What Headship and Submission Do Not Mean
Just what is biblical headship and submission?
We approach this issue with fear and trembling. Why? Well, not because we don’t see the value of debate and discussion in an effort to better understand Scripture. Our hesitancy stems from fear of getting drawn off-mission. We understand that the biblical doctrine of “the husband is the head of the wife” is certainly related to the issue of abuse and domestic violence – especially by abusers hiding in the church. It is related, because wicked people take the good Word of God and twist and distort it to their own evil ends. Whatever Scripture means by the husband being the head of the wife, and wives submitting to their husbands (Ephesians 5), we know that it is GOOD, just as Christ being head of His bride, the church is good. On these things, all Bible-believing, Christ-loving genuine Christians agree. The question of course is, just exactly what does Scripture mean by these doctrines? It surely does NOT mean what the abuser takes it to mean.
We recognize that for many victims of domestic abuse, beliefs about submission and headship within marriage are one of the things that locks them into the abuse, and at some point they want to examine and perhaps re-evaluate these beliefs in order to get free. So for many survivors, part of the healing journey is exploring the issue of submission and what the Bible means when it says “the husband is head of the wife”.
But let us state what we embrace as our target mission, from which we must emulate Luke Skywalker – “stay on target….stay on target!” Here it is:
Our mission in writing A Cry for Justice, and in maintaining this blog site, is to expose to the church what is happening to victims of abuse who are sitting right here in our own pews, often side by side with their abuser who is parading as a fine Christian. Our purpose is to do all we can to show pastors and Christians what abuse really is, and point out how the church has been giving terrible counsel to abuse victims. All of this we intend to do to the glory of God, for the help and rescue of victims, and for the effecting of justice upon the abuser.
That is our target.
Now, to the degree that distortions of the doctrine of headship and submission in marriage come into play directly with this mission, we will tackle it head on. I (Jeff) came to the conviction last year that while I believe I have preached Scripture’s teachings about marriage accurately over the years, I have still erred – I did not spend enough time very clearly describing what these doctrines do NOT mean, to the point of making any abusive man in the congregation feel like I was pointing at him and saying “Thou art the man!” I have resolved to remedy that error.
So we will write some blog posts about distortions of headship and submission, and even talk about what those doctrines mean and how they play themselves out. And we welcome comments and replies to any such articles. But we do not see ourselves diving into other topics at this time, such as whether or not we should be working toward retaining or changing male/female roles in the church. For one thing, actively striving toward some of those kinds of issues can work to alienate us from those very churches we want to gain a hearing in, i.e., the conservative, Bible-believing churches. If they get the notion that we are ‘some kind of radical, liberal, inerrancy-rejecting types’, they are not going to listen to us in regard to abuse within the church.
Many conservative Christians will write us off immediately if we start talking about other hot topics. And believe me, the subject of abuse in the church and injustice being dealt to abuse victims by the church is a plenty hot enough topic for now! And you know, for those who hold to the complementarian position, the same thing applies. Some egalitarian churches won’t give us a hearing at all if we march in sounding the “comp” trumpet. And unless egalitarian churches have somehow totally solved the problem of abusers hiding among them, I suspect we want them to listen to us too.
Terminology tip for those who may not know:
Egalitarians (egals) believe in the equality of male-female roles, with role being determined by an individual’s gifts. See Christians For Biblical Equality
Complementarians (comps) believe that male-female role distinctions in the church and the home are ordained by God. See The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
We can all be engaged on fighting against domestic abuse, no matter what position we occupy in the egalitarian /complementarian controversy or even if we don’t have a conscious position. For us, the important thing is to keep the fight against abuse paramount, and to never let the gender-roles issue take precedence over the fight against abuse.
Here are a few more points that we hope you will find helpful:
1. We are convinced that there is indeed a woman-unfriendly climate in many of our churches. That is to say, we agree that women are being viewed by church leaders in many cases as secondary to men. And this we believe is in direct violation of Galatians 3:28. This attitude certainly explains, at least in part, the shameful way abuse victims are so often treated by their pastors, elders, and fellow Christians.
2. We are willing to listen to fellow believers who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture (in other words, they don’t chalk the Apostle Paul’s words up to his being a woman-hater).
But we are going to stay on target. Our mission is to sound out loudly The Cry for Justice on behalf of abuse victims who have been further abused by the ignorance and arrogance in their fellow Christians, and by the wicked deceptions of abusers parading as Christians. To that end we work and call on our brothers and sisters in Christ to join in. Whether you be eagles or – hmmm….anybody know a bird name that starts with comp…?
So, give us some replies here that comment on this subject: What biblical headship and submission do NOT mean.
Imagine you are speaking to an abuse victim who has not yet sorted out what is happening to her, and she is being told by her abuser that “She must obey him – God says so!”
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Lastly, some reading matter for your consideration – not implying we agree or disagree with any of these, but they are more nuanced than many of the writings we have encountered that discuss domestic abuse in the context of the egal/comp gender roles debate:
Command or Curse: Genesis 3:16 in the Light of Abuse, by Carmen J Bryant
The Proverbs 31 Woman – Fact or Fiction? by Carmen J Bryant
Sabotaged Submission by Carmon J Bryant
(once on the page scroll down until the desired article)
Headship with Heart: How Biblical Patriarchy Actually Prevents Abuse, by Steven Tracy
For a critique of heavy-patriarchy Christian cults, especially the “Quiverful” movement, see Quivering Daughters.
Man and Woman, One in Christ, by Philip Payne. This book does not deal with abuse in depth, but it is a carefully reasoned and very well researched contribution by a man who spent 37 years studying the scriptural texts that pertain to gender issues.
The Gender Debate in Domestic Violence: The Role of Data by Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse. This page discusses the issues of gender and violence in relationship and the controversy between proponents of gender asymmetry (i.e. men are more likely to be violent and women more likely to be victims) and proponents of gender symmetry (i.e. men and women are equally violent and equally likely to be victims).