In Men and Women Equal in Value, it was established from Scripture that men and women share absolute equality of worth before God. Scripture also teaches the differences between them, differences which go all the way back to creation. When no other creature was found suitable, God made the woman “an help meet for man” (Gen. 2:18). From the outset man and woman were assigned different roles.
The Biblical teaching on role differentiation between men and women may be succinctly summarised as male headship and female subjection. Just two texts will suffice to demonstrate this.
- Male headship is clear in 1 Corinthians 11:3, “The head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man.”
- Female subjection is clear in 1 Timothy 2:11, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.”
This distinction works itself out very graphically in the sphere of marriage, but the principle of role differentiation is not confined to marriage. Both the texts just quoted are in the context of the church, not the family. And even then the principle does not reach its limits, for it also works itself out in every other sphere too; it extends to society as a whole.
We are not talking about husbands and wives only, nor simply about men and women in the sphere of the church, but about essential manhood and womanhood. What does it mean to be male, to be female? Male and female roles as worked out in the family and in the church are but expressions of the basic order that God has established in society as a whole. This principle is male headship and female subjection, for it does not apply only to men as they are husbands and women as they are wives, but to men as they are male and women as they are female. The social order established in Genesis 2:18 was not simply that the wife is a help meet for her husband, but that woman is a help meet for man.
1. Definition and Explanation
In defining and explaining male headship and female subjection, it will be seen that male and female roles are not contradictory but complementary. God has designed man and woman to complement, not contradict, each other; not to be incompatible but to be compatible. Feminism argues for duplication, but the truth is to complement each other. Male chauvinism demands male domination, but the truth is that there is a partnership. Yet it is not a partnership in which the partners are equally responsible for every matter. These matters materialise most in marriage, but they are relevant for every male-female relationship, whether in marriage or in the church or in society. We refer of course of mature manhood and mature womanhood, for we read even of the Son of God in our nature, that during His minority (according to the human nature) He was subject to Mary as well as to Joseph: He “was subject unto them” (Luke 2:51).
Male authority and female submission
Man’s headship means that the ultimate authority in male-human relationships should rest with him. This authority was exercised at the outset by Adam’s naming of the female as woman and then again after the fall as Eve the mother of all living. This is taught in the New Testament: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man” (1 Tim. 2:12). The woman then is under authority – under male authority. Female subjection requires that she submit to that male authority. The man’s authority means the woman’s submission. “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord (Col. 3:18). This submission is to be in with respect, because it is submission not to bare power but to rightful authority: “Nevertheless let . . . the wife see that she reverence her husband” (Eph. 5:33).
Male rule and female obedience
Man’s headship means that he is to rule: “One that ruleth well his own house” (1 Tim. 3:4,12). To rule is a man’s province, not a woman’s. This rule is not to be tyrannical, but loving, of course. To such rule the woman is to render due obedience: “But they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law” (1 Cor. 14:34). “Obedient to their own husbands” (Titus 2:5). “Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord [or master]” (1 Pet. 3:6). However, it is not the same absolute obedience as is due to the alone Sovereign Lord of all. The woman must say at times: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Male leadership and female responsiveness
Man’s headship means that he is to lead. A woman’s husband is called “the guide of her youth” (Prov 2:17). Thus Joshua spoke not only for himself but for his whole household that they will all serve the Lord (Josh. 24:15). All thoughts of dictatorship are to be absent from this. The woman is to follow and respond to this male leadership. It is the primary role of the man as leader to initiate and for the woman to follow, to be responsive to his leadership.
Male delegation and female help
Strong leadership delegates. Especially is the male to delegate concerning those matters which especially belong to the sphere of the female. Thus in marriage for example it is ordinarily not for the husband to be interfering in minute detail with the arrangements of the household that belong to the female sphere. To complement this is the female role of being the man’s help, the help suitable for him, as God said at the beginning: “I will make him an help meet for him” (1 Cor. 14:34). Though man and woman are to help one another in a general sense, there is a special sense in which the woman is to be the man’s helper, not the other way around.
Male provision and female reception
Man’s headship means that he is to provide for the woman and she is to receive that provision. This directs us to the different spheres in which men and women are ordinarily to function. The man’s sphere is shown in Genesis 3:17-19 as primarily in the workplace (with which Genesis 2:15 agrees), outside the house, as the provider and breadwinner. The woman’s sphere, on the other hand, as seen in Genesis 3:16, is primarily within the house, homemaking and rearing children. The curse did not introduce this role distinction, but made the two already-existing and already-allocated spheres miserable. Even the woman of Proverbs 31, when carefully considered, is seen to do all, even her business transactions, from within the context of the home. There are times of course when the woman may indeed contribute to the household’s provisions. For a single or widowed woman of course, or indeed when the husband is incapacitated for some reason, this mayindeed become a necessity. But the usual social order is male provision and female reception of that provision.
