Before venturing into a formal review of Shirley Taylor's new book, Dethroning Male Headship, I wanted to comment on the use of the term itself. She recently posed the question about when the term became popular and with whom it originated. (I first heard it in Presbyterian churches which I started attending in the '90s, and no one with whom I've inquired can remember “male headship” as a term before this time either.) Though the concepts of subservience and scapegoating of women have been with us for a long time, the term is a relatively new. The points I make here are not part of Shirley's book, but I think that they are worthy of consideration.
A Funny Story About Language
Allow me to retell a story that my first pastor lived out when he went off to language school to prepare to be a missionary to Bolivia. He and his wife were sent to a Spanish language school in Costa Rica so that they could be immersed in Spanish. Learning the words and the rules of language are only a single part of the training, as one also has to learn how to properly use the language in real life. A local church there became hosts to these students, giving them an opportunity to experience the stress of not only speaking but also preaching.
My old pastor was passionate in his appeals at the end of his sermons, and in his zeal on that morning, he felt inspired to put aside his translation notes, as I believed that he was supposed to read his sermon that day. He believed that he could just pour out his heart to do what he so enjoyed doing in English. He was going to issue the appeal to the congregation to come forward to the front of the church without using his notes, believing that the Holy Spirit would really flow through him in the Spanish language. He so yearned to be the vessel through which God would change lives with the Word of Truth. But he learned an unexpected lesson that day.
He thought that he had invited the people to come forward to pray at the altar, passionately as he'd done so many times in English, but he was shocked at the response. The crowd suddenly roared with laughter, and the pastor of the church there in Costa Rica laughed so hard, he wandered out of the church and leaned up against a tree, holding his belly because it hurt so much from laughing so hard. He could barely talk when my old pastor went to him to ask what on earth he'd said.
The word for “pray” in Spanish is orar. Coincidentally, the word for “urninate” is pronounced orinar. Due to just a few misplaced letters and as my beloved pastor explained things, he'd invited the congregation that day to come forward to urinate on the altar. I'm told that instead of calling just the people forward, the pastor also specifically called all of the “butt heads” to come forward, though I don't recall what he misspoke in that bad translation. Adding to the humor, in the area where they intended to set up a new missionary work, many people probably would follow exactly what they were told to do. Public urination, for lack of a better term, is quite common among the people whom this pastor turned budding missionary hoped to reach with the message of redemption through Jesus and the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
My story illustrates a common problem with language. The words that we use are important, and understanding of a consistent meaning of those words must also accompany that correct usage of them. In Spanish, praying and urinating sound so similar to us in English, but the difference between them is quite vast! The mere sound of words as well as unique use of them in unusual ways can also connote meaning, just like the term of “butt head” differs from “strong willed.” Respect for the power of language should be particularly true for Christians who worship the Living Word, He who became flesh and dwelt among us. Words are our gifts, tools, and sometimes weapons by which we wage war against evil and deception. They also hold the power to woo others, through either kindness unto repentance or through deception that causes us to believe a lie. A good ambassador for Christ must use the correct language in the correct way, and we must be clear on what exactly those words mean and how we use them. Adding to the layers of this importance, we must be true to the Word of God and our best understanding of the clear meaning of what we find written there. And we need to focus on the plain and main things, not place all of our focus on peripheral hobby horses which can also distort the message of Christianity by majoring on the minor points of doctrine. As Paul put it, we must preach Christ and Him crucified. We should always use our opportunities to direct people back to Jesus who calls us to love God with everything in us through how we live, and this should manifest with others by loving our neighbor.
I don't wan't to reinvent the wheel in this post, for I've already written a great deal about this concept in the past, particularly concerning equivocation, redefinition, linguistic booby traps, the problem of loaded language, and thought-stopping terms (particularly those derived from Biblical language). James Sire talks about this in greater detail, too. Don't fall for the Biblical hook. (Check these embedded links to learn more,then consider for yourself just how significant the honest and responsible use of language must be for the Christian.)
