Why I Don’t Believe Denying Male Headship Is Denying Scripture

This week in our small group at church we had a discussion about gender roles. Unsurprisingly, my view (that there should be no hierarchy on the basis of gender within a marriage) was not shared by the group. Going to a PCA church, which was formed on the back of the issue of women elders, I expected others to disagree. In fact, due to my views not aligning with the PCA, my wife and I almost skipped group altogether to avoid the perception of being divisive. After much thought, discussion with those we respect, and prayer, we decided to attend. We did our best to discuss our viewpoint with humility and respect, and the resulting conversation did seem profitable. Our group received us and appreciated our contribution, even though we clearly were in the minority.

I was challenged by one of our group leaders, not unexpectedly, with the idea that the Bible teaches male headship, and it’s a slippery slope if I begin to deny the clear teaching of scripture. This, however, is a misunderstanding of what I believe, and since we didn’t have time in group to cover my views on the scripture regarding gender, I thought it would be nice to instead write them up here, in a form that could serve a broader audience. But before I continue, I want to make clear that I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and what it contains is true; however, I also believe that we have to maintain a view of the whole council of scripture and not rely on a handful of verses to form important doctrines. Additionally, I believe that we have to be careful with text that is separated by both time and culture from ourselves, and that when verses seem to collide with teaching elsewhere in the Bible, we need to walk carefully and be ready to question what may initially seem straightforward and obvious.

To be clear also about what I believe, I have no problems with roles within a marriage. Nor do I have a problem with submission. In fact, the Bible is quite clear that Christians are to submit to one another. I have no problem with the idea that men and women function differently. The sole objection I have is to the idea God ordains hierarchy based on gender within marriage and the church. I believe that hierarchy based on a person’s being, not his or her gifts or circumstances, creates an power imbalance that is ultimately destructive to the individual.

The verses that deal with relationships between genders are relatively small in number. A few, such as those requiring women to wear head coverings or women to remain silent in church, are understood by most people to not be applicable in today’s culture. However, others verses are understood to teach female subordination even today, and those will be my focus, as the controversy of general roles centers around them.

As I mentioned above, the scriptures in question were written to a completely different culture from our own, a different time period, and the translations we read were created by men who believe in gender hierarchy. Such men, like all humans, can allow bias to sway them, so we must be cautions when reading through their lens. For example, the translation of the word deacon/servant, rendered in most modern translations as an office in the church when it is used of men (Deacon), and a quality when used of a woman (Servant, used of Phoebe in Romans). Is this evidence of bias? It may be. Because of this, I am careful not to accept English translations at face value; we are human beings who are flawed, and our preconceived ideas will influence our work, including those who translate the Bible.

Regarding culture, both of the texts that I will be discussing, 1 Timothy and Ephesians, were written to the church at Ephesus, a city which had a strong pagan influence from the goddess Artemis. This influence was so strong that a statue of her created there is one of the seven wonders of the world. Artemis was a female goddess, a protector of women, with a prominent role of midwife to aid women in pregnancies. Ephesus was a city where women had power and control (not to say that it was a matriarchal culture, but certainly women enjoyed more leadership opportunities there than many other areas of the Roman world). I believe this influence is very relevant to understanding both 1 Timothy and Ephesians because the church clearly must have been struggling with the influences of Artemis worship.

On my own journey, as I spent time wrestling with the Bible on this issue, I could not escape the tension I felt reading these verses and various commentaries. I would read text from those advocating an “egalitarian” perspective, and I would remain unconvinced. Much of what I read sounded like conjecture and creating confusion more than providing answers. But as I listened to those who teach gender hierarchy, I felt the same things. For every detailed egalitarian analysis I’ve read of why 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t mean what it plainly says in English, I’ve heard corresponding arguments from gender hierarchists as to why Deborah was not a leader, or if they concede that she was, how this fact could be consistent with a view that God doe not allow women to be leaders.

