Faith seeking understanding

Scripture, male headship and abuse

Following complaints on the ABC by women about the alleged abusive behaviour of their evangelical husbands, the question of male headship within marriage has once again become a contentious issue, dividing Christians on the vexed issue of how to interpret Scripture. New Testament Scholar Dorothy Lee outlines the arguments for equality of wife and husband, and asks: if women are required to deny their true selves, and their God-given gifts and calling, is this perhaps itself a form of abuse?

By Dorothy Lee

July 7 2017On the one side of the male headship debate are ‘egalitarians’ who argue for the equality of wife and husband within marriage. On the other side are ‘complementarians’ who believe that the husband has headship over the wife.

These contrasting views have profound implications for the organisation of the Church. Those who take the latter view believe that no woman can exercise ‘headship’ within an ecclesial context. She cannot be the Vicar or Rector of a parish, nor can she exercise episcopal orders because both involve headship which is condemned in Scripture.

This debate hinges on several passages in the New Testament containing what are generally called the ‘household codes’: instructions setting out the parallel responsibilities of each person within a domestic – and sometimes wider – context (Col 3:18-4:1; Eph 5:21-6:9; Tit 2:1-10; 1 Pet 2:18-3:7; also 1 Tim 2:1-15).

 These codes involve children and parents, slaves and masters, and rulers and citizens, as well as wives and husbands. The primary virtue for the first group (children, slaves, wives and citizens) is that of willing submission; the main virtue for the second (parents, masters, husbands and rulers) is the kindly and selfless exercise of authority.

Considerable exegetical work has been done, and continues to be done, on these texts and their precise meaning, sometimes challenging the received interpretation. For example, the word ‘head’ (kephalê) does not necessarily mean ‘headship’ in the sense of rule, but can also mean ‘source’.

Moreover, given that the New Testament letters containing the household codes are aimed for specific contexts, it is hard to know how generally these instructions are to be taken. Are they contextual and immediate or wide-ranging principles for all times and places?

If they are general principles, it is hard to know how to reconcile them with other texts from the letters that seem to enshrine a more fundamental and revolutionary principle. For example, in 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of women as having ‘authority’ in their own right within the Christian assembly to prophesy (1 Cor 11:10), which is one of the highest gifts (1 Cor 14:1).

Later in the same letter, Paul seems to require wives to be silent and learn at home from their husbands (1 Cor 14:34-35), something that contradicts their authority to exercise the highest gifts – this may well be a specific context in which unruly members of the assembly are being asked to keep their unruliness at home!

Perhaps the strongest Pauline principle is found in Galatians where, within the context of baptism, the hierarchical divisions between the main human groups are dissolved: race, class and gender (Gal 3:27-29). Every Christian has equal status, precisely because of her or his incorporation into Christ and the radically ‘new creation’ inaugurated in Jesus’ death and resurrection (2 Cor 5:17).

To this we may also add Paul’s own warm and supportive relationship with women in ministry. Far from being a misogynist, Paul speaks of women leaders in the highest terms: as theologians (Priscilla), as apostles (Junia), as deacons (Phoebe), as fellow-workers in the Gospel. Their authority in these roles is assumed.

The Gospels

Too little of this conversation takes into account the Gospels and their witness to women’s ministry and authority. Here it is not a question of texts torn from their literary or social contexts, but rather the portrayal in general terms of women as disciples and leaders. Women are ‘first at the cradle and last at the tomb’.

Mary, the mother of the Lord, is the one who bears in her own body the incarnate Son, who has authority to say Yes to God’s terrifying call and to proclaim the very nature of God’s kingdom (Lk 1:26-55). She is also present among the core group of disciples at Pentecost at the founding of the Church (Acts 1:13-14).

Throughout his ministry, women acclaim Jesus and confess publicly their faith in him. In the first three Gospels, women are integral to the band of disciples who take the radical call of Jesus seriously and follow him (Lk 8:1-3; Mk 15:40-41).

In John’s Gospel, a village of Samaritans is converted through the witness of the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:27-42). The basic Christian confession, made by Peter in the first three Gospels, is made by Martha (Jn 11:27), while her sister Mary acts as the archetypal disciple in stark contrast to Judas Iscariot, the very type of the false disciple (Jn 12:1-8).

Mary Magdalene is portrayed, as the early Church named her, ‘apostle of the apostles’ in John’s resurrection story, the first to proclaim the Easter message (Jn 20:1-18). She, along with other women disciples, are the primary witnesses to the empty tomb and to the appearances of the Lord in the other Gospels (Mk 16:1-8; Matt 28:1-11; Lk 24:1-11).

There is sufficient exegetical work to illustrate the equality and authority of women as disciples and leaders in the New Testament, within the context of a mutual ministry. This evidence is not confined to the so-called ‘liberal’ wing of the Church but evangelicals are also, in many places, arguing along similar lines.

Gender polarities

So what is the reason for this division in the Church, if it is based neither on authentic exegetical and theological study of the New Testament nor on party lines?

There are too many ways – perhaps clichéd and simplistic – of answering this question. In charity we should certainly avoid name-calling! But I would want to counter the argument against the mutuality of women and men in home and church, with another question that goes to the heart of the gender polarity: Why?

Why has God ordained it that women should submit and that men should rule: in the home, in the church? It is not enough to say that God has spoken it and there the argument ends. God’s law is life-giving and reasonable: the commands we are given make sense, if we assume a personal God and a personal, saving relationship with that God.

If God has so appointed the ordering of the family and the Christian community, then the only reason to support this view is that, in the realities of gender difference, authority belongs by nature to men and submission to women. Women are not made for leadership in this model. There is something within their nature that limits their capacity to exercise authority, except within severely limited constraints.

Men, by contrast, are born to rule, and possess within their very nature that which enables them to exercise authority. The only issue then is how they exercise it: violently and oppressively or gently and selflessly.

But here is the problem. If that is the case for family and church – if the gender division is grounded in the natural giftedness of each – then the same principle should apply across society in every aspect of its life and work. We should be opposing women as politicians, lawyers, academics, doctors and teachers (except when they are working exclusively with women and young children). If women cannot exercise authority over men in domestic and ecclesial contexts, they cannot exercise authority anywhere.

It is at best inconsistent and at worse hypocritical to claim otherwise. Nature itself, reinforced by divine command in the biblical writings, would appear to tell us so.


There has been a good deal of discussion around the dangers of ‘headship’ within the context of family violence and a number of prominent ‘complementarians’ have stood up against their colleagues in being prepared to condemn it, to listen to women and to encourage them to break free of such abusive relationships.

This response is, of course, deeply welcome. But a more fundamental question hangs in the air.

Could it be that subjecting Christian women to male authority – however mercifully exercised – is itself a form of psychological abuse? If that is considered an overstatement, what then do we call it when women’s gifts for leadership and their capacity to exercise mutual authority alongside men are denied?

How do we name it when women are compelled or manipulated into a one-sided subservience that denies their true selves, their gifts and calling, their God-given dignity as it is redeemed and proclaimed in Jesus Christ?