Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Male headship

 I have been thinking recently about the irony of the fact that so many evangelical men who believe in "male headship" are not terribly bright. In my experience, the sort of men who believe they have an innate God given right to be in authority over women seem to be very limited intellectually. It occurs to me that their belief in male headship may actually be a way of compensating for deficiencies in that area?  I hope I am not being sexist, not to mention anti- evangelical here,  perhaps I have just been unlucky - or has anyone else noticed the same?

Below you can see a little video which explains the basis of submission, there is some "exegesis", which is a word evangelicals use when they use the bible to support their ridiculous notions. Using the word "exegesis"  always reassures an evangelical that he is not dim, research has shown that just saying this word  significantly boosts a male evangelical's ego - but sadly not his IQ. You can tell that the man who wrote the script for  this  probably went to Oxford university.


  1. Very true!! Stupidity (and dishonesty) are to Evangelicals what bitchiness and arrogance are to Anglo-Catholics, in my non-believer's experience of the C of E: common but far from universal features. I'd still much rather be a liberal A-C, cos at least you get to enjoy a drink.

  2. Psst, it's not just you, I've noticed too. Not terribly bright, but not terribly good-looking, creative or interesting either, as a rule.

    Women in Latin America have a saying, "More man than you'll ever be, more woman than you'll ever have." (I translated that out of the Latin in case Dan Quayle and the slightly dim evangelicals are reading)

  3. I think you are being sexist, anti-evangelical and perhaps intellectually snobbist, but sadly - yes - I have noticed something of what you've noticed in some who I won't name. It can be excruciatingly embarrasing as the video shows. So in a way I'm with you, but are you in danger of sterotyping all evangelical men as stupid? As an evangelical I can think of a number of men who believe in this type of 'headship' whose intellect and theological scholarship is far superior to mine and who can explain the concept well. They haven't convinced me though. I find mutual submission "out of reverence for Christ" equally Biblical and something to keep on working at.

  4. I love this--thank you, for lifetimes I´ve been trying to figure this out because even the fancy titles must cover some ¨real life experience¨ dificiencies-- it´s often they aren´t capable of living outside of the bubble they´ve come to desperately thrive on-- facing reality, and trusting in God when doing so, doesn´t seem to be something they are willing to do-- sort of immature and cowardly if you ask me (nobody did but I thank you for giving me the opportunity to rant on and on).

    Best to you,
    Leonardo Ricardo

  5. What a sad little video. The original, with John Cleese Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett was much funnier, and made just about as much sense!
    Thanks for that. Where on earth did you find it?

  6. Has your husband given you permission to post this?


  7. I found it on youtube. I wasn't sure if it was a parody or not - either way it gets the point across.

    I don't actually think all evangelical men are stupid, Nancy, I know some lovely ones - but there are a fair few who show that killer combination of stupidity, arrogance and lack of charisma that Joan of Quark has identified.

  8. LOL!! love the chin comment from the '8 year old'... I am also hopeful that my 7 year old son will hit the magical age of 8 and instantly become 'obedient' and know his place.. ;)

  9. It is good to see the Trustees of REFORM are receiving such good publicity on your blog. I wasn't aware that Rev Rod Thomas was only 8 years old.

  10. I've noticed a good number of Evangelical men who although not stupid, have minds of a scientific or engineering bent, rather than those suited to philosophical or theological thinking, and there seemed to be a disproportionate number of these who marry women who aren’t very bright. Perhaps this could have something to do with it?

    A question one of my students is doing for an essay concerns why women, often middle-class, well educated women, willing accept male supremacy in new religious movements (e.g. the Jesus Fellowship (Jesus Army), Unification Church, ISKCON etc.). It is a fascinating area of research.


  11. Do you want the bad news about kids and obedience, Red? (mine are 15 and 17 and "obedience" is an increasingly distant concept:) )

    Toby - you are a very bad boy:)

    Is that man in the middle a member of REFORM Fr Carte?

  12. I think some evangelical men are "straight line" thinkers- they like clear cut lines and "rules" and can't think outside of those areas. That then lends itself the security of complementarianism where you "know where you are."
    I am fascinated by the subject of women who willingly accept male headship - and I think that you are right that it is often middle class, well educated women, often rather strong minded ones. It brings to mind the likes of Mrs Humphrey Ward, a formidable woman who campaigned against women's suffrage, as did many other women, ironically making a "career" out of this. I can't help thinking the reasons are complex, but some I might suggest are that it offers secure and clear cut parameters, particularly in personal relationships, a way of gaining approval from a group to whom you "belong", a tapping into male power systems through that approval and a type of "rebellion" in its own right against the prevailing social orthodoxy, especially if women have found this less fulfilling thant they thought. It can be a strong radical statement of individuality (ironically), also gives women scope to "condemn" other women, who don't conform, and thus to exercise a traditional "male" power of judging other women.

    Just a few thoughts, but if you could get permission from that student for me to read the essay, I'd love to.

