On the surface, the issue of equality between men and women seems obvious and indisputable in Christian circles. But in practice as discussion on the same progresses, reminders of male headship and female submission are often woven through as a way of avoiding the hijacking of the equality principle by feminist extremes. There is an inherent fear that equality, if not properly balanced, will ruin the stability of the home, church, and society. Feminism, often depicted as an anathema, despite its underlying principle of equality is often made the scapegoat. Calls for equality are misconstrued with some sinister feminist agenda whose goal is emasculation. Such zero-sum game arguments among Christians have continued to be the greatest obstacle to improving the way women are treated. In a sense, religion has become a major obstacle in dismantling gender inequality and improving ways in which women are treated. In this article, I expose contradictions in the headship principle that work against the same equality it purports to uphold.
Championed as a rebuttal against what is regarded as the onslaught of feminism, the headship principle championed gained popularity in the 1970s and 80s. Its basic argument was for equality with hierarchy as a pre-fall ideas meaning that God intended for males to be in charge of this world in both religious and secular arenas.[i] Its origins can be traced to North America to some Calvinist Evangelical preachers in the 1970s and 80s. However, it was smuggled into the Adventist church in the late 1980s primarily through the late Samuele Bacchiocchi (1938-2008)[ii] as a response to the push for the ordination of women. It got its impetus from the likes of Mervyn Maxwell, Samuel Kornanteng-Pipim, and others who in 1987 started the Adventists Affirm magazine[iii] which was instrumental in regurgitating and championing the headship theology. Thus, with its “reckless Adam and restless Eve” mantra, the headship principle has evolved into some kind of “29th fundamental doctrine” despite its controversial and Calvinistic origins.
Gerry Chudleigh[iv] provides an outline of the headship principle by noting that while the belief that the husband is head of the family, by itself, is not the modern “headship principle” but added to it is an argument that Adam’s headship in marriage was established by God before the fall. In essence, God created Eve to be subservient to Adam not as a result of sin. This is significant as it further implies that Eve’s sin was not so much in trying to become like God, but rather in trying to escape her subordinate “helper” role, and become like Adam! With Adam’s sin being in not exercising authority and leadership over Eve, he let her lead him (eating the apple), which reversed the roles assigned by God. The ultimate goal in this case would be to return to the original pre-sin roles with men learning “godly headship” (the role that Adam failed to exercise) and women learning “godly submission” (the role that Eve rejected) — equality with hierarchy. This is in contrast with the view that Adam’s authority over Eve was the result of sin, such that revival and reformation should include the restoration of pre-sin equality between men and women. The headship principle is buttressed by a belief that Christ is eternally in voluntary submission to God the Father, though still fully God, and the same should apply to men and women. These claims have been extensively contested in the debate on the women in ministry[v] which the reader is urged to explore further.
Equal but Not So Equal
One stark feature of the headship principle is that while professing to uphold equality it places emphasis on hierarchy. In the name of “headship,” a man is expected make “final decisions,” orient family dynamics and activities around his priorities, and generally “set the tone” for the entire relationship.[vi] While claiming to accept that the woman was created equal with man in the beginning — in intelligence, ability and, responsibility — headship theology’s point of departure is in arguing that hierarchy existed at creation with Adam being head over Eve. While there have been variations in application as we will see further, it purports to embrace equality but asserts that by virtue of the order of creation, man emerges as leader, having authority over the woman. By implication, it reinforces patriarchy by claiming that hierarchy is God’s ideal and necessary for stability in the home, church, and society. Surprisingly, the headship principle professes equality between men and women but is embedded with terms such as “ultimate” and “primary” being applied repetitiously to men’s interaction with women. It is such a fixation that implies that women are considered existentially “secondary” or subordinate by nature, a position that God intended as inherent in the woman’s relation to the man. Thus, men have “ultimate” and “primary responsibility” for both the marital relationship and its relationship to God becomes the inevitable conclusion.[vii]
However, that men and women were created equal and in the same image of God (Gen 1:27, Gen 2:21-22, Adventist Home p231) is undeniable. It is difficult to see in scripture a suggestion of some pre-fall subordination or hierarchy between Adam and Eve. In fact, Eve and Adam despite being one flesh, were both held individually accountable for their sin. The curses, though separately addressed to both of them, were not exclusive of each other (Gen 3:13,16). In other words, God sees a woman as a person first and woman second while the headship principle suggests the other way around. That God's final judgment is upon a person, a soul — not a sex — with women being accountable to God directly and not through man, is a point incompatible with the headship argument. By trying to glamorize hierarchy, it betrays an inordinate love for control which often includes the conscience.
