17 June 2024

Male headship and the modern world

Former Bishop George Browning weighs into the male headship debate

By George Browning

25 July 2017

Male headship, which is a non-negotiable article of faith amongst Sydney Anglicans and many Protestant Churches, notably non-aligned Baptist Churches, has received considerable recent attention as a result of the journalistic investigation conducted by Julia Baird. Julia is not an anti-Church polemicist, quite the contrary; she and her instantly recognisable family are themselves active in their Christian faith and Church attendance,
Julia’s investigation has shown an existential link between this article of faith and the practice of domestic violence. It is hardly surprising therefore that Church leaders, including the Archbishop of Sydney in their defence of this ‘biblical verity’ have argued that any connection between it and domestic violence is the result of a total misunderstanding. But is this defence believable? A spirited defence of headship is required by those who hold it because of their understanding that the proposition is not simply a vague doctrine amongst many others, but rather an essential pillar undergirding the very order of creation.
I have no doubt that the vast majority of Christian men who espouse this doctrine  find any form of domestic violence repulsive and in their marriages are genuinely loving; practicing a principle of equality to the very best of their ability.
However, there is no getting away from the reality that the flip side of headship is subjugation.  If biblical headship in fact means the one who holds this responsibility, is the chief servant and puts himself last, as the Archbishop would have us believe, then I suggest another word or metaphor should be found to express this truth. But this is not what those who espouse this doctrine mean. They mean that the male is the head in a manner that women can never be. This is expressed in the Church through insistence that women should not be licensed to preach, or teach, or hold a position of authority over men. Women are clearly subservient to men.  Its implication in marriage is that men take the lead in decision making. I grew up in a conservative evangelical family where this doctrine was subscribed. It was a loving family and I consider myself to have enjoyed a blessed childhood, but it was a family situation in which my mother accepted with enormous grace and humility that subservience was her lot. It was her grace and humility that formed her children.
On the 7.30 Report Archbishop Davies argued his case by saying that men and women are different and there are things women can do that men cannot and vice versa.  The example he gave was that men cannot have babies.  Clearly there are physiological differences between the genders, but it is a very long bow to claim that as a result of physiology, relational or leadership roles are possible to one and not the other.  It seems pretty obvious that marriage roles are totally reversible and that tasks or oversights undertaken by the woman in one marriage are more suited to the man in the other and vice versa.
Is the doctrine of male headship arguable from scripture?  Yes of course it is. Does it therefore mean that is right? No it does not. There are many positions that can be argued from certain biblical texts. Am I inferring that scripture lacks authority? No I am not.  What I am saying is that scripture speaks to scripture and the overriding character or virtue required of followers of Jesus is a lack of ambition to do anything other than to serve. It cannot, indeed it must not be the implicit or explicit teaching of the Church that anyone has the right, let alone the mandate, to lord it as ‘head’ over another. 
Whether or not there is some ‘misunderstanding’ of the doctrine is not the point.  The inference of headship is not acceptable because of the connotations it carries.  Male headship has carried cultural accretions over the years which have taken a long time to be abandoned, sometimes requiring enormous energy. Many would argue, with justification, there remains a long way to go. It is not long ago that female suffrage had to be fought for.  Traditional marriages carry symbolic images of women being passed from one male (parent) to another (husband). While this meaning is not front and centre in the minds of modern brides, nevertheless the ‘giving away’ and the veil carry the inference that female identity is derived through the male.
We in Australia have to be honest in admitting that domestic violence is endemic and that it is present across all economic, social, racial and religious communities. Sadly it is most often present when the family unit is under stress through disadvantage, crisis, change of status and inequality. Statistically domestic violence is most prevalent in indigenous communities.
Any teaching that has the capacity for gross manipulation, however wholesome it might seem to its adherents, should be abandoned. Surely the quality one might expect in a Christian home of joint responsibility and loving care expressed through and between parents does not need to be loaded with a teaching that can have, and does have some very cruel implications. 

Dr George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. This is a slightly edited version of an article he wrote for his blog on 24 July 2017. See http://www.georgebrowning.com.au

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