How the Term Headship Was Used in the Discussion of Doctrine
In recent years, partly because of the Evangelical Church's rejection of anti-intellectualism, it became vogue to use more academic terms in more common settings. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, if people understand what those terms mean and how they apply.
In academic settings, particularly in Presbyterian and Reformed ones, the term “headship” traditionally spoke to and defined “federal headship,” an aspect of the Doctrine of Original Sin. People often either used only one of these terms to be more concise at times, referring to the doctrine as either federalism or as headship. As is true of the stuffiness of academia, the term “federal” seems elusive to those who don't know why it applies or what it means to define. Our use of the most common definition of federalism in today's world describes how our central government in the United States derives its power from the individual power that it is given by smaller states that join together for a common goal.
Within theology, however, the derivative of the Latin word foedus means “treaty” or “league.” In what I will call a Presbyterian interpretation and tradition, federal headship explains that Adam was the representative for all mankind during The Fall when original sin occurred. Presbyterians also use the term of “covenant” in place of “federalism,” too, so the theology followed is called “Covenant Theology.” A covenant is a binding agreement, just as a treaty, so the two are synonyms. For this reason, you might notice that Presbyterians and the Reformed often use the word “covenant” as a modifier when discussing the Christian life. Calvin was a lawyer and Knox was a notary, so I am not surprised that they deferred to some of this kind of language because of their training and personal preferences in their approach to their faith.
Those who are trained in a Dispensationalist Theology usually just hear these concepts referred to using the term of “covenant” only. The Old Covenant came to us (originally) through Adam and the “Covenant of Works” because of his “headship” representation of all mankind. It is this “headship” that Adam holds which binds us to original sin and the consequences of spiritual death and eventual physical death. In the New Covenant, Jesus becomes a Believer's new “federal representative,” but He extends headship and goes on to pay the penalty of death to which Adam (and the rest of us) were previously bound. In so doing, Jesus frees us from the consequences and the demands of what Paul calls “the law of sin and death” under the Old Covenant that Believers held with God. Through the new headship of Jesus, we are translated into the Law of the Spirit of Life in Jesus the Messiah instead. With this understanding, consider that “headship” embodies in one word and conveyed not only our fallenness, but also the authority and power of the atonement of Jesus and all that it accomplishes for us. It references the First Adam and affirms the victory we are given through Jesus, the Second Adam.
At least, that is what it used to represent.
But something began to happen in the Eighties that changed the way that the word “headship” was used and understood. It wasn't just a term and a part of the taxonomy or the classification of doctrine. It became something else.
Capitalizing on the Connotation of Headship
In the Eighties, the formal effort among Evangelicals came together, and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) was formed, and they had a mission. They said that they intended to clarify for people what the Bible demanded of Christians in terms of gender and what they call “gender roles.” John Piper who helped to craft these new ideas melded Calvinist ideas and language with the influences and beliefs of gender that he derived from the Independent Fundamental Baptists when he framed out the apologetics of what the group now defined as “complementarianism.” The ideas of John R. Rice with whom Piper's family enjoyed a close friendship and religious interest became intermingled with both the language and the dominionist framework provided by Covenant Theology (the larger Theology generally followed by Calvinists.) Today, the High Priests of Complementarianism also largely claim to espouse Covenant Theology and/or Calvinism.
I believe that those who crafted the new theology and terminology drew the term of “male headship” from the Presbyterian and Reformed concept of “federal headship” to create the new application of meaning, making the term a new and novel use of the word. In my experience, and after asking many others about their understanding of “headship” prior to the contemporary gender debate fueled by CBMW, male headship is a new term that was not commonly used before. That in itself is not a cause for great criticism, but considering the other methods employed to advance their concepts, I don't believe that the High Priests of Complementarianism are so innocent. It gives to reason in my estimation that they borrowed the term “headship” from the Doctrine of Original Sin by reinterpreting it, redefining it for the gender agenda. They crafted the new term into their particularly crafted new theology concerning gender, and they enjoy the benefits.
