By Martin Hanna (SDA Theological Seminary, Andrews University)
Many sincere Christians engage in vigorous debate about headship and submission and relations between men and women. This blog seeks to clarify selected issues involved in this debate by surveying some insights on this subject from the Bible and Ellen White’s writings.
What the Bible says
What does the Bible say? Literally translated, Paul writes about “submitting to one another in the fear of God; wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:21-22). The submission of a wife to one husband is grounded in the headship modeled by Christ who is the one head of the church. “The husband is head of the wife as also Christ is head of the church and he is the Savior of the body. . . . Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (5:22-23, 25-26).
Christ’s example of servant headship is to be followed in the home as well as in the Church. The “rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and . . . exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mk. 10:42-45).
The biblical model of headship also involves a sharing of authority between the Father and the Son and between men and women. Jesus said, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and earth” (Matt. 28:18). Similarly, in Christian marriage there is a sharing of authority. “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Cor. 7:4).
This sharing of authority includes public ministry. Paul refers to “every man” and “every woman who prays or prophesies” (1 Cor 11:4-5). This shared ministry is grounded in God’s creation order. “For man . . . is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman; but the woman from man. Nor was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have authority . . . . Neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God” (11:7-12).
What Ellen White says
What does Ellen White say? She comments that “when husbands require the complete subjection of their wives, declaring that women have no voice or will in the family, but must render entire submission [unilateral rather than mutual], they place their wives in a position contrary to the Scripture. In interpreting the Scripture in this way, they do violence to the design of the marriage institution. This interpretation is made simply that they may exercise arbitrary rule, which is not their prerogative” (Adventist Home, 116).
White teaches that, according to Scripture, “in the creation, God had made her [Eve] the equal of Adam. Had they remained obedient to God--in harmony with His great law of love--they would ever have been in harmony with each other; but sin had brought discord, and now their union could be maintained and harmony preserved only by submission on the part of the one or the other” (Adventist Home, 115). “Like restless modern Eves, she was flattered with the hope of entering a higher sphere than that which God had assigned her. In attempting to rise above her original position [equality with her husband], she fell far below it” (115).
Nevertheless, husbands and wives should aim for God’s original ideal of mutual submission. “The spirit that Christ manifests toward His church is the spirit that the husband and wife are to manifest toward each other” (Adventist Home, 95). “Neither husband nor wife is to make a plea for rulership. The Lord has laid down the principle that is to guide in this matter. The husband is to cherish his wife as Christ cherishes the church. And the wife is to respect and love her husband. Both are to cultivate the spirit of kindness, being determined never to grieve or injure the other” (106-107).
In addition, “do not try to compel each other to do as you wish. You cannot do this and retain each other's love. Manifestations of self-will destroy the peace and happiness of the home. Let not your married life be one of contention. If you do, you will both be unhappy. Be kind in speech and gentle in action, giving up your own wishes. Watch well your words, for they have a powerful influence for good or for ill. Allow no sharpness to come into your voices. Bring into your united life the fragrance of Christlikeness” (Adventist Home, 107).
With regard to the church family, “Christ is the only Head of the church” (Manuscript Releases, 21:274). “We are to grow up into Christ, our living head, until we reach the full stature of men and women in Christ” (Signs of the Times, May 13, 1889). This includes a growing up in public ministry. “In the mind of God, the ministry of men and women existed before the world was created. He determined that His ministers should have a perfect exemplification of Himself and His purposes” (Manuscript Releases, 18:380). “The Holy Spirit . . . prepares . . . both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God" (Testimonies, 6:322).
This brief survey of the Bible and Ellen White is only an introductory exploration of the subject of headship and submission in relation to men and women. I would appreciate feedback from those who read this blog. What are your thoughts on the questions listed below?
- Is headship compatible with mutual submission and shared authority in the home and in church?
- How does Ellen White’s view of the creation order compare with the biblical perspective?