15 Epic Mistakes of Headship Theology

By admin On July 16, 2016 Under Seventh-day Adventist Issues

I have recently talked with several 4th and 5th generation Seventh-day Adventists who grew up in our schools. Every one of them have expressed their dismay over a new theology in our church—Headship Theology—that is being touted by some as a traditional Adventist belief. If it is a traditional doctrine, then how could so many of us have spent decades in Adventist schools and not heard of it until recently? The only one I’ve talked with that did hear of it when she was in school, heard about it from Bill Gothard’s umbrella people in a homes-school group. At the time, she was grateful for the sane and balanced SDA theology that contrasted so strongly with, as she put it, “the Gothard cult.”

Being a 4th generation Adventist myself, I will have to say that it is a bit shocking that Headship Theology is now being sold as a “traditional” Seventh-day Adventist belief. It most certainly is not.

Even if this theology were correct, the proponents have an obligation to admit that our traditional Seventh-day Adventist understanding was wrong—and that we need to accept this whole new paradigm. Instead, they pretend that this new stuff is really what we’ve taught all along. Here are 15 good reasons why it is not:

Mistake #1: A Flawed Cultural Argument

Headship theology claims that those supporting women in ministry are giving in to culture instead of abiding by a “plain thus saith the Lord.” The opposite is actually true. Headship theology has always pandered to the cultural norm that has kept women subservient, exploited, and misused throughout history and, indeed, still does so in many parts of the world. Paul’s teaching on the fellowship of all believers is just as counter cultural for much of the world