Please note that I consider that CBMW extended the traditional views on gender held by Presbyterians and the Reformed when they framed out the Danvers Statement, venturing into serious doctrinal error. (CBMW's theology and means of advancing their beliefs differs dramatically from a traditional Presbyterian type of view and even from that of the Independent Fundamental Baptists concerning the identity of Jesus.)
Notice the added benefit that they derive from this new definition: When people then hear the term “headship,” though it is not referring to the propitiation that Jesus gave to us, it carries the same kind of awe inspiring feeling with it for those who understand the traditional use of the word in theology and academics. Headship is all about Jesus, so I believe that “male headship” automatically borrows from that significance and authority, too, just to “sell” the concept. I believe that, without many words and with just a single one, “headship” connotes an extra level of authority because people so strongly associate it with Christ. Consider that in our example of my former pastor, when the terms sound alike, we run into the problem of misuse and misunderstanding. In his case, it was humorous. Concerning headship, I believe that the term preys upon the trust and understanding of the Believer who strongly associates the term with such a powerful and central Christian concept. I'm also reminded of a Mormon woman who turned from her traditional Christian faith because the language of the LDS sounded so much like Christianity, so she deemed it trustworthy. For the Berean, “sounds like” isn't good enough. The message must also be cogent.
(Please note that my concerns are apart from the discussion of the Greek term kephale (“head”) and how it is used in the New Testament. For that discussion, please refer to the host of writings of your choice on that specific topic. For those who have been indoctrinated with complementarian theology, I'm sure this concern with the terminology will be a difficult point to consider apart from the doctrine itself because loaded language has been so deeply woven into complementarian ideas. Regardless, my purpose here concerns only the loaded language abuses of connotation and neologism.)
Like so many other terms that have been hijacked by fringe groups in Christianity, “headship” becomes a thought-stopping term which essentially blackmails Christians into automatic agreement with it because of what it connotes on the surface of it. Because of how the theology has been constructed and defended, rejection of the complementarian paradigm renders a person to be sinful by rejecting the true God and His Lordship and assigns to critics the belief in a type of open theism (God is not really sovereign while He crosses His fingers, hoping that things will turn out good in the end). Those who reject complementarianism are said to worship what effectively becomes a false God and a false Christ through holding an inaccurate idea about who God is. If we reject hierarchy, we reject the true God.
People generally don't see these statements as violent or extreme because they are covered over with soft speech and tone, dripping with homiletic skill and the tactics of rhetoric. Don't forget that Bruce Ware tells us, in an ever so sweet tone of concern, that we are wrong to pray to Jesus because He doesn't have the authority to answer prayer, since that authority belongs to the Father alone. Complementarians use this type of emotional blackmail to threaten people with the loss of their status as a Christian if they take issue with hierarchy among the Persons of the Godhead, an exploitive trick which Robert Lifton called the “Dispensing of Existence.” If we don't agree, we are in sin, because CBMW redefined gender roles and rules as a direct manifestation of God's Identity. They reclassified gender beliefs as essential doctrine without which a person cannot be considered a Christian. (They redefined the definition of who God is through redefining theology concerning His nature and identity.)
Some groups have even directly melded the two separate doctrines of “federal headship” into “male headship” improperly, though I'm not surprised, given how convoluted the teachings of complementarianism can be. Most of the writings like this one have been deleted. Gender identity melds with family identity for them, along with how gender hierarchy meshes into society. For example, during the 2008 election, some more fringe patriarchal groups suggested that Sarah Palin would have become the “federal covenant representative” for the citizens in the US (and in some respects, for aspects of the Church), had she been elected on the McCain ticket. (Complementarians within the Southern Baptist Convention took no issue with Palin holding a position of authority in civil government but opposed her sharing authority with her husband in the home or holding a leadership position in her church. The SBC is also more careful to not overtly meld federal headship with male headship, naming husbands as mini-intercessors for their wives directly and formally. They're a little more crafty when it comes to that implied meaning and logical conclusion of their ideas about hierarchy.)