I am no scholar, nor am I trained in exegesis, so my options are rather limited. I cannot write this with the expertise to expound all of the text perfectly. So the goal here is not to teach; I’m unqualified. What I am sharing is my own journey, doing the best I can with the information I have, and being honest about my own convictions as I weigh the evidence I possess. At the end of the day, it was not exegesis that convinced me, since there is tension on both sides, but rather a wider perspective of what I read in the Bible: that all humans are image bearers of God and deserve to be treated with dignity. Given that truth, I cannot see how establishing hierarchy based on a facet of our being (gender), rather than circumstance or gifting, can ascribe to all individuals appropriate dignity.

Note: throughout this article, I will use the term “gender hierarchist” to broadly describe those who believe in gender based hierarchy. I understand that the popular term they use for themselves is “complementarian” and normally I try to respect terms people elect for themselves; however, it’s a problematic term for me to use because I *do* believe that men and women complement one another rather than being identical. Where I disagree is that complementarians universally ascribe to a hierarchy in which men lead and women follow. I could use the term “patriarchists”; however, I would like to respect those who are trying to distance themselves from traditional patriarchy. I believe “gender hierarchist” to be the fairest term to use.

1 Timothy 2:12-15 (ESV)

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

Most of the doctrine regarding male leadership in the church revolves around 1 Timothy 2:12-15, though also mentioned scriptures are the qualifications for elder (“one woman man”) and Jesus appointing 12 men, no women, as his disciples. Since this is not an attempt to be thorough, I will focus mainly on this text, at is generally the one that presents the “clear teaching of scripture” that women are not to be elders in the church.

From the outset, I believe it is plain that we cannot take these verses at face value. That is, some kind of interpretation needs to be done to get at the intent and meaning. There are two immediate reasons for this (and more that are less obvious), the first being that absolutely no one takes this at face value and denies that women should teach in any context. The second reason is that the latter verses about women being saved through childbirth are completely against what Paul himself has written elsewhere. These facts alone to me suggest we need to dig deeper than simply accepting what our English translations have to say.

Starting with the prohibition of teaching and exercising authority over men, everyone readily admits that women may indeed teach in certain contexts. If we did not, we’d have a real problem with women in the scripture who teach. For example, Priscilla (Rom 16:3-4, Acts 18:26). Many gender hierarchists say that the reason Priscilla taught was because she did so in conjunction with her husband. This appears to be conjecture to me to make Acts 18:26 fit with a certain translation and understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12. It may be correct conjecture (as we do use verses to help us understand other verses), but I remain convinced it is not the only answer available to us, and either way it illustrates the point that even gender hierarchist’s do not take this text a “plain face value”. Everyone seeks to work out the context and application.

To my eyes, assuming that this verse represents any kind of universal prohibition on women teaching and leading is problematic, as there are many women teachers and leaders in scripture. I’ve listed a few here:

  • Deborah (Judges 4:1–5:31): clearly displayed leadership in service of the Lord without condemnation.
  • Huldah (2 Kings 22:14–20): a prophetess who illuminated God’s will.
  • Priscilla (Rom. 16:3-4, Acts 18:26): taught alongside her husband.
  • Phoebe (Romans 161-2): a deaconess who Paul instructed others to support.
  • Junia (Romans 16:7): an apostle (in most translations). There is some controversy surrounding Junia- at one point she was considered male since she was an apostle, though now almost all NT scholars agree she was a female. Some translates (such as the ESV) translate the text that she was “known to” the apostles rather than actually being one.

Gender hierarchists have counters to each of these examples of women leadership and teaching; however, their arguments are usually as complex as the ones employed by egalitarians to say that this 1 Timothy 2:12 does not teach a prohibition on teaching and leading for women. That is to say, this verse is not clear and obvious when placed against the entire cannon of scripture. There is tension no matter which side you take.

As we dig deeper in these verse we find more points to question, though admittedly this is where I wish I was scholarly enough to be able to judge between good information and bad. My own limitations notwithstanding, translators debate over what the word rendered as “authority” here means. In fact, this is the only usage of this word in the Bible, so it’s impossible to say exactly what Paul had in mind. We do know that the women in Ephesus were doing something they ought not to do, and it did involve teaching and exercising control over others, but when we translate that into what it means for modern prohibitions of women, I think we need to be very careful. Building a doctrine upon an ambiguous scripture, especially one that creates a power imbalance, is unwise.

