The last of my six posts on women, ministry and authority. My initial plan was to do an appreciative critique of the respective books by John Dickson and Michael Bird. I agree with Dickson’s main argument, but believe he should go further (especially in the area of women and prophecy as one mode of preaching). I am in even greater agreement with Michael Bird—especially his treatment of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, understood in the context of false teaching in Ephesus.
Where I differ from them both is with regard to headship, and it is this I want to explore in this post (although not specifically in response to Dickson or Bird).
To this point I have made two main contentions:
1. That the use of authenteō (‘dominate’) in 1 Timothy 2:12 signals a significant distinction from the much more commonly used exousia related terminology. The two terms are not essentially synonyms, and our exegesis needs to weigh why such a rare verb is employed, and where it has distinct nuances not conveyed by our English word ‘authority’. To understand the term as ‘to dominate’ is well-established lexically, and makes better sense in this context.
2. The treatment of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as a unit raises the key question of why Paul refers to Eve’s deception (v.14). I have argued that his, together with verse 13, is best understood as part of a mini-narrative statement that summarises Genesis 2-3, as an example of the woman (Eve), not having been informed directly by God, being made vulnerable to deception by false teaching (the serpent), and prevailing over Adam as a result. This makes for a more cogent reading of this passage as a whole, set against the backdrop of warnings against false teaching that concludes chapter 1, and sets the scene for chapter 2. The ‘order of creation’ interpretation has significant exegetical difficulties.
I find myself wondering why this focus on limiting women in leadership and the contexts of ministry has become such a key (and apparently defining) issue of our times.
The answer, I assume, is the desire to be faithful to Scripture. Fair enough. I have the same desire.
Yet my point is a matter of fact: there is no passage in Scripture that clearly or unambiguously says women are not to have authority over men. None.
There is one verse (1 Timothy 2:12), explicitly expressed in the context of responding to false teaching which states that women are not to ‘dominate’ over men, within a unit (2:11-15) that raises a range of contextual issues and difficulties, whatever we conclude. This is a most insubstantial basis on which to establish one of the key defining issues of our times.
What then, of ‘headship’, and notions of ‘submission’?
In this context I now want to add a third contention to round out my critique of complementarian perspectives, with an alternative analysis of the metaphorical sense of ‘head’, and addressing the issue of ‘headship’ in non-authority related terms. ‘Submission’ (better ‘subordination’) need not be understood in hierarchical terms, especially when understood in terms of mutuality.
This is my third contention: nothing should be said of the ‘headship’ of a man over a woman (or husband over a wife) that cannot be equally be said of the relationship between the Father and the Son. Talk of differing levels of authority between Father and Son, and of a hierarchical understanding of intra-Trinitarian relationships, takes us into dangerous theological territory.
‘Headship’ is an unhelpful term that obscures more than it clarifies, and should be dropped from use for the purposes of dialogue. Whatever complementarians understand by ‘headship’ should be expressed in clearer terms (which reflects a range of conclusions in any event).
Let me be upfront with my reasoning: the metaphorical sense of kephalē has a well-established semantic range. The term ‘headship’ is not synonymous with kephalē, but a construction based upon one particular construal of the metaphorical application. By using ‘headship’ all other potential metaphorical senses are excluded, and unhelpfully conveys the impression that it is synonymous.
As an alternative, I shall argue that a non-hierarchical understanding of the intra-Trinitarian relationships provides a better model to understand how a husband is the head of the wife (or male of female) within a relationship of equals, reflecting inter-dependence, mutuality, individuality and difference.
[Please note: the initial part of what follows is derived from some of my own previous material prepared for a more popular, non-academic audience.]
Caution is especially in order when we consider the Trinity. The inadequacies of using analogies are well known, but the conceptual paradigms in play are just as capable of pre-determining the resultant shape as analogies and metaphors.
