The Problem of Headship part 1: The Beginning

…spawned from a series of comments on a previous post of mine, this post is the second in a larger debate going on between my father and I. The first was entitled “Where the women aren’t”, in which my father argued that it is possible to derive from scripture an understanding that women are equally suited to leadership and teaching roles. In this post, the first of my responses, I seek to discuss the relevancy of my more Complementarian understanding of gender roles in today’s age…

What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the word “leadership?” How about “leader?” I can’t speak for the world, but as a fairly young adult, the images that are conjured in my mind automatically are ones of great political figures, many grounded in relatively recent history. Hitler is a perfect example of our society’s image of a “great leader.” Videos and pictures of him, standing in front of a crowd, stirring up uncomparable fervour with a wave of his hand, or a single sentence, or even merely exiting his vehicle, all remind us of something very, very relevant to the discussion of leadership: Power. Hitler’s sense of command is one of the most powerful instances of leadership to ever blow through this world, and although his term in command was relatively short compared to others (such as his more paranoid counterpart, Stalin), his flame burned so brightly that he, above any other, is the figure that defines 20th century politics — for better or worse.

Of course, when we’re debating Biblical leadership, such images are left behind, and sometimes more of a distraction than an aide. The Bible — particularly the latter Testament — is more concerned with leadership on a daily basis than large-scale political decisions. The two most talked about forms of leadership in the New Testament are that within the household, and that within the Church. To mistake these for the leadership of a fascist country is to confuse an egg with a dinosaur, and, if the latter image is retained when discussing the first, one can come up with some very frightening propositions. But then, it’s probably self-explanatory that we don’t want to mistake a husband for Hitler.

However, the Hitlerian image brings up, as I said, the idea of power. This idea is very important for the sake of my discussion on headship, both of the household and the Church. I want Hitler to be kept in mind for the duration of this conversation, so that we can adequately compare today’s image of leadership with a Biblical one, and perhaps work out some sort of understanding of where Paul, Peter, and many others were coming from when they advocated the headship of the men — as in the gender, not the race — within the two aforementioned structures.

But first, let us swing back to a time long before Peter, Paul, Luke, or any of the other apostles. Let’s shift back an indefinite amount of time to come to a period which is viewed only through the mist of time. A mist which makes sense, really, since it’s also the beginning of time about which we will be talking:

Creation.

Yes. The dreaded word itself: Creation. One of the most hotly contested episodes in the Bible, which has been the source of much ado throughout most spheres of American life, from politics, to education, right through the household. Why is Creation important? Simply, because it tells us about the fundamental nature of the universe. Creation — that is, the source time from which all things on Earth spewed forth — necessarily affects our view of how the world around us operates, as well as the world within us.

However, before we can derive any sort of Truth from our understanding of Creation, there has to be some sort of mutual understanding between those involved in the discussion. This seems fairly self-evident, however most of us also are aware of the difficulties people have with agreeing on how the world came about. Some of the greatest political theorists, for example, centred their entire argument on the “natural Man”, and because none could agree on what Man looked like outside of “civilization”, none could truly agree upon any sort of core human nature. Without theories of Creation, we wouldn’t have such a contestation between Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke — three prominent philosophers in modern political theory. If such “great” men were unable to come to a mutual understanding of Creation, how is it that we should do so?

Well, since we’re in a Christian debate, I think it’s prudent that we come to an agreement that we consider Creation from a Christian perspective. If you are a materialist, and believe the universe has been around forever, or formed in some sort of inexplicable cosmic explosion that had no source, then there’s no real point in entering into this debate. If you believe the material world is all that exists or matters, then clearly there’s no true universal morality to be discussing, and we may as well forget this debate. Similarly, if you are a Taoist, and truly believe that everything in the universe is somehow part of a cosmic entity/force that continues to flow and generate energies manifested throughout the material world, then your ideology will be significantly different than a Christian’s. I apologize for simplifying your arguments, partly out of wordiness and partly because of ignorance. But the point remains: Non-Christians will not really be interested in a debate of Christian ethics. Unless, of course, they feel themselves capable of donning the guise of a Christian momentarily for the sake of empathizing and attempting to follow the argument. Then, feel free to join in the discussion! Just don’t get insulted when we choose to place emphasis on something that is completely against your belief system. We are not discussing the nature of God here, we are discussing what we should do about it.