  13. Goodness me, Well. Hello, I'm an evangelical man who thinks that the bible teaches male headship.
    Call me names if you like.

    It's not something that I'm particularly comfortable with, but here are some thoughts.

    The bible does teach it, you can argue that those bits only relate to there and then, but it is there, in more than one place (I'm not just talking about the narative sections).

    The reasons the bible gives are never 'because men are cleverer' or 'men are better' or 'because we're men writing this and we want to keep power to ourselves'.

    I feel that it's being massively misrepresented here, the bible teaches that leading = servanthood/slavery. Just as Jesus was sacrificed for the church, husbands are to sacrifice themselves for their wives. There is no mention of glory or always getting your own way.

  14. Sue

    Thanks for this.

    There are strange analogies with Islam here. One of the interesting things about Islamic societies’ relationship with Western thinking, is that in the main there is a massively disproportionate number of Muslims who favour university courses and careers centred on science and engineering as opposed to the humanities. Moreover the one’s not interested in humanities tend to practice a scripturally rooted Sunni Islam, which has stark parallels with conservative Evangelical Christianity. It is this type of Islam that is proving more and more attractive to Westerners, particularly women. A fellow PhD is writing her thesis on the attraction of Salafism (basically a Wahabite version of Islam found mainly in Saudi Arabia) to Westerners and especially to women.

    I think your own comments on ‘subservient’ women has validity here – there is a power gained by demonstrating one’s adherence to the ‘The Law’ – be that in church or mosque. A short read, by an anthropologist called Ernest Gellner, is ‘Postmodernism, Reason & Religion’; it is also quite funny in parts, in its intellectual way. One point Gellner makes is that more and more women are now wearing the Hijab in Islamic societies (he was writing in 1992, before the hijab took on its political significance here in the West). People often think Islamic women wear the hijab because their grandmothers wore it. However Gellner notes that this is not so: many wear the hijab because their grandmothers DIDN’T wear it. If you worked in the fields you didn’t wear a hijab in many Islamic societies. Wearing the hijab demonstrates upward social mobility, literacy and the time and desire to take one’s religion seriously. Similar phenomena were witnessed in Europe during the Reformation, as a, literate, mercantile class arose. The chief similarity with contemporary developing Islamic societies, being the privatisation of religion as literacy increases and a personal relationship with the ‘other’ or divine becomes possible through the ability to read Scripture in the privacy of one’s home and without the need of an intermediary (i.e. priest or imam).

    I think, with some empirical evidence, it would be possible to demonstrate that something similar is taking place with Evangelical women. Assuming the trappings of religion (here an assumed role) demonstrates the earnestness of one’s belief, emphasises the ‘validity’ of the relationship with one’s husband and of course (particularly in middle-class Evangelical circles) a means of showing off one’s wealth and position. Poorer families don’t always have the luxury of ‘man’ as the head and it is difficult to be the ‘head’ when both parties of the marriage are having to work full time to maintain their standard of living!

    As for ‘dim’ Evangelical men... I don’t think it is just Evangelical men that are dim! But I know what you mean. I have often been surprised by just how many men who have highflying, specialist jobs, often in one of the Professions, can be amazingly dim concerning other aspects of life. In this sense I think Evangelical Christianity is best suited to this kind of mind, because it comes pre-packed and ready to wear. This is what the Bible says and this is what you do... Of course in reality all you really do is assume a culture. Quentin Crisp once said that health consists of having the same diseases as one’s neighbour; and in many Evangelical churches (or churches, mosques, synagogues, temples etc. per se) ‘righteousness’ is often a case of making the same compromises with Scripture and the assumption of a given culture as your neighbour. It is one of the reasons, in my view, why the pouf issue has become so hot for many Evangelicals – it is a means of appearing righteous, without the inconvenience of challenging the group defined ‘righteousness’ of modern Evangelical culture.



  15. Thanks for this, S. I've doctored your comment slightly- which I can email you about if you wish:

    Hi Peter,
    If you look at the tabs, one is humour, the other is fundamentalism. There is a serious point though in that I have noticed men who have a very narrow mindset who think this way - I am not necessarily saying this applies to you- also that the concepts of male headship can be and are used in an abusive way in some strains of evangelical Christianity, also some men and women find the concept offensive, even when it is served up in a more palatable packaging, such as the idea that men and women's roles are complementary, or that male headship involves servanthood.

    If you think about it, the writers of the bible wouldn't give the reason for male headships as being, 'because we're men writing this and we want to keep power to ourselves', because in a culture where women were seen as naturally subservient to men that kind of justification wouldn't be needed, or really even make sense! I do think that St Paul's ideas were actually a huge advancement on many of the attitudes to women he saw around him at that time, I just don't think they are appropriate to map onto our time in a narrow way. I don't believe the bible is inerrant in the way that I guess you do anyhow - so we are arguing from different premises on this one from the start!

