Jonathan Frais is aware that the arguments about the headship of man are not popular neither are they properly understood within the church but they are, he insists, entirely scriptural

Thank you for letting the Bishop of Dudley outline his own convictions on women bishops [ND July p.7]. He writes, ‘The only explicit scriptural argument I find, for or against women bishops, is that of headship’ and ‘The lack of any precise scriptural pronouncement either way forces me back to the overarching themes of the New Testament’ (which are, for him, the abolition of ‘subordinations’ and ‘anticipated eschatology’). I am sorry that the headship case he has heard was not a precise scriptural pronouncement for that is what it claims to be. Permit me to recap.

The headship case starts in 1 Corinthians where we find the word used three times in one verse [11.3]. Paul says, ‘Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.’ So man is called to submit to the authority of Christ (through the apostolic testimony), woman is called to submit to the authority of man (as expressed most obviously in male leadership of marriage and family), and these imitate the submission of the Son to the Father.

Mutual love

In this way earthly relationships are based on the Trinity. Jesus submitted to the Father saying ‘I seek not to please myself but him who sent me’ [John 5.30] and ‘I do exactly what my Father has commanded me’ [John 14.31]. (The promise that he would answer prayers in his name does not mean the Father submits to him but that he honours the Son’s work.) However, despite being subordinate in role, he is equal to the Father in status and so it was right for Thomas to call him ‘My Lord and my God!’ [John 20.28] Consequently, we have no right to say either that he was equal in role as well as status (the error accompanying feminism) or that he was subordinate both in role and status (the error of subordinationism).

As the rest of that chapter of 1 Corinthians goes on to teach, the application of male headship is male authority [11.4–11] together with male-female co-dependence [11.11–16]. And elsewhere the New Testament teaches relationships of submission (e.g. child to parent and citizen to state) without implying inferiority. This is possible only because the Trinity teaches submission-within-equality.

To those such as the Corinthians who opt for realized eschatology (wanting their heaven on earth), Paul uses sarcasm to expose their folly and misunderstanding: ‘Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings – and that without us… We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ!’ [1 Cor. 4.8, 10]

What did Jesus do?

Was there headship in the beginning? Despite the widespread teaching that patriarchy came with the Fall, the pointers are otherwise. In Genesis 2, man was made first, woman was made from man, man was given the word of God before woman was made, man called her ‘woman’ (naming being an exercise of authority), and God calls her man’s ‘helper’ (a term given great dignity by being used of God himself [Psalm 27.9] as a foretaste of the gospel in which Jesus ‘helps’ us by dying for us on the cross).

One of these points would have been clear, and three emphatic, but five present an overwhelming case for male leadership in Eden’s paradise. And with this comes greater accountability: so when the women sinned first, God questions the man first.

What then do we make of Jesus? He challenged customs that he disliked (for example, in John 4, when, in behaviour frowned upon by other Jews, he talks to a Samaritan woman). He did not ignore women, insult them or talk down to them; he welcomed their support, and they were his messengers although he did not designate them apostles (I consider the argument from Romans 16.7 that Junias was an authoritative female apostle to be unproven). In so doing, he modelled male headship.

And what did the apostles do? They took the Gospel to a Graeco-Roman world which, like ours, was concerned with democracy and philosophy, science and engineering, war and trade, travel and citizenship, art and architecture, theatre and sport. In addition, female rights were growing under Roman law (hence Jesus addresses the time when ‘she divorces her husband,’ Mark 10.12). In such a world the apostles rejected credibility in the world’s eyes in favour of holiness.

So they established churches with female prophets [1 Corinthians 12.5], a deaconess [Romans 16.1], Priscilla who worked with Paul [Romans 16.3] and co-hosted a church [1 Cor. 16.19], and an affirmation of motherhood [Titus 2.3–5]. But they also accepted the teaching of Genesis that men and women are different by design and the example of the Lord showing that the Creator’s grace renews nature and does not destroy it.

In Christ there is equal status (neither ‘male nor female,’ Gal. 3.28) but wives should submit to their husbands [1 Peter 3], ‘brothers’ can be inclusive [James], and women are not to be the leading teachers in the congregation because ‘Adam was formed first’ [1 Timothy 2.13]. If this is not applied to every walk of life we may be guilty of ‘importing a sacred/secular dualism’ (as the Bishop of Dudley notes).

Slavery and sin

As a footnote we read that the apostles rejected the institution of slavery. Paul condemned the slave trade as sinful [1 Tim. 1.10] and showed how Christian owners should free their slaves [Philemon]. Therefore abolishing the slave trade brings us into line with the Bible whereas consecrating women bishops takes us away from it.

Man was made from dust and woman from his rib. Consequently, he tends to think of things whereas she tends to feel about how people respond. So it should come as no surprise that the growth of female leadership in the Church has gone hand-in-hand with the Church’s feminization. For now the Gospel saves us more from low self-esteem than hell, mission is more sharing our faith story than the Gospel of our crucified Lord, and pastoral work is more about affirming than confronting.

The Bishop of Dudley finds the headship argument imprecise. Personally, I wonder how the Lord could have made his scriptural pronouncement more precise. If I understand it correctly, it is the truth undergirding the concerns regarding tradition, order and ecumenism. The tragedy is that it has not been taught and is even less practised. The experience to date is that female oversight is taken on by declining churches which only decline faster as a result. May we not be different?