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Women's Role in the Church #6

Headship and Subordination


by the late Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi



     Is the principle of male headship in the home and in the
church derived legitimately from Scripture or illegitimately from
men's efforts to dominate women? 'The answer to this question has
fundamental implications for the role of women in the church. If
the male headship in marriage and in the church is a Biblical
principle, then the ordination of women as pastors/elders is an
unbiblical practice. On the other hand, if the Scriptures teach
that the headship role can be equally exercised by men and women,
then the ordination of women as pastors/elders, must be accepted
as a Biblically-sanctioned practice.
     Both liberal and evangelical feminists have long recognized
the negative implications of the male-headship principle for the
ordination of women. Consequently they have made a strenuous
effort to reinterpret the male "headship texts" of the New
Testament (Eph 5:23; 1 Cor 11:3-16), in accordance with the
"partnership paradigm" upon which the ordination of women is
     The New Testament texts which say that "the husband is the
head of the wife" (Eph 5:23), and "the head of a woman is her
husband" (1 Cor 11:3) historically have been understood to mean
that husbands have "authority over" their wives. Recently this
interpretation has been challenged, especially by liberal and
evangelical feminists who contend that the word "head" in such
passages means "source" or "origin" rather than designating
"authority over."
     This interpretation is used by feminists to reject any form
of women's subordination to their husbands and to argue for
sexual equality and role-interchangeability. For example,
Scanzoni and Hardesty write:  "If we think of the term "head" in
the sense of arche (beginning, origin, source), we are again
reminded of the interdependence of the sexes, each drawing life
from the other." 2 This interdependence supposedly allows both
spouses to fill the roles of father, mother, breadwinner,
housekeeper, pastor, elder, etc. 3


     The purpose of this chapter is threefold. First, we shall
ascertain the meaning of "head" as used in Ephesians 5:23 and I
Corinthians 11:3. Second, we shall examine the principle of
headship and subordination in marriage. Third, we shall consider
the principle of headship and subordination in the church. The
chapter is divided in three distinct parts, each of which
examines one of the three cited objectives.



1. Head as "Source"

     What did Paul mean when he wrote that "the head of a woman
is her husband" (1 Cor 11:3) and that "the husband is the head of
the wife" (Eph 5:23)? Numerous recent authors have argued that in
these texts "head" does not mean authority but rather "origin" or
"source." 4 The implication of this definition is that Paul was
not teaching that man "has authority over" (= head over) his
wife, but rather that he is her "source" and consequently he must
be especially concerned for her.

Modern Authors. 

     The first to propound that "head" (kephale) in 1 Corinthians
11:3 should 'be understood as "origin" or "source" seems to have
been Stephen Bedale in an article published in 1954. 5 Since
then, numerous writers have expressed the same view. 6 Among
them, the most influencial have been Berkeley and Alvera
Mickelsen. In several articles they have argued that Paul used in
1 Corinthians 11:3 the term "head" not in the sense of "authority
or hierarchy" but rather in the sense of "source, base,
derivation," and in Ephesians 5:23 in the sense of "one who
brings to completion." 7 The implication of this interpretation
is that the "head texts" do not preclude women from being
ordained to serve as pastors/elders in the church.

Arguments for "Source." 
     The various arguments advanced for interpreting "head" as
"source" or "origin" rather than as "ruler or authority" have
been examined and compellingly refuted by Wayne Grudem. 8 The
reader is referred to Grudem's exhaustive analysis for a fuller
treatment of this question. Briefly stated the main arguments for
this view fall into four categories:

(1) Linguistic. 

     In classical and contemporary Greek "head" (kephale) does
not normally mean "ruler" or "authority over." 9 The
Mickelsens support this claim by appealing to the Liddell-Scott
lexicon where the meaning of "authority over" is not listed.
Instead, this lexicon cites two examples (Herodotus 4, 91 and
Orphic Fragments 21 a) where "head" is used with the meaning of
"source." 10 The latter meaning of the "head" as the ruling part
of the organism "would be unintelligible to St. Paul or his
readers." 11

(2) Cultural. 

