Christian Headship: Obligation or Opportunity?

“Christian headship and the covering are not about cultural identity, nor are they about perfunctory conformity. They ultimately reflect and emulate Christ, His Church, and the gospel. Thus, our obedience must not be obligatory, but joyful and voluntary.”

I feel like I’m in a rather awkward position. You see, I’m a male. And males often feel ill-placed to talk authoritatively on Christian headship and its symbols, either because they struggle to identify with the women, or because they are seen as (or truly are) harsh and dictatorial. It’s easy to deal out regulation from my end because I seemingly don’t need to alter my lifestyle to conform. I get the easy part. Take charge, call the shots, enforce the rules, and make her submit. Yet, one who carries this sort of mindset reveals a sadly malformed Christianity. Why? Because male and female roles don’t exist for either our elevation or our subjugation. These roles are created and instituted by our Father. They are innately good and, when properly understood and manifested, provide a potent depiction of our Savior’s glorious gospel.

So we continue in our examination of the Mennonite Confession of Faith of 19631, article 14 of 20 being the target this time.

Equality

In keeping with this confession, we believe that, though genders do indeed have different gifts and responsibilities, they are equal. First in creation, finally in Christ. Differing roles do not need to signify differing value, any more than a church leader would be considered superior to a fellow brother in the church. It’s often been said that the ground is level at the cross, and it is indeed. We as men and women are equal in Christ: first in the depth of our depravity, and second in our receipt of His marvelous grace. Paul says that in Christ all are one (Gal. 3:28)2, implying that in salvation all are determinately equal; he even explicitly gives gender as an example. Salvation in Christ unites us as adopted children of God, equally unworthy but equally loved.

Diversity

Yet, this equality must not limit us. God created men and women with specific abilities for a reason. We realize, of course, that these gifts now bear the grisly scar of sin, but that doesn’t nullify their intended purpose. Man is suited as a leader and head, and woman as his companion and support; Christianity thrives when both are functioning in their respective strengths.

So, the first appeal is to innate ability, yet the stronger one comes from Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11. In both, we see gender roles as manifestations of the gospel and of Christ. The man models Christ’s selfless generosity. He must “love [his wife], just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25). The purpose of this role is not elevation, but service. This attitude applies specifically to his relationship with his wife in this text, but it can safely be extended to include all the women under his protection: family, church, or otherwise. Likewise, the woman replicates Christ’s bride, the Church, in her gracious submission. “Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (Eph. 5:24). So she submits, not as a mere duty, but as her privilege. It’s her opportunity to mirror the Church’s loving relationship to her Christ.

We see this order – Christ to God, man to Christ, woman to man – as not only beneficial, but also biblically needful. Faithful Christianity demands it, yet it also compels obedience when we accept these distinctions as gifts rather than burdens.

Symbols

It’s probable that many reading this have disconnected the covering from headship and from the gospel that headship symbolizes. We often lose track of the broader picture, if we are taught it at all. The covering is not ultimately about just the symbol, nor is headship its final purpose. It serves to remind us of ourselves as Christ’s bride. No, it is not the reality, neither is communion, the subject occupying the latter half of 1 Corinthians 11. But they both stir us to recall that which is truly important – Christ’s love for us in the gospel.

Often, our teaching on headship symbols addresses only the feminine aspect. But Paul’s 1 Corinthians argument is mutually male and female. Both the woman’s covered head and the man’s uncovered head serve as biblical symbols of headship, and we find a nearly one-to-one parallel between the two.

Many who are more skilled than I am have dissected this chapter from a technical standpoint, and I won’t waste your time doing that here. Suffice it to say, the western church is stuck making a cultural case against the covering because no other argument will stand against a proper understanding of the text. Scripture simply won’t allow us to believe Paul meant anything other than that which is immediately apparent. The woman’s head is to be covered, and the man’s head uncovered. The extent of this practice is more flexible (for men: protection against the elements; for women: practical issues such as showering and sleeping), but consistent practice, for both genders, is essential.

(As a side note, it’s interesting that Paul uses the word “cover.” I wonder if, in our tendency to gravitate toward tradition, we’ve drifted away from a true covering. Just food for thought.)

Practice

How do we draw these together? As I alluded earlier, headship isn’t primarily – or even significantly – about maintaining a heritage or holding a rigid code. Neither is it something to be feared. First, it benefits humanity because we are functioning as God designed us to function. Secondly, obedient Christians are obligated to follow their Lord’s commands: out of love when compelled, and out of duty when emotions run dry. But third, and most significantly, headship and its subsequent symbols demonstrate the gospel relationship between Christ and His Bride. They are a marvelous opportunity for us to embody the most glorious truth of our faith – our Savior and His Church.

So I’ll leave you where we started. Christian headship and the covering are not about cultural identity, nor are they about perfunctory conformity. They ultimately reflect and emulate Christ, His Church, and the gospel. Thus, our obedience must not be obligatory, but joyful and voluntary.

I encourage you to enter into discussion on this matter, either here or in your private conversations. I don’t claim to have a corner on the market, per se, but I do believe God’s Word does. I invite any input or criticism you may have.

Julian Julian Stoltzfus currently resides in Elnora, IN and is taking part in a pastoral apprenticeship program under Truth and Grace Mennonite Church. He had the privilege of attending several semesters at Elnora Bible Institute since 2014. When not working at K&K Industries, he enjoys diving into a good read, exploring the diverse beauties of music, or fortifying relationships with family and friends. The 5th of 6, he has greatly benefited from the wisdom and influence of his parents and siblings. He longs to see authentic Christianity thrive as God transforms hearts through the Gospel.

 

  1. Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963. GAMEO. Web. 11 August 2017.
  2. The Holy Bible: NKJV, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016. Print.

2 thoughts on “Christian Headship: Obligation or Opportunity?

  1. I Cor. 11:3 explains the concept to me. Only if my head is Christ can I expect my wife to consider me her head. Thus, the responsibility rests on the men to submit themselves totally to Jesus Christ – His Word, His truth, and live a life of submission to Him just as He is totally submissive to His Father, God.

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  2. Good thoughts Julian. I think that both the cultural and symbolic arguments not to ware a veiling are interdependent. Like feet washing, veiling is symbolic and reminder of an internal condition. For believers who do not practice veiling, an argument against symbolism can provide a disconnect between the principal of headship and the practice of the veiling. After this disconnect is established it is easy to relegate the practice to an historical setting. Thus, the cultural and symbolic arguments against veiling are used together. Contrary to this I believe that symbols which Scripture asks us to practice are best practiced literally as they would have been understood by the original audience.
    What do all of you think?

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