If you are not overly familiar with the history of Trinitarian formulations, hang in there with me for a moment. Western traditions are characteristically construed in terms of the Athanasian Creed, with its definitive ‘Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence’ distinctions (elaborating on earlier terminology credited to Tertullian and integral to Nicean orthodoxy as ‘three hypostases in one ousia’). Eastern models explore a different conceptual paradigm, especially in viewing Trinitarian notions as ‘energies of God’.
Now none of the formulations above are mutually exclusive, but starkly illustrate one thing: there is no one paradigm capable of fully explaining or shaping our understanding of the Trinity. The danger of over-emphasising one paradigm is offset by allowing a number of other models to sit alongside one another.
For example, there is some legitimacy in recognising that the actions of God may be considered in terms of particular functions or ‘modes’ of God (so Barth), but an overemphasis on this results in the error of ‘modalism’. Similarly, an over-emphasis on the distinctive ‘persons’ of the Trinity can lead towards an effective ‘tri-theism’ (belief in three Gods).
It is for these reasons that warnings about the inherent dangers in becoming overly focused on understanding the inner realities of the Trinity in terms of hierarchical order are very real.
A hierarchy is the arrangement of items or people as ‘above’ and ‘below’. When related to questions of authority, hierarchy devolves into ‘chain of command’ and ‘obedience’ types of relationship, understood as roles or fundamental order. Hierarchy is essentially unilateral –the exercise of authority moves in one direction and has little or no room for reciprocity or mutuality.
It is particularly with the latter in view that hierarchy is recognised as (at best) a very limited paradigm for understanding the Trinity, and more often, a very dangerous trajectory for construing relationships between Father, Son and Spirit.
Over against such hierarchical thinking, theologians from early times have affirmed the importance of ‘mutual indwelling’ within the Godhead – perichoresis for those familiar with this rich term. Of ancient usage and derived from Greek with the sense of ‘containing around’, T F Torrance characterises the term as a ‘dynamic three-way reciprocity’ between Father, Son and Spirit.
It is precisely because of the unilateral character of hierarchy, with its ‘chain of authority or command’ sense of order, that serious caution is needed in allowing such a paradigm to shape our perceptions of the mystery of the Trinity.
Now my background is more in the area of New Testament theology than historical or systematic theology, so in this post I will consider how Paul views the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit. What I will propose ends up looking much like perichoresis, but I have come at it from a different direction.
In short: I do not believe ‘hierarchy’ is adequate or even helpful in understanding the use of ‘hypotasso’ (‘subordination’) by Paul (and elsewhere in the New Testament). The use of human relationships as paradigms in exploring the Godhead will always be inevitably and significantly limited. When we recognise the counter-cultural critique made by Jesus of those who exercise authority within the human realm (Matthew 20:25-26), in contrast to the ways of the kingdom-reign of God, even more caution is needed.
Here, I need to touch on a few initial comments of a more technical nature, but hang in there with me.
There is a notional distinction made between ‘working relationships’ within the Godhead (known as the ‘economic Trinity’), and the ‘essential being’ of God. However, the distinction is arbitrary, and it is widely held that we can know nothing of God’s ‘essential being’ other than what is glimpsed through God’s dealings in and through creation. There is no other ‘portal’ into perceiving God other than what is discovered in the realm of history as God has engaged with his world.
God is as God is observed to be, inasmuch as we finite beings can discern the being of God.
Why is this significant? Because the distinction between the ‘subordination of the Son’ in terms of God’s outward ‘working relationships’, and that of more essential and eternal dimensions to the inner being of God is not so neatly delineated.
Now all this is much discussed and nothing particularly new. Yet it shapes how we approach Scripture. What do we observe of God, and the interaction between the distinctive entities of Father, Son and Spirit?
We can note that there is not reciprocal identity—each person of the Trinity is distinct and not to be confused. And without making the error of suggesting that there was a time when the Son did not exist, we also observe the Father is the kephale – source of the Son, and the Son is ‘begotten’ of the Father, while the Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father.
