Q & A: Are There Limits to Male Headship?

 Image by  Hannah Merritt

R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. For more content from Dr. Clark, please visit The Heidelblog at heidleblog.net and rscottclark.org.

Recently I received an email at The Heidelblog from a woman named Katie with the following question:

I'm getting a lot of stick from my guy friends. They say that I should always submit to their lead and that this is biblical. I tell them that male headship is specifically within the context of marriage, but they won't listen to me because I am female. It’s sort of a catch-22. Am I to submit to the lead of all males within the church?

There are two key passages regarding this subject. The first is 1 Timothy 2:8-15:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

And then there is also Ephesians 5:21-25:

[S]ubmitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

Knowing the context of a Scripture passage is critical to understanding the meaning of the text.

The context of both of these passages is ecclesiastical. In other words, these epistles were written to Christian congregations. They are not charters for every relationship in every sphere. Nor are they necessarily charters for every relationship within a given sphere. For example, Paul wasn't writing in the first instance to Roman civil authorities; nor was he speaking to how pagans ought to run their business enterprises.

Paul was instructing the visible, institutional church on how special officers (pastors, elders, and deacons) are distinct from general officers (laity—the people who are not ordained to special office) and how they are to relate to one another in general as well as in specific contexts.

In 1 Timothy 2 the context is very clearly about gathering for public worship, and so the instruction about submission here is still the abiding norm for God’s people in all times and in all places. Yet, it is intended to function within the gathering of the Christ-confessing covenant community for public worship. The second passage from Ephesians is generally about how members of Christian congregations and families ought to relate to one another.

There is a principle of headship in the family and the visible, institutional church.

Let's back up and get a broader view. Certainly, there is a principle of headship in the family and in the visible institutional church. When I say “church,” I don't mean any place where two Christians are at the same time; rather, I mean the visible, institutional, organized church. This principle of headship, however, may not be extended willy-nilly to any or all other relationships.

Paul's instruction on submission was not intended as a universal license for all men to require all women to submit to them. Nor was it intended as a license for all Christian men to require all Christian females to submit to them. Nor does it even require all Christian females in a given congregation to submit to all Christian males in a given congregation. To think this way confuses several necessary and important distinctions.

There is a distinction between the kingdom of God as manifested in the institutional church sphere and the civil sphere.

The first of these distinctions is between the kingdom of God as manifested in 1) the visible institutional church and 2) the civil (or common) kingdom that exists outside the visible institutional church. 

Christ is Lord of both kingdoms (spheres), but he administers his kingdom (authority) differently in each kingdom (sphere). In the civil sphere, females may exercise authority in a way that they may not do in the ecclesiastical/spiritual kingdom (sphere). Females may own businesses and even rule kingdoms. Yet, in the spiritual sphere of the church, there are precise limits on the roles males and females may assume.

We may not however transpose those rules intended for the church to every other relationship outside the church. Thus, there is no ground for calling females to submit to males generally in the civil (common) sphere. Even in those areas where Paul's teaching is aimed at families that live simultaneously in both spheres, we should remember that his instruction is to Christian husbands and wives.

We deduce, however, that it applies to all husbands and all wives—believers and non-believers alike—that headship-submission relationship doesn't extend beyond familial relationships. Thus, the principle of submission does not respect gender or sex outside the family or the visible church. For example, males must submit to the magistrate whether that magistrate is male or female.

The principle of headship in the church must be applied and exercised carefully.

Even in the visible institutional church where Paul restricts the special offices of pastor, elder, and deacon to males, there is a distinction to be made between the submission we owe to officers and that which we owe to laity.

We all—male and female alike—must submit to church officers, but not every male in the church is a special officer. Furthermore, not every female in the church is the wife of every male—at least not in a rightly ordered church! Thus, the principle of headship in the church must be applied and exercised carefully. We all owe mutual love and respect to one another. Yet, all males are not given headship over all females in the church.

Remember, just before he instructs wives to submit to their husbands, Paul also instructs us all to submit to one another. Both of these injunctions are God's word to us, and we may not overreact to them by ignoring passages that don't suit us. Thus, should two Christians—one male and one female—from the same congregation work together outside of church, the male by virtue of his sex does not necessarily have a right to exercise headship over the female. That would be an illegitimate, unwarranted, and unintended extension of the apostle’s teaching on headship.

Widowed females were heads of households in the first century.

As New Testament scholars have shown, there were widowed female heads of households in the first century. Males in those households worked for the female property owner. The headship principle could not then be construed such that a female could not exercise business-related authority over her male employees—that is, servants or slaves—simply because of the sex of the two people involved.

If two laity, one male and the other female, work on a church project together, the mere fact that one is male doesn't necessarily mean that he is the head of the female, even though they are both in the same congregation and arguably working within the spiritual sphere. Again, there are limits to the headship principle. Absent the husband-wife relation or the officer-laity relation, sex does not determine headship necessarily.

The word of God makes critical distinctions regarding specific circumstances.

When Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority” (1 Tim. 5:12) in the church, we may not construe authority to mean more than it does. When the apostle speaks of authority here, he's referring to ecclesiastical authority—the exercise of ruling or teaching offices. The word of God governs all of life for all Christians, but the word of God also makes distinctions that we must observe.

The Pauline teaching is clear that in both the church and the family there is a divinely revealed pattern of male headship. Wives are to submit to their husbands, and husbands are to self-sacrificially love their wives. All believers are to submit to the rightly constituted offices of the church, and those offices are restricted to qualified males.

To attempt to extrapolate from these two relationships, husband-wife and officer-laity, to all other male-female relationships is to ignore the context and original intent of Paul's instruction. Such willful transgression of the apostolic teaching, while perhaps not as destructive as ignoring his teaching on headship altogether, is potentially damaging since it tends to bring Paul’s instruction into disrepute by careless application of it.

We must always seek to apply Scripture’s teaching according to the intent of the passage.

In that respect, it is useful to consider Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

Notice how important it was for the Corinthians to apply Paul’s teachings specifically according to his intent. The apostle wanted them not to associate with sexually immoral people. Some have taken this to mean that Christians could never in any way associate with the sexually immoral, but such a conclusion contradicts Paul's explicit teaching in verse 10. He specifically limited his instruction to cover those who were under discipline in the congregation for sexual immorality.

To apply this instruction more broadly than Paul did—as the apostle even points out—would be impossible and make his teaching ridiculous. The Corinthian Christians would have to flee the world. Paul assumes that's impossible and even undesirable. It's quite possible for large numbers of people—even whole movements—to miss a verse like 1 Corinthians 5:10 and go off on tangents. The entire monastic movement for the last 1800 years has essentially ignored this verse.

Evidently, the specific application of his instruction, bearing in mind the original context and intent, was quite important to Paul, and so it should be important to us in all matters, including the limits of male headship.


R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California) and the author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008). For more content from Dr. Clark, please visit heidelblog.net and rscottclark.org.

This article is adapted from the audio “Limits of Male Headship” at rscottclark.org.

Related Articles:

Recommended Book:

Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice by R. Scott Clark

This page may contain affiliate links through which Beautiful Christian Life may receive a commission to help cover its operating costs.