Some egalitarians believe that this verse was about a specific person (the words used switch from plural to singular, giving some amount of credence to this theory) and others believe it had to do with inappropriate teaching based on blending Artemis worship with Christianity. It is probably impossible to know, but what we do know is that no one believes that this verse prohibits all women everywhere from any kind of teaching or any kind of authority. Where we disagree is to the extent that it applies. Gender hierarchists say it applies to the official teaching of doctrine in the church, whereas egalitarians believe that it is a situational teaching and should not be broadly applied in any manner.

What I believe should cause even more concern about this verse are the ones that follow it, which in our modern translations appear to base a prohibition of teaching and leading on Eve’s role in the Fall. This is a curious verse, because nowhere else in scripture is Eve blamed for the Fall, nor his her role really addressed. And then to follow up with salvation through childbearing is even stranger, given that the teaching of scripture, by Paul himself, is that salvation is through faith, not works. Additionally, both Paul and Jesus are very clear that people do not need to get married to serve in the kingdom, so childbearing cannot be something required of women.

The complete disconnect between the plain meaning of the text and the rest of scripture gives me pause. Not that I have reason to doubt that it is the inspired word of God, but I will surely take a step back and question whether more work needs to be done to understand what Paul is telling us. In fact, I would say with such obvious plain text discord with the rest of scripture, I would say digging in for understanding is mandatory. We must admit this is a tough text and be very careful with it.

I have heard gender hierarchists use this text to justify the notion that the former text is universal. Since Paul, they reason, is appealing to history and not culture, this unbinds the prohibition against women teaching from any kind of cultural context. I find this very suspect reasoning, since, again, the idea of blaming Eve and somehow implying that her actions are representative of all women’s inability to lead and teach does not square with anything else taught in scripture.

I believe a far better potential understanding of this text lies square in the culture of Ephesus: the worship of Artemis and the leadership of women. I will admit that this is conjecture, but it seems far more plausible than Paul appealing to Eve as an archetype of female ineptness. Artemis was a goddess, one who was revered and worship in Ephesus, seen as a strong protector, especially during childbirth. It is very reasonable to think that the origin story of Christianity, Adam and Eve, and the origin story of Artemis had become conflated by new believers. That is, Eve takes on attributes of Artemis, becomes the central hero in the Fall, and is beset by poor misguided Adam. Under this kind of a backdrop, this passage takes on an entirely new meaning: Paul was explaining that Eve is not a goddess, she was not the hero, and she made the poor choice to eat the apple. And Eve/Artemis will not keep you safe in childbearing (women would call out for safety to Artemis during the pains of childbirth), but rather it is steadfast faith in the Lord. If in fact this was the intent of Paul’s words, it gives very much credence to the idea that he would be prohibiting from women teaching with authority in the church, not because they are women, but because their message is tainted by a conflation with a pagan goddess.

Now is this true? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know. Maybe there is some other equally plausible explanation for what Paul was talking about with regards to salvation and childbirth. I’m certainly not going to make my stand on the Artemis theory. However, it is MORE plausible than the idea the women (who Paul was pleased to minister along side) would suddenly, in this one verse that applies to all time, be prohibited from leadership within the church. As with any other text, it is the Bible that interprets the Bible, and I feel there are plenty of other texts that demonstrates women leaders and teachers to believe that, Artemis worship or no, this passage is not about a universal limitation on women.

Ephesians 5:15-33

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

This is the text primarily used to support gender hierarchy within the home, between husband and wife. I quoted here a longer portion of this text than is normally used, specifically because I think the context is important. The overall theme of this scripture is how to make the best use of our time and be wise rather than wasting it on being foolish. How are we behaving in the world? How do we relate to one another? Note that  submission is not problematic, as it is the call of every believer one to another.