Male protection and female safety
Man’s headship means that he is to protect the woman. Adam should have protected Eve from the serpent and she should have sought his protection. Not only is the husband to protect his wife, but the men of a nation are to protect all the womenfolk, as well as the children and aged, in times of war. “She that tarried at home divided the spoil” (Ps. 68:12). This often entails male self-sacrifice. In the context of the family, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it” (Eph. 5:25). In all male and female roles there is something of this. Who would deny that when the ship is sinking, it is the women and children that should enter the lifeboats first? It is bound up with the sacrificial role of man for the woman, and the woman’s being “the weaker vessel” (1 Pet. 3:7).
The great causes of the role confusion in our day are attributable to both men and women. Men have not exerted their Biblical headship as they ought, either being too domineering on the one hand and thus abusing their God-given responsibility, or too passive on the other hand and thus forsaking their God-given responsibility. Women have not submitted to their Biblical subjection as they ought, either rebelling against their God-given role on the one hand, or reverting to a senseless drudgery on the other hand.
This principle of role differentiation is rooted in the great foundation of creation. This is clear from 1 Cointhians 14:34, “They [women] are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.” Which law? The law of the Old Testament, in particular the first five books which are called The Law, and in particular the first two “creation” chapters of Genesis, for that is where this principle is first laid down.
Man was created first; woman was created second – this was the first outworking of the idea of the firstborn. This has significance for the roles of man and woman, as Paul makes very plain in 1 Timothy 2:11-13. He as not giving his mere personal view. By inspiration of the Spirit of God, he would not permit a woman in the church to exercise the role of teaching a man or of exercising authority over him. But that relates only to the church, some would say. But no, for verse 13 declares that the reason for this differentiation of role in the church is not specific to the community of the church, but something rooted in creation itself: “For Adam was first formed, then Eve.” It is a creation principle being applied in an ecclesiastical context – not an ecclesiastical concept being formulated.
Not only was the man formed first, but also the woman was formed from the man: “She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23). She was derived from the man. This too has meaning for role differentiation, as 1 Corinthians 11:8 shows, “For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.”
Why was the man created? For God. Why was the woman created? For man. She was made to be “an help meet for him” (Gen. 2:18). This too has consequences for role differentiation, per 1 Corinthians 11:9: “Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”
Both man and woman were made in the image of God, and therefore showed forth His glory. Yet a distinction is made in 1 Corinthians 11:7, for the man “is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.” As the context shows, this is a distinction that has consequences for distinguishing male and female roles.
The woman is “the weaker vessel” (1 Pet. 3:7). Her physical anatomy is ordinarily weaker than the man’s. This natural strength fits him more for headship, and especially for the fulfilment of the responsibilities of the sphere of life to which he is ordained. The woman’s physiology of course fits her for childbearing, so that Eve from the beginning was called Eve as the mother of all living (Gen. 3:20; see also 1 Tim. 2:15).
The woman’s femininity of character fits her more for subjection and for child nurture, the man’s masculinity more for headship and his own sphere of the external workplace. Yes, there are differences of personality within manhood and womanhood, but except when grievously distorted by an ungodly culture such as our own, there are certain features of character which are feminine and certain that are masculine. These features fit men and women for their different roles, and these features were placed there at creation.
Lesson 1: Role distinctions are not grounded in the fall
The fall was the corruption, not the institution, of the role differences between male and female. Genesis 3:16 is the effect of the curse on the roles that already existed, not some altogether new roles being instituted. The woman’s desire from creation was to be subject to her husband’s leadership, but now her desires that way would be mixed with frustration. There would no longer be a perfect fit between her desires and his, as it had been before the fall. The man’s rule was to continue as creation laid it down, but now there would be sinful elements in that rule.
So-called evangelical feminists argue that the role differentiation between male and female was founded only in the fall, not in creation, and that Christ in redemption restores matters to the pre-fall condition, before the role differentiation came in. For this they use two texts. For the bringing in of the role differentiation they assert Genesis 3:16, “And thy desire shall be [margin: subject] to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” – arguing that this comes from the fall, not the creation. For the reversing of that curse they assert Galatians 3:28, as if it meant that in Christ there is to be no role differentiation any longer. But we have shown that creation is the foundation for the principle of role differentiation, and Christ in redemption does not undo the original creation. Also, as was shown in Men and Women Equal in Value, Galatians 3:28 speaks of equality of worth and participation in the spiritual blessings of salvation. Its context proves this. Paul there is speaking of spiritual privileges not roles, being all children of God, all baptised into Christ, all put on Christ, all Abraham”s seed, all heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:26-29).
