Complementarianism, Patriarchy and Headship

I have to admit that the subjects of complementarianism and patriarchy are quite daunting. I am no expert on either one, and so far, feel like there isn’t an expert on either one. But while listening to Mortification of Spin on my drive into east Texas for an interview, I did realize that the focus needs to be on headship, not complementarianism or patriarchy. This is how Paul, in Ephesians 5, frames the relationship that husbands have towards their wives, and the safest course of action we can take is to look to Scripture to see what it says.

Therefore, for now, I will call the position I am taking biblical headship. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the LORD. For the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:22-23).

When we look at what the Bible says about our relationships in marriage, we are safe in saying what it says. It clearly says that I am the head of my wonderful wife, Heidi, and that she is to submit to me as to the LORD. This is not an act of dominion, but an act of grace and kindness. When it goes from grace and kindness to dominion (something that is out of accord with the creation mandate), then we are sinning against our wives and the LORD, for the LORD never acts in a manner of dominion over those who are His children. He will return in dominion over those who are not His children, and all those who refused the offer of the gospel, will be dominated by Christ when they are made into His footstool. That is not, however, something that Christ does with those who are His.

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself. But let’s look at what it says so far. Wives are to align themselves under their husbands. This is not a plurality of marriage partners, but separate marriages with each wife submitting to her own individual husband. Husbands are to be their heads. This means, from what we have seen from Genesis 2, that the husband is to lead and shepherd his own family.

Because of the fall, our tendency is for the husband to act out and dominate and control his wife, while she is going to try and control and dominate him. This is our fallen nature, from which we have been redeemed in Christ, but which we still struggle with. In Christ we are to have mutual submission to one another.

Next, the husbands, are to love their wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her (Ephesians 5:25). Here, we see just the opposite of the curse upon us in Genesis 3. There it says that men will rule their wives, but we don’t see rule here. This is because Paul is speaking to the redeemed, and being redeemed, we have been given a new set of parameters (or better yet, the restored parameters that were lost in the Garden of Eden so many years ago) by which we are to live.

Husbands are to serve their wives as Christ served the church. This is a monumental task because it means husbands are to know Christ so well, that they know how it is that Christ served and loved His bride. I have already mentioned one way that Christ served His bride. Christ doesn’t dominate the Bride. In Genesis, the creation mandate, which is to have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth, was not given so mankind could dominate one another. Man was to simply dominate the world he had been given. Yet, after the fall, it seems that much of mankind has spent a great deal of time and energy trying to dominate the rest of mankind.

I point this out because it does helps us see the difference between serving and ruling with the intent to dominate. Christ actually fulfills the mandate to exercise dominion over creation during His earthly ministry. Not by dominating the nations, in a manner that the Jews wanted Him to, but by conquering those things that needed to be conquered on our behalf: sin and death. He even demonstrates His dominion over nature by healing, walking on water, providing fish for the catch, calming the seas, etc. But the domination is never exercised over mankind, especially His bride.

Christ cherishes His bride, instructs Her, provides for Her, admonishes Her, loves Her, and gives His life for Her. And here is something that really needs to be stressed. The text in Ephesians makes it very clear who it was that Christ went to the cross for: His bride, not the world. I know this may not seem like it is pertinent to the conversation, but it is. The Bible never says that Christ died for the world. We must quit saying that it does. It says that God so loved the world…meaning the world beyond the Jews, not each and every person on the planet, that Christ was given so that those who did believe, would have eternal life (John 3:16). Those who did believe, and do believe, are the elect from before the foundations of the world (Ephesians 1:3ff).

In Paul’s illustration for marriage, we find that Christ’s death was very specific: it was for the church, His bride. He did not go to the cross to die for those who were not His. He is not pursuing some other bride. He is not sacrificing His life for some other people. He is dying on the cross for His specific, elect, called-out bride, and her alone. He is dying and sanctifying the one that the Father has given to Him. His focus is very clear. His purpose is very clear.

Husbands need to understand this because they need to take the same view towards their wives that Christ took toward the church. As Christ served, admonished, instructed and provided for His bride, so too are we to serve, admonish, instruct, and provide for our brides. As He gave His life for her, so too are we to give our lives for our brides. Being a husband, or a leader at any level in the church, is a call to service. Yes, our brides are to serve us as well, but the key is that we are to take the lead in that service: for physical, financial, and spiritual provisions.