A Reactionary Theology
As a defense against the perceived onslaught of feminism, the headship theology seems to have been informed by fears of emasculation as the push for equality gained momentum. While pandering to the pressure for equality, it embraced equality but went on further to entrench male privilege through arguing for the existence of a hierarchy. The headship theology was therefore a reaction to the pressure on equality rather than a proactive step. Assuming there was no push for equality, proponents would have been content with how women were treated. Those who embraced it have often viewed the fight for equality as a fight against them rather than systems, structures, and attitudes that keep women from occupying their God-given position. The inherent fear of emasculation explains why the whole theology overly focuses on women and their duty to submit to men, and less on men’s responsibility. Instead of confronting inequality, it betrays a lack of ambition and sensitivity to the plight of women by attempting to pacify them with the “blessedness” of equality within hierarchy. Understandably, those of us who have enjoyed power and privilege at the expense of women will do everything to keep it. They would rather argue that the stability of the family, society, and church is assured as long as women accept unequal treatment.
Interestingly, the definition of headship is provided by men who both have and wield headship! By being self-defining, headship implies that there is no limit to which men can prevail over women and that there is no limit to the extent to which women’s freedom can be limited! Whatever freedom women enjoy, it is subject to the extent to which men can concede. In this case, men become the referee and the player at the same time as they take it upon themselves to define how and where women fit. The self-authenticating nature of male headship means whatever men say is acceptable for women to do or not to do, and is the rule since all rules must originate from the head. A man’s interests are the filter through which a woman’s desires is evaluated which is a recipe for conscience control. The woman will regulate her life and choices based on what the man says or how he feels because he is the head. Her individuality is lost as she becomes more accountable to the man than to God, since her freedom is within the confines of what is comfortable to the man. The self-authenticating and subjective nature of male headship defeats the very same claims of equality it makes.
The male headship principle suffers from multiple interpretations and subjective application. Not everyone subscribing to the headship principle means and believes in the same thing. The same texts are used to come up with different conclusions on the relationship between men and women[viii] which could be:
1. Belief that male headship or authority applies over all women in all places.
2. Belief that male headship or authority over women applies in the home and church, but not necessarily in other institutions or in society.
3. Belief that male headship or authority only applies between a husband and his wife.
4. Belief that head (rather than headship) is a scriptural metaphor, not a leadership description. Therefore, the husband still has authority over his wife, but in a more organic way.
5. Belief that there is no hierarchy but involuntary/instinctive submission of the woman. A husband is the head of his wife but not the head over his wife because authority is not a synonym for head.
These variations in application reinforce its subjective and self-authenticating nature. Who or what objectively determines which type of headship model to adopt is unclear. On what basis does one choose one model over the other is a dilemma headship proponents struggle to resolve. In practice, it is shifting and highly subjective in trying to navigate where to the draw line.
With all these flaws in the headship principle, what then should be our aspiration? Equality in the truest sense, which is the Edenic ideal where hierarchy is not celebrated or made an ambition. Let’s move away from an obsession with headship or a hierarchal order which is fixated on domineering to giving life and the flow of love. Our reading of 1 Corinthians 11:12 should depart from hierarchy to origination/source — the giving of life (out of God came a man, and out of man came a woman, and out of a woman came man). Headship will be about the source or direction of flow within the cycle of love with our relationships becoming a contest of yielding to each other in the Lord.
Notes & References:
[i] World Wide Support for “Male Headship Doctrine” Swells, Jack Hoehn, June 30, 2014 https://atoday.org/world-wide-support-for-male-headship-doctrine-swells/
[ii] Samuele Bacchiocchi, Women in the Church: A Biblical Study of the Role of Women in the Church, Berrien Springs: Biblical Perspectives, pp. 11-18.
[iv] A Short History of the Headship Doctrine In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, 2014, Gerry Chudleigh, published by Gerry Chudleigh at Smashwords: http://puclibrary.net/subjectsplus/assets/users/_kvanarsdale/a-short-history-of-the-headship-doctrine-in-the-seventh-day-.pdf
[v] On the Unique Headship of Christ in the Church: A Statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary https://www.andrews.edu/sem/about/statements/9-19-14-updated_web_version-unique_headship_of_christ_final.pdf
[vi] https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/headship-madness-introduction-headship, Headship Madness: An Introduction to "Headship," Jamin Hübner June 10, 2015
[viii]Sandra Glahn, 7 Views on the Role of Women within the Inerrancy Camp https://blogs.bible.org/7-views-on-the-role-of-women-w-in-the-inerrancy-camp/
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
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