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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