Saturday, May 24, 2014

Male Headship and the Problem of Power

Several people have asked me privately to follow up on the radio conversation I participated in on Up For Debate last weekend on the topic "Does God Expect Men to be Spiritual Leaders?"  They asked me to focus specifically on what was said by the caller-in named "Linda."

The comments on my blog post about the radio show also were focused on that portion of the broadcast-- so I will say now what I wish I had been prepared and had time to say then.

Linda said she had been in a complementarian marriage to the same man for 50 years, but she had found that male headship "does not work without the husband loving the wife as Christ loves the church."  I got the impression that Linda believed in male headship, but in her own marriage it was not working-- because, she said, "he needs to lay down his ego, which my husband will not... He doesn't listen to anything I say, and we've been through great sorrow, because he doesn't value my opinions-- on anything.  So if he isn't loving her, that way, it doesn't work!"  I could hear the tears in this poor woman's voice, and I felt such deep sympathy as I tried to respond.

What I was seeing, and what I tried to address off the cuff in that broadcast, was the terrible position a wife was in when neither her husband nor she herself perceived that she had any power in the relationship.  I said that this was also not good for the man-- to have a wife who could not confront him because he didn't really feel, deep down in his heart, that he needed to listen to her.  In short, in a marriage where the man is considered the God-appointed leader of the wife, he is the only person with any real power in the marriage.  And in that case, whether the marriage is good or bad is entirely dependent on the character of the man.

This, as far as I can see, is the real weakness of the male headship teaching.

Jesus spoke several times during His ministry on the issue of power.  He said in Acts 1:8, just before His ascension into heaven, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."  He also said in Luke 10:19, "Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you."  

Jesus was happy to give His followers "power-to."  Power to be His witnesses.  Power to tread on the power of the enemy.  But the one thing He never gave anyone was what I would call "power-over."  Yes, He said the disciples had "power over" the power of the devil.  But He never endorsed any of His followers having "power over" other human beings.  He said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. Not so with you.  But instead, whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant."  Matthew 20-25-26.

In Paul's advice to Christian marriages in the first-century Roman world-- a culture where only the husbands had any real power-- Paul told husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33 to treat their wives as their own bodies-- to imitate Christ in laying down their power and emptying themselves, in order to raise their wives up out of their lowly, powerless position, to stand with them in honor and glory.  That was what the head-to-body relationship meant for Christ and the church.  That was what he wanted it to mean for husbands and wives.  In effect, he was telling husbands to stop using power-over and to grant their wives power-to.  

The modern Christian male-headship teaching, on the other hand, gives power-over to husbands-- and then simply asks them to use it wisely.  To be kind and loving masters-- who also serve.

But what if the husband is not wise?  What if he likes power too much? What if he hears "be head, be master, be in charge" much louder than he hears "be kind, be loving, and serve"?

Then he should repent, the male-headship doctrine says.  Or he just shouldn't get married, the male-headship doctrine says.  And it counsels women not to marry such a man.  But then out of the other side of its mouth, it tells her to look for a man who can lead her spiritually.

So that is what the woman is going to look for-- someone who seems spiritual, who seems to have leadership potential.  How is she going to be able to tell, before his power over her is granted in marriage, whether he will be able to use it wisely or with character?  He has not yet been tried.  If it's their first marriage, he is almost certainly a young man, and she is a young woman.  How is either of them to know how well he can handle this power that is being handed to him for no other reason than that he is male?

When Paul wrote, the imbalance of power in marriage was an established fact of life that could not simply be changed-- any more than slavery could be changed, or the godlike status of the Emperor could be changed.  It was up to later civilizations to figure out ways to change these structures which were built on inequity and systemic injustice.

After all, how well a monarchy works is entirely dependent on how good the king or queen is.  And when the king's authority to rule is based only on his birth-- whose son he is-- then the kingdom will do well if the son who is born happens to have intelligence, moral strength, leadership ability and basic humility.  If he doesn't, the kingdom-- and the people-- suffer.

Unless they find a way to make the royal succession dependent on the heir having these skills. Or unless they limit the power of the monarch and give real leadership authority to those who have proven themselves.  Or unless they do away with monarchy altogether.

Our modern Western systems, in fact, are largely based on a balance of power.  We divide the rule of a country between different branches of government, each checking the power of the others.  We give our leaders power-to -- to stop each other from abusing power-over.