This is the passage where “headship” is addressed. The meaning of the word for head, kephale, is one that egalitarians have contested.  While “head” carries a connotation of authority in our modern language (the head of a corporation, the head cheerleader, etc.), the literal word simply means “head” (the body part). It is used all over scripture to denote exactly that. Sometimes it is used metaphorically, but even then the usage doesn’t exactly mean “authority”, more like the “source” or “first”. For example, when discussing Jesus as the cornerstone of the church, the word used is the same (kephale stone- the stone laid before all others that all depend on). Centuries later this word would be used to mean authority, but as far as I’ve been able to tell, there are no documented usages of kephale meaning “authority” within a thousand years of the writing of scripture.

I’ll admit that I’m a little skeptical at how some egalitarians take the idea of “source” and imply that this has to do with women coming from man in Creation. To my eyes, that doesn’t seem to be the metaphor or rationale in view. Rather, the analogy appears to characterize the relationships between men and women presently in Ephesus and describe how they ought to relate to one another, using Jesus Christ and the church is an example of what that should look like. Christ’s relationship to the church was not only one of authority, and when the word kephale is used elsewhere, it does seem to have more to do with creation/provision (source) than it does authority. So I think we should be careful about inferring too much from the described “headship” and what it means for a man’s authority. We do know that in some way, Paul wanted to use the relationship between Christ and the church to emphasis the need for wives to submit to husbands (as they were already commanded to do a few verses earlier in the call to general submission). Gender hierarchists will take this is a special, new kind of submission, but I don’t think we can say that is for certain. We do know that Paul is correcting some unsubmissive behavior, but I don’t see warrant for a special kind of submission being called out here.

My biggest caution against believing that Paul is here establishing a permanent hierarchy between men and women is that in the same chain of thought, only a few verses later, he discusses slavery and how slaves are to submit to their masters. Since slavery as an institution is immoral, this suggests to me that Paul is focused on how to behave within defined social constructs rather than establishing them as God’s intended structure. He is not in the business of endorsing those structures.

What is clearly stated in the passage is that wives are called to submit and respect their husbands. The direct implication is that at least some women in Ephesus were not doing so and needed correction. What is not implied, but many gender hierarchists assume, is that this means that husbands have a specific, gender amplified need for authority and respect. And what is certainly not implied is that husbands do not need to submit to or respect their wives.

Likewise, husbands are clearly called to love their wives. Again, the direct implication is that at lest some men in Ephesus were not doing so and needed correction. And again, what is not implied, but many gender hierarchists assume, is that this means wives have a specific, gender amplified need for love. And finally, again the text does not suggest that wives do not need to love their husbands.

In the end, I will concede that Paul may be talking about some form of hierarchy, but I am far from convinced that this was intended to be the pattern all marriages must follow, nor am I convinced that he was intending to expose the differences in genders here. I believe his focus was to describe what Christian living looks like within a certain culture so that Christians could “make the best use of their time”, and he used Christ’s relationship to the church to describe aspects of the husband and wife relationship that needed work.

Gender Hierarchy Applied

An additional concern of mine when understanding the above verses is how to apply them. For the “no women elders” position, the answer starts of clear, but quickly descends into ambiguity. So women many not lead churches as elders, but what are they and what aren’t they allowed to do and teach beyond that? For example, some gender hierarchists like Tim Keller will allow women to do anything a man can do in the church except church discipline. Others, like John Piper, will not allow women to even read scripture aloud in a worship service. Wayne Grudem, influential modern theologian who believes that gender hierarchy is a very important issue to the church, wrote an article wrestling with this very question. It appears to me that things are not very clear after all, because leadership and authority are not simple concepts, easily boiled down into a binary doing it or not doing it.

Even more problematic is the application of male headship. There is very little instruction on how this is applied, and the oft stated principle is that the husband gets a tie breaker vote in the event that a husband and wife cannot agree. I believe this application is problematic because it is not supported anywhere in scripture, nor does providing an answer to how to resolve the (infrequent) situation in which a husband and wife cannot agree on a decision seem to be the kind of major issue that God would created a doctrine around. Now the gender hierarchists will say it’s about MORE than simply who gets a tie breaker vote, but no one can agree on what that more looks like. It seems to me if this is an important doctrine, then we should have a clear way of actually DOING it in action.