     The ancient world did not view the head as the seat of
thinking and the executive part of the body. "In St. Paul's day,
according to popular psychology, both Greek and Hebrew, a man
reasoned and purposed, not 'with his head, but 'in his heart." 12
Consequently, the metaphor of is supposedly present in the "head
texts" (1 Cor 11:3; Eph 5:23).

(3) Septuagint. 

     The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament)
supposedly shows that "head" (kephale) can mean "source." The
main support for this conclusion is that when the Hebrew word
ro'sh ("head") means "ruler" or "chief," it was translated by
either kephale ("head") or arche ("beginning" or "ruler"). Since
arche sometimes means "source," then kephale in Paul's writings
may mean "source" as well. 13

(4) Parallelism. 

     The word "head" (kephale) is supposedly used by Paul in
Colossians 2:19 and Ephesians 4:15 with the meaning of "source of
life." Christians are exhorted in Colossians 2:19 to hold fast
"to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit
together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth
that is from God." The Mickelsens argue that in this passage
Christ is the "head" in the sense that He is "the source of
life," and not of "superior rank." 14 They believe that the same
meaning applies to 1 Corinthians 11:3, since in verses 8 and 12
of the same chapter Paul says that "woman was made from man."
Analysis of Linguistic Argument. The first argument is based on
an unproven assumption. Wayne Grudem has discredited this
assumption by finding and quoting thirty-two examples in which
kephale ("head") is used to mean "authority over" or "ruler" in
Greek writings outside the New Testament (seventeen are from
Greek translations of the Old Testament and fifteen are from
other literature). 15
     The absence in the Liddell-Scott lexicon of "authority over"
as a meaning for "head" is not conclusive evidence for the
non-existence of such a meaning. The reason is, as Wayne Grudem
rightly explains:

     Liddell-Scott is the standard lexicon for all of Greek
     literature from about 700 B.C. to about A.D. 600 with
     emphasis on classical Greek authors in the seven centuries
     prior to the New Testament. Liddell-Scott is the tool one
     would use when studying Plato or Aristotle, for example; but
     it is not the standard lexicon that scholars use for the
     study of the New Testament. (The standard lexicon for that
     is Bauer-Amdt-Gingrich-Danker). 16

Analysis of Cultural Argument. 

     While it is true that in the ancient world "the heart"
rather than "the head" was generally viewed as the seat of
thinking (Prov 14:33; 22:17, in Hebrew and KJV; Luke 5:22), there
is also significant evidence that the "head" was regarded as the
thinking and ruling part of the body. Plutarch (A.D.46-120), a
prominent Greek author contemporary to the New Testament period,
explains why the words "soul" (psyche) and "head" (kephale) can
be used to refer to the whole person: "We affectionately call a
person 'soul' or'head' from his ruling parts." 17
     Similarly the Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 30 B.C.--c. A.D.
45) writes: "The mind is the head and the ruler of the
sense-perception in us."1g Also he says: "As the head in the
living body is the ruling place, so Ptolemy became head among
kings." 19 Examples such as these discredit the claim that the
metaphor of the head ruling the body would have been
"unintelligible to St. Paul or his readers."

Analysis of Septuagint Argument. 

     The argument that "head" in the Septuagint sometimes means
"source" is a gratuitous assumption, devoid of any textual
support. The reader will search in vain for examples in the
articles by Stephen Bedale and the Mickelsens showing that "head"
(kephale) was ever used with the meaning of "source" in the
Septuagint. The fact that kephale is sometimes used in the
Septuagint interchangeably with arche, which can mean "source,"
or "beginning," does not per se demonstrate that kephale
generally means "source." 20
     Wayne Grudem explains this inconsistency by using a fitting
example from the English language:

     A parallel to Bedale's argument in English would be if I
     were to argue (1) that "jump" and "spring" could both be
     used to translate some foreign word when it referred to a
     "leap in the air," and (2) that therefore there is a
     "virtual equation of 'jump' and 'spring' in English." I
     would then go on to argue that "jump" also can mean "a
     fountain of water," or "a coil of metal," or "a pleasant
     season of the year when flowers begin to bloom." 21

Analysis of Parallelism Argument. 