Paul goes on and gives us the purpose for our service: that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of the water by the word. Christ’s purpose with His bride is to make us spotless and without blemish. It is beyond the husband’s ability to make his wife spotless, but we are still called to work with  God’s word in our lives so the greater takes place in the lessor. In other words, as we are being sanctified by God’s word in our own marriages (the lessor) and lives, so also is the Bride herself (the greater) being sanctified. The process of being in and under the word is the way in which the LORD cleanses us as His body. This is why it is so important for men to be the spiritual leaders of the family, and ensuring that the entire family is part of a church where God’s word is preached faithfully. This is the primary way that God has chosen to mature believers, as they sit week after week under the preached word of God. One of the most compassionate ways a man can shepherd his wife is by making sure they are in a true church. This is the best way to shepherd with the word of God as a priority. This forces us to remember our humble estate, pointing us to Christ, reminding us that since He was a servant, we to are to have a servant’s attitude.

There is much more to be said. But for now, we have an idea of what headship looks like when it comes to marriages.

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12 thoughts on “Complementarianism, Patriarchy and Headship

  1. We’re dealing with two levels of this teaching, we have the instruction and then we have the application.

    The instruction – Ephesians 5:21-6:9 are instructions for Christian households made up of husbands and wives, fathers and his children, masters and his slaves. It’s repeated in Colossians 3:12-4:6 and 1 Peter 2:11-3:22. They are often referred to as Greco-roman household codes as Aristotle basically outlined what the same three relationships ought to be like in a secular context a few hundred years prior to their appearance in Scripture in his book Politics. Aristotle had said that men were naturally superior to women and that was why wives were subordinate to their husbands. Roman law and tradition had a similar feature called the paterfamilias (father of the family): he held legal power of all of the family’s property, varying levels of authority over his dependents including his wife, children, slaves, freedmen, and clients, and he had life-or-death authority over them – fortunately it wasn’t a right put into practice very often. There’s a famous letter of a Roman soldier who writes to his wife and basically says: “If the baby is a boy, then keep him. If the baby is a girl, then (abandon her and) expose her (to the elements to die outside of the city.) Another way to look at it is by the timeline. Aristotle wrote Politics before 322 b.c., at some point it inspired Roman law and tradition to change as a result of it’s teachings, Paul wrote Ephesians around 60 a.d., Colossians in either 50 or 80 a.d., and 1 Peter was written around 81 a.d.; we’re a society living in 2016 a.d. trying to copy 50-81 a.d. family values that was a response to a teaching on household management written before 322 b.c going not just from one time to another, but from one culture to another as well. The difference is we don’t have all the pieces as we have morally moved beyond slavery.

    The application that these are the reasons why men get the tie-breaking decision, men get financial control, the last word, etc. aren’t really specifically stated as such in Scripture. This is our culture filling in the blanks for how to give men a greater level of authority over their families in our modern context. Some go even further, saying that wives must cc all their email communications to their husbands or else give their e-mail passwords to their husbands so he can monitor with whom she is communicating and what she’s saying. The thing is – Jesus never really co-existed with the church in a way we can see how every morning he did this or that and lived as an ideal husband to his bride. We don’t know if Jesus would have taken out the trash, mowed the lawn, repaired the car, washed the dishes, folded the laundry, cooked dinner etc. Jesus died, rose again, and went away. The dead have no tie-breaking vote, no financial control, no last word. Now the ‘bride’ and the ‘groom’ stand apart, one on earth, the other in heaven. Looking at the state of the church, the disgraced pastors, the fallen ministries, abuse scandals, etc. one wouldn’t know that we had a head at all. There really isn’t the same amount of authority and submission between Christ and his church as is preached on between the husband and his wife, the latter seems to have a whole lot more of it. We only had to go ‘beyond what is written’ to do it.