In 1 Timothy 2:14, where the apostle is speaking of role differentiation, in particular in the church, we do have mention made of the fall. But not as a foundation for the role differentiation. The foundation for it is creation, as he shows in verse 13. The mention of the fall is a reminder and warning as to what happened the first time the roles were reversed. Man was first formed and therefore as head he was to lead and be first; then the woman was formed and so she was to follow the leadership of the man. But in the fall, woman was first, she did not wait for the leadership of her husband, but she went forward alone and he, instead of leading her, allowed her to act for them both and then followed her. And all the misery that this world has ever known or shall know may be traced back to that fatal role reversal. God insists upon this aspect of their sin when He says to Adam, “Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree” (Gen. 3:17). Those who are for obliterating this role distinction in our day are playing with fire. If only they could see, they are courting disaster.
Lesson 2: Role distinctions are not based upon merely cultural conditions in Bible times
Another objection against the principle of male headship and female subjection is often made, even that the requirements of both Old and New Testaments were culturally conditioned, and therefore not obligatory upon us in the west in the 21st century. It is argued that Paul was against women, a chauvinistic misogynist who was only too pleased to do all he could to maintain the subjection of women as it existed in society at that time. The answer to this objection is simple. The apostle did not ground his pronouncements concerning this matter in the culture of the day at all, but went back to creation itself. The foundations laid in creation apply to each and every culture, through all the world and through all time. No culture has the right to reject the creation ordinances of God, and included in that creation ordinance was male headship and female subjection.
Lesson 3: Role distinction in itself cannot be inherently evil
A further objection is that male headship and female subjection inherently lead to women being accorded lower worth than men, and that it is prejudicial to women in practice. That this has taken place none would deny. But that is a result of the fall and the sin of men and women. In creation, before sin came in, Adam and Eve enjoyed absolute equality of worth at the same time as Adam”s role was one of headship and Eve”s of subjection; and God pronounced all His created order to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31). It is not then the principle itself that leads to a downtrodden place for women but sin”s distortion of it – as was pronounced in the curse for sin (Gen. 3:16). Scripture never advocates a downtrodden position for women. A position of subjection – yes, but a position that is downtrodden – no. There is an absolute equality of worth between man and woman according to the Word of God. All outworking of role differentiation must be held in balance with that equality of worth. Remarkably, it is when the woman keeps to her role, which essentially and ordinarily focusses upon the home, in a wholehearted submission to her God-ordained role, that she finds her true worth, and liberty from the evil of the curse and all that is prejudicial to her (1 Tim. 2:15).
The principle must be applied to every sphere, but we will confine our comments here to marriage and to the church.
To the family
There are many texts dealing with the different roles of husband and wife, some of which have been mentioned already. Two texts may suffice to prove that here male headship and female subjection is an underlying principle of marriage. The husband”s headship is insisted upon in Ephesians 5:23, “For the husband is the head of the wife.” The wife”s subjection is insisted upon in 1 Peter 3:1, “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands.”
It is especially in marriage that the principle appears. For this is the ultimate and closest of human relationships. It is that relationship into which the Lord placed the first man and woman, and it remains the ordinary condition of the majority of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. God would have the creation distinctions between man and woman especially manifested in this relationship. It is a sad day when the woman”s promise to obey her husband is removed from marriage vows. No wonder so many marriages break down, when God’s ordained way is rejected. It is a sad day when men fail to assert their God-given headship in marriage.
Male headship and female subjection is especially to be seen in marriage, because the relationship between husband and wife is to be modelled on that between Christ and His Church, the heavenly Bridegroom and His bride: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church . . . Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing” (Eph. 5:23-24). That cannot but involve male headship and female subjection, for Christ must be the Head of the Church and the Church must be in subjection to Him. Subverting this principle in marriage is an attack on Christ”s headship and the church”s subjection, whereas a godly couple’s endeavours to manifest this principle in marriage is a wonderful illustration of Christ and the Church.
Especially in marriage must male headship and female subjection be within the atmosphere of love. “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church” (Eph. 5:25). Without this key of love, the door to a home where the male-female relationship is rightly implemented, will never open. And that key is largely in the husband”s hand. It is no easy thing for a woman to submit to a man – how much more difficult if that man is unloving in the exercise of his headship! The wife”s natural inclination to subvert her husband”s headship will not be broken by his natural inclination to a heavy-handed authoritarian approach, but it will be melted by his finding grace to exercise his headship in self-giving, self-sacrificing love. Let men be careful before they moan about their wives’ lack of subjection, lest it be in reality a telling criticism of their unloving headship. God came to Adam as if he had chief responsibility, “Adam, where art thou?” So in the first instance God comes to the husband, saying in this marriage role relationship, “Where art thou? how art thou exercising thy headship?”