     The imagery of Christ as "the Head" of the church, which is
compared to the word "body" in Colossians 2:19 and Ephesians
4:15, does allow for "Head" to mean "source," but it certainly
does not exclude the meaning of "authority over." The context of
Colossians 2:19 indicates that Paul encourages his readers to
abandon the worship of angels and serve only Christ as the true
"Head." In this context of allegiance to Christ instead of to
angels, the reference to Christ as the "Head" best implies
"authority over" the church. Moreover, even if it meant "the
source" of the church, it would still imply "authority over" the
church by virtue of the very fact that the church derives her
origin and sustenance from Christ.
     Similarly, the context (vv.8,10-12) of Ephesians 4:15 shows
that Christ is "the Head" of the church in the sense that He is
the sovereign Lord who rules the church and nourishes her growth.
The fact that Christ as "the Head" is the source of growth of the
church, presupposes that He is also the leader of the church.
This brief analysis of the four arguments used to interpret
"head" in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23 as meaning
"source" rather than "authority over," suffices to show that this
interpretation lacks textual, contexual and historical support.

2. Head as "Authority Over"

     Are we correct in understanding "head" in 1 Corinthians 11:3
and Ephesians 5:23 as meaning "authority over"? When we read that
"the head of a woman is her husband" (1 Cor 11:3) and "the
husband is the head of the wife" (Eph 5:23), are we right to
think that these mean that the husband is in a position of
authority with respect to his wife? We believe that this
understanding is correct. The main evidences supporting this
conclusion fall into five major categories, each of which will be
briefly stated here.

(1) New Testament Lexicons. 

     All the standard lexicons and dictionaries for the New
Testament do list "authority over," "ruler," or "superior rank"
as meanings for "head" (kephale). The Bauer-Amdt
Gingrich lexicon gives the following definition under the word
kephale: "in the case of living beings, to denote superior rank."
22 Thirteen examples are then listed of such usage, including 1
Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23.
     The same meaning is given by Heinrich Schlier in the
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Referring to the use
of kephale in the Septuagint, he writes:     

     "kephale is used for the head or ruler of a society." 23

     Again, with reference to 1 Corinthians 11:3, Schlier says:

"kephale implies one who stands over another in the sense of
being the ground of his being." 24 

     Similar definitions are given by The New International
Dictionary of New Testament Theology and by the older New
Testament lexicons by Thayer and Cremer.

(2) Textual Evidences. 

     There are ample textual evidences from ancient Greek
literature attesting to the use of "head" (kephale) with the
meaning of "authority over." Wayne Grudem conducted a painstaking
survey of 2,336 examples, by utilizing a computerized database of
the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae at the University of
California-Irvine. This listing included the major classical
Greek authors, in addition to the Septuagint, Philo, Josephus,
the Apostolic Fathers, the New Testament and others.
     The results of the survey are very significant. In the vast
majority of instances kephale refers to an actual physical head
of a man or animal (87%). 25 Of the 302 instances where kephale
is used metaphorically, 49 times it is used to denote a "ruler"
or a "person of superior authority or rank." "The other
interesting conclusion from this study is that no instances were
discovered in which kephale had the meaning 'source, origin." 26
This data openly contradicts the Mickelsens' statement that "a
more common meaning [of "head"] was source, or origin, as we use
it in the 'head of the Mississippi river." 27

     A sampling of a few instances in which "head" (kephale)
refers to a ruler or a person of superior authority will suffice
to substantiate this usage. One of the 13 examples from the
Septuagint is Judges 11:11: "So Jephthah went with the elder of
Gilead, and all the people made him head and leader over them"
(cf. Judges 11:8,9; Is 7:8,9; 9:14-16, [LXX 13-15]). Philo, in
addition to the two examples already quoted, writes: "The
virtuous one, whether single man or people, will be the head of
the human race and all others will be like the parts of the body
which are animated by the powers in the head and at the top." 28
Referring to an army, Plutarch writes: "the light-armed troops
are like the hands, the cavalry like the feet, the line of
men-at-arms itself like the chest and breastplate, and the
general is like the head." 29 
     These and other examples listed by Wayne Grudem amply show
that the meaning "ruler, authority over" has sufficient
attestation to establish it as a legitimate sense in those New
Testament texts which speak of man as the "head" of a woman and
the husband as the "head" of the wife.

