Male headship in the church today can often be nothing more than an unbiblical system of Apartheid: Women-Injustice#8; Justice#19

Male headship in the church today can often be nothing more than an unbiblical system of Apartheid: Women-Injustice#8; Justice#19 June 9, 2021

“The world that human beings create is indeed “man-made.” The system that human beings construct to order their lives in the world sets men and the concerns of men at the center. It develops hierarchies of power in which some human beings rule over other human beings. The patriarchal system that configures the human world, in short, is a social manifestation of human brokenness that results from defiant humanity’s insistence on making the world on its own terms. In this world, Yahweh God has declared, that man will rule over the woman (Gen 3:16). Yahweh’s work to renew creation thus entails restoring interhuman relationships—as well as the divine-human relationship—to their original state.”[1]

The opening quote by Daniel Hawk affirms the position I have been arguing for in these posts. Namely that “a biblical theology of gender today must account for the coming of Christ and the advent of the kingdom of God. If in the kingdom of God, there is a restoration of the equality between male and female—after all, few would dare to contend that there is the subordination of women in the New Jerusalem—and if that kingdom has begun in Christ, then male headship has no basis among God’s people today.[2]

This is what Paul is affirming in Gal 3:28,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Now some may wish to respond by noting that there are several places in the NT where the distinctions between male and female remain.

The foundation laid in the previous posts has already provided an answer: male and female were created to rule equally as those who equally reflect the image of God. When read in light of the Ancient Near Eastern culture, this view of male and female was revolutionary!

Furthermore, there are no differences in the New Creation in terms of position and authority among the people of God. This is a fundamental argument of the NT.

In an analogous situation, we see that some of Paul’s opponents were attempting to argue that Gentiles must first become Jews before they can become Christians, Paul unequivocally rejects this notion. Christ has “broken down” the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile and has “made both groups into one” (Eph 2:14).

Furthermore, the idea that societal distinctions remained between slave and free (and therefore so do distinctions between male and female) fails to account for the fact that in the church there were to be no such distinctions.

Sure, society may make such distinctions. But they are not to be found in the Church. This is why Paul is able to refer to Onesimus as a “beloved brother” to Philemon (Phil :16).[3]

This is also why the NT affirms that all persons among the people of God are to submit to one another: “and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21).

Ephesians 5 and mutual submission

Though some may still contend for male headship in the family and church today, the NT teaches a mutual submission of one to another. The model is the cross!

One of the more common passages used to assert male headship is Eph 5:22: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” The problem with asserting Eph 5:22 as evidence of male supremacy is that the previous verse establishes mutual submission of everyone to everyone: “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21).[4]

Paul clearly establishes that in the community of God’s people there must be mutual submission. Wives are to submit to their husbands and husbands are to submit to their wives.

Paul, in fact, a few verses later describes the submission of the husband to the wife. And he does so in terms of Christ’s sacrificial death, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). Why is it that the submission of wives to their husbands is stated plainly, while the submission of husbands to their wives is set forth in comparison to Christ’s submission to the church?

This is simple. In the Greco-Roman culture of the time, the wife was already expected to submit to the husband. In his exhortation to the wives, Paul is merely reflecting a cultural norm for which there likely would have been little objection.

When it comes to the husbands’ submission to their wives, however, Paul was presenting something radically counter-cultural and he may well have encountered resistance—if not all-out opposition. Consequently, Paul states emphatically that husbands are to submit to their wives just as Jesus submitted to the church.

To read Ephesians 5 as though it only affirms the submission of the wives and not also the husbands is to ignore both the clear opening command of mutual submission in Eph 5:21 and the fact that husbands are more strongly exhorted to submit to their wives in Eph 5:25.

Objections to this reading of Gal 5:18-21

Wayne Grudem, one of the more outspoken evangelical proponents for female subordination, suggests that this is not the proper understanding of this passage. Grudem contends that Eph 5:21 only refers to the submission of “some to others.”[5]

Though the next few sentences will be a bit complex, it is critical to respond to this line of argumentation.

The primary question here is the proper meaning of “allelous” (“each other,” or “one another”). The problem with suggesting that allelous means “some to others” (as Grudem contends) and not to “one another” (as reflected in every major English translation) is that it neither fits the context, nor the use of allelous throughout the NT.

Allelous in the context of Ephesians 5:18-21

In Ephesians 5:21, the command to “submit to one another” is the last in a series of commands (participles[6]) that follow the main verb.

In Ephesians 5:18-21, Paul tells the Ephesians, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” He then lists what this means for them:

  • they should be “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19):
  • they should be “singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Eph 5:19):
  • they should be “always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father” (Eph 5:20):
  • they should “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21).

Note that the first and fourth of these participles (“speaking” and “submitting”) are modified by reciprocal pronouns (“to one another”; Eph 5:19, 21). Paul is not commanding some of them to speak songs to others, but everyone one of them is to speak “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:21) to one another.

This means that the argument that the command to submit only refers to some in the church in relation to others does not correspond with the context and the use of allelous.

Allelous in the NT

The use of allelous in the rest of the NT affirms that Paul means “to one another” and not “some to others.”

In Gal 6:2 Paul says that we are to “bear one another’s burdens (allelous), and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” Paul is not suggesting that we only bear the burdens of some.

In 1 Cor 11:33, Paul says, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another (allelous).” Are we to believe that during communion Paul is commanding the Corinthians to only wait for “some” so that some of you may eat together? Was he not commanding them to wait for “everyone” so that they may eat together? After all, the very issue in 1 Cor 11 was that the wealthy were not waiting for the poor but were eating without them.

John 13:35 also affirms that the ethic of the entire NT is that all Christians are called to love one another: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

The manifestation of this love is in the form of a cross-bearing, sacrificial submission to death for one another.

Mutual submission in Ephesians 5

Grudem’s suggestion that allelous only refers to “some” and not “everyone” undercuts the tenor of the NT and Paul’s argument in Ephesians 5 in which everyone in the church is called to lay down their lives for one another.

That Christian love is exemplified by a cross-bearing love toward all is evident in Ephesians 5. After setting forth the principle of mutual submission, which conforms to the NT ethic of love, Paul then applies this principle to the Christian household: i.e., wives and husbands; children and parents; slaves and masters.

In his exhortation to husbands, Paul states that husbands are to “love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). Note that this cross-bearing love among God’s people is explicitly applied to the male-female relationship.

Captains and privates?

Complementarians (those who contend that men are superior in position over women) often contend that the difference in roles between male and female are analogous to the roles of a captain to a private in the military, or a manager to a server in the restaurant.

The problem with these comparisons is that such roles can shift. One person is not born a captain or restaurant manager, while another is born a private or a server.

Such “roles” are the result of one person having more training or experience.[7] The fact is that a captain can be demoted and a private can be promoted.

When the complementarians use “role” to differentiate males and females, they are claiming that there is an essential difference between the two persons (a male and a female) that is inherent within them: i.e., one person was born to serve and the other was born to lead. This means that there are no conditions by which a woman will ever be permitted to rule over a man.

This line of argumentation, however, is no different than the arguments that were set forth to justify slavery and apartheid! This means that the complementarian position is nothing more than a system of apartheid. By its very nature, apartheid is a system of segregation in which roles are determined at birth.

According to complementarians, to use their own analogies, women may never become captains or restaurant managers but are relegated to the positions of private or server for life. As Kevin Giles notes,

“In these cases, ‘difference in role’ speaks of an essential and unchangeable difference, predicated on the premise that some are born to rule and some obey. The rulers and the ruled are not social equals and never can be. This hierarchical ordering is person-defining and given at birth. In ‘complementarian’ literature, this is exactly how men’s and women’s ‘roles’ are understood. Men are born to rule, women to obey. A change in ‘role’ is impossible. Women do not only function subordinately; they are the subordinate sex.”[8]

Such a viewpoint has no place in the NT conception of the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.


In the final few posts on women, justice, and the Bible, I will continue to respond to a few more of the prominent passages that are used to advocate for female subordination.


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[1] Hawk, L. Daniel. The Violence of the Biblical God (p. 65). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] See my post, XXX

[3] See XXX.

[4] Technically, the context for Eph 5:22 begins in Eph 5:15. Space will not afford the opportunity to go too deeply into this passage.

[5]Grudem, “The Myth of Mutual Submission” in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, 221-32.

[6] Participles are verbal nouns. They may at times, as they are doing here, act like commands.

[7] I do not intend to deny that prejudice is a part of the system. One person may be a captain and another a private because of gender bias or racial discrimination.

[8] Giles, 23.

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