by Hannele Ottschofski  |  24 January 2021  |  

After expressing some views on the political landscape, she said to me, “My husband reads all the stuff, and he must know. I don’t really follow these things.” 

This was a good Adventist pastor’s wife in the United States. In this matter she did not bother to think for herself but accepted, apparently with little personal reflection, her husband’s opinion on politics. 

I understand that everyone is interested in politics. But how far should this go? Should she accept her husband’s opinion in all other matters as well? 

A subservient woman who looks to her husband for guidance in all things falls under a currently much-talked-about theory known as headship theology, the idea that the man is superior to the woman and only his judgment can be trusted. This notion has crept into the thinking of many conservative Christians. 

Headship theory

Modern headship theory arose around the same time as the Women’s Liberation Movement, as women started shedding the power of men who had been oppressing women for centuries, even millennia. (I am intentionally substituting the word “theory,” because headship involves so much more than just theology and spiritual roles: male domination has long encompassed financial, emotional, physical, and sexual, as well as religious leadership over the woman.)

As women were striving for equality, Christian men were afraid of losing their power. They came up with a theory to keep women in submission: employ religion for the purpose. In order to make this plausible to believers, headship theory was described as a biblical role model. 

However, the ideas of liberty, equality and justice had become ingrained in the minds of thinking people since the French Revolution, and could not be ignored. In order to get around that, headship theory called the gender roles “complementary,” which meant that men and women are in some way equal but different. The man assumes the role as the head of the household and acts as the leader, thus having the power. Women are relegated to a passive role, but said to be nonetheless equal. 

What is equal about this? How can two people be equal, but with one partner in full control over the other?

Marriage or church?

If the headship theory were applied only to men and women in their marriage relationship, we could let them work it out in their own way, according to their personal convictions. But when headship theory is applied to the church, with all men having authority over all women, it becomes dangerous. Bible texts are taken out of context to prove that women have to submit to the leadership of men instead of considering the mutual submission the Apostle Paul promotes as a model for the church when he says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NIV, emphasis added). Paul’s subsequent words were meant as counsel for married couples, but are erroneously used to prove male dominion over women in church.

When a man assumes authority over a woman, he also takes over responsibility for the woman’s actions when she obeys and when she disobeys. This leads to abuse. It is no secret that abuse is prevalent in conservative churches that embrace headship theory. 

Furthermore, women are expected to stay in abusive and manipulative relationships. Insecure women who have been taught to look up to men in leadership are at risk when these leaders manipulate them to submit to sexual relations or rape. We would hope these predators would take responsibility for their deeds, but they usually put the blame on their victims.

Spiritual abuse

In “The Unavoidable Link Between Patriarchal Theology and Spiritual Abuse” by Haley Horton, published on January 13, 2021, the following characteristics of spiritual abuse based on complementarian theology are listed: 

  • The man demands respect from the woman without question, due to his “God-given” masculine authority.
  • The man discourages the woman from having different opinions, especially theological, political, or social, because God has given him discernment for the both of them.
  • The man shames the woman if she publicly expresses an opinion different from his own, because it challenges or even humiliates his male authority.
  • The man is unable to see the woman as an accountability partner. If the man criticizes the woman on an issue, he believes he’s fulfilling his God-designed responsibility as spiritual leader. But if the woman criticizes the man on an issue, he believes she’s disrespecting his authority and therefore rejecting “God’s design” for men and women.
  • The man emphasizes his dedication to caring for and protecting his partner but only does so in the way he believes is best. Because he is the spiritual leader, he thinks he knows what is best for the woman even if she says otherwise.
  • The man rarely, if ever, considers that he could be wrong in his decision-making.
  • If the woman confronts the man on an issue, he makes her think that she is overreacting, crazy, or simply a bad partner because she does not trust, is ungrateful for, or is disrespectful of his leadership (a form of gaslighting). He might twist the conversation so that the moral of the story is that the woman must learn to be more forgiving and gracious, as opposed to the man acknowledging his own mistakes.
  • The man misuses Scripture to require the woman to perform sexual activities. If she says no, he claims she is denying God’s command to please her partner.
  • The man demands primary or full control over finances as head of the household.
  • The man uses statements such as “You don’t love or respect me anymore. If you did, you would…” or “I’m only doing this to love and protect you. Don’t you want that?” to emotionally manipulate his partner into doing what he wants.
  • The man lies when necessary to protect his good reputation and “Christian testimony.”
  • The man quotes from Bible passages such as Ephesians 5 to require that the woman perform domestic duties and not maintain a career. Or, if she does have a career, the man demands that his career take priority.

The Pipim problem

The news that a once-prominent church leader, a former pastor, has been disfellowshipped by a local church in Ohio hit the Adventist media on January 18, 2021. 

The most shocking thing about this is that women had reported this man’s predatory sexual behavior for nearly three decades. He was already once removed from membership in 2012 for the same reasons. In 2014, after rebaptism and apparent repentance, he was reinstated. He has now reoffended, by some reports multiple times. After he was again disfellowshipped, we were told,

The Ohio Conference unequivocally warns the public against inviting Pipim as a speaker, using his books or materials, or placing him in a position of spiritual authority, leadership, or influence over others. The Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Ohio Conference have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. The Ohio Conference cares deeply about the pain suffered by victims of this case. We extend our apologies globally to those who have been hurt and wish to be an agent of healing, hope, and wholeness. We have heard your voices, and we take each story seriously. 

This is tragic proof of what headship theory does when men are exalted into positions of dominance in patriarchal systems. I fail to understand how this was allowed to happen for such a long time, and the perpetrator not arraigned and prosecuted. 

As a church organization we have taken a stand against violence and abuse with our enditnow project, but it seems that in practice there is much to be learned. We must break the silence and begin to believe the victims.

A theological novelty

Headship theory was never a part of our beliefs as Seventh-day Adventists, and I believe the infiltration of such thinking is not the will of God for His church. But I have yet to hear any official opposition from General Conference leadership to this infiltration. Why are the proponents of headship theory not confronted? Others who have had theological ideas that don’t quite conform to traditional Adventist beliefs have been censured or even defrocked—such as some who advocate for women’s ordination. 

Why is there no outcry against those who push headship theory in our church? One answer would be that the church leadership consists of men only. 

God created woman in His image with a free will, and she is responsible for her own thoughts and actions to God. Anything else is misleading God’s children. Women must be aware of their value in God’s eyes as individuals who are only to submit themselves to God’s authority—in the Epistle of James we are all told to submit only to God (James 4:7). Men and women must be treated as equals before God. No man has the right to abuse a woman be it spiritually, physically, financially or sexually, because women are God’s precious daughters of equal worth with His sons.

Hannele Ottschofski writes from Hechingen, Germany.

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