Wednesday, May 24, 2017

On submission, male headship, Paul, and biblical interpretation

Here's a sample of a doctrinal statement I find deeply problematic:
A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
In my experience as a pastor, submission language contributes to many men justifying abusive behavior, many women staying in abusive relationships because their religion teaches them to do so, and the structure of gender encouraged by such statements additionally contributes to widespread incidence of domestic abuse and the silencing of reporting of it. I recognize that the "submission" doctrine has origins in New Testament writings, but I consider the gender instructions of Paul to be "occasional" writings, not a deontological moral demand applicable to all times and places, and the headship metaphor in particular is problematic, and likely an interpolation by later redactors rather than original to Paul himself.

In addition, headship language tied to gender simply doesn't do the much more interesting and complex doctrine of the church as the body of Christ justice.

Biblical interpretation does get complicated (if it were easy it wouldn't be Scripture), but I would argue that a) Scripture interprets Scriptures, so there's enough in Scripture itself that conflicts with "submission" language to make the passages in Scripture about submission suspect, b) there's always a canon within a canon, and yes I tend to think that the texts we would call authentically Pauline are more canonical than the pseudo-Pauline texts, and c) in addition, I do not think Paul thought of sexual ethics as deontological (see 1 Corinthians 7:12 as an example). Paul gave what we might consider more occasional instructions for specific communities on gender roles, gender representation, and sexual orientation. These instructions varied from community to community, and even included completely gender fluid statements like Galatians 3:28.

If you yourself are experiencing domestic abuse, and are struggling with it in relationship to your faith, there are resources that can help.

If you're wanting to read more about gender roles and Scripture, I recommend the blogger Rachel Held Evans, who writes on this topic often. 


  1. A helpful post, Clint...especially with resources! Thanks.

  2. I always learn a thing or two when I come round your blog, and you always make me think a bit differently. Thank you. I am wondering if you have any book recommendations on dealing with Paul in general, not just as relating to gender, but Paul in all of his infuriating brilliance.

    1. Rebecca, here's a fun review in the New York Review of Books:

    2. And the new E.P. Sanders is one of the most comprehensive treatments: