What the present debate won’t tell you about headship

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Today I’m going to talk about head and body (headship). And I say “headship” with hesitation, because in today’s world asserting “headship” means, “defending traditional gender roles against feminism.” And that maybe important, but I want to talk about something larger, something that will be missed if “headship” means nothing more than “one position in the feminist controversy.”

One speaker didn’t like people entering Church and saying, “It’s so good to enter the Lord’s presence.” He said, “Where were you all week? How did you escape the Lord’s presence?” And whatever Church is, it is absolutely not entering the one place where God is present. At least, it’s not stepping out of some imaginary place where God simply can’t be found.

But if we are always in the Lord’s presence, that doesn’t mean that Church isn’t special. It is special, and it is the head of living in God’s presence for all of our lives. Our time in Church is an example of headship. Worshipping God in Church is the head of a life of worship, and it is the head of a body.

There is something special about our time in Church. But the way we live our lives, our “body” of time spent, manifests that glory in a different way. Christ didn’t say that people will know we are his disciples by our “official” worship, however much God’s blessing may rest on it. Christ said instead that all people will know we are his disciples by this, that we love one another. That isn’t primarily in Church. That’s in our day to day lives. If our time in Church crystallizes a life of worship, our love for one another is to manifest it. And that is the place of the body.

The relationship between head and body is the relationship between corporate worship and our lives as a whole. The body manifests the glory of the head. In my head I can decide to walk to a friend’s house. But the head needs the body and the body needs the head, and I can only go to a friend’s house if my head’s decision to visit a friend’s house is lived out in my body. “The head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'”

The Father is the head of the Son. “No man can see God and live.” God the Father is utterly beyond us; he transcends anything we could know; he is pure glory. If we were to have direct contact with him, we would be destroyed. And yet the Son is equal to the Father; the Son is just as far beyond this Creation, but there is a difference. The Son is the bridge between God and man, and God and his Creation. God the Father created the world through the Son, and the Son is just as glorious as the Father, but the Son can touch us without destroying us. The Father displays himself through the Son. The Father’s love came to earth through the Son. The Father’s wish that we may be made divine is possible precisely because the Son became man. And finally we can know the Father through the Son. If you have seen the Son, you have seen the Father.

We read in the New Testament that Christ is the head of man, that Christ is the head of all authority, that Christ is the head of the Church, and that Christ is the head of the whole Creation. If we think, with people today, that to have any authority over us, any head, is degrading, then we have to resent a lot more than a husband’s headship to his wife. But that’s not the only option. When Christ is the head of the cosmos, there is more than authority going on, even if we have a negative view of authority. Our Orthodox understanding that the Son of God became a man that men might become the sons of God, that the divine became human that the human might become divine, expresses what the headship of Christ means. Christ is the head, and that means that the Church is drawn up in his divinity. If we are the body of Christ the head, that doesn’t mean we’re just under his authority. It means that we are a part of him and share in his divinity. The teaching that we share in his divinity is very tightly connected to the teaching of “recapitulation”, or “re-heading,” where Christ being the head of the Church, and our sharing in Christ’s divinity, are two sides of the same coin. Christ is the head, and we, the body, make Christ manifest to the world. Some people may not know Christ except what they see in us. We cannot have Christ as our head without being a manifestation of his glory, and if Christ is the head of the Creation and Christ is the head of the Church, that means that when we worship, inside this building and in our daily lives, we are leading the whole visible Creation in turning to God in glory, and living the life of Heaven here on earth.

Christ is the head of the whole Creation, not just the Church. Christ isn’t just concerned with his people, but the whole created world. By him and through him all things were created. Icons, which reflect the full implications Christ’s headship over his Creation, exist precisely because Christ is the head of the whole Creation. We use a censer, a building, icons, water, flowers, and other aspects of our matter-embracing religion as representatives of the whole material Creation over which Christ is head. Christ doesn’t tell us to be spiritual as spirits who are unfortunately trapped in matter; far from it, we are the crowning jewel of the material Creation, and Christ’s headship glorifies the whole Creation and makes it foundational to how we are saved. The universe is a symbol that manifests the glory of its head, Christ.

One example of headship that is immediate to me, although I don’t know how immediate it is to the rest of you, is artistic creation. I create, write, and program, and in a very real sense I am at my fullest when I create. When I create, at first there is a hazy idea that I don’t understand very well. Then I listen to it, and begin struggling with it, trying to understand my creation, and even if I am wrestling with it, I am wrestling less to dominate it than to get myself out of its way so I can help bring it into being. If in one sense I wrestle with it, in another sense I am wrestling with myself to let my creation be what it should be. If I were to simply dominate my creation, I would crush it, breaking its spirit. My best creations are those which I serve, where I use my headship to give my creations freedom and cooperate with them so that they are greater than if I did not give my creations room to breathe. My best work comes, not when I decide, “I am going to create,” but when I cooperate with a creation, love it, serve it, and help it to become real, the creation becomes a share of my spirit.

A great many writers could say that, and I don’t think this is something that is only found in writing, but how something far more general plays out. All of us are called to exercise headship over our work. In a family, the father is the head of the household and the mother is the heart of the household. The mother’s headship over work in the home provides ten thousand touches that make a house a home. A mother’s headship over the home is as much human headship over one’s work as my headship over my creations and writing. What I do when I create is love my creation, serve it, develop it, work with God and with my creation to help it be real. If I’m not mistaken, when a woman makes a house into a real home, she loves it, serves it, develops it, and works with God and what she has to make it real. When a woman makes a house into a warm and inviting home, that’s headship.

What is the relationship between women and the home? In societies where people have best been able to honor what the Bible says about men’s and women’s roles, there is a strong association between women and the home. The home, in those societies, was the main focus of business, charity work, and education, besides the much narrower role played by a home today. To say that women were mainly in the home is to say that they held an important place in one of society’s important institutions, an institution that was the chief home of business, education, hospitality, and what would today be insurance, and held many responsibilities that are denied to housewives today. The isolation felt by many housewives today was much less an issue because women worked together with other women; like men, they worked in adult company. I believe there should be an association between women and the home, and I believe the home should be respected and influential. And, for that matter, I believe that both men and women are sold short with the options they have today. But instead of going too deep into that sort of question, important as it may be, I would like to look at what headship means.

The sanctuary is the head of the nave. Part of what that means is that there is something richer than either if there were just an sanctuary or just a nave. But we’ll miss something fundamental if we only say that the sanctuary is more glorious to the nave. They are connected and part of the same body. They are part of the same organism, and the sanctuary manifests the glory of the sanctuary. There is also a head-body relation between the saint and the icon. Or between the reality a symbol represents, and a symbol. Or between Heaven and earth. Bringing Heaven down to earth is a right ordering of this world. Heaven isn’t just something that happens after death after we serve God by suffering in this world. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has any heart imagined what God has prepared for those who love him,” but God wants to work Heaven in our lives, beginning here and now. If we are bringing Heaven down to earth, we are realizing God’s design that Heaven be the head of earth, in the fullness of what headship means.

What about husbands and wives? There’s something that we’ll miss today if we just expect wives to submit to their husbands, even if we recognized that that’s tied to an even more difficult assignment for husbands, loving their wives on the model of Christ giving up his own life for the Church. And we need to be countercultural, but there’s something we’ll miss if we just react to the currents in society that make this unattractive. Quite a few heresies got their start in reactions against older heresies; it is spiritually dangerous to simply react against errors, and if feminism might have problems, simply reacting to feminism is likely to have problems. Wives should submit to their husbands, and husbands should love their wives with a costly love, but there’s more.

It bothers me when conservatives say, “I want to turn the clock back… all the way back… to 1954!” If we’re just reacting against some feminists when they say women should be strong and independent, and have no further reference point, we’re likely to defend a femininity that says that women are weak and passive. What’s wrong with that? For starters, it’s not Biblical.

If you want to know God’s version of femininity, read the conclusion of Proverbs. The opening of this conclusion is often translated, “Who can find a good wife?” That’s too weak. It is better translated as, “Who can find a wife of valor,” with “valor” being a word that could be used of a mighty soldier. She is strong—physically strong. The text explicitly mentions her powerful arms. She is active in commerce and charity. There are important differences between this and the feminist picture, but if we are defending an un-Biblical ideal for womanhood, some delicate thing that can’t do anything and is always in a swoon, then our reaction against feminism isn’t going to put us in a much better spot.

And men should be men, but that doesn’t mean that men should be rugged individuals who say, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul!” That is as wrong as saying that Biblical femininity is weak and passive. Perhaps men should be rugged, but to be a man is to be under authority. Trying to be the captain of your soul is spiritually toxic, and perhaps blasphemous. There is one person who can say, “I am the captain of my soul,” and it isn’t Christ. Not even Christ can say that, but only God the Father. Christ’s glory was to be the Son of God, so that the Father was the captain of his soul, and he did the Father’s work. Even Christ was under the headship of the Father, and if you read what John says about the Father and the Son, the fact that Christ was under headship, under authority, is part of his dignity and his own authority. To be a man is, if things are going well, to be a contributing member of a community, and in submission to its authority. Individualism is a severe distortion of masculinity; it may not be feminine, but it is hardly characteristic of healthy masculinity. There are a lot of false and destructive pictures of what a man should be, as well as what a woman should be.

If simply reacting against feminism is a way to miss what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, it is also a way to miss something more, to miss a broader glory. This something more is foundational to the structure of reality; it is a resonance not only with God’s Creation, but within the nature of God and how the Father’s glory is shown through the Son. This something more is in continuity with God’s headship to Christ, Christ’s headship to the Church, Christ’s headship to the cosmos, Heaven’s headship to earth, the sanctuary’s headship to the nave, the spiritual world’s headship to the physical world, the soul’s headship to the body, contemplation’s headship to action, and other manifestations of a headship relation. On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we proclaim:

…Thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord, and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration… This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.

What does this have to do with heads and bodies? The word “icon” itself means a body, and its role is to manifest the glory of the saints, as the saints are to manifest the glory of God.

We don’t have a choice about whether we will live in a universe with headship, but we do have a choice whether to work with the grain or against it, work with it to our profit or fight it to our detriment. Let’s make headship part of how we rejoice in God and his Creation.

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