Male Headship and the Problem of Power

by Kristen Rosser cross posted from her blog Wordgazer’s Words

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.

[Editorial Note: This article is intended for those readers who have chosen to accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on the assumptions on which it is based. Please refrain from this pertains to all Christians everywhere and show some respect for the writer please. For more info on the site please visit - Is NLQ an Atheist Website?]

Read everything by Kristen Rosser!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Kristen Rosser (aka KR Wordgazer) blogs at Wordgazer’s Words

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