(3) Patristic Testimonies. 

     The early Christian writers who referred to 1 Corinthians
11:3 and Ephesians 5:23 understood the word "head" used in these
texts to mean "authority, superior rank." The testimonies of such
writers as Clement and Tertullian, who lived about a century away
from the time of the New Testament, deserve consideration. Ruth
A. Tucker has examined the references of these and other
patristic writers to the "head" in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and
Ephesians 5:23. She concludes her survey, saying:

     It [kephalel was generally interpreted by the church fathers
     and by Calvin to mean authority, superior rank or
     pre-eminence. These findings bring into question some of the
     Mickelsens' assumptions--particularly that the "superior
     rank" meaning of kephale is not "one of the ordinary Greek
     meanings" but rather a "meaning associated with the English
     word head." ... it seems clear that the fathers used this
     so-called English meaning long before they could have in any
     way been influenced by the English language. 30

(4) Contextual Evidences. 

     The context of both 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23
excludes "source" as a possible meaning of "head." In 1
Corinthians 11:3 Paul presents three sets of parallels:
Christ/man, man/woman, God/Christ: "But I want you to understand
that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her
husband, and the head of Christ is God." If "head" is taken to
mean "source," as James Hurley convincingly shows, "there is no
way to construct a satisfactory set of parallels." 31
     Adam could be the source of Eve in the sense that she was
physically taken out of him, but Christ cannot be the source of
Adam in the sense that Adam was physically taken out of Him. Nor
can God be the source of Christ in the sense that Christ was
physically created from a piece taken out of God. The latter is
not only incompatible with other Pauline teachings, but was also
specifically rejected at the time of the Arian controversy.
On the other hand, if "head" means "authority or head over" a
consistent set of parallels can be established. The husband is
the head over his wife in the sense that she is "subject" to him
(Eph 5:22). Christ is head over every man in the sense that every
man must model his behavior after that of Christ (Eph 5:25). God
is head over Christ in the sense that the incarnate Son of God
was obedient to God's authority (headship), even to the point of
death (Phil 2:8).
     Support for this set of parallels is provided also by the
meaning of the head covering discussed in 1 Corinthians 11. This,
as we shall see, was seen as the sign of a woman's relation to
her husband's authority. Thus, reading "head" as "authority or
head over" in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23 is consistent
with the central issue in the chapter.
     The meaning of "source or origin" is excluded also by the
context of Ephesians 5:23, where Paul calls upon wives to be
subject to their husbands "for the husband is the head of the
wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is
himself its Savior" (Eph 5:22-23). In this context, the language
of headship and subjection precludes the notion of "origin or
source" for three major reasons.
     First, the idea of subjection to an authority ("head") is
implied by the very verb "be subject" (hypotasso)--a verb which
implies a relation to authority (cf. Eph 1:22). 
     Second, while Adam was in a sense the source of Eve,
husbands in the New Testament were not the physical source of
their wives. 
     Third, even if the husband was the actual source of his
wife, that would make his authority, more rather than less,
complete, contrary to what some wish to argue.

(5) Unnecessary Opposition. 