And these differing roles must be made manifest in the children of the marriage. Boys are to be brought up as males in masculine traits, to reach not only maturity but mature manhood. Girls are to be trained in feminine traits, to reach mature womanhood. The family is the place of nurturing the next generation in role distinctions. We fear that there is far too much mixing of the roles in much of the state schooling of our day. No wonder there is an increase of sodomy when so much confusion is sown in the minds of children over gender distinctions. Let parents bring up their girls to be feminine, their boys to be masculine.
To the Church
A number of Biblical passages expressly apply the principle of male headship and female subjection in the context of the Church.
In 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul shows that women should not teach in the Church, nor exercise any authority by holding office in the Church, and he grounds this teaching not in the culture of his day and place, but in creation: “Adam was first formed, then Eve”. How contradictory it would be if a woman was to be in subjection to her husband at home and then he was to be in subjection to her in the Church! It is only man who can take oversight of the Church (1 Tim 3:5).
In 1 Cor 11:2-16, Paul shows that “the head of the woman is the man”, and demonstrates that this female subjection must be shown by the woman covering her head in Church worship: “every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head”. Again, the practice of female head-covering in public worship was not grounded in the culture of the time. It is for all time, because male headship and female subjection are for all time.
In 1 Cor 14:34-36, Paul reiterates the same teaching: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak”. And he grounds it on the same abiding principle: “They are commanded to be under obedience”. Consequently “it is a shame for women to speak in the church”. They cannot be ministers and preachers then! They should not even be asked to lead in public prayer, as explained in Can women lead in public prayer?
Objections have been raised from female “prophetesses”, such as Miriam (Ex 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), and other women apparently spoken of as prophesying as well as praying 1 Cor 11:5. If these were female prophets, the argument runs, then surely there is a place in the church of Christ for a woman to exercise a teaching and authoritative role. But when these cases are examined it is found that there was no subversion of male headship and female subjection in any of them.
- As to Miriam it is plain that her ministry was only to the women, for only the women went out after her. We do not say that women cannot teach other women, indeed the apostle requires it in Titus 2:3-5.
- As to Deborah, although she was used by the Lord to give revelations of His will and that to men, yet the manner in which she gave these remained appropriate to her female role. With Barak, Deborah does not for one moment assert any authority of her own, for as a woman she had none. The only authority is that of the word of the Lord which did not depend upon the messenger. Balaam’s prophecies have authority, but they are not dependent upon that wicked man”s status. Deborah was so careful. She said, “Hath not the Lord God of Israel commanded, saying . . .” (Judges 4:6).
- As for Huldah, again her prophesying involved no personal authority. She did not go forth as a female Isaiah issuing bold proclamations in a public manner, but when some came to commune with her in a private capacity, God used her to declare His will (2 Kings 22:14)
- Then we must assume the same of Philip”s daughters in Acts 21:9, that these prophesyings were of this private nature.
- The reference to women prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11:5 is brought forward by some as justifying a public use of the prophetic gift by women in solemn assemblies for public worship. But this is not the case at all. The apostle shows very clearly what he thinks of women speaking in the church when he deals with that specific matter later: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak” (1 Cor. 14:34). In this earlier passage he is not addressing the matter of whether women should or should not prophesy in public worship or not; he is dealing with what is proper adornment for them in public worship. Taking that public worship as it was practised then in Corinth, he speaks first of men praying and prophesying (verse 4), which was correct of course, and their need to uncover their heads when they did so. Then, when he speaks of the need for women to cover their heads in public worship, he simply uses the same formula to describe it, without for one moment agreeing with the practice. “He is here speaking of the propriety of women speaking in public unveiled, and therefore he says nothing about the propriety of their speaking in public in itself” (Charles Hodge).
Another objection has been raised from the example of Priscilla in Acts 18:26, who along with her husband had been hearing the bold preaching of Apollos, “whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly”. But this was not official teaching in any sense, and certainly not preaching in a public context, but a discussion in a private home, side by side with her husband. We can easily see today ways in which godly women might speak in a private context of what she knows, and a man might learn much from her. But she will do it in such a way that there is no exercising of authority over the man. Surely Abigail taught David when she averted the death of Nabal, yet she did it in such a humble way that David”s headship was not for a moment impugned.
Male headship and female subjection. This is the foundational principle for male/female roles.
Rev Keith M Watkins
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