The gender conversation 7: family, headship & marriage

There’s no doubting that gender continues to occupy a lot of time, space & energy in the church. It regularly raises the emotions and generates a lot of heat and little light. It can also put Christians into camps where the ‘the other side’ can be seen, talked about & treated as a problem or worse ‘the enemy’. In the church this is nothing short of disastrous. So I’ve invited Hannah Mudge to a blog conversation with me about faith and gender.

Click here for part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6

P: You’ve recently become a mum and were blessed with a son. What will teach your son about what it means to be a man as opposed to just generally being a nice person?

“What it means to be a man” is for me, at the moment, a bit like the “what it means to be a woman” thing! I think it will be important to me to teach him the positive traits of men as described in the Bible although many of these are not really gender specific – good qualities can be applied to men and women. The way he sees and treats the opposite sex will be an important part of this. I think it’s something I need to discuss at length with my husband and find out his perception of what being a man is all about. I know that he has sometimes felt constrained by cultural standards of masculinity and it’s important to me that he provides a really good role model for Sebastian (not that I’m in any doubt that this will be the case!). One issue I’ve noticed a LOT of pastors and churches despairing of in recent years is men displaying a “lack of responsibility” thanks to cultural influences. I do think this is a very valid criticism that needs to be addressed (I do worry for some of the guys I have known through work and even through church), but when tackling it we need to try not to fall into yet more gendered stereotypes!

P: What about headship in the home? How do you see that idea and the idea of submission?

I’ll talk a bit now about the “tricky” bits of the Bible relating to words like “helper”, “submission” and “headship”. Years ago, the idea of woman as “helper” was something that troubled me because I saw the way this was interpreted in really quite extreme Christian books on marriage, etc. But when I actually learned more about the words used that are translated as “helper” or “helper suitable” it changed my perspective a lot. I learned of how the Hebrew ezer is used many more times in the Old Testament to refer to God, how the words in Genesis 2 could better be translated as a power/strength corresponding to a man, a picture of two people standing alongside each other (I think I talked about this a bit more in the blog posts I sent you the links to at the beginning of our conversation). I’ve already mentioned that I don’t believe the creation account implies hierarchy – that the focus should not be on the order in which we were created, but the fact that both men and women were created in God’s image. So from the start, I’m coming from a place of not believing that there is any “headship” implied. Again as I mentioned before, a key word here is mutuality.

The other difficult passages I guess you’re talking about are in the New Testament – there’s that difficult and much-debated word: kephale. Whether you believe that refers to headship in the authoritative sense or whether you’re of the belief it’s talking about a source, or origin (which I think is more likely), it’s one of the things that people really get bogged down over discussing, isn’t it? To me it was interesting to learn just how ambiguous its meaning can be yet how at no point does it really seem to suggest male headship, rather a role that suggests supportiveness, connection, and affinity. Over the centuries I think misconceptions about “leading”, about “obeying”, have crept in – and these words don’t seem to be mentioned anywhere in the context of male-female relationships. The concept of “male headship” in fact seems to be absent. Rachel Held Evans has written a very good post about putting Biblical passages about “submission” in the cultural context of the time. When we look at the New Testament and the “difficult” passages we actually see quite a bit about mutual submission.

Then we come to 1 Tim 2:12 I would identify with the interpretation of the word “authenteo” that indicates “usurping authority” or “dominating” and that Paul’s reason for writing about the behaviour of some women in the church was to counteract false teaching and cultural influences that were having a negative effect on the congregation. In some of Paul’s other writings we can see that some women did in fact hold positions of power and I don’t believe that in this particular passage he was speaking to all women, for all time.

Headship in the home is not something we practice as part of our marriage and family life. We believe in the importance of what the Bible says about mutual submission. We feel things work out well doing them from an egalitarian perspective. It’s interesting because when you talk about how your marriage looks, lots of complementarians and egalitarians will see that there doesn’t seem to be any difference between the way they do things – they just seem to pay more lip service to the “headship” aspect. That’s why you’ll see concern from conservatives about complementarians having “functionally egalitarian marriages”. I feel uncomfortable with more a more hardline approach to complementarian marriage. I once read a paper where the author had decided it was acceptable for wives to make decision about issues such as shopping or home decor (!), but when it came to finances, jobs, church, housing, children, schooling, etc, decision-making powers should lie with the husband. I find that odd and actually quite patronising. When I say that we make decisions together, people often want to know what will happen when we can’t agree on something and someone has to have the final say. This hasn’t happened yet, but it would come down to circumstance and gifting.

I think some people think that egalitarians spend their time pontificating over how to divide up household chores completely equally, that sort of thing. In our house the idea is simply that things aren’t seen as a “man’s role” or a “woman’s role”. They just get done according to ability, gifting, who actually has time to do it. This has shifted a bit since last spring as I’ve been on maternity leave, but when I return to work next month I think things will move back more towards how they used to be. I am so fortunate that my husband, Luke, is incredibly supportive of me and very encouraging. We find the key is good communication at all times, particularly the tougher times. Incidentally he has occasionally come across the flip side of gender expectations: those that are imposed on men. Earlier in our marriage he was made redundant and we went through some lean times financially. I have generally been the higher earner in the marriage, although things are pretty much 50/50 now. This forced him into re-evaluating his worth – or how society generally sees a man’s worth as being attached to his job and how much he earns. He was also been on the receiving end of a bit of mockery from a couple of Christian friends when they found out I had a higher-paid job than him, which I found really disappointing.


I am glad to see that people are reviewing the sexist assumptions about what these Bible passages actually mean. The right-wing version of “headship” makes my skin crawl – I think it is utterly vile.

I also think that conservatives fail to see these passages in the context of “there is neither man nor woman, slave nor free, Gentile or Jew – all are one in Christ Jesus” (er, is that in Galatians?)

Mutuality and mutual submission (mutual kenosis perhaps?) – or taking care of each other’s needs – sounds like a much better proposition.


I just want to add that you din’t think people should live this way. In that case, male headship as decision-making should never be taught, because if it is some women will lose their sanity entirely and live a life of the walking dead.

For me, it is problematic taking any text as a moral prescription on how to live. We should (and mostly do) always filter it through our conscience and our experience. One of the many reasons that I am not a Christian is that my conscience comes first, before any text.

However, playing the text-interpretation game for a moment: Jesus’ model of leadership (as exemplified in his washing of the disciples’ feet) is the servant leader. That is a good model.

Hi Yvonne, consience and experience are important but they’re not as reliable as we might like. You only have to look through history to see that otherwise ‘good’ people can get drawn into dangerous movements and neither experience or conscience was enough to protect them. Why is it some people despite their experience seem to have little conscience?

In addition both can be highly subjective – what if ‘my’ conscience says the opposite of yours – how can we determine the right course?

So models (like Jesus) and then for me the texts that He used and taught from form a plumbline by which I can test my experience and conscience and see if they’re reliable but not the other way around.

If my conscience says the opposite to yours, then we discuss it in the light of experience, in the light of great teachers (the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Lao Tsu, Carl Sagan, etc), in the light of evidence of what has been shown by evidence to promote the well-being of everyone.

Exemplars are good and useful, but evidence is also important.

Does Scripture count as evidence? It would have counted for Jesus, MLK and probably Gandhi. What counts as reliable evidence given that Buddha and Jesus were polar opposites in many of the things they said, same with say Sagan 6 virtually everyone else on your list…be interested to know how you’d compile your list and what counts as evidence

I am with you, Yvonne,

Vile is a mild way of putting it. And to me, it not only makes my skin crawl but makes me feel that pieces of skin are torn off every day. What a tragic way to live.

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