     The attempt to interpret the meaning of "head" as "source"
to the exclusion of "authority, head over," creates an
unnecessary, opposition between the two meanings. This fact is
recognized even by Stephen Bedale, who is often quoted by those
who do not see the meaning of "authority" in Paul's use of "head"
in Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3. Having argued that Paul
saw man as kephale ("head") of the woman in the sense of being
her arche ("source, beginning"), Bedale goes on to say:

     In St. Paul's view, the female in consequence is
     "subordinate" (cf. Eph 5:23). But this principle of
     subordination ... rests upon the order of creation. ... That
     is to say, while the word kephale (and arche also, for that
     matter) unquestionably carries with it the idea of
     "authority," such authority in social relationships derives
     from relative priority (causal rather than merely temporal)
     in the order of being. 32

     It is obvious that Bedale offers no support to those who
quote his article to prove that authority is not inherent in
Paul's use of kephale ("head"). Even if it could be proven that
Paul uses "head" with the meaning of "source," such a conclusion
would still carry with it the idea of man's "authority,
leadership" role in marriage and in the church.


     The foregoing considerations indicate that "head" is used by
Paul in Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3, to mean
"authority, head over" rather than "source, origin." We must now
examine the implications of this meaning for the role
relationship of men and women in marriage and in the church.


     The preceding discussion has established that Paul uses
"head" in Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 with the meaning
of "authority over." At this junction two questions need to be
addressed: (1) In what sense is the husband to exercise authority
over his wife? To put it differently, What is the nature of the
headship role a husband is called to fulfill in marriage? (2) In
what sense is the wife to be submissive to her husband? Or, What
is the nature of the subordination role a wife is called upon to
fulfill in marriage? The clearest discussion of these two
questions is found in Ephesians 5:21-33. Thus, we shall examine
this passage to ascertain Paul's teachings, first regarding the
subordination of the wife and then about the headship of the

1. Subordination in Marriage


     Ephesians 5:21-33 forms part of a section of the epistle
commonly described as a "household code." This consists of a
series of exhortations, which are similar to those found in
Colossians 3:18-19 and 1 Peter 3:1-7, and are given to wives and
husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters. These
exhortations are part of a longer instruction on how the members
of the body of Christ should love one another as brothers and
sisters in the Lord.
     The "household code" in Ephesians deals not with all the
aspects of marital relationships, but with a specific one,
namely, the aspect of order characterized by the wife's
subordination and the husband's headship. Regarding the former
Paul writes:

     Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
     Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the
     husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the
     church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church
     is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in
     everything to their husbands (Eph 5:21-24).

Mutual Submission?  

     The opening statement, "Be subject to one another out of
reverence for Christ" (v.21), is taken by many to be the key that
interprets the whole passage in terms of mutual submission. 33 In
other words, Paul is calling upon husbands and wives to be
mutually submissive by serving one another in love. This
interpretation obviously excludes the notion of the husband's
headship over the wife. Though the idea of mutual submission is
not foreign to the intent of the passage, in our view it does not
represent the main teaching of the passage. Verse 21 can best be
understood as a general heading for the whole section which deals
with the role relations of wives/husbands, children/parents,
slaves/masters (Eph 5:21--6:9). Objections to the mutual
submission interpretation of the passage are basically four:
Structure of the Passage. First, the whole passage (Eph 5:21-6:9)
consists of a series of three exhortations in which wives,
children, and slaves are urged to submit to or obey respectively
husbands, parents and masters. These exhortations negate the
notion of mutual submission, especially in the case of
children/parents and slaves/masters. They can best be understood
as explanations of what is meant by being subject to one another.
Exhortation to Subordinate. Second, the exhortation to be
submissive or to obey is given to the subordinate partner, not to
both. The corresponding exhortations to husbands/parents/masters
are not for them to be submissive, but to respect and love their
subordinates. Thus both the structure and context of the passage
recognize a distinction of roles. This view is also strengthened
by the absence of the corresponding exhortation for masters and
husbands in the parallel passage of 1 Peter 2:18--3:2.

Meaning of Verb. 

