Is Male Headship Misogynist?

I want to move on the conversation that we’re having here on elements of headship and misogyny. In particular, I want to repeat my last comment there and invite contributions from those who gave up before we moved beyond 50+ comments!!!

The context of this post is this comment by Sarah Apetri (who I consider a friend and who was studying theology with me in Oxford, though at a much higher level). Responding to another commenter she wrote:

I’m still deeply troubled by the parallel you draw between the parent-child/man-woman relationship. Culturally, we have a notion of childhood as a wholly separate condition in terms of legal, political, financial and professional responsibility. Where a woman has the full rights and agency of an adult, how specifically do you see the limitations on the full expression of that adulthood on the basis of sexual difference? Can a man forbid a woman to spend the money she has earned on things which he sees as harmful or unworthy? Does he have the God-given authority to curtail her freedom of movement if she shows a fondness for alcohol? Is he within his sphere of authority to monitor what she reads, or the sites she browses on the internet? When she proves successful in her professional life, can he set a ceiling on her ambitions to stop her transgressing the safety of her subject state? I can see how he might do all these things in the name of fulfilling his duty of ‘protection’. These are limits one might legitimately impose on a child. Not to mention the disturbing aspects of the application of your principle within marriage, I wonder how it would work in a situation where you have a female executive – but presumably such a person would not exist in an ideal Christian world?

Also, you didn’t answer my observation that you seem to be saying that men know what is right better than women, which makes them intellectual and moral superiors.

Below is my response to that comment and I welcome your interaction below. Please take note – the context of this post is to discuss whether a conservative view of male headship is necessarily misogynist. Ad hominems and non-engagement with the issue at hand  will just result in your comment being treated as spam.

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Part of the problem in this debate is that we make assumptions about what people believe behind what they are saying. Take for example Sarah’s sentence:

Also, you didn’t answer my observation that you seem to be saying that men know what is right better than women, which makes them intellectual and moral superiors.

This observation comes from a perspective that views male headship as implying that men are somehow more suited to the role of leadership than women. However, in all my experience of those who advocate male headship I have only once come across an example of someone who based their justification for male headship in this reasoning. The vast majority of those who support the notion of ultimate male headship do so from a basis of believing that men and women are intellectually and morally equal, yet despite this, God has called men to exercise headship.

How would such a model of headship work out? Well for example, take a large church staff team headed by a man. A bad model would be where the man believes that somehow is superior to everybody else in the team and therefore makes decisions without remit to them, or that given the nature of his position he will receive special revelation to do the job. A good model would be where the man in charge elicits, and listens to carefully, contributions from all members of his team before coming to a final decision, a decision he makes not because he is intellectually or morally superior to his colleagues but simply because of the position he is in.

And considering this good model, we see that ultimately the argument for having a man as head is not sociological or psychodynamic (perceived intellect or morality) but theological.

Let’s look at some of the examples Sarah raises in her reply to Moot to see how this spins out:

Can a man forbid a woman to spend the money she has earned on things which he sees as harmful or unworthy?

I don’t know about your own marriages folks, but Gayle and I have a joint bank account. At the moment I am the main breadwinner, but before Reuben was born that was Gayle’s privilege (ah, those heady days of DINKS). The question then of “her money” never arises. It is all our money, regardless of who owns it.
So the real question is, should the husband have the final say over an item of expenditure? Well, if I can be personal for the moment, Gayle bought something yesterday at Asda that I thought was completely pointless and a waste of money, but did I enforce my husbandly rights and forbid her? Absolutely not, because I know that what I don’t get pleasure out of she does (in this case a bar of so called “nougat” which was really just a lump of sugar). If I was operating on the basis of what I thought was right I could have said “no”, but because I am instructed to love my wife as Christ loves the Church, I know that she will value some things entirely differently than I do (even down to a silly example of a candy bar). At the same time, I have coveted an even larger widescreen TV than we currently have for a long time, yet Gayle is absolutely adamant that we don’t need one. Do I go ahead and buy one anyway, seeing as it’s my money going into the bank account at the moment? Of course not, because I think my wife actually is right, despite my longings for the latest in technology.

Would you expect me as a conservative pastor to chastise a husband in my congregation who felt he could control his wife’s spending but at the same time buy whatever he wanted? Absolutely.

Does he have the God-given authority to curtail her freedom of movement if she shows a fondness for alcohol?

Are we implying here that the wife is a drunk or an alcoholic? What do you mean by curtailing freedom of movement? I have to be honest, if my wife (who is tee-total) suddenly started drinking I would remove all alcohol from the house, sit her down and tell her that she had a problem. I would expect her to do the same for me and this has far less to do with headship and more to do with mutual care.

Would you expect me as a conservative pastor to chastise a husband in my congregation who felt he could control his wife’s drinking but at the same time go out to the pub whenever he wanted? Absolutely.

Is he within his sphere of authority to monitor what she reads, or the sites she browses on the internet?