    It is your prerogative, as well as mine, to buy into whichever personal belief systems we see fit. It does not necessarily make us stupid or oppressive - although it is my experience that those holding certain beliefs often tend this way.

  16. As an evangelical male, I can't help agreeing with your original post Sue, although I am trying NOT to model this structure in our own family life!

    I think that Nancy is right in that it is easy to stereotype, but when the picture you paint is recognisable by others, even evangelical males, there must be a lot people who do fit the stereotype.

    I have just played the YouTube vid to my kids (10 and 12). Even without knowing the original sketch (as I do - oops - showing my age) they thought it was ludicrous. So I guess we must be getting something right in our family life.

    By the way, I love your exegesis of the word 'exegesis' - it was truly inspiring!

    God Bless, Benny

  17. Fascinating discussion on this post. Suem, the portrait you paint rings bells with lots of us. Like Benny, I'm old enough to recognise the original sketch on which your video link is based. And yes, I've met families like that. Not many, thank God. I'm interested in the comments you've added yourself Suem. I've linked to this in my blog post today.

  18. I wonder whether one of the reasons women submit to this is not so much to do with power but with not wanting responsibility. After all, if you submit to someone else you are not responsible for how your life turns out. If the major decisions are all being made for you by someone else you can rest comfortably in the knowledge that you're never really to blame if it all goes wrong.

    To my mind, it's a fear of being completely responsible for how your life turns out that make submission to appealing.

    And I would go one step further and say that it’s the same fear of responsibility that attracts so many to this image of a God who has given us a firm set of rules to live by. If we do, we’re safe, if we don’t, we get punished and it’s all as nice and simple as it is for a child. Genuine maturity and really taking God’s call to freedom and responsibility seriously is quite scary.

  19. That's interesting, Erika. I do think that fundamentalist belief systems appeal because people no longer have to really think or grapple with the complexities of life. The rules are unquestionable as well. From this perspective both men and women who share a fundamentalist belief could be fearful of freedom and responsibility for their lives?
    Having said that, I have known women who believe they submit to their men who are very "responsible" and pragmatic people, not necessarily passive, often quite strong minded- as I said before. So, there may be a conceptual "framework" to which they can turn, but I am not sure their conduct is any different from the rest of us in a day to day respect.
    In fact I've met "submissive" wives who clearly are the ones who wear the trousers IMHO! That's why I think there is something more than a simple passivity and a renouncing of personal responsibility going on, although this may be the appeal in some cases.

  20. In answer to Peter B, the Bible does teach (or appear to teach) male headship in some places, but that is not consistent throughout the whole Bible. I have found that when I asked proponents of male headship why God would have appointed a woman (Deborah) to be Judge of all Israel, I have had some very peculiar answers!

    Husbands and wives are instructed to 'submit to one another'; Priscilla is ranked ahead of her husband Aquila by Paul; Huldah was a prophet, as were Philip's 4 daughters. Phoebe held office in the early Church as a deacon, and Junia (a female name) was considered of note among he apostles. Paul instructs women to wear a head covering at worship, as the men did, as a sign that they too had authority. How ironic that in some conservative churches women wear scarves on their heads as a sign of their submission!

    I regard the Bible as inspired and authoritative, but that means I need to study hard to see whether it is really saying what I think it's saying. It also means knowing the whole Bible very well, as so many teachers ignore passages that don't bolster their arguments. Finbally, it means taking seriously the challenges that real life throws at our understanding of the Bible.

    As women have proved that they can lead very well in almost all areas of life, why would God restrict leadership to men? Where the Bible appears to teach this, there are always underlying reasons - it's not a universal principal.

    Iffy Vicar

  21. I have submitted to my husband. He would laugh but I have. He would say he has submitted to me and I would laugh. But together we have submitted to each other and together we have lived in love putting each other first and I am so glad I can say we love each other and still put each other before ourselves.

  22. I'm glad I'm an atheist and don't have to worry about "sacred" texts or bitchy queens in ecclesiastical drag.
    If you continue to preen yourselves on your sense of superiority, you will simply reinforce the notion that you're "inclusiveness" is essentially selective; you include those who aren't going to seriously disagree with you or those who depend on you in some way. This will allow the Fundiegelicals the Populist high ground and your churches will continue to drift further apart and their members will have less and less to do with each other, not out of semi-accidental self-segregation but positive choice masquerading as "prophetic ministry".
    Mainline Protestantism is about as diverse as cream cheese; you're another reason why nobody takes it seriously and why it will continue to wither into irrelevance.

  23. Thanks Rosanna,
    Submitting to each other is the best way. Thinking of you at this time.

  24. If I suggested to my wife that she should submit to me, I think I'd have t ododge a slap! When you read in the Gospels how Jesus related to women, you can see the extent to which Paul was a man immersed in the mores of his times.

    When you say the scriptwriter probably went to Oxford University, do you mean he had the common sense educated out of him?

  25. Hmmm, you could have a point, Ed - about the slap, Jesus, Paul and Oxford University.