     Third, the New Testament use of the verb hypotasso,
translated "to make subject" in the active and "to be subject" in
the passive, consistently expresses the idea of exercising or
yielding to authority. 34 "Each of the more than forty New
Testament uses of the verb carries an overtone of authority and
subjection or submission to it." 5 The meaning of the verb "to be
subject" then, contains the idea of an order where one person
subordinates himself or herself to the leadership of another.
Meaning of "to one another." 
     Fourth, the phrase "to one another," which is the basis for
the idea of mutual submission, does not always require
reciprocity. An example of this is found in James 5:16 where the
same phrase occurs: "confess your sins to one another." This
instruction is given in the context of a sick person confessing
his or her sins to an elder as part of the healing process. There
is no indication in the context of a reciprocal confession of
sin, that is, of the elder also confessing his sins to the sick
person. In the same way the exhortation "Be subject to one
another" does not necessarily require the idea of reciprocity. In
the light of the above structural, contexual, and verbal
considerations, the phrase "Be subject to one another" can simply
mean. "Let each one be subject to his or her respective authority

2. The Nature of Subordination

Reasons for Submission. 

     What is the meaning of the exhortation, "Wives, be subject
to your husbands, as to the Lord" + (Eph 5:22)? In what sense are
wives to be subject or submissive to their husbands? There are
different kinds of submission and for different motivations.
There is the calculating kind of submission designed to achieve
the fulfillment of secret desires through the practice of
"feminine wiles." There is the submission of conciliation which
I's accepted for the sake of peace. There is the submission of
resignation t to bitter necessity. There is the submission to the
superior wisdom of another person.
     Paul rejects the worldly patterns of submission,
substituting for them a new definition: "as to the Lord." This
does not mean that a wife's submission to her husband must have
the unconditional ultimacy of her commitment to Christ. This
would be an idolatrous form of submission. The phrase suggests
two possible meanings. First. the manner of a wife's submission
to her husband should be similar in quality to her devotion to
the Lord. This meaning is supported by the parallel text,
Colossians 3:18, which states: "Wives, be subject to your
husbands, as is fitting in the Lord."
     Second, the reason for a wife's submission is "because the
Lord wants it." This meaning is suggested by the preceding and
following verses. In the preceding verse (v.21) the reason given
for being submissive is "out of reverence for Christ." 
"Reverence" is a soft translation of the Greek phobos which means
"fear." The KJV retains the literal meaning: "in the fear of
     In Scripture the "fear of the Lord" is the response which
produces obedience to His commandments. Thus, submission "in the
fear of Christ" means to accept the authority of another (in this
case, the husband) out of obedience to Christ who has delegated
that authority. This interpretation is supported by the following
verse (v.23) which says, "For the husband is the head of the
wife," that is to say, because the Lord has appointed the husband
to function as the head. The recognition of this fact leads Paul
to conclude his exhortation by urging wives again to fear their
husbands: "Let the wife see that she respects [literally "fears"-
-phobetai] her husband" (Eph 5:33).

Theological, not Cultural Reasons. 

     The main conclusion relevant here is that a wife's
submission to her husband rests not on cultural but on
theological reasons. Wives are asked to submit not for the sake
of social conventions or the superior wisdom of their husbands,
but for the sake of Christ. Paul grounds his injunction not on a
particular culture, but on the unique relationship of loving
mutuality and willing subordination existing between Christ and
the church.
     The submission of a wife to her husband is not merely a
cultural convention, but a divine principle. As stated in the
"Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the
Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod," "The woman is reminded, always
in the context of an appeal to the grace of God revealed in Jesus
Christ, that she has been subordinated to man by the Creator and
that it is for this reason that she should willingly accept this
divine arrangement." 36
     Christ has appointed the husband to function as the "head,"
so that when the wife subordinates herself to him, she is obeying
Christ. This does not mean that a wife is to relate to her
husband as if he were Christ. Paul's exhortation is "Wives, be
subject to your husbands, as to the Lord," and not "because they
are the Lord." Husbands are human beings, but are appointed by
the Lord to act as "heads" in the marital relationship. Thus,
Paul takes what could be a natural subordination and places it
within a spiritual order, an order that Christ stands behind.
The wife's submission to her husband is not based on the
husband's superiority or the wife's inferiority, but, as we have
seen, on the husband's headship role established by God at
creation (1 Cor 11:8-9). This order has been established because
it affords greater harmony and effectiveness in the marital
relationship. The authority to which a wife bows is not so much
that of her husband as that of the creational order to which both
of them are subject.

