IMPORTANT NEW TESTAMENT PASSAGES AND CONCEPTS THAT CHALLENGE US TO REDEFINE ‘HEADSHIP/AUTHORITY’, ‘EQUALITY’ AND ‘SUBMISSION’

© Rosemary Bardsley 2017

A. JOHN 5:19-30

[Note that I have not found this passage used in any complementarian/egalitarian discussions that I have read.]

Jesus stated that the Father [1] has entrusted all judgment and the authority to judge to the Son and [2] has granted the Son to have life in himself, and to give life to whoever he pleases. Here we see the Father, who is ‘the head of Christ’ [1Corinthians 11:3] authorising the Son to engage in roles that belong to the Father. We also read ‘whatever the Father does the Son also does.’ In this same passage Jesus expresses his dependence on the Father [verse19,30] and his perfect submission to the Father [verse 30]. In this passage and its context Jesus also expresses his equality with the Father [verse 17,18,23a] and the fact that when he is honoured the Father is honoured [verse 23b].

Here we have a clear and perfect demonstration of the factors involved in the ‘women in ministry’ debate. Here is the supreme model of both equality of being and headship/submission. Surely this should set both a definition and a boundary for our interpretation of specific verses elsewhere in the NT. Headship does not mean excluding others from tasks that are your responsibility – it includes delegation [see also John 3:35]; submission to authority does not mean inferior tasks; equality does not exclude submission – willingly seeking to do the will of another.

And the dynamic that holds this altogether is ‘... the Father loves the Son’ [see also 3:35] and the Father seeks the honour of the Son. And, as we will see below, the Son seeks the honour of the Father. There is no competition here, no division. There is perfect equality of being and there is obvious ‘hierarchy’ of role.

B. THE SON’S SUBMISSION TO THE FATHER IN VARIOUS NEW TESTAMENT VERSES

The headship of the Father and the submission of the Son to the Father are repeatedly mentioned in John’s Gospel [3:17,34; 4:34; 5:19,30,36; 6:38,57; 7:16,18; 8:16,26,28,29,42; 12:49,50; 13:3; 14:24,31; 15:10,15; 17:2,4,7,8,22; 18:11]. Many of these texts, or their context, also state the equality of the Father and the Son, and the Father as the source of the Son and of all that the Son says and does. In Hebrews we see a similar submission of the Son to the Father [2:10; 10:5-9]. The relevance of this to the debate is evident from Paul’s reference to it in 1Corinthians 11:3 where he refers to this divine analogy as the theological basis for his references to gender roles.

This divine analogy over-rules some of the things that are said by both sides of the complementarian/egalitarian debate. It demonstrates:

[1] Equality and identity of being do not negate role distinction and hierarchy, and role distinction and hierarchy do not negate equality and identity of being.

[2] The concepts of source and authority are not either/or but both/and. Indeed they exist together of necessity.

[3] Role differentiation does not diminish one and exalt the other: both are glorified together.

The verses in this section, together with those in the section immediately above, present a very different picture of headship and submission in the context of equality from what is usually perceived and discussed in the male/female debate. There is a union [of mutual love and trust] between the Father and the Son which makes the Son’s willing and complete submission to the Father the totally natural thing for the Son to do. Each seeks the glory of the other and in doing so is himself glorified. A similar unimpeded relationship existed between Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 & 2: the headship/submission there [unmentioned, uncommanded, but identified later by Paul] was natural and spontaneous, imaging the Father/Son relationship.

A further fact, which challenges our human logic, is quietly present in many of the above references, and very explicit in 1Corinthians 15:24-28 and John 14:28: that, alongside the undeniable equality, unity and identity of the Son with the Father, and the Father’s authorization/delegation of total authority [‘all things’] to the Son, there is still a very clear hierarchical distinction that we cannot argue away by limiting it to the period of Christ’s incarnation. The point ought to be quite clear: how can we humans be offended by a hierarchical structure when such a hierarchical structure is embedded in the very nature of God? The offence ought not to be because of the existence of such a structure, but because of the way that structure is expressed by humans, including Christian humans. Our goal ought not to be to do away with the structure but to emulate the way this perfect structure [both the perfect headship and the perfect submission] is revealed and exemplified in Jesus Christ.

