Biblical Egalitarianism (Part 06) - Headship

08/04/2009 07:29


In our last summary, we began the discussion of the choice for the 12 apostles especially related to gender and nationality. The patriarchal complementarian (PC) viewpoint is that only men were chosen to be apostles because the apostles represented church leadership. Further, defining the role of the apostles, James Borland states in chapter 4 of Grudem/Piper’s book Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, “Apostleship was to involve leadership, rulership, and the reception of special revelation” (p.121). As support for this contention, he provides several verses.

For leadership –

Acts 2:14 – Peter saw problem; spoke to correct

Acts 5:12 – Apostles performing signs and wonders

Acts 5:18 – Apostles arrested for faith

Acts 5:40 – Apostles beaten and told not to speak in the name of Jesus

Acts 5:42 – Apostles teaching and preaching

Acts 6:2-4 – Apostles devoted time to preaching and teaching

For rulership –

Matt 19:28 – Apostles judge 12 tribes

For special revelation –

John 14:26 – Holy Spirit will teach Apostles

John 16:13-15 – Holy Spirit will guide Apostles

It is interesting that Borland continues, “None of the above roles was performed by the women who followed Christ or ministered to Him” (p.121). But, in the examination of his proof texts, we find that, first, the leadership activity was common to many Christian followers and was certainly not exclusively apostolic. We find women in the Bible performing similar acts of leadership. In I Corinthians 11, Paul points out that women pray and prophesy. In Acts 18:26, Priscilla takes part in the same activity which Peter performs in proof text Acts 2:14. She recognizes a problem and speaks to correct it. Romans 16 tells us that Phoebe was a patron as well as a servant—two class/status levels that Paul joins in the one person, mirroring Christ’s instruction to his apostles at the foot-washing. Romans 16 also shows us Priscilla as a worker and church organizer. Her evangelistic work is also noted through Paul’s letters. And Paul writes of leadership activities of a couple of groups of women in his first letter to Timothy.

The special revelation proofs that Borland uses show a promise that is not unique to the Apostles. All Christians—men and women—are taught and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Thus, Borland’s only purely apostolic activity seems to be the rulership that he thinks is proved by Matthew 19:28. But is this truly rulership? Matthew 19:28 reads as follows: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, in the regeneration, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’” Hebrews 8:1 informs us that Christ is now seated on His throne and was so since His ascension. Therefore, the activity detailed in Matthew is not necessarily some future event, but the actual activity of the apostles while on earth. The thrones (as often used throughout the word of God) symbolize the unique positions entrusted to them of leading in the preaching/teaching transition from the old covenant (12 tribes) to the New Covenant of Christ. That, in fact, is consistent with how Paul projects the apostles’ work in laying the foundation of the Christian faith.

My point in this all is to say that the apostles exercised no authority over other Christians in any kind of mediatory or intercessory manner. Therefore, we cannot assume the passage of some authoritative right from apostles to pastors of churches in our day. And we certainly have no basis by which to determine that women should be prohibited from certain church functions because only men may carry authority over others. Christians of the New Covenant (well illustrated in Acts 2:42-47) are joined in one equal and common community whose sole authority is God.

The New Testament uses several terms to identify those to whom we refer most commonly as pastors. The words are translated overseer, bishop, pastor, and elder. The job function of these positions (or position) is never expressed as including having spiritual authority. Authority (according to is the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine. In contrast, the pastor’s job is defined by statements such as found in Titus 1:9: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Several other verses provide similar instruction for pastors to preach/teach the truths of the Christian faith and to protect against false doctrine (I Timothy 1:3-5; 4:6; 6:13-16, II Timothy 2:1-2; 4:1-2). Acts 20:28 provides this charge: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Thus, the pastor provides care for congregants by preaching/teaching sound doctrine and identifying false doctrine. But this is responsibility and obligation which they carry. They do not hold spiritual authority in the sense that the lay Christian is obligated to believe their word based on their own authority. The lay Christian is obligated to listen well and consider what the pastor brings, but must for her/himself read and study under the authority of God and His Word.

A couple words in the Greek have been translated in such a way seemingly to indicate a spiritual authority for the pastor. The word proïstemi means “to set or place before” as in setting over, being over, protecting, or in caring for. That meaning of caring for goes well with the function of the pastor noted previously. This word, however, has been translated (and I think, misleadingly) as “rule” in many English translations in I Thessalonians 5:12; I Timothy 3:4, 5, 12; and I Timothy 5:17. Hebrews 13:17 says to “obey your leaders” who “watch over your souls.” The Greek word translated obey is peitho which primarily means to be persuaded, trust, have confidence. In other words, the verse is exhorting believers not to be dismissive of but rather to have confidence in the preaching/teaching of the pastor so that true examination of their lives may take place.

Thus, as Christians, our spiritual authority is God. And we look to his Word as the sole authority for faith and practice. Leaders do exist, but not as spiritual authorities. They are caregivers for the presentation of doctrinal truth and identification of doctrinal error. But individuals are responsible to God to examine that presentation and identification to ensure that it faithfully represents the oracles of God.

With that background understanding of spiritual authority, we are ready now to embark on specific New Testament passages regarding the roles of and relationship between men and women in the New Covenant church.

First Corinthians 11 is a good starting point because we find issues of headship discussed. This should correlate well with our discussion of authority. Verse 3 of that chapter is especially important because it is almost universally recognized as the foundation for the rest of the section (verses 4 through 16). The verse states, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” The Greek word for head is kephale. The primary meaning and vast majority of usage is simply the physical head. Obviously, however, Paul is using it metaphorically. Our task then is to determine in what metaphorical sense he is using it. We have a couple of obvious choices. One is that it stands for authority. Paul could be explaining a hierarchical structure of authority in the verse. If so, our discussion is over. The outline of the verse would show authoritative relationship. Another choice may be that head refers to source (as in head of a river). We will discuss the source option first.

Understanding head as source seems to have some obvious advantages at first glance. The order of the verse doesn’t seem natural if authority is assumed because the hierarchy would be mixed as we go from Christ as head of man to husband as head of his wife to God as head of Christ. A hierarchy arrangement would speak first of God as head of Christ, then move down with Christ as head of man, and then finally to the husband as head of his wife. So the order Paul gives does not imply hierarchy. Also, we know that the source of the woman (Eve) was the man (Adam). Likewise, God is the source of Christ in that God sent and Christ was sent (Galatians 4:4). But we run into a problem with Christ as the head of every man. There does not seem to be a good source relationship evident. While man (Adam) was created through Christ (Colossians 1:18), the Father was directly involved in this as well, which makes the distinction in the verse between the Father and Son less understandable. For this reason, I would reject source as the metaphorical meaning of head.

We have a problem as well with the understanding of head as authority. First, as already mentioned, the outline of the verse would seem out of order if authority were the intent. Also, the husband as authority over his wife has not been found in all our previous study of the creation relationship and the emphasis of the Gospels. Secondly, since we all (men and women) are directly responsible to God as our spiritual authority, the distinction makes little sense for the same reason that source made little sense.

An additional problem is in regarding the Father as authority over Christ. We can see that God held temporary authority over Christ during Christ’s first advent. John 14:28, Matthew 26:39, and other references all show a subordination of Christ to the Father. But this authority seems associated with Christ’s humanity on earth, particularly in the sense that Christ set aside his omniscience (certainly as a baby, as evidenced in his questions at the temple while a boy, and as evidenced by his statements of not knowing the hour). The purpose of Christ’s humanity was to fulfill the covenant obligations to become the seed that would inherit the covenant blessings (Galatians 3:16). Therefore, Christ, in his humanity, demonstrated faithfulness and obedience to the Father in order to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15).

That subordination to the Father, however, was relative only to Christ’s humanity. But then that authority/subordination of God to Christ as a man is the same authority/subordination of God to every man. So why would Paul write of a distinction of the headship of God to Christ without stating God to all men, but rather substituting Christ as head of all men? Thinking headship means authority produces more questions as to Paul’s intention than it answers.

Returning, then, to our verse in I Corinthians 11, we find that both source and authority (hierarchy) are insufficient metaphorical answers for headship. Sometimes we search too deeply for hidden meanings. If we look at the other times Paul uses head (that is, in Ephesians and Colossians), he always relates it to the relationship of head and body. And, it seems, that the relationship he has in mind is that the head takes care of, or watches out for, the rest of the body. The body is more vulnerable; the head then takes care of the vulnerable body. Back in our creation discussion, we highlighted gender distinctions. Those distinctions were of a structural nature, with the male having greater physical strength and the female bearing children, and a chemical nature, with the male finding satisfaction from physical exertion and the female finding more satisfaction from nurturing. And it is the structural gender distinction to which Peter seems to point in I Peter 3:7: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” Notice that Peter emphasizes both equality (“heirs with you”) and gender distinction (“woman as the weaker vessel”). The thrust of Peter’s instruction is that the husband is to recognize the woman’s vulnerability based on gender distinction and provide appropriate care.

Likewise, we see a caregiver-vulnerability relationship between the Father and the Son since the Father sends and the Son is sent. God the Son is vulnerable in his humanity and mission to the cross. The Father, we see through the Gospels, does not simply send and drop from the scene, but is active in care-giving (as seen through the prayers of Christ).

The third relationship—that of Christ as head over every man—demonstrates the same association in that Christ, coming as a man (the second Adam), acts as caregiver to the vulnerable (sin-weakened) first Adam and, by extension those of Adam's race.

One additional note: Ephesians 1 provides an excellent example (possibly proof?) that Paul does not intend the head-body metaphor to include the concept of authority-subordination. In speaking of God's exaltation of Christ, Paul indicates in verse 22 that God "put all things under his feet." That is clear authority-subordination speech. Paul goes on: "and gave him [Christ] as head over all things to the church." Here the PCs shout, "Look! the head is the authority!" But is that Paul's intent? Verse 23 follows, explaining that the church "is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all." So notice—(1) Christ is head, (2) the church is the body, but (3) the subordinated ones are under his feet. There is no authority-subordination relationship presented in the head-body imagery, although authority-subordination is definitely involved in the passage. By contrast to the subordinated ones below the feet, one would have to conclude that the body to the head relationship is not intended to demonstrate authority and subordination.

Now I am not by this saying that we as the church are not in subordination to Christ's authority. Of course we are. But according to this passage, the head-body metaphor does not imply that authority-subordination relationship. Therefore we cannot assume it at other times when Paul uses the head-body metaphor as in our current context of 1 Corinthians 11.