The gender hierarchist main takeaway, as far as I can tell, is that we can disagree on application, but the one thing we MUST do is agree there is to be a power differential between men and women. That men must have more power than women. How this is applied is up for grabs, and obviously men must not abuse this power, but the power must go to the man in order to follow a Biblical model of gender. Or to say it differently, “work it out however you want, just make sure you remember that the man is in charge”.

Does this sound disturbing? It does to me, and it doesn’t seem to fit the redemptive nature of the God of the Bible. The God who loves to free the captives and elevate the oppressed. I believe if this is how our theology boils down, we need to re-evaluate because we are missing something.

A (Too Brief) Case For Accepting A Non-Hierarchical View Of Women

The reason I wrote this was to defend my view that believing scripture does not mean I need to accept gender hierarchy. Whether I’ve done that effectively, I can’t say, but at least it’s a glimpse into my thought process. At the least, I hope you can see that I’ve tried to take the matter seriously. That being said, I want to at least provide a launching point for those who wish to understand how I fill the vacuum left behind when I reject gender hierarchy (that is, those who want to understand what I accept, not just what I reject).

I do not believe that subordination is unloving. I go to work and answer to my boss. I command my children to obey and expect they will follow my guidance. Numerous areas of my life have me taking on both roles of authority and subordinate roles. The key, however, is that these roles are all due to circumstances or gifting. This makes sense. I know more than my children and have greater maturity, so they are to obey me as they grow into adulthood (I am gifted by comparison to them). My boss is appointed over me, so for this temporary period in time, I am placed under him.

Gender, however, does not make a person less or more gifted at leadership. Nor is it a temporal, circumstantial aspect of a person’s life. Gender is a permanent, created part of who we are. It may indeed affect our giftedness in some areas (for example, the ability to give birth to children), but authority is not one of them. We all know women who are better leaders then some men, but we do not know any men who are better at giving birth than women.

Creating a power differential between people based on being (not giftedness or situation) is inherently unloving. This is something we intuitively know (now) when it comes to race. We know that the color of a person’s skin does not qualify him or her for leadership, yet this was a debate not too long ago here in the U.S. People even used the Bible to justify forcing human beings with dark skin into subordinate positions. The were wrong., sadly wrong. Racism is harmful, and even worse when God is used to justify it. No one wants to hear “you are lesser because God commands it”.

The greatest command in scripture is love. Jesus says it, and Paul says it. How can we effectively love women with all the dignity they are due if we continually tell them they are lesser than men? And no, the “subordination is an equal, but different role” doesn’t fly. We would never accept that argument for race, how can we accept it for gender?

Rejecting a person’s ability based on gender, an aspect of his or her being, is denying the dignity due that person. We are all due dignity for being created in the image of God, and taking a part of a person and saying it is “off limits” is a failure to love him or her with all the love God intends. Yes, there are women who are happy and fulfilled living subordinate to tender, loving men, but are they all they could be? Are they truly being valued for every aspect of their created being? I think the principle of loving others demands more.

Conclusion

I know I’m not going to convince gender hierarchists to change their views about gender in a short (not short?) blog post. People have written volumes about this subject, and will continue to do so. People much smarter and better equipped than me. However, I hope this can be a valuable part of the conversation so we can all understand one another better. If anything, I want Christians to acknowledge the tension within scripture on this subject, because assuming it is a simple question already solved belies the truth. Cases can be made both for and against gender hierarchy based on numerous factors in how we read the text. This is not to say that scripture does not have a right answer for us, but we do debate what that answer is.

I’ve often read gender hierarchists accuse people like me of being influenced by the culture, but I believe the reverse is true. We live in a world that continually subjugates women, even while high minded individuals and feminists try to resist. As much as they try, however, it’s still a man’s world. Women are still too often exploited for the wants of men, and their ability to achieve what men can is limited. So “counter culture” is not a good argument for gender hierarchy. Counter cultural is to truly love and find the dignity in all people, and treat them as equals.

In the end, this all comes down to one question: Can equality exist when a woman is deemed subordinate in her being. I do not think it can, nor do I think is it the teaching of scripture.

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About Jeff S

Programmer, musician, father, and lover of Jesus. I have a strong passion to see people free from abuse and religion misused so that they can find the ultimate empowered life in Jesus.
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