Of course, a Christian understanding of Creation can be a bit shaky to peg down, as well. With the dawn of modern science, many men and women have witnessed a change in their understanding of Creation within Genesis. The idea of the whole world being rendered in a mere 6 days seems absolutely foolish when theories such as Darwin’s are seemingly evidenced more and more thoroughly. It is difficult to state with conviction that the Earth was formed in 6 days when most of the world will laugh at you and point out that Science says that it was clearly formed in millions… of years. That’s a very large difference, and one which is very difficult to explain through Biblical texts. As such, it is quite common today for Christians to explain away these logical issues, or, in some cases, to do away with the Biblical story altogether.

The two main arguments presented today are one of two. The first is that that God, who is timeless, did not mean a literal Seven Day Span, but rather in seven time periods that were represented as “days” in His recounting of the tale. The other is that this entire story is full of holes, and, as such, it is only a parable of sorts — something which God gave to humans to help explain certain facts about our race (such as sinfullness) without actually giving much in the way of hard facts. These two explanations fail to satisfy the Conservative, who sticks to the argument that the Bible is a literal text and to be taken as such, but ultimately I’m not desirous of much of a debate over this scenario. For the sake of this post, all three Christian perspectives will be adequate.

“How’s that?” you ask. Well, it’s simple, really. There’s a core understanding here that is far more important than the debate over literalism for the sake of this post, and that is that the Creation story is important. Perhaps it’s something that took place literally and physically, or perhaps it’s as unreal as a bedtime story told to children. However, even the Liberal does not tend to whisk away the story as completely unintended on God’s part, and as such, they too accept that it has been a core facet of Christianity (and Judaism before it) for millennia for a reason. As long as you accept this premise — as long as you are willing to agree that Creation as it is told in the Bible is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness”[1], as does any scripture — then we are on the same page as far as our understanding of Creation goes.

Since we are agreed that the information in Genesis is there for a reason — and a God-given one, not one derived from the sinful hearts of Men (such as suppressing women) — then we can make an educated stab at just what those uses are. The primary uses, as far as I can figure them out, are as follows:

  1. To teach us about God and His relationship to the universe.
  2. To teach us about Man and his relationship with God.
  3. To teach us about Man and his relationship with the Earth.
  4. To teach us about man and woman and their relationship with one another.

Now, the first three will generally not cause much debate. God’s relationship with the universe is clearly its creator. Man’s relationship with God, though a bit harder to explain in such simple terms, is basically “ruined”. Man’s relationship with the Earth is clearly as its steward, although the enactment of this is widely contested.

The fourth, on the other hand, which is every bit as evident as the other bits of information, is probably the most highly contested issue within Christianity today.

Ask anyone within your local Church “what does it mean to be a man”, or, even more risky, “what does it mean to be a woman?” I guarantee you get a slightly different answer for each person. Depending on your congregation, of course, there will be certain ideologies which run throughout. In a Liberal church, one would expect to get more of today’s perspective, with most people suggesting eventually that there’s not much difference between the two. In a Conservative church, on the other hand, the answer would be the opposite, grounded in New Testament passages that distinguish between the gender roles within the Church and the household. However, even in the latter (where I would argue you would get a more consistent response, since it’s not entirely dependent on personal values), there will be a great degree of variation between the details of what “male” and “female” look like beyond the physical level.

However — and now I approach the real brunt of this post — I would suggest that if we take the Creation story as having value for explaining the relationship between man and woman, then it’s not all that difficult to derive certain core functions — and they are different. Though it’s less common now to base an argument in Creation, it’s what Paul does in the New Testament, and most likely what the apostles were doing as a whole at the time, since Paul doesn’t seem to question whether he was valid in using Creation as a source of Truth. And although I fully expect you to dislike the conclusion I come to concerning the roles, the fact that you’ve come this far with me so far suggests that you, too, are willing to accept that Creation has merit as a source of Truth, and as such we need to seriously consider the implications of some of the wording that is used.