    As a single Christian, the part that bothers me most is that it’s treated as an all-encompassing teaching. I read an article that told me that single women are to defer to single men who are to exert a gentle leadership that stops short of full submission and authority that is the special relationship between husbands and wives in small group settings. Only married men may be leaders in the church, married women, single men and single women have no representation or decision making roles in leadership. It’s commonly called male headship – so males are head and shoulders “over” females, wives have to go through their husbands to get to God. Bill Gothard said the hierarchy was set this way: God -> Christ -> Man/Husband -> Woman/Wife he taught that women who stepped out from under her umbrella of protection was exposed to the evils of this world and deserved whatever happens to her. So much of it doesn’t theoretically apply to me, but still I’m required to abide by it.

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    1. Jamie, please stop referring to Aristotle. What he thought or said is quite irrelevant. He was not led by the Holy Spirit. He was not called by God to bring truth to His people. He was not redeemed. He was a fallen, human philosopher who was right on some things, thereby showing that general revelation exists. However, the epistles were not written to confirm or deny Aristotle. Paul may have known of Aristotle but the philosopher was not in the equation when Paul was penning much of the New Testament, neither were any of the other writers. Paul’s views were shaped by the Old Testament and the new revelation given to him by Christ. Paul was moved along by the holy spirit and not influenced by culture, Greek, Roman or otherwise. In fact, much of what he writes is to confirm that Greek, Roman and otherwise is to be condemned (Romans 1).

      Your use of Aristotle is just another lofty way to say, “has God indeed said?” Again, the scripture is the standard by which Christians live, believe and function. If you have problem with that, take it up with Christ. He raised up Paul to give us the letters we hold in our hands. Paul was specifically called because he was an expert in the Old Testament and became THE expert for us. Looking to Aristotle to try and water down, misdirect, or change the subject will not help the body of Christ live as we have been called to live.

      Next, quoting some article that refutes what Scripture clearly teaches, will also fail to help. You need to make a decision: are you going to live under what the Scripture says, or are you going to keep finding those who are just saying what Satan said in the garden so many millennia ago? Believe me, it’s easy to find a multitude of naysayers when it comes to Scripture. They are a dime a dozen. But actually following the words that Christ gave us in the New Testament, knowing that the commands Paul gave are from Christ as well (1 Corinthians 14:37), is the path that every Christian is called to follow.

      As for you, you are required to submit to the leadership of your elders in the church, whether you are single or not. Either that, or you are to submit to your father, if he is godly and in the LORD. But you, and all other Christians, are required to submit to someone. The individualistic nature of our culture is not found or supported in Scripture.

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      1. All societies are always influenced by their greatest thinkers and most persuasive speakers. This is evident even in Scripture as Paul quotes from various poets – “Bad company corrupts good character” is from Menander and is also what we know as 1 Corinthians 15:33 and Acts 17:28 includes quotes from Epimenides and Aratus. Titus 1:12 also quotes Epimenides. The Bible wasn’t written in a cultural vacuum, rather, Paul consistently uses culture to make a point about God, this was seen in the Aeropagus where Paul didn’t start quoting Hebrew scriptures, but saw the altar to an unknown God and used that as the starting point for his speech. Is it not conceivable that Paul’s using the same strategy here? Instead of starting with some brand new concept, he starts with something they already know to exist in one form and correct it to bring it inline with Christian teachings? After all, the Ephesians and Colossians live in modern-day Turkey where Peter is writing to as well. It’s surprising to me that he’s not writing to modern-day Greece or Italy or Israel; one would expect such a wide-spread church to have this teaching modified for each culture that receives it. Especially back then when far more cultures lived in much closer quarters than is common today; so it seems that something in their culture was out of line when the rest of the cultures seemingly didn’t have a problem with it. To me, the source is just as important as the wisdom. It’s important to understand how Epimenides’ words became God’s word. Is Paul the inspired one, or Epimenides?

        The difference seems to be how we approach the scriptures. I understand how the Bible was collected from a series of scrolls (The OT) and a series of letters (the NT) and debated upon until they were finally closed and there were a number of letters that didn’t make it into the Bible such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache. I understand how copies of manuscripts had small errors, that no two are identical. I understand how errors and biases crept in at the translation stage. I understand how interpretation varies from one person to the next, because of their different backgrounds and point of views. I just want to make sure that it was God that really said something, not just assume that God said it and ask what he said or trust that one interpretation is automatically more correct than another. It’s more of a “trust but verify” stance.

