Who’s in Charge? How the Church ought to speak about Headship

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Well it’s been a massive week, and I suspect we’re due for another one too. As the ABC kicked off their reporting on domestic abuse in the churches we’ve had claim and counter-claim all over our media, from Auntie to the Australian. I won’t rehearse here much of what has been said since I think most of my readers will be well on top of it and (I suspect) a little weary of much of the rhetoric. Every day sees a new piece written about what we do and don’t know, what we are and are not responsible for, what the reporters may or may not have wanted to imply, what the subeditors communicated in their headlines and whether the statistics help provide meaningful insight or just add more damned lies to the whole mess.

In the middle of all this are the survivors themselves. Now a victim twice; first at the hands of their primary abusers and now perhaps at the hands of those who actually seek to help them as the raw tragedy of their experiences is in danger of being lost in the discussions over them. I’m not sure any of us have covered ourselves in glory.

Yet at the same time much good has come out of it. First and foremost we’ve heard yet again the reality of the stories of survivors (and those still being abused). We’ve been forced to confront the truth that domestic abuse does occur in churches (and in all flavours of churches) and we have often been appalling at dealing with it both in our response to the victim and also in our proper handling of the perpetrator. We should be ashamed and I think, to a large extent, we have been. Quite so.

There are still questions, of course. Does one flavour of theology lead to churches where abuse is more or less likely to happen? Do the statistics from the U.S.A or less contemporary studies in New Zealand have any bearing upon the situation here in Australia? Quite frankly, who cares? Yes those are important questions and the answers need to be carefully mined in days to come but an overemphasis on those matters at the moment serves only to look like we’re ignoring the stories that have been presented before us.

Now I’m the first to remind people that the plural of anecdote is not anecdata. But when the first question before us is simply “are we prepared to face up to the reality of this happening?” then the first answer in response should not be “well let’s talk about what’s not happening”. Yes, many victims are looked after. Yes, many abusers are dealt with. Yes, the Diocese of Sydney (and other places) have begun the process of rolling out some robust clergy training. But to insist that’s the main story (or even a large part of the story) right now is to appear to be seeking to spin away from the other important stories – the accounts that victims give of their experience in the church. Have we learned nothing from our poor handling of sexual abuse of minors in the church if not to realise that, perhaps, there’s a better path forward?

When I write this I don’t want to suggest for a moment that there’s not room for a wider conversation. In fact I think it’s important that we address those broader issues. It’s been a privilege to be part of the public conversation over the past few days. One of the surprises of that has been the women who have contacted me afterwards; survivors of abuse who tell wonderful stories of never losing their faith in Christ and, perhaps surprisingly for some of those who are reading now, who tell me that they still cling all the more to the great news of headship.

Yes, headship. You might be mistaken for thinking that the problem we conservative Christians have is our apparent obsession with this doctrine. Take, for example, retired bishop George Brownings opinion piece published today by The Melbourne Anglican. It’s a great example of someone writing within the Anglican body on this issue – someone who would rather we do away with it. Unfortunately it’s not a helpful start…

Male headship, which is a non-negotiable article of faith amongst Sydney Anglicans and many Protestant Churches, notably non-aligned Baptist Churches, has received considerable recent attention as a result of the journalistic investigation conducted by Julia Baird.

Almost immediately you can see the gambit being played. This is “non-negotiable” amongst some of us and therefore, by implication, not amongst all of us. That’s really a way of arguing that we hold firmly to something that we actually shouldn’t be.

Browning goes on to dive right into the question of whether “headship” is tied to domestic violence. While I encourage you to read the whole piece I want to focus on one central argument he makes:

I have no doubt that the vast majority of Christian men who espouse this doctrine  find any form of domestic violence repulsive and in their marriages are genuinely loving; practicing a principle of equality to the very best of their ability.

However, there is no getting away from the reality that the flip side of headship is subjugation.

Well actually, it’s not. Time and time again we see the critics of headship fall into a curious inconsistency. They recognise that we would claim it is a distortion of headship theology that leads to violence…

It is hardly surprising therefore that Church leaders, including the Archbishop of Sydney in their defence of this ‘biblical verity’ have argued that any connection between it and domestic violence is the result of a total misunderstanding. But is this defence believable?