What Headship Means Now
If you enter “headship” into a search engine, you will have to do quite a bit of scrolling through many pages before you find a link to a discussion of headship as it relates to the Doctrine of Original Sin.
I don't take that much issue with the term of “male headship” itself, as I view it as part of the taxonomy of how doctrine is parsed out in the formal study of theology. It is a belief that some hold, and for me, the term doesn't hold any special power. The problem with the term comes through abusive ideas about what the term means in the practical sense. I often use the term as a way to generate discussion and thought. I did pledge in my single marriage vow that I would submit (choosing to yield) to my husband with the same seriousness that I yield myself to God. I don't follow God blindly without question or qualification, so I don't do that with my husband, either. Using the term gives me an opportunity to discuss the prefacing and overarching idea of mutual submission that is presented earlier in Ephesians Chapter 5, as this determines what I understand about submission to my husband. In that sense, one could say that I follow male headship in my home. I suspect, however, that nearly all complementarians would disagree with me, as I'm told that what I've always followed in my marriage is, in fact, egalitarianism.
But for many who have suffered, male headship has nothing to do with mutual submission. It has to do with abuse and the silencing of women.
Misuse of “Male Headship”
I take issue with how so many dutiful and zealous Christians have been taught and have fully accepted the teaching that the concept of headship represents an authoritarian hierarchy which has been used to bind women from sharing the Gospel, as some are not even permitted to read a Scripture before the congregation in a worship service. In some cases, it has been used to justify domestic violence and a requirement for wives to tolerate their husband's sin against them within their marriage. It has been used to sexualize theology and the Godhead. Dorothy Patterson (not a Calvinist), claims that a woman has a duty to follow her husband's wishes, even if it conflicts with her conscience and requires her to do something that she would choose not to do. Obedience to your husband overrides your conscience, and God won't hold it against you because submission to your husband essentially overrides your conscience and better judgement – that which is hopefully governed by the Holy Spirit for the Christian. And I recall the day that I stood in a Baptist Seminary as many young men there told me that theybelieved that they would stand before God one day to give an account for their wives lives and would be laden with the punishment for the sins of their wives. I believe that Scripture argues vigorously against all of these beliefs. As Shirley puts it, these abuses can and must be halted if we first tear out the root of the problem – the bad theology. We must “Dethrone Male Headship.” As Aesop notes in The Wolf and the Lamb we don't, the tyrants will only find a new way and a new pretext in which to manifest their tyranny.
We have to be careful that we have not misunderstood language and have adopted meanings that are not clear and plain in Scripture, just because someone told us that this is what Scripture says. We must study it for ourselves. The story about my former pastor's error seems lighthearted, and we can be glad that the people in the congregation that day enjoyed the liberty of trusting their own better discernment, that they realized error and their own God-given autonomy to choose an appropriate course of action. But in the twisting of doctrine through new terms that capitalize on the meaning of older ones, and in bending meaning of the Bible to defend the doctrines of men, I believe that danger rests in the subtlety. The errors of contrived male headship are not so obvious as are those in this lighthearted story, and the consequences are far greater and more damaging.
Scripture tells us that we will one day stand before God and will give an account for every idle word we have spoken. If we compromise through unfaithful use of language and we have used it to deceive others or to justify a hobby horse belief that we want to believe, how much more serious will the consequences be for us by comparison? What if we misused the Word of God and leadership positions in the Body of Christ to justify these ideas and beliefs? And what happens if we say nothing about deception and exploitation of Scripture that so often results in harm to others? What if we have the opportunity to oppose what we understand to be evil, yet we say nothing? How will we answer for the words that we should have spoken but chose to remain silent instead? Fear of speaking out is temporary. Regret lasts forever.
I long for the day when the most common use of the term “headship” returns to that which refers to original sin which points us to the atonement – a term about Christ and Him crucified. I find it so prophetic that even in the use of this term, complementarianism elevates man and has taken away the glory that is due to Jesus.
The official review of Shirley's book,
is soon to come!