Let me tell you how it works in this house. Gayle can sit down at my PC at any time and go through my browsing history – she can do this because since I used to (a long time back) have a porn problem I want to make myself totally accountable for my web use. I can do the same at hers (though Gayle has never had an issue at looking at that kind of stuff). We use the same paypal account, have the same credit card statements and both have online access to all our bank accounts and share portfolio. I trust my wife because I love her and because we have made our lives as open to each other as possible. It would be misogynistic to insist that I could view her private activity without her being able to view mine, don’t you think?

Would you expect me as a conservative pastor to chastise a husband in my congregation who felt he could control his wife’s browsing but at the same time surf whereever he wanted without any accountability? Absolutely.

When she proves successful in her professional life, can he set a ceiling on her ambitions to stop her transgressing the safety of her subject state?

In my house I’m the one who wants to make sure that Gayle continues her professional career whilst she is the one wanting to stay at home looking after Gayle. If we could find appropriate child care then I’m sure at some point she would find a way of going back to work and probably rise well above me in terms of professional achievement (as she is well above me in formal academic achievement). Why would a husband who loves his wife as Christ loves the church want to cap his wife’s achievements? Does Christ want to cap the gifts and fruit of the church? Of course, if Gayle wanted to go back to work full time, leaving Reuben in nursery from 7 in the morning till after 6 at night then I would want to discuss with her whether that was best for Reuben. Would you expect me not to?

Would you expect me as a conservative pastor to chastise a husband in my congregation who felt he could control his wife’s career but at the same time work all the hours he wanted leaving her at home to bring up the kids and do all the domestics? Absolutely.

Do you see what I’m saying? If we assume misogyny in the hearts of husbands we get misogynistic interpretations. If we assume a husband loving his wife as Christ loves the church, we get completely opposite outcomes. It would be helpful therefore for the debate if those who reject the notion of male headship would recognise that those who do support it do so for theological reasons alone, not out of any basis of misogynistic assumptions,and that such theological reasons actually work often to the benefit of, not the detriment of a marriage.

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15 Comments on “Is Male Headship Misogynist?

  1. I am wondering what you are thinking Gayle will be doing if she stays home:

    In my house I’m the one who wants to make sure that Gayle continues her professional career whilst she is the one wanting to stay at home looking after Gayle.

    Are you imaging she will be pampering herself rather than looking after Rueben?
    Is this a ‘Freudian Slip’?

  2. Hi Peter
    You do not answer the question you pose because you are talking about mutuality and shared decision-making in a marriage of two equals in a society which has made that equality possible in ways unknown to previous generations.
    From what you are saying, the headship that exists over your wife is the headship that exists over you and her together: the headship of Christ!
    Peter Carrell

  3. Perpetua,

    Not at all!! She works really hard but I just want to be sure because of my love for her that she doesn’t ever feel that her gifts and talents are being squandered.

    Peter,

    I think the difference is that in our household, I get the casting vote. It’s how I use the casting vote which is the crucial issue.

  4. Just a point of clarification, Peter. You use my words as if they are an attack on the doctrine of headship in general. In fact, I’m responding specifically to the parallel drawn by Moot between a parent’s responsibility to protect his child and a man’s responsibility to his wife. That is why I ask if a husband should be able to intervene in his wife’s choices in the same way that a parent would do with their child. Do you agree that the kind of authority involved in these two relationships are different? If so, then I don’t think there is a disagreement on this issue.

    My questions about headship are different, but please don’t use my post as an example of my ‘caricaturing’ of the doctrine as mindlessly misogynist: my understanding of the debate is more subtle, I hope.

  5. Sarah,

    Could you outline your understanding of what ‘headship’ means for the benefit of us who are trying to grapple with these issues and are reading this please?

    Oh and Peter, my wife makes all the decisions in our household except that she lets me think that I do. That’s how I know I don’t have freewill..

  6. Well, I’ll happily tell you what headship means to me and what I think it means to the opponents of women bishops/priests, but as I didn’t raise it as an issue in this thread I’m not sure why the onus is on me to define it!

    As far as I’m aware, the conservative doctrine of male headship in marriage and the church is the principle that the man should have the final say, or ‘casting vote’ as Peter puts it in both the household and the religious community. Nobody questions the sacrificial aspect of headship as it refers to identification with Christ, and no one would say a woman could not fulfil the sacrificial role in the same way (giving way to others’ interests): what is really at stake here is about who makes final judgements, ultimate decisions. It has come to refer to the way in which authority is distributed between the sexes. It is based largely on two Pauline passages – 1 Cor 11 and Ephesians 5.21-33. The relevant verses read, respectively: ‘But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ’; and ‘For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour’.

    What I don’t hear conservatives argue very often is that women should be veiled, or wear long hair, or that men should never grow their hair long, which is Paul’s practical application of this doctrine. Neither do I hear much exposition of the principle that ‘women ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels’. Neither do I hear them claim that men are the head of women in the same way that Christ is the head of men, or that men substitute for Christ in some way, which might be read into Ephesians 5. However, I believe that a doctrine commission in the Diocese of Sydney in 1999 decided that Christ was subordinate ‘in his very nature’, ‘functions’ and ‘authority’ to the Father – an adjustment of orthodox Trinitarian teaching in order to accommodate the subordination of women required by male headship!