… but at the same time they do the very same thing themselves. The “flip side of headship” is categorically not subjugation. In the key passage on this topic (Ephesians 5:22-33) the command is not to husbands to subjugate their wives. It’s the exact opposite. It’s a call to the wife to chose to submit. Nowhere does the Bible say she must be forced to. In fact quite the opposite. The husband is told to get on with the job of loving his wife and, in case there was any doubt what that looks like, he is told to love her like Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). Jesus did not force us into our proper place, he gave himself up for us. By using the language of “subjugation” Browning ironically perpetuates the kind of understanding that we ourselves consistently teach against (or, at least, we should be teaching against – if one thing has been made clear to us this last week, it is the propensity of people to distort the Bible’s words for their own agenda).

Less than a week ago I found myself in the Emergency Room of the local hospital with one of our children. It’s always a stressful time and I was once again reminded of the incredible work our public health professionals do. You’ll be glad to hear that the doctors were able to not only provide a clear diagnosis but also to promptly relieve the suffering. They used a simple drug that is available over the counter in every pharmacy in the country. Properly applied it did it’s job exactly as it was meant to.

The same narcotic, when abused, can cause terrible damage. Despite the fact that every pack contains clear warning labels there are still thousands who choose to overdose or misuse it in other ways to great harm for themselves and others. Of course, the misuse of the drug does not negate how wonderfully effective it can be when used properly. Personally I am delighted that the doctor last Thursday evening applied the drug in the right way. I would be horrified to contemplate a world where every good thing that could be abused was banned and am very grateful that my child didn’t miss out because of it.

Back to Browning…

If biblical headship in fact means the one who holds this responsibility, is the chief servant and puts himself last, as the Archbishop would have us believe, then I suggest another word or metaphor should be found to express this truth. But this is not what those who espouse this doctrine mean. They mean that the male is the head in a manner that women can never be.

Well yes, that is exactly what we mean. I’ll explain why.

Because that’s what the Bible says:

Eph. 5:22-33    Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

There it is. All of it. The whole thing. There’s the context. Now I defy anyone to read that and suggest it tells a husband to do anything other than consistently love his wife in the same way that Christ loves his church. He is called to “give himself up” ,”feed and care”, “love her as he loves himself” and so on. Why? Because as the Apostle himself clearly states (using an image that is found all over the Bible) this is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church. It is a blatantly asymmetrical relationship in that there are not identical roles. Jesus is the rescuer and saviour and head in this relationship. The church does not die to save and wash Jesus so as to present him as radiant. We do not save Jesus, he saves us. This is no fringe belief – this lies at the very heart of the Christian gospel! We don’t need another word or metaphor because this is exactly the one that the Bible uses. It perfectly describes the wonderful relationship of Christ to the church.

When Browning complains (because effectively that is what he is doing) that “They mean that the male is the head in a manner that women can never be.” then I wonder quite what Bible he is reading. Similarly when the Anglican Primate appears on national TV and states (from 18:41)

I don’t believe there is an essential reading of the Bible that teaches me that I must believe in the headship of men. I read the Bible and see that it talks more about the mutuality of people and their love for each other and that God created men and women equally and that both men and women are created in the image and likeness of God…

We see the same thing all over again; Headship set against equal worth in creation, a deliberate distortion of the position that he is arguing against and something that (take note) reinforces the false understanding of headship that appears to lie at the root of much abuse of the doctrine in the church.

Yet there’s more. When Freier states “I don’t believe there is an essential reading of the Bible that teaches me that I must believe in the headship of men.” thousands of faithful Anglicans who love their Bibles with one voice quietly respond,

Eph. 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.

In a different context it would have been worth asking Archbishop Philip quite how he reconciles that. You have the full context above, we can all see what the “essential reading” is. Thankfully Browning is not so coy about what is going on. Faced with this contradiction he is entirely honest…

Is the doctrine of male headship arguable from scripture?  Yes of course it is. Does it therefore mean that is right? No it does not.