But Christian male-headship doctrine abandons this wisdom, to return to a system where one person has power over the other based only on his birth-- what sex he is.  So if the person given headship in the marriage happens to have intelligence, moral strength, leadership ability and basic humility, the marriage will do well.  If he doesn't, the marriage-- and the wife-- suffers.

Unless they find a way to limit his power by sharing it with her.  But then they are likely to be told that he is "wimping out" or "not stepping up," and that she is being unsubmissive and ungodly.

Is this really what God wants?  Hasn't He blessed us to be able to change our systems of government so that power is checked and balanced?  Why then, would He refuse us any such ability to change our systems of marriage?

Sarah Bessey, in her beautiful book Jesus Feminist, thinks otherwise:
In Christ, and because of Christ, we are invited to participate in the Kingdom of God through redemptive movement-- for both men and women-- towards equality and freedom. We can choose to move with God, further into justice and wholeness, or we can choose to prop up the world's dead systems, baptizing injustice and power in sacred language. (p. 14)
Male-headship marriage is a relic of a dead world system of power-over.  It's time to stop treating it like a mandate from above.  It's time we let it go, and started giving all God's people, male and female alike, power-to be free.

Power to a wife to be able to say, "Enough."  Power to tell her husband, "You're being selfish, and it's not my job to cater to that" -- and have enough clout of her own that he will respect her enough to listen. Power to stand up and say, "What you want of me violates my personhood, and the image of God in me is sacred.  Your whims are not."  Power to walk away from emotional, economic, spiritual or physical abuse.

Because let's face it.  Unless we empower spouses to say "no" to abuse in all its forms, we're enabling abuse.  Yes, men can be abused in marriage too.  But churches aren't telling men they have to submit. And churches aren't telling women they have God-given power and authority over their spouses, so please just be nice when you use it.

I didn't know what I could or should say to Linda on the radio last week, because I didn't know enough about her circumstances or what she wants to happen.  Telling her she should try to gain power in the relationship could be dangerous if she has no support systems, no expectation of backing by her church, nowhere to go if she should try to flee.  After 50 years of the status-quo in her male-headship marriage, her situation is too complicated to address in a sound-bite.  But I will say that when the moderator and Mr. Arnold on the show spoke to the husband as if he were listening (if he had been, would Linda have felt free to say any of that?) and told him he needed to repent and stop being selfish, that probably didn't do any real good.

So what I will say is this.  Anyone who knows Linda personally and could offer her support and a place of safety if she needs it, please do.  Readers who have found a way out of suffering like Linda's-- whether it's through a repentant spouse or through escape-- please share whatever you can that might help people in her situation.

And church leaders who are reading this-- you can bet there's at least one "Linda" in your congregation.  What can you do to stop power-over used against her?  How can you give her power-to become all God created her to be?  If you're going to insist that the man is the spiritual leader of the wife, at least come up with some way to give her power to check and balance his.  After all, the church has never had to submit to selfishness in Christ, or neglect, or cruelty, or refusal to listen. Shouldn't a wife's submission end here too?

Whether her husband likes it or not.  Because giving her only the power that he allows her to have, isn't enough.  That's really still just his power.

And it's not good enough, either, to say, "We, the church, will exercise our power to stop the husband from abusing his power in the marriage." Because unless there is power-to resist him in the wife's hands, he's still got no reason to respect her. The church needs to back her up, but it shouldn't take over.  That's bad for both the marriage and the church.

Unrestricted power is safe in Christ's hands.  But it's not safe in our human hands.  Our own basic Christian doctrines tell us so.

So let's stop giving power like that to mortal men, and then being surprised when they misuse it.


Donald Johnson said...

I totally agree with you. The reason gender hierarchy facilitates abuse is because believers are in the process of becoming like Jesus but are not there yet. We can trust in Jesus being king because he is benign, but we dare not trust others to act in his stead in this way, as they are not, all of us sin.

Anonymous said...

I have been a "Linda" for 20 years and I don't expect the situation to change. Thanks for addressing this issue clearly. My husband has been insisting that I am the ungodly one while I deduce that he should have gotten a dog instead of getting married. It almost cost me my relationship with Christ but I have learnt to separate a weak man's hunger for power and manipulation from the word and heart of God.

