Sunday, February 6, 2011

Challenging ‘headship’

This post has the danger of treading the wrong side of a default evangelical litmus test. Note carefully, however, that my point is more specific: it is my contention that ‘headship’ is an unhelpful term in identifying beliefs and perspectives on the relationship of male and female in God’s creation schema. One disclaimer, however: I have chosen to keep things short, so I am not going to clutter things by a range of lexicons, translations and the like...

It seems to me that one of the enduring frustrations in seeking constructive dialogue is that a range of terms are thrown around as if they are self-evident. A particular term may be used by a number of people, and only at a later point does it become apparent that such a term may mean different things to different people.

There is a range of terms used in the gender debates that in and of themselves are fine with me. ‘Equal but different’? No problem—of course we are equal but different (as individuals, as much as gender), and I have yet to come across anyone ‘egalitarian’ who argues otherwise. ‘Complementarian’ – likewise. Of course there are distinctive aspects to being male and female and that in God’s creative purposes male and female were/are created to complement one-another. Such terms (in and of themselves) don’t actually identify anything distinctive about the views they represent.

‘Headship’ I find particularly frustrating. “Do you believe in ‘headship’, or more specifically, 'male headship'?” Well, it very much depends on what you mean by the term—and that is far from self-evident. In more common use, it denotes the fact that a role of ‘head’ is identified in Scripture with regard to God, Christ and husbands/men (could be either). So yes, some form of ‘headship’ may be affirmed.

Yet the term is employed as though it is self-evident and clear. A line such as 'the case for male headship which is rather clear' is not uncommon (see comment #19 found here)

The problem is that this obscures more than it clarifies. Let me identify a number of reasons why I believe the term ‘headship’ is less than helpful:

1. The term ‘head’ does not occur anywhere in the Bible (that is, in the original language texts as we can discern them). The Greek word ‘kephale’ does of course occur, but it is not a simple ‘word for word’ equivalent, especially when used in a metaphorical sense. Words have a ‘semantic field’—a number of senses and nuances that convey a variety of meanings (look up any lexicon, preferably one with semantic domains), and the English word ‘head’ is not always the most appropriate one to use in translation. The metaphorical sense may be more specific, or intentionally ambiguous. Now none of this is contentious—it is well-established theory of the 'semantics 101' variety.

My point is that there are occasions when a more specific metaphorical sense should be reflected. Of course, the English word ‘head’ may also used in a metaphorical sense. The benefit of ‘head’ as a translation is that it keeps the ambiguity open, but this leads to my second point.

2. The second problem is that the English word ‘head’ carries significant theological baggage, and this is where the slide from ‘head’ to ‘headship’ is misleading. Where ‘head’ may be potentially open to an appropriate semantic range when employed as a metaphor, the term ‘headship’ does not. It narrows the semantic sense down to one—to the exclusion of other possibilities.

3. ‘Headship’ is not simply another way of referring to ‘head’ (although it is often used as if this is the case). ‘Headship’ is not actually used in scripture (happy to be corrected if I am mistaken). As employed in theological discussion it carries much more baggage than the metaphorical sense of kephale in itself can bear.

‘Headship’ is much more particular, referring specifically and necessarily to hierarchically shaped relationships. Someone is ‘under’, and someone ‘over’. Someone has authority and issues commands, and someone is obliged or compelled to obey. The ‘will’ of the head is all important, while the ‘mind’ of those under the heads authority is not strictly relevant, but their willingness to be obedient, regardless of their agreement or otherwise. Not only is some form of hierarchical order intrinsic to ‘headship’, it is more specifically ‘unilateral’ hierarchy. Authority and submission run in only one direction, from the one ‘over’ to those ‘under’.

4. When the term ‘headship’ is used therefore, it is not in the loose sense of kephale (with all its potential nuances and variances), but more specifically implying there is one, and one only, way of understanding kephale. Instead of using the term ‘headship’, it would be more helpful (in identifying the specific view) to speak of ‘unilateral hierarchy’. To say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question of whether you believe in a ‘gender-based unilateral hierarchy’ would do much more to clarify the views being affirmed or denied.

5. It might be said that this is just playing semantics and that ‘headship’ is a more succinct term. However, not only does ‘headship’ unduly narrow the metaphorical range, it has more subtle but dangerous effect. Because of the strictly hierarchical assumption, it seriously obscures otherwise well-established biblical notions: interdependence, servanthood, mutual submission and respect. None of these comes readily to mind when thinking of ‘headship’, yet they reflect the counter-cultural approach to relationships that are defined by the gospel.

I will argue in another post that a mutual indwelling of will—oneness of mind—is a better paradigm for understanding the inner world of the Trinity (in as much as we can conceive), rather that this insistence of pushing every form of relationship into some form of hierarchy. It seems to have become an evangelical obsession, and one that is distorting the complexity of Scriptural revelation.

My next post will explore the dangerous territory being posited by those arguing for the eternal subordination of the Son, and suggest an alternative, non-hierachical, paradigm for conceiving the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit.

In summary, my contention in this post is that the term ‘headship’ unduly narrows the semantic field that applies to kephale, and should be more clearly be expressed by the term ‘unilateral hierarchy’. My point is not to argue against such an ‘unilateral hierarchy’ (I will argue such in a later post), but simply that the term ‘headship’ obscures more than it clarifies.


Peter Carrell said...

Keep going, Tim!

I believe future historians will judge the 'headship' and/or 'eternal subordinationism' pathways of late 20th and early 21st century evangelicalism as blind alleys. My sense is that they will make those judgements because (a) the exegetical situation (as you tackle it here) will clarify that neither is upheld by Scripture; (b) neither is fruitful for evangelism; (c) neither will be supported by a shift in social dynamics in favour of those evangelicals promoting them (contrast, by the way, the unleashing of women missionaries in the 19th century as one precursor to change for women in Western society in respect of realization of capability).

We sometimes think the the Amish are cute. But we do not think they represent evangelicalism's mainstream.

David Ould said...

We sometimes think the the Amish are cute. But we do not think they represent evangelicalism's mainstream.

I'm afraid I have no idea what you mean, Peter. Who are the "Amish" you are actually referring to in the current context?

Ted said...

Hi Tim,

I've enjoyed your thoughts so far and look forward to seeing how this develops. Another unhelpful aspect of the term "headship" is that it doesn't connote the familial side of biblical authority; that we have responsiblilty for the welfare of those over whom we have authority.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi David,
I am predicting that evangelicals around the world today who are committed to making 'headship', 'eternal subordinationism' hallmarks of their ecclesiology (i.e. an ecclesiology which includes the application that women may neither lead nor teach mixed gender congregations) will not be the mainstream of future evangelicalism.