I have been writing for several posts about 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:3, that ”the man is the head of a woman” and in verse 9, “for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.” Paul is referring to Genesis 2:18, where God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” (All citations from the New American Standard Bible). As we have previously written (A Glaringly Difficult Passage), the headship of a man primarily operates in the sphere of marriage, yet this passage in 1 Corinthians 11, and several others expand differences in gender roles to the sphere of the Church as well. In this post I am endeavoring to renovate and infuse vision into the idea of being helpers and then to specifically apply that vision to women in the Church.
As noted above, Ruth and I have already written that this passage in 1 Corinthians 11 does not mean that all men are heads over all or every woman. Similarly it also does not mean that all women are called to help all men. We believe the very specific omission of “every” in the middle pair of 1 Corinthians 11:3 shows this. We also see specific teaching in Ephesians 5:22-33 that clarifies that a husband is the head specifically of his wife, and his children while they are in his household. We have also begun discussing the headship of some designated godly men in the Church over their local congregations, which include both men and women (Different Roles for Men and Women in the Church). There is a tension in this passage in 1 Corinthians 11, which leads many translators to translate this verse, “the husband is the head of his wife.” Although a man’s headship primarily operates in the sphere of marriage, we do see some gender role distinctions in the church which we will discuss in future posts.
I believe the idea of “helper” being a positive, dignified role runs counter to our modern culture. I was raised with the hope and expectation that I would be above average in my accomplishments and have access to many different career paths. I suspect this is a goal in many families. My own family was a little vague about how to do that. My parents did not equate that necessarily with a high salary career, but what my mother really wanted me to be was a doctor. I think she naturally respected and feared doctors, and she wanted one in the family to consult with confidence for free! My mother also hoped I would marry a smart, above average man. She also wanted me to have children. I don’t know how she imagined it all working out. She believed all her children were special. Many parents would hold the same belief about their children. And that, of course, is a wonderful blessing – to be special and beloved to our parents.
I don’t think my mother envisioned in a clear way that I would be my husband’s helper in life, or take a helping role in the Church That would not have sounded like a special enough calling for her child. I write this because I think this is a common way of thinking about both boys and girls in my lifetime, in the academic Northeast at least. I attended a conference in 2011 at my university reporting on representation of women alumni in leadership – breaking the “glass ceiling” in business and academics – since the beginning of coeducation. The president of the university was fretting because more women were not rising to top leadership roles, but were still gravitating toward collaborative, helping, and serving roles. That report spoke to me about what our culture values – leadership rather than helpful teamwork. I believe this is spreading far beyond Western culture. We aspire to be leaders or bosses or at least our own bosses, but we don’t specifically aspire to be helpers. I believe that is because we think individualistically. When we think individualistically, we often have the aspiration to excel and stand out from the crowd, rather than the aspiration to serve and be a help to others. I am not trying to say that women cannot lead in the corporate, civic or academic world. I am just noting the value judgment I perceive that the role of leader is better than the role of helper.
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is about individuals placed by God in relationship with others. The passage is about how men and women relate to one another in the Church. But verse 3 tells us that even God the Father and Jesus the Son are in a relationship with one another which involves headship. We know that Jesus, in his earthly life, lived to bring glory to His Father, and that God the Father is deeply pleased in Him. When God introduces His Son publicly at His baptism, He speaks from heaven to say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” He could have given us another kind of resume about Jesus – Creator of the world, for instance – but instead he introduced Jesus in terms of His relationship with Him – Son. Jesus spoke often about his obedience to His Father’s will.
It is also noteworthy what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit in John 16:4-15.
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
Jesus calls the Holy Spirit a “Helper” and says He does not act on his own authority, and that He glorifies Christ. Therefore, the Trinity exists as equals, in a relationship with one another in which there is both headship and work done as a unified team. That is the model that Paul brings into the discussion of relationship between men and women in the Church. The model shows the Father in headship over his Son and Spirit. But it also shows the Son and Spirit – equally God, with extraordinary divine power – willingly embracing the roles of submitting and helping. Therefore, these must not be substandard, unworthy, demeaning roles! Where would we be if the Son and the Spirit had not performed their roles?
Christ’s earthly mission was to restore God’s fallen people to relationship with Him and also to loving relationship with one another. When Jesus was asked what was the most important commandment, he answered that the two most important commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. Loving relationship is what we are to aspire to. Relationships are to be our priority focus.
So if relationships are so important to God, and He is a God of order, it is no surprise to me that He has both created and restored through Jesus Christ a structure between husbands and wives that interconnects them, a head who needs a body/helper and a body/helper who needs a head. These “interlocking” roles join us in relationship, like interlocking puzzle pieces. What is perhaps more surprising is to observe elements of that same structure between redeemed men and women in Christ’s Church. I have seen the beauty in my marriage and in those of many of my beloved friends of the interdependence, mutual respect and love between husband and wife, working together making use of their various talents to weave a growing family. Where would husbands be without their wives? The Church is a family, too, where men and women should enter into service with a similar interdependence, mutual respect and love, all bringing their talents and spiritual gifts together to weave a growing church. Where would the Church be without the ministry of women? The individual ceases to be just a self-sufficient, self-concerned individual, and becomes part of a protective, interdependent and mutually-upbuilding organism, because they are mysteriously joined into one, whether it is the one flesh organism of marriage (Ephesians 5:22-33) or the one body organism of Christ’s Church (Ephesians 4:4-14). This focus on building others up is not just the focus of the “helper” but also the focus of the “head.” We are all called to emulate the humility of Christ (Philippians 2:5-8). So while I am writing now to exhort women to “lean in” to the helping role, Ruth and I also plan to write to exhort men to “lean in” to the “servant of all” nature of the headship role.
The structure of marriage is between two persons, one man and one woman, and is comparatively simple: head and body, though the giftedness of the two individuals does have a legitimate effect on the division of labor between a husband and a wife. The structure of the church is many persons, many parts, with various gifts, some men and some women. This structure is more complex, but spiritual gifts, and to a lesser extent gender, are two organizing principles.
I will write more extensively on the ways gender and gifts impact women in the Body of Christ. Today, I want to highlight the importance, the priority of relationships for the direction of our lives. Is it possible that we should be thinking more today about how we can help someone else to thrive and accomplish than about how to get recognition for our own gifts? Or should we be directing the use of our gifts more toward empowering the gifts of others? What would our churches look and feel like if each member, in this way, “considered others more important than themselves?” (Philippians 2:3)