C. THE MIRACLES OF JESUS

Both the healing miracles and the nature miracles of Jesus are a clear intervention in, and temporary/micro reversals of, the impacts of Genesis 3. Jesus reversed sickness, physical imperfections and death; Jesus calmed and mastered the destructive force of natural elements; Jesus reversed the struggle to survive physically. The miracles of Jesus, although not directly addressing Genesis 3:16, give us a clear message: it is okay to interfere and intervene in human lives to undo, even in a micro and temporary way, those aspects of human life that began in Genesis 3.

In addition, while Jesus referred to Genesis 1 and 2 as normative for human life and for the male/female marriage relationship, he nowhere referred to Genesis 3:16 as normative.

D. 2CORINTHIANS 5:14-6:1

There are several important principles in these verses that are not immediately obvious in the English translations.

[1] Because of the substitutionary death of Christ with which every believer is identified [verse 14], we are to regard no one kata sarka – according to flesh [verse 16], that is according to what they are in themselves, apart from Christ.

[2] When people are ‘in Christ’ there is a whole new set up – the old set up has gone, the new has come [verse 17]. [The Greek says ‘new creation’, not ‘new creature’.]

[3] Paul implores us not to receive this grace ‘in vain’ ... that is, in a meaningless, empty way that has no impact on our relationship with God and with each other.

The sum of these is that the Gospel legally annuls and revokes the Genesis 3 separation between man and God, and that we are to live in a way that reflects the new reality in which we now live. This truth challenges us, not only to no longer view our relationship with God in terms of Genesis 3, but also to no longer view each other in terms of Genesis 3 [see verse 16]. We cannot exclude Genesis 3:16 from this ‘the old has gone, the new has come’. Given that Paul nowhere bases his arguments for male headship in the church on Genesis 3:16, we should be very careful that we do not define this headship in Genesis 3 terms, but in terms of the new ‘in Christ’ order.

E. PHILIPPIANS 2:1-11

Apart from reference to the general principle of Christians’ mutual submission to each other in verse 4, this passage appears absent from the debate. But like the verses in A and B above, it teaches us about equality, headship and submission from the example of Christ, and is therefore a significant contribution to the biblical definition of each. Christ, ‘being in very nature God’ did not view this equality with God ‘something to be grasped’, but ‘made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant ... humbled himself ... became obedient ...’ This [in association with Ephesians 5:22ff] instructs men about how they are to view their ‘headship’. It instructs women about how to view their ‘submission/obedience’. It also makes it very clear that total equality does not exclude differentiation of role/function/responsibility.

At the very least, it teaches us two things: [1] it teaches women not to so define and hold on to their equality that they deny anything that looks like gender hierarchy or a denial of equality. [2] It teaches men not to so define and to so hold to their position/power that they avoid anything that looks like a practical denial of that position/power. It outlaws all hierarchical and power/position coveting/grasping attitudes in the same manner as Jesus in John 13 [‘Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example ...]. The fact that Paul includes this extended reference to Christ as an example of how interpersonal Christian relationships should function validates, even necessitates, its inclusion in the egalitarian/complementarian debate. We cannot look at Philippians 2:1-11 and apply it to Christians, exclusive of the male/female power/position question.

F. EPHESIANS 5:21-6:9

This passage about submission is sometimes referred to in the debate. While egalitarians hold that this passage is about the mutual submission that characterizes those who are living under the control of the Holy Spirit, complementarians hold that the general submission mentioned in verse 21 does not, in verses 22ff, apply to husbands, parents and masters, only to wives, children and slaves. Such a position robs verse 21 of its clear meaning. Complementarians do, however, see the headship/submission described of husband/wife as a demonstration of the headship/submission required of males/females in the Church.

There are two key disagreements about this passage.