He tries to dig himself out of the hole…

There are many positions that can be argued from certain biblical texts. Am I inferring that scripture lacks authority? No I am not.  What I am saying is that scripture speaks to scripture and the overriding character or virtue required of followers of Jesus is a lack of ambition to do anything other than to serve.  It cannot, indeed it must not be the implicit or explicit teaching of the Church that anyone has the right, let alone the mandate, to lord it as ‘head’ over another.

Quite what does Browning think “love your wives as Christ loved the church” communicates other than exactly “a lack of ambition to do anything other than to serve” or a total rejection of “lording it over another”?

What is so tragic about all of this is that these leaders in the church cannot bring it upon themselves to stand by the words of God in the Bible. The Primate effectively states that he doesn’t believe the Scriptures in Ephesians 5 or, at best, thinks that they are unclear on the matter. I’ll leave it to others to evaluate how persuasive that position is. Browning goes one step further. He simply says that the Bible is wrong on this point while with the same breath misrepresenting the very position he castigates. In a discussion about terrible abuse he pummels a straw man and then stands back expecting us all to approve.

Any teaching that has the capacity for gross manipulation, however wholesome it might seem to its adherents, should be abandoned.

“Its adherents” are the majority of the church throughout the ages. They include Christian women who are immensely grateful for men who take it 100% seriously and use the power and strength at their disposal to protect the vulnerable, challenge the abuser and love like Jesus loved. They include a victim of domestic abuse who’s pastor was unfairly represented by the ABC last Friday in a brief video clip of a sermon preaching on this topic – that same man (this woman told me) has worked tirelessly to protect victims of abuse, even reaching far into his own pockets. Talk about loving as Christ loved the church. That’s putting your money where your mouth is.

Oh that our leaders would even open their mouth and stand up to confidently proclaim Christ the head of the church who gave himself for his bride! Oh that they would call each and every man, husband and otherwise, to love in the same way and so with their lives declare the profound mystery of Christ and the Church to a watching world that is so much in need of proper male role models. In a situation crying out for men to be real men and real husbands, where are the leaders pointing to the man and the husband as the one for us all to follow?

I hate domestic abuse. Moving to where I currently minister has exposed me to it in a way I would not have even imagined before. It’s also made me realise what was most likely going on behind closed doors in far more privileged places I have lived before. It’s also given me the immense joy of being involved heading up a charity that every day is working with both victim and perpetrators.

But most of all it has convinced me all the more of the transformation that comes from knowing that the Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the church and that his headship is a most wonderful thing that I am called to mirror every day, just as the Scriptures so plainly state. It has shown me in the work that we do here what an amazing thing it can be when men grapple with that loving headship. For our leaders to effectively argue against it is a deeply distressing thing. To do so in order to take yet another shot at theological conservatives is even worse – like the increasingly shrill and senseless debates about statistics and everything else that has gone on this last week it ultimately makes the victims of abuse unwitting agents of another agenda.

We in the church can do so much better in this whole area. We’ve failed victims of abuse so very much. We’ve failed them by not being more clear about what abuse of this wonderful doctrine can lead to. We’ve failed them by not speaking out loudly enough about abuse when it does occur.

But we’ll fail them more if we walk away from the model of the headship of the greatest, most wonderful husband that ever was or will be.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. donna

    i think you are missing the part about the abuse of wifely obedience….that concept is easily exploited…husbandly ownership of a wife can be taken to extremes too….

    1. David Ould

      hi Donna, thanks for your comment. I think you’re mistaken because the article is very clear about abuse; that it happens and that it is both unacceptable AND contrary to the Biblical model of headship.

  2. chris russell

    I had not read this before donna brought it back into the light. When Freier denies that there is an “essential reading of the Bible” in relation to this matter, what he means is that he doesn’t like what the Bible says in relation to this matter, and so he believes it is expendable i.e. in light, of course, of his other values (which are anti-biblical). This is what unbelievers in the Church do all the time, whatever might be the topic. They drive you up the wall with their humbug and deceit. Excellent commentary, David.

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