Two facts seem to stand out in contrast between man (Adam) and woman (Eve) in the Genesis story. The first is their spirit, or composure. The second is their role, or job.

The first is the more speculative, and as such, I would avoid focusing too much on it. However, the distinction in their “starting place” is one which intrigues me. Whereas it would have been simple for God to make the Garden of Eden, and then make Adam within it, Genesis specifies that God created Adam before making the Garden, and then put Adam into it[2]. On the other hand, Eve is, as we know, created from Adam’s rib — and within the Garden. Although I admit it is possibly stretching the interpretation to the realm of reason, I agree with pastors I have had who interpret this to suggest that the male spirit is “wilder” than the female one. Young men typically dream of fighting and adventure and grandeur; young women tend to dream of raising children and planning weddings and, generally speaking, things which are much more orderly than young men. And though the manifestation of these dreams changes drastically over time (such as video games today, which were clearly a non-factor years ago), this seems to be a trend that spans over the ages, judging by literature. As such, I don’t think it’s altogether that surprising when it’s the mother who has the mental to-do list worked to perfection, while the men are busy trying to convince their son that their broken arm isn’t really broken, it’s just strained, so why don’t they give another shot at playing football with Dad?

However, that’s as far as I would like to go with discussing this distinction. Rather, I would turn to the second, which is stated in much blunter terms: Their roles. Note that I don’t use the term “aptitudes”. There’s really not much here that suggests that men are particularly good at certain overarching roles, while women are better at others. However, what is stated quite frankly is that the world works best when men and women are working in complimentary fashion — the core of a Complementarian belief.

It can be quite complex to derive every little hint we can about the nature of male-female relations. However, there are three occasions which are overtly important in determining the way the two of them interact with one another. The first is God’s interaction with Adam before Eve. The second is God’s reason for creating Eve. The third is God’s condemnation of Adam and Eve for their sin.

When God makes Adam, he puts him in the garden to work and to keep it. Alone. This is clearly roles number one and two for a man. He is to “work the soil” — he is made for physical labour — and he is to ensure the well being of the Garden — presumably meaning in every sense imaginable: Physical, spiritual, emotional, whatever. The realm he has been placed in is, for all intents and purposes, his responsibility. If the soil is under-worked or the Garden isn’t kept from harm, Adam is the one to blame.

Soon thereafter, God tells Adam something important: That eating from a specific tree will result in death. This is again done before Eve’s existence. The information is clearly relevant to Eve as well, but God doesn’t wait for both of them to be around before he reveals the facts. Rather, he invests in Adam the role of a keeper of information — a teacher. God places trust in Adam to pass on this information to Eve and their children, though Adam surely didn’t know this was God’s purpose at that exact moment.

Then, God makes a sudden statement: That it’s not good for man to be alone. There are a number of reasons for this, surely. But whatever the prime motivation for God, he decides that he is going to make Adam a “helper fit for him”[3]. Here is the first and most blatant instance of God declaring the woman’s role: She is to be a helper for Adam. There’s no mention of her being responsible for physical labour. Nor is there the suggestion that she will be held accountable for keeping the Garden. Can she help out in these actions? Of course! But her job is to be a helper — she isn’t to be made to do these “male” things by herself.

Finally, when God punishes the man and woman for their misdeeds, one more fact becomes clear. I will come back to the judgment God places on Adam and Eve in a later post. However, one thing is very much worth noting in the description of Biblical roles. God, when reprimanding Adam, makes note of the fact that he is cursed in his labour because he “listened to the voice of [his] wife.” In other words, he followed. Naturally, that tells us what we probably have derived from the other roles: That Adam is to be the leader in the relationship. No ifs, ands, or buts. And because Adam was the leader, he, too, is burdened with responsibility for the falling of the entire human race.

However, that’s verging on the topic of part two, I believe. And since this has been long enough, I think I’ll leave it there. I hope there’s lots of discussion about the post. The practical application may be hard to come by at this point, but, as with any worldview, it’s necessary and prudent to know the origins of our beliefs. And, since we agreed that the Creation story was worthwhile for its teaching value, one would have to at least give half a thought to the idea that Genesis lays out some very specific roles for men and women, and that there must thus be some benefit to keeping them in mind.

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