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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Monet

Design of Women: Rethinking Hierarchy

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

The following post is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for one of my seminary classes. It carries a more academic edge than my other articles, providing an in-depth look Ephesians 5:22-33 and the apostle Paul’s use of the head-body metaphor. Ephesians 5 is commonly used to defend the belief in hierarchy of men over women and husbands over wives, and I argue that his intention is not to reinforce hierarchy but to emphasis mutuality and unity in the marriage relationship.

Heads and Bodies Should Stay Together

I do not believe a distinction in the commands given to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:22-33 to love and submit indicates a power hierarchy but rather a mutual, unified relationship between the two. I also do not interpret the word “head” as denoting authority over the “body” but rather oneness with the body. The head is connected to the body, the body is connected to the head, and if the head is severed from the body (such as in divorce or death of a spouse), the one flesh is no longer one flesh and dies. Both divorce and loss of a spouse have traumatic effects on families, often causing depression, lower quality of life, increased stress, and physical ailments. God designed the head and body—the husband and wife—to stay one flesh for life.

The Spirit cuts through the hierarchies that we have created with race, class, and gender

Head Does Not Translate to Leadership

We need to recognize the head and body picture as a metaphor containing some mystery and not seek to create clear-cut definitions that are not in the text. John Piper and Wayne Grudem in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood argue that the biblical mandate is for men to lead and women to submit—not only in the marriage relationship but also in church ministry and the secular workplace. The biblical justification for this belief comes from the interpretation of creation order in Genesis 1–3 as significant. Man was created before woman, therefore, man initiates and leads in the human race. The belief that men lead and women submit also stems from an understanding of Ephesians 5 that has morphed head into headship and lead, which is translated into leadership. When we use this text to say that the general pattern for men and women is that men lead and women submit, we are applying a text meant for marriage to all humans. We are also jumping through exegetical hoops to get there by interpreting head, a noun in relation to the body, as lead, which is a verb not in relation to the body.

Rather than teachings that focus on femininity and masculinity, we should focus our teachings on growing in Christlikeness and the fruit of the Spirit

Christ Rules Over the Body

One of the reasons people may connect head with authority is because of how head is used in Ephesians 1:21–22. The same head/body metaphorical language is used in this passage, but with a different purpose and preposition. The implied preposition used in Ephesians 5:23 is head of not head over . “Head of” denotes connection and relation, while “head over” denotes hierarchy. In addition, Ephesians 1:21 uses hierarchy words such as “power,” “authority,” and “dominion” (v. 21) while 5:22–33 uses service words such as “submit,” “love,” “washing,” and “respect.”

In the picture above, I put into visual form Paul’s head/body metaphors in Ephesians (with some additions). Paul first mentions Christ as head over the body, portraying his authority and power over all things and the church (1:21–23). He then talks about the body, the church, under Christ and our need to stay unified as members of the body with different gifts given to serve each other (4:1–16). Lastly, he speaks of the marriage relationship as one flesh, a united head and body serving one another in the context of the body as a whole and the body under Christ.

Husbands and Wives Have Different Gifts

Some of the married people are labeled with different gift mixes to show the variety of gifts spouses bring into marriage. When we teach on marriage, we shouldn’t assume that the wife has certain gifts and the husband has certain gifts because they’re a man or woman, but we need to recognize that God gives a variety of gifts to all believers regardless of gender (1 Cor. 12:4–6, 28–30; Eph. 4:11–12).

Not All Married Couples Have Kids

I also included a married couple with kids and an infertile couple without kids. Bearing and raising children is the desire of many married couples, but for some, it’s just not possible. Infertility affects about ten percent of couples at childbearing age. They may choose to foster or adopt, which are journeys filled with many challenges, or they may choose to focus their time and energy on raising up younger men and women in the church. Certainly, we are all called to do the latter. When we’re teaching couples or an audience with couples in it, we shouldn’t assume that all couples have children or will have children.

The Bible doesn’t state marriage or motherhood as the ultimate goal for a woman, and neither should we.

Single People Are People Too

Another element to the picture that I included was a mix of married and single people. Both have gifts for building up the body and both are equal members within the body. Paul commends and explicitly prefers singleness over marriage (1 Cor. 7:6–8). Because he was single, he was able to devote himself to the service of God and the spiritual family of the church. Jesus and many of his disciples were also single for their lifetime and dedicated themselves to relationships with fellow believers while they carried out the Lord’s work. More than half of Americans are single (54%) and almost a quarter (23%) of those singles are active churchgoers. There are a variety of reasons for why someone might be single, but everyone goes through a season of singleness—or multiple seasons—at some point in their life. Our teaching and church activities should acknowledge and embrace singles and married people alike.

Teach Women How To Be Like Christ

When we teach to women in the church, we shouldn’t assume that all women will become a wife or a mom. The Bible doesn’t state marriage or motherhood as the ultimate goal for a woman, and neither should we. Rather than teachings that focus on femininity and masculinity, we should focus our teachings on growing in Christlikeness and the fruit of the Spirit (Eph. 3:14­–19; Gal. 5:16–25). If we discuss male or female generalities (i.e. women need connection; men need respect), we need to clarify that these are not biblical standards for men and women. God crafts each individual, male and female, with a personality and gift set and authors each story differently (Ps. 139:13–14; Rom 8:28; 1 Cor. 12:4–6). Dorothy Sayers, in her collection of essays, Are Women Human?, comments on the reality that we have more in common as humans than differences as male and female. She argues that it would be more helpful to view women as primarily human than to focus on all of the distinctions of the female gender. While there are some biological differences between men and women, we have much more in common as humans and Christians.

Humble Equality

The Spirit cuts through the hierarchies that we have created with race, class, and gender (Joel 2:28–29; Gal. 3:28). Although men and women have biological and marital distinctions, in Christ and through the Spirit, we are equal. We are not only equal before God or in spiritual sense, but also in our personhood and our treatment of one another. Paul and Timothy push even further than equal treatment of one another when they write, “Do nothing from selfish ambitions or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3–4).

See the previous articles in the series "Male and Female Partnership" and "United in One Flesh."

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