Voluntary Submission.    

     A wife's submission to her husband is not imposed but
consciously chosen. It is a free, willing and loving
subordination. It is not subservience but loving assistance. The
voluntary nature of her submission is indicated by two facts.
First, by the command to the husband to love his wife rather than
to make her obey. Second, by the model of the submission of the
church to Christ which Paul gives as an example for the wife's
submission to her husband. This means that as the church
willingly chooses to obey Christ in response to His creative and
redeeming love, so the wife willingly chooses to obey the husband
as a response to his caring and selfsacrificing love. This form
of active obedience is not self-demeaning but self-fulfilling and
     This kind of submission stems from the underlying unity that
should exist between husband and wife, as illustrated by the
comparison with Christ and the church (Eph 5:25-27) and the head
and the body (vv.28-30). The purpose of this submission is not to
suppress the individuality of the wife, but to ensure a deeper
and more solid oneness between husband and wife as they function
together in the household. Elisabeth Elliot perceptively points
out that:

     To say that submission is synonymous with the stunting of
     growth, with dullness and colorlessness, spiritlessness,
     passivity, immaturity, servility, or even the "suicide of
     personality," as one feminist who calls herself an
     evangelical has suggested, is totally to miscontrue the
     biblical doctrine of authority. 37

     In the Christian faith, authentic self-realization for men
and women is found in willing submission to the  divinely -
established structures which are grounded in creation and
clarified by Christ's redemption. This liberating dynamic is
exemplified in the life of the Trinity and expressed in the

Rejection of Subordination. 

     Most liberal and evangelical feminists reject the notion of
a woman's subordinate role in the home or in the church. They
view the so-called "hierarchical paradigm" as an immoral legacy
of the patriarchal society. Instead, they promote the
"partnership paradigm," in which there are no headship or
submission roles, but only role-interchangeability. The latter
must be regarded as a clear repudiation of the Biblical paradigm
of a wife's submission to the headship of her husband. Ellen
White urges respect for this Biblical model:

     The husband is the head of the family, as Christ is the head
     of the church; and any course which the wife may pursue to
     lessen his influence and lead him to come down from that
     dignified, responsible position is displeasing to God. It is
     the duty of the wife to yield her wishes and will to her
     husband. Both should be yielding, but the word of God gives
     preference to the judgment of the husband. And it will not
     detract from the dignity of the wife to yield to him whom
     she has chosen to be her counselor, adviser, and protector.

Danger of Insubordination. 

     The outcome of the prevailing rejection of this Biblical
     model of authority is evident today in the everincreasing
     marital conflicts, broken marriages and divorces. In the
     efforts to assert their independence from their husbands,
     more and more women are willing to sacrifice their sacred
     calling to serve their families. Ellen White underscores the
     danger of this trend:

     Eve had been perfectly happy by her husband's side in her
Eden home; but, like restless modern Eves, she was flattered with
the hope of entering a higher sphere than that which God had
assigned her. In attempting to rise above her original position,
she fell far below it. A similar result will be reached by all
who are unwilling to take up cheerfully their life duties in
accordance with God's plan. In their efforts to reach positions
for which He has not fitted them, many are leaving vacant the
place where they might be a blessing. In their desire for a
higher sphere, many have sacrificed true womanly dignity and
nobility of character, and have left undone the very work that
Heaven appointed them. 39
     Susan Foh describes the current women's striving for
independence and role interchangeabily as "the forbidden fruit"
of our times:

     Today, there is a forbidden fruit, just as there was in the
     garden. That fruit is role interchangeability in marriage
     and the church. Christian women, like Eve, are being tempted
     with half truths (such as subordination implies
     inferiority) and are being told that God (or the Bible or
     the church) is depriving them of something quite
     arbitrarily. (We forget that God's commandments are for our
     own good.) In some instances Christian women are deceived
     into thinking that God's word forbids more than it does;
     they think they must not even touch the tree with the
     forbidden fruit. And like Eve, Christian women are guilty of
     sinning against their creator by discussing with other
     creatures whether or not God's law is fair. 40

3. Headship in Marriage

Headship Acknowledged. 