    As for me, the NT passages find their application in a principle of wholly mutual love, humility and self-sacrifice within marriage and within the community. Giving the husband or male priest the final say in all matters – something which is never explicitly advocated either by Paul or in the Gospels – seems to me a dangerous underpinning of a traditional culture in which women and disenfranchised men were called to non-resistance (even in abusive situations). It also perpetuates a deeply-held belief that men are more capable of making those ultimate judgments, which I believe is a disparagement of the dignity of God’s image in women. Furthermore, it relies on the assumption that men will always fulfil their side of the bargain, and that is not always the case: I’m interested that Peter suggests that if the husband is a hypocrite, his moral authority is compromised.

    I remain convinced that the only ‘headship’ (understood as final authority) I am called to recognise is that of God in Christ. Matthew 23.9-10: ‘And call no one your master on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.’ Paul might be using ‘head’ to mean ‘source’ or ‘wellspring’ (this would make more sense of the Trinitarian analogy), but I’m not in a scholarly position to make a new contribution to that particular debate. Ephesians 5 seems to be clearly about mutual subjection, so that I’m not sure why now male submission should be a voluntary, loving act while the woman’s should be a contractual requirement. I hope this answers your question adequately.

  7. Hello again

    Is the ‘casting vote’ version of headship what Paul had in mind? What Paul would have in mind if writing today?

    Thank you, Sarah, for bringing into the discussion the version of Trinitarian theology which aligns itself with male/female headship/subordination. In Revelation, when Jesus Christ takes up and makes his own the ‘I am’ language of God, it is difficult to square this with an eternal subordination between Father and Son which models a ‘casting vote’ version of headship … looks more like a ‘con-sensus’ or ‘of one mind’ approach to decision making! Which, in my experience, is the approach most conservative evangelical marriages take notwithstanding whatever is said outwardly about headship and casting votes!

  8. Sarah,

    That is a very good outline of your position on this. Please be reassured that it was not my intention at all to put any kind of onus on you, and I apologise if I gave that impression! I simply wanted to know what you thought. Two points I would be interested to see you expand on:

    1. You wrote with respect to the overarching headship argument that

    “What I don’t hear conservatives argue very often is that women should be veiled, or wear long hair, or that men should never grow their hair long, which is Paul’s practical application of this doctrine.”

    I am uncertain here whether you can say that this is Paul’s application of the doctrine per se. I think it has a wider context as a motif displaying an intrinsic order relating to the distribution of divine and human authority. That is where I think Conservative Evangelicals are coming from. It may as you say, have a practical application in the context that Paul is talking about, but might that context be different in another setting yet still display the same motif? Can it really be considered simply a patriarchal cultural thing? Should we not look at the overall pattern of divine/human authority in Scripture rather than just this verse?

    2.”Neither do I hear much exposition of the principle that ‘women ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels”.

    So what is your exposition of this? I confess that this verse has always puzzled me. Exactly what have the angels got to do with it? Why does Paul think they are important in this context?

  9. Haven’t got much time to comment at the moment, but can I just say that I personally don’t buy the Father / Son subordination model one bit. For me the issue is to do with Christ / Church rather than relationships within the Trinity.

  10. Just to add to the above, I think there’s some good ground to be covered on exploring what are the principles of headship in Scripture and what are the specific cultural outworkings. Being able to be more precise on this (for example head coverings) might help answer some of the criticisms. FWIW, I think that such passages need to be dealt with, and need to be dealt with on a better level than, “well, that was just then”. We need to be absolutely clear we are not marginalising a section of Scripture simply because it impacts personally upon us.

  11. Perhaps ‘casting vote’ is an unfortunate term.  The reality surely is that such instances are few and far between.  In fact I’d say,  quite rare.  I can only think of one glaring example in my [over 40] years of married life.  Submitting to one another  ..  good debate between equals who are both looking for the best solution is,  I venture to suggest,  sufficient in the vast majority of cases.

    I think more interesting is the lack of discussion and/or discernment, about the voluntary nature of submission on anyone’s part,  and the difficulty  that presents to male or female.  Jesus said,  “I delight to do the will of Him who sent me.”  [John 4:34]  Is that an accurate translation?

  12. Stumbled upon this more or less by accident. I can't believe this discussion. Despite the fact that men and women are equal, men are always in charge? Or I see, women can be equals as long as this equality is essentially meaningless. Men are to women as Christ is to the church? Oh I see, men are divine while women are not. And really this power, this "headship" you know is such hard work – i.e., "sacrificial" and all that. You should be grateful.

    I must say the loving humility you all talk about is not shining through.

    What I come away with is a very good reason for a woman to walk away from Christianity. I, at least, require more from a faith than the admonition (stripped of all the flowery verbiage) to shut up and do as I'm told.

    A female reader

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