While the hot issue is whether the Son’s submission is eternal (and if so, whether this is functional or ontological), I wonder whether the wrong question is being explored. It is less about the timeframe of such submission, but rather how that ‘submission’ is understood. Is it necessarily a hierarchical notion, of command and submission?
In what sense may we understand the ‘submission’ of Jesus to Father? In similar terms, we hear of the ‘obedience’ of Jesus to the Father, although this is largely to be understood in contrast to the disobedience of Adam to God. Jesus, the new man and ‘second Adam’ was and is obedient, while the original Adam was wilfully rebellious. Such obedience is also a reflection of love and trust here. The willingness to be obedient is the outworking of such love.
In like measure, talk of the submission of Jesus to the Father is better located in the sense of the depth of respect and love. The will of the Father becomes the will of Jesus. The ‘convergence of will’ better reflects what we observe about Trinitarian relations. The Trinity exists in the ultimate ‘oneness of mind’ and purpose, and it is in this—and this alone—that we discover the possibility of ‘mutual submission’.
The adoption of some form of ‘hierarchy’ as a paradigm to understand relationships within the Godhead take us in the wrong direction, and places strain on the affirmation of ontological equality (ultimate equality of ‘being’). Yet the biblical windows into the inner realm of the Trinity lead us elsewhere, to a mutual indwelling and complete alignment of values, will and purpose.
In similar measure, the reduction of human relationships between males and females along the delineation of roles and hierarchy of order is ill-considered. The goal set before the fellowship of God’s people, those transformed in their thinking towards the will of God and participating in the Spirit, is to be of one mind, that is, the same mind as that of Christ.
I have spent much time on the relationship between the Father and the Son, especially as reflected in the use of kephalē (‘head’). I return to my original assertion: Nothing should be said of the ‘headship’ of a man over a woman (or husband over a wife) that cannot be equally said of the relationship between the Father and the Son.
Drawing these two threads together, I argue that the relationship of husband as the ‘head’ of the wife (as expressed in 1 Cor. 11:3) need not, and indeed should not, be understood within a gender-defined hierarchy of authority.
It should also be pointed out that the fuller consideration of 1 Cor. 11:3-13 concludes with an affirmation of inter-dependence (verses 12-13), and makes no role differentiation between the ministries of husband and wife (both may ‘pray and prophesy’, verses 4-5). The import of this passage is addressed at cultural practices of dress, and especially headwear. At one level, Paul starts with a word play between physical and metaphorical uses of ‘head’, but the language of ‘authority’ is only expressed with reference to the woman/wife (v.10). Even more strikingly, 1 Cor. 14:26 makes it clear that when coming together ‘each one’ (with no gender exclusions) ‘has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation’. The one criterion for such ministries is that ‘all things be done for building up’. Why introduce gender-based restrictions on such ministries where scripture does not do so?
A concluding brief comment is appropriate with reference to 1 Cor. 14:34-35:
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church
It is clearly recognised that this cannot be an absolute restriction on women (or wives) speaking. Debate has been over what form of speaking is in view, and this post is not intended to review these, but rather to propose what I find a compelling contextual interpretation. The form of speech in view is before us in the text: it concerns wives asking questions of other wives’ husbands in public assembly (v.35).
Something of the cultural dynamic in play here may be illustrated by a passage by the Roman historian Livy (recreating a speech from M. Porcius Cato).
What kind of behaviour is this?
Running around in public, blocking streets, and speaking to other women’s husbands! Could you not have asked your husband the same thing at home?”
In measures very similar to working in cross-cultural contexts today, cultural sensitivities are to be weighed when gospel witness may be otherwise compromised (e.g. for the appropriate clothing and social engagement by women when working in societies where these matters are culturally sensitive). This passage may readily be understood in such terms.
Much more could be said, but it is hoped that this contribution may clarify how someone else who shares evangelical convictions and commitment to Scripture views these issues, and may, just possibly, provide cause for some reconsideration of the basis for complementarian positions.