In Does Christianity Teach Male Headship? editors David Blankenhorn, Don Browning, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen assemble a fine intra-Christian debate. They are sounding out a middle position on how Christian marriage can do justice to the biblical standards without oppressing women.
On the one side are the editors and their allies. They say “no” to the title question, and instead make a case for “equal-regard” marriage. They read such tough passages as Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord,” as applying both ways. Wives should submit to husbands, they argue, and husbands should submit to wives. They do not see marriage as simply a contract of two individuals, but instead as requiring mutual transformation on both sides.
On the other side are a variety of critics, Protestant and Catholic, some quite conservative, some in the center. Their consensus, as I read it, is that the Bible does teach, and assume, some kind of male headship. Several of the critics see male headship as a way to address the “male problematic” of incorporating men into the mother-child families they help create. None of the critics, not even the most conservative, thinks headship means that husbands should make all the decisions and have all the power. All of the authors in the book firmly reject the idea that male headship in any way allows husbands to abuse wives. The critics convince me, though, that some kind of “soft patriarchy” is the net result of Biblical teaching.
The richest criticism comes from Maggie Gallagher. She first points out a difference in the Protestant and Catholic approaches to the whole idea of marriage and headship. Conservative Protestants affirm male headship and liberal Protestants contest it. Catholics, on the other hand, are more drawn to the indissolubility of marriage. If husband and wife are really “one flesh,” headship doesn’t really mean “domination” as it might in a hierarchical organization of separated individuals. It makes no more sense to think of the head oppressing the heart than the reverse. Moreover, Gallagher notes, the head of the household doesn’t have quite the life-and-death power over the family’s economic survival today as in biblical times. Headship ain’t what it used to be.
Gallagher’s best argument, I think, is that male headship is a “largely honorific title.”“Male headship offers men an excuse to submit to the demands of family life – and to the reality that wives retain considerable power, control, and authority in the home over the daily life of the husband.” The offer of male headship, coupled with the reality of both parents sacrificing for their families, is part of the cunning of civilization to turn us all into decent members of the human community.