[1] The relevance of submission in these interpersonal relationships to the male/female issues in the Church. I suggest that it is extremely relevant, firstly because whatever this submission is, it is an expression of being fully responsive to the Holy Spirit [verses 18-21]; secondly, because the general submission in verse 21 is ‘out of reverence for Christ’; and thirdly, it is grounded in the example and Lordship of Jesus Christ [verses 22-33]. Each of these three motivations for ‘submission’ is universally relevant for Christians, regardless of the context and regardless of the relationship. The church, of all places, ought to be striving to be filled with the Spirit, to express reverence for Christ and to be following his example and submissive to his common Lordship. Any concept of male headship in the church must be within these boundaries. It is Jesus who defines both submission and headship, and for him they were never mutually exclusive – as evident in Paul’s teaching here.

[2] The extent of the ‘submission’ to one another [verse 21] described here by Paul – is it one-sided, or mutual? Paul does not say ‘submit to one another, but I’m not talking to husbands, parents and masters’. His words are all-inclusive. While it is easy to understand Paul’s instructions to wives, children and slaves as ‘submission’, it is not so easy to see his instructions to husbands, parents and masters as ‘submission’, particularly if our definition of ‘submit’ is wrongly limited to ‘obey’. But consider the example of Christ: Christ, who is ‘head of the church’ ‘gave himself up for her ...’ That is ‘submission’ of the highest order, far, far more demanding than the submission required of the wife. That is the submission described in Philippians 2. That is what Jesus spoke of when he said ‘the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many’ [Mark 10:45]. That is submission, not only to the will of the Father, but also to the eternal well-being of us, his ‘bride’, the church. He, the Head, put aside his rights and his glory, for the church. That is the kind of self-sacrificing submission required of the husband towards the wife, the parent towards the child, and the master towards the slave. The church is ‘the bride’ of ‘the Lamb’ – the Lamb who has the marks of slaughter upon him.

Transferred over into the church, and to the question of the roles of men and women in the church, the example of Christ instructs the male heads of the Church. This love, this self-denial, this self-sacrifice is what ‘submission’ looks like for those in a headship role. Although 5:22-33 begins with instructions to wives, it actually has much more to say about what submission looks like for husbands, and by extension, for the male leadership in the church. [Peter writes of this servant headship of elders in 1Peter 5:1-4.]

The concept of the representative responsibility of the head, mentioned elsewhere above, is deep in this passage about what ‘submission’ looks like for the ‘head’. Adam bore that responsibility by default. Christ bore it by choice – a choice made before the beginning of time. Husbands, and, by inference, the male leadership of the church, are commanded to carry that responsibility, and, whether they choose to or not, God holds them so accountable. It would be far, far easier not to, and therein lies the heavy reality of the ‘submission’ Paul here requires of the man.

G. 1PETER – VARIOUS VERSES

In 2:13 Peter commences an extended series of instructions about submission. His motivating premise is ‘for the Lord’s sake’. His frequent introductory phrase is ‘in the same way’. Hence we find:

2:13 – ‘submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted by man’ [anthropos]
2:18 – ‘slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect ... because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps’ [2:21]
3:1 – ‘wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands ...’
3:7 – ‘husbands, in the same way, be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect ...’
5:1 – ‘To the elders among you ... be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers ...eager to serve, not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock’
5:5 – ‘young men, in the same way, be submissive to those who are older’.
5:5,6 – ‘all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another ... humble yourselves ...’

The repeated ‘in the same way’ [which grounds everything in the submission of Christ] and the repeated references to submission connect all of these instructions, requiring an expression of humble ‘submission’ of every category of people named. That submission will look different in different roles, but it is still submission, it is still following the example of Christ in his humility and his willing suffering for us. Headship [whether husband or elder/overseer/pastor] does not mean privilege, prestige or power; it means self-denying humility, just like Jesus.

H. VARIOUS VERSES CONTAINING GENERAL COMMANDS TO TEACH OR SPEAK 

Various verses command Christians to teach or to speak, regardless of gender:

Matthew 10:27; 28:19,20; John 20:21; 1Corinthians 1:10; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; (possibly 2Timothy 2:24); Hebrews 5:12; 1Peter 4:11.

If we apply these verses only to men, we are left with the problem of applying their context also only to men.