused due to the fall, no matter how sincere, does not do away with the error or justify its continuation.  It simply covers the mess and perpetuates the damage.

Voluntary submission of believers to one another is Biblical.  Christ led by example when He humbled Himself to take on the form of man, and taught it on several occasions.  I believe it is meant to be a ‘gift among equals’, given freely to each other within a safe and loving environment of true Christian community, whether that be within home life or church life.  It is not, however, something that can be permanently applied to one group of people on the grounds of gender, role or marital status.  Paul gave advice and instruction to the church, not commands, within the context and culture in which he was ministering.  I highly suspect he would be horrified to learn two thousand years later some sections of the church have turned portions of his epistles into Old Covenant type law that is to apply for all time to certain sections of the church.  That is not Biblical submission, that is subjugation.

*Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, pgs. 277-78

© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2013   Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included.     To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.