Anonymous said...

Kristen! Wow! I just listened to the broadcast. You did a wonderful job. Thank you! Your debate-mate, though he sounds pretty sold out on the "complementarian" point of view, sounds like a very rare man who has his ego in check and perhaps also is consistently able to resist the temptation that comes with power, i.e., to abuse it, given the fallibility of all men/women. However, I would still be on guard were I his wife, and I would take very good care of myself. Absolute power still corrupts, not to mention the kind of self-doubt, second-guessing, depletion of self-value, and so on that results when one is regarded by proclamation to be "less than" in any way from another based on, well, the luck of the genetic draw determining whether or not one has male body parts or female body parts. (I'm so glad it's the spirit that "gives life" not the flesh!)

I also appreciate your very clear and insightful post today.

As per your request for readers to respond to the caller, "Linda," I offer this.

To Linda: I want you to know that it is not too late for you. I want you to know how much I admire you for not only sharing the truth of your situation, but to have survived it AND have gleaned the wisdom of God to know that the situation in your marriage as is is NOT godly. This is the strength of the Holy Spirit in you, I believe. This tells me you have not given up on deliverance, on hope.

In 2012 I left a 42 year marriage. One I should have left earlier, but when the time did come, I knew beyond any doubt it was the Holy Spirit prompting me to leave. Then. That night. Perhaps I should have left years ago, but there were some fruitful years during and just after Christian counseling about twenty years ago that were of great value.

I can't say whether or not God will bless you further inside your marriage or will deliver you out of it. But whatever the case, I just want you to know that you are absolutely correct that your husband is NOT treating you as he should. I wish I could give you a hug; I hope you have a good support group. If not, gather one about you. Trust me, there are other women out there like you!

One more thing. Also about twenty years ago, I still labored wrongly under the concept that my husband was the "spiritual leader" in the house though at the time, he was not going to any church and resented my growing faith. One day when I was feeling down about the situation (the kids were still at home) and I brought it to the Lord in prayer, I "heard" this" "You are the spiritual head of the house." Instantly, I gleaned the truth in that. AND I WAS NOT THE SPIRITUAL HEAD OF THE HOUSE BY DEFAULT, just as when male missionaries can't be found to work the hard spots on the planet, it's okay, some think, for women then to teach and lead the "missioned" people groups.

My life and the life of my household changed after that day. My prayers increased and intensified over my family and my marriage (not that I felt safe enough to share this information with my ex husband, nor did I feel it necessary). I just prayed with new insights, new hope, and new resolve.

It was not too long after that we started the counseling that did have a very positive impact on the marriage and the family for several years. So, take charge, Linda! And more than that, take heart!

Jesus knows you (knows your husband), and He also knows your future. And, as the prophet Jeremiah wrote, "it's good" (see chapter 29, verse 11 of his book).

Anonymous said...

I live in an egalitarian marriage by myself. My husband is complementarian and has been known to try to force his "headship over me". But whenever he does I pray for justice. God is just and He is not happy when women are disrespected. After I have prayed that I have seen God use different men to point out where my husband is wrong. There has been a change. He is not there yet but I can see some justice.

Anonymous said...

Great article and right on the money. I don't think male headship means a man has authority over his wife or that a women needs to be led in any way. We know what headship means as the Bible clearly tells us in Ephesians and Colossians, comparing the headship of men to the headship of Christ. Look at Ephesians 5-25:29. Male headship is chivalry. Man is supposed to use his strength and power to lift a woman up(out of patriarchy), enable her to use all her talents and not overpower her, protect her and present her without blemish to God and the world, not force her into servile servitude in a patriarchical system, in church, home, or society.
Men carry a certain power sociologically, since they are , as a rule, physically bigger and stronger than women.
This is why countries without laws addressing human rights are all patriarchical. Men are stronger and they will just take over and rule over women and children. Ultimately, the most ruthless male becomes the “leader.” But this is not true leadership. Leadership is about influencing and motivating people to work together for a common goal. Both men and women possess leadership skills. This skill has NOT been exclusively given to men. But, without a good rule of law, women can be overpowered and dominated by men. This was the situation in the first century and I believe God was trying to reverse this “men ruling over women” situation with the doctrine of male headship. Men will be held accountable for this. In return, women should be submissive to him, to honor him for this, but I don’t think submissive means obedience.
I have researched the meanings of kephale (head) and hupotasso(submit) in the Koine Greek. There is a military translation for both which would suggest an authority/obedience marital structure, but there is also a non-military translation, which makes more sense. Kephale can mean "source of" and submission can mean something as simple as be cooperative and supportive and respectful.
Complementarians present a militant marriage structure like an Army General/Private First Class type of relationship, which is quite harmful, even if the husband is not directly asking the wife to sin, since it gives the husband too much control over the wife’s autonomy. (He could make her quit a job she loves, he could control what she wears and eats, he could control who her friends are, etc.)
I am still researching and studying.........