     It is noteworthy that Paul speaks of the headship role of
the husband only when exhorting wives and not when addressing the
husbands themselves. In other words, the wives are reminded that
"the husband is the head of the wife" (Eph 5:23), but that
husbands are not exhorted to exercise their headship role by
keeping their wives in submission. Instead, Paul chose to
confront husbands with the headship model of Christ's sacrificial
love (Eph 5:25-27).
     Paul's approach reveals his sensitivity to human abuse of
power. He was aware of some men's over-concern to assert their
authority. Consequently, he chose to emphasize not the husband's
right to be the head, but rather his obligation to exercise his
headship through care for his wife. Paul acknowledges the
headship role of the husband in the marital relationship as an
indisputable principle: "the husband is the head of the wife"
(Eph 5:23). There was no need to restate this principle when
addressing the husbands. What husbands needed to hear was what it
means to be the head of their wives.

Headship Clarified. 

     Paul clarifies the meaning of headship by calling upon
husbands to imitate the sacrificial leadership of Christ Himself:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave
himself for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her
by the washing of water with the word, 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 (Eph
     Paul here goes into great detail to explain how Christ
exercises His headship role over the church, namely, through the
sacrificial giving of Himself for her redemption and restoration.
In the same way the husband's authority is to be expressed in
self-giving love for the wellbeing of his wife. The husband who
follows Christ's leadership will exercise his headship, not by
forcing his wife into a mold that stifles her initiative, her
gifts, her personhood, but rather by encouraging her to develop
her mental and spiritual potential.
     Paul further clarifies the meaning of headship by shifting
back to the head/body analogy (vv.28-30). The husband should care
for his wife as he does for his own body. This means that a
husband must be dedicated to his wife's welfare by providing for
all her needs. This kind of loving and sacrificial leadership
eliminates all the evils associated with hierarchical marriage
and enables the two to "become one flesh" (Eph 5:31).
Biblical headship is for the sake of building others and not for
     one's own benefit. Headship means that the husband assumes a
responsability for the family in a way different from that of the
wife. The husband serves as the provider and the wife as the
home-builder. The two are not equivalent but complementary. Each
supplements the special gifts and responsabilities of the other.
Headship and Submission. The model of Christ's sacrificial love
for the church provides a most eloquent example of how headship
and submission can be compatible in marital relationships.
Christ's headship over the church is not diminished by His
self-sacrificing love for her. By the same token, the church's
submission to Christ does not diminish the possibilities for her
fullest development, but rather enhances them.
     The comparison between Christ-the church and husband-wife
points to the ultimacy of the authority structure in marriage.
The latter, however, must always mirror the relation of Christ to
the church. Neither headship nor subordination must crush or
distort the possibilities for self-growth or personal
fulfillment. Effective leadership in any organization must
encourage the fullest development of the abilities of those under
authority. This requires that a leader be aware of the concerns
of those under him and that the subordinates respect the wishes
of the leader. As Christians we need to maintain the delicate
balance between the exercise of authority (headship) and the
response to authority (submission).


     Our examination of Ephesians 5 has shown that Paul views the
headship of the husband and the subordination of the wife as an
order established by God to ensure unity and harmony in the home.
We have seen that Paul define and defends headship and
subordination in marriage not on the basis of cultural customs
but on the basis of theological reasons. By utilizing the model
of Christ and the church, Paul effectively clarifies the meaning
of headship and subordination in marriage. The purpose of this
clarification, however, was not to do away with role distinctions
in marriage, but rather to ensure their proper expression in
accordance with God's intended purpose. Our study of headship and
subordination in marriage provides an essential backdrop for the
study which follows regarding headship and subordination in the

To be continued

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