Headship is not about hierarchy

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My friend, Steve Kneale has written a few articles about complementarian theology and practice. This follows someone misrepresenting his position in this article as being egalitarian not complementarian.

I can certainly vouch for Steve as a fully paid up complementarian. It seems that what some people are doing is taking the term and narrowing down its interpretation to one specific, culturally bound understanding of how men and women should live and relate.  Complementarianism is simply the understanding that Scripture teaches the following:

  • Men and women are created equally – they are of the same nature. They are also redeemed equally as co-heirs.
  • At the same time, men and women are made different. They are made to complement one another. This arises out of Genesis 2’s description of Eve as a helper like and at the same time opposite to Adam.
  • Husbands are describes as “the head” in terms of the marriage relationship (Ephesians 5). The Greek word kephale when considered in its New Testament context, including within Ephesians itself does carry the idea of leadership and authority.
  • The role of elder in the church, particularly in relation to their teaching authority is restricted to qualified male members.

That’s the nuts and bolts of complementarianism and whilst there will be a significant number of people who won’t like this interpretation of Scripture or its implications, I hope they will appreciate that it’s a reasonable understanding of what the Bible says.

What this means is that within complementarianism, there are also a range of understandings of how this applies to day to day family and church life.  Some people believe that it rules out senior leadership roles for women not just in the church but also the state – they wouldn’t vote for a female President or Prime Minister.  Others believe that it requires the husband to be the primary bread winner. I don’t -and I’ll talk about that a little bit more today  but have also covered it in more detail here.  Some believe that women can preach occasionally under the authority of elders and whilst some limit all leadership to male, some including me argue that whilst “eldership is male” that is not the same as saying that “leadership is male”. 

I think it also means that some views that are presented as “complementarian” in fact are not, for example those that seek to exclude women from public life, to silence them in the church and to insist that all women are subordinate to all men. Those views are out of line with the first element of complementarianism because they fail to deny the equality of men and women that Scripture emphasises.

And, it means that there may be positions where someone like Steve will take a slightly different view to someone like me. Indeed, there are a couple of issues where I would push further than  Steve. 

For example, in this article, Steve argues that headship is not about delegation and micro-management. Whilst I generally agree with the thrust of what he is saying, I would go further because I don’t think that the language of delegation is quite right when we are describing the home. 

Here’s why.  If we think about the purpose and nature of authority then we see that authority is not primarily about my ability to have status over another. That’s why we sometimes talk in terms of servant leadership.  Instead, authority is about legitimacy, the authority I have to take steps and make decisions. Authority is about more than power, it’s about responsibility.

When I talk about elders exercising authority, I say that this is a teaching authority. This is because they are charged with providing for the flock and protecting the flock.  That responsibility requires the authority to instruct from God’s Word. So the elder’s authority is also constrained to their ability to share what God says in Scripture. They aren’t authorised just to insist that they get their way in anything and everything.  Incidentally, this isn’t a comment on how churches are meant to be governing. Some would insist that such decisions about strategy and vision should be authorised by the congregation voting whilst others are happy that leaders take responsibility for the decisions  -but that is not in my opinion directly related to them being elders.

I would argue that similarly in the home, when we think of a husband’s headship, we are describing their responsibility to provide for and protect their family.  This includes both spiritual and physical provision and protection.  My understanding here arises out of the responsibilities placed on Adam in the Garden of Eden to tend (provision) and keep/guard (protect) it.

Now, what this means is that the husband does have responsibility for ensuring that the family’s needs are met.  His wife may come alongside him in this and that means for example that we see in Proverbs 31 that a wife may be involved in work and business to bring in income to the family. It may mean that sometimes the wife is the primary earner. I guess that in that sense that there’s a form of delegation because the husband carries responsibility.  However, we should not think of this as one directional. There are areas where a wife will be responsible and it will be nothing to do with delegation and everything to do with the responsibility she carries.  This may in turn mean that the husband may do things that could be perceived to have been delegated from his wife.  After all, his headship and the instruction for wives to submit is preceded by the instruction for us to submit to one another. There is a mutual submission in marriage.

Even still, I’m not sure that the language of “delegation” is quite right.  True, there are things that husbands will be accountable ultimately for and things that wives will be accountable for but I think when looking at the family, and perhaps even the church, language best serving the workplace doesn’t quite work.  It’s not that I delegate things to Sarah, it’s that she comes alongside me to help as my partner in the life God has called us to.

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