Kristen said...

Thanks for all the input-- I especially appreciate Pnissila's candid and helpful story. I do hope "Linda," and other "Linda's" out there, will read this post and perhaps give more input on it.

To the 3rd Anonymous who posted-- I agree with most of what you say, though I don't like to use the word "headship" to describe what I believe God was leading the church into through the Eph 5 passage. This is partly because I want to use a different term to distinguish it from complementarian "male headship" doctrine. But it's also because I think it imposes a modern English category of thought onto a word to which the category was foreign: that is, the original Greek speakers would no more have turned their word "head" into a word that means "headship" any more than we would use the term "bodyship" for how the church relates to Christ. Paul was using a head-body metaphor of unity, where the head was the source of nourishment and growth to the body (see Eph 4:15-16). Heads and bodies didn't stand in "headship" or "bodyship" to one another, and certainly not in the sense of "state of being boss of" that we mean by "headship" in English. But I do absolutely agree that husbands were being encouraged to use their society-given power and responsibility to empower their wives. I think Paul and his readers were hoping for/expecting a return of Christ very soon, and so did not believe the then-current state of inequity in the world was going to continue much longer anyway. That being the case, Paul certainly could not have been intending to uphold the first-century social structure as God's will for all Christian social relationships.

You are quite right that husband can and do take the power the male-headship doctrine gives them and use to control the wife and violate her own autonomy. They even turn around and fault the wife for resenting this or for wanting autonomy-- forgetting the fact that men take for granted their own autonomy as a matter of course.

Kristen said...

My friend Metacrock had trouble posting here and so asked me to post this comment for him:

you did great Kristen! I'm not sure if you said this or not, it's a simple point but it really goes to the heart of their argument: no passage says "spiritual" head. 1 cor 11 says man is he head of woman (which we can read 'source' historical source references in creation--kephale meaning source rather tha physical head) it does not say 'spiritual head.'

even if you assume it says head and interpret it to men "boss" (that's not valid but if you do" there is no part of it that says "spiritual head."

Even in a conservative comp home wouldn't the mother have the right to speak up and say "Hey I think there's some spiritual problems here?" They are not willing to grant women even rights that are not taken away in scripture.

Anonymous said...

What is your interpretation of Paul telling wives to submit to their husbands in everything? (I realize the previous verse does tell Christians to submit to one another........)

Do you believe he was showing them how to survive within the current patriarchical culture or do you believe hupotasso has a "softer" meaning such as cooperate or respect?

While I believe in mutual submission, he does seem to single out wives. Thanks.

Kristen said...

Anonymous, I think that in that particular sentence in the passage, Paul is simply acknowledging the facts as he sees them. I'm pretty sure the word for "submit" in "as the church submits to Christ in everything, so wives to their husbands," is in the passive voice, denoting a state of being. This is why the New American Standard renders it as “the wife is subject to” rather than “wives, submit to.“ Paul is simply stating that wives are subject to their husbands, which in first-century Ephesus, was just a fact. But I also would note that the "in everything" in which the church is subject to Christ simply does not include selfishness, cruelty, neglect, etc. If we're going to take the church's relation to Christ as the standard to follow, that relation precludes submission to sinful, abusive behavior.

You might find this other blog post of mine helpful for a more thorough analysis of the passage in question:

Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Part 2

Elena said...

Kristen, just found you through the Egalitarian CA blog. I see you are in the NW. We are moving there sooo (to Vancouver WA). Would love to meet up sometimes. Don't know how else to contact you, thus this comment.

Kristen said...

Hi Elena! That's sweet of you! I would suggest we get to know each other first on the Egalitarian CA forum. Please join! It's here: Equality Central Forum