        You’re right that the individualistic nature of our culture isn’t found in Scripture, it was a collectivist society, one in which when one member of the household converted, everyone else converted, too. Like Lydia’s household or Cornelius’ household. Yet Paul saw the wisdom in allowing marriages between believers and unbelievers, allowing people to have different beliefs. There is a certain tension in there – reflective of the changing ways of his world. Today, the head of the household doesn’t always speak for the religious status of everyone in his or her household. After all, we say faith is a personal relationship with God, not a family contract between our father and God. One of the things you can’t take with you isn’t just your stuff – your house, your bank account, your car – but also your relationships. You can’t take your daughters and sons, your spouse, your brothers and sisters, your parents or your best friends with you to heaven when you die. Since we know there will be no marriage in heaven, we know that headship will be a non-issue and more likely non-existent.

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    2. Jamie,

      Why don’t you simply jettison the Bible and write your own holy book? You don’t like what it says and certainly aren’t willing to submit to its authority.

      In joyful, willing submission to both Christ and my husband,
      Heidi Ann Hammons

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      1. I thought about it once, but I just wouldn’t get the same readership. Besides, the Bible has been really useful when it’s properly understood – the same Bible was used to support slavery and to abolish it, to support war and to oppose it, you name it and the Bible was both for and against it. I don’t think I could write such a masterpiece that can so effectively be used for both good and evil. Have you seen the scene in the Princess bride where Westley explains about his transition to becoming the Dread Pirate Roberts? That sort of explains the sort of figure God has become. The name is the necessary thing to provoke fear, he has this reputation of being … well, God, the OT God wasn’t exactly known for not killing people and the NT God used the Holy Spirit as his enforcer to keep his reputation intact. Nobody would really pay any attention to all if I said something, but if I say that God says something, there’s a tendency to assume that I wouldn’t misrepresent God and whatever I say must be true. That’s the problem I have with headship, we say that God says that men have the final say, the tie-breaking vote, the last word; but that’s not what God really says in the Bible. So who do I believe?

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  2. I’ve been reading these posts about marriage etc., and would like to make a comment but feel really inadequate in doing so. My pastor has been teaching us through the book of Ephesians and we just finished Ephesians 5. His series is called, “Spirit-Filled Husbands and Wives.”
    I think this is the key. For a good marriage relationship the husband and wife must be Spirit-filled. In our daily walk we can either be in the flesh or in the Spirit. When we begin acting out of the flesh that is when we get in trouble. Paul tells us the husband is the head of the wife. He has the position of authority, just as Christ is the head of the man.

    We need to go back to Genesis 2 and 3 to see the first marriage. Adam was incomplete and needed a helper so God created women to compliment him. My pastor said, “marriage is one man and one woman becoming one flesh.” However, marriage was corrupted and cursed through the fall. Adam was held responsible for the woman’s fall from grace. The curse made the woman’s desire to rebel against her husband and the man would want to rule over the woman. (I never understood that before.) This is part of the curse. But, the good news is that marriage was restored through salvation and the filling of the Holy Spirit. (I didn’t know that either.) It is wonderful that God made a way out of the curse.

    The husbands headship over his wife is like Christ’s headship over the church. The wife’s submission to her husband is like the church’s submission to Christ. Only true Christian’s who are filled with the Holy Spirit can have the wonderful relationship in marriage that God intended.
    God knows us better than we know ourselves and He knows what is best for us. I believe if we are true Christians we will allow God to order our lives by trying to live by what He tells us in the Bible.

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    1. Very good points. Thanks for sharing. But even with the Holy Spirit, marriage is still hard. To which, my wife lovingly says, “what do you mean by that?” 🙂

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  5. This is exactly how you win people to Christ. Have a Husband and Wife combo team up against someone and tell her to write her own Bible because she dares disagree with you. There are some wonderful theologians who have wrestled over these passages for centuries. But I am glad you have all the answers. Keep working out your faith, Jamie!

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  6. Jennifer,

    What is at stake here is not disagreement with men, but disdain for God’s holy word. Until Jamie is wiling submit to scripture instead of sitting in judgment of it, picking and choosing what she wants to hear, she IS writing “her own holy book.”

    Also, please list some of the theologians to whom you refer.

    I might also point out that spewing out biting sarcasm because you disagree with someone is not generally used as an evangelistic tool (Proverbs 26:4-5).

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