Among the topics that can easily get people riled up these days is the subject of male headship. Just the words “male headship” make some people stiffen. Even within the Church, people can get their dander up as they contemplate and yes, speculate about what God’s design for relationships, especially between men and women, should look like. If you have attended an Orthodox Wedding Sacrament, you’re likely to remember the passage from the epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians (5:21-33) that speaks of a wife submitting and respecting her husband; and a husband being “head of the wife.”

During our work on Volume One of the Lionheart Sessions (The Pursuit), the Faithtree team spent a lot of time discussing possible reasons why this push and pull might be happening. We discussed at length what God has to say about this tension, and what it all means to Orthodox Christian believers.

Here’s what we came up with:

1. The world’s view of headship is not the Church’s.
People can easily acquire a distorted understanding of what headship means, within both the context of the church and that of the home. It is important that Christians recognize and discern a clear view of what we believe.

For a lot of people, male headship is considered to be very oppressive. Some folks believe that at its core headship is about power and a quest for control. For others, it is seen as an issue of a person’s worth. Likewise, male headship is often blamed for leading men to be abusive, repressive, or exploitive in their relationships with women. And submission is frequently defined as enslavement.

This is not how God designed, defined or desires headship to be.

If these beliefs are far from what God intended, how did they become so pervasive and accepted throughout the world? Was it the leaders of the feminist movement: that very small but very loud group of women in the sixties that permeated the idea? Was it post-modern political correctness? Or maybe it was a permissive society? Could it be the internet?

Honestly, it really doesn’t matter. The issues at hand have very little to do with what those movements focus on. For Orthodox Christians, we are much less concerned with the “anything you can do, I can do better” routine, or the “my daughter can be a strong woman and be anything she wants to be” pipeline, or even the “I don’t need a man, I can take care of myself” posture.

When those become our focus, we’ve missed the point all together. We’re asking the wrong questions. Why? Because the Church’s focus is not about equal rights or capability. The Church is way more interested in God’s design.

2. What is God’s design for headship?
The world’s understanding of headship is in total contrast to what the Church actually teaches and knows to be true. In the Church, we understand headship to be about protection, provision, leading by serving. Most importantly, headship is turning our focus away from ourselves and onto others.

And submission is something we are all tasked with. It allows us to share in the order and structure of God’s plan. Most importantly, Christ’s love is the focus and the model for submission, just as He is our example for headship.

The Church teaches that men and women were created with distinctive differences. And while we share a common nature, there are distinctions of gender we can’t, and frankly, shouldn’t ignore. God did not design all of us to do the same thing. We all have a personal calling to offer our own unique gifts. Because all of our gifts are needed to make this world the kind of world God intended for it to be!

And while yes, throughout Holy Scripture and in the writings of the Holy Fathers we are taught about God’s order for creation (namely, that Adam was created before Eve, and that it was Adam who named the living creatures), the Church does not assert a disparity in the worth of women because of the role of man. Equal worth does not necessitate identical roles.

3. What happens if men don’t lead?
Nature abhors a vacuum, as the old saying goes. And the abdication of leadership by men will surely result in something or someone else taking their place to lead families and loved ones in their absence.

Men will be held responsible for their absence. From the Church’s standpoint, we repeatedly see how man is accountable throughout the Holy Scripture. God held Adam primarily answerable for the fall. When Adam and Eve hid from God in the garden, God called “to the man and said to him, �?Where are you?”’ (Genesis 3:9).

4. How are Christian men of the Church called to lead?
Just as God holds men accountable, He expects men to take initiatives, to teach by example, and to serve.

As Christ is revealed to us as “The new Adam,” men are called to pattern themselves after Him. That means men are called to lead in love, in sacrifice, in worship, in righteousness and in obedience to Holy Scripture. Abdicating their responsibility to provide, protect and lead the women and children in our lives is to fall short of the role God designed for us to live as men. And it prohibits our loved ones from fulfilling their roles as well. They will end up being so busy doing our part, they will inevitably fall short in fulfilling God’s plan for their own lives.

What does the Church expect of men?
The Church, in Her wisdom makes clear what are the expectations of men. They include:

  • Men who do not focus all of their attention on their own wants and needs without considering the wants and needs of the people in their care.
  • Men who protect their loved ones not only physically, but also emotionally, and spiritually.
  • Men who recognize that this is not about a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps and try harder” way of doing things. On the contrary, the Church calls for men to become leaders by the witness of the lives of the saints, and by seeking their prayers and intercessions.
  • Men who desire to know Christ and follow His example; who are on a journey and seek to lead in love, in sacrifice, with the knowledge of Holy Scripture, in prayer, in worship, and in service.
  • Men who receive God’s forgiveness, grace and mercy through the practice of repentance.

The goal is to become men who engage in the dance.
Indeed, the Church’s teaching on headship is something much different than the world’s. Think of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Together they seamlessly moved across many a dance floor, didn’t they? Their fluid movement created artistic beauty beyond measure! But they never stopped to discuss who took the first step or who was leading. Instead, they brought glory to the choreographer by each fulfilling their designed role.

Regardless of how we got to a place where “male headship” became taboo, here we are! The call now for men in the Orthodox Church is to lead in such a way that headship is practiced as a part of God’s natural order and not as a consequence of sin or to serve any human purpose.

Men can do this by answering God’s call: to lead in love while focusing on others. And don’t we have the perfect example of this? Indeed! It is just as it was demonstrated by God, who initiated His love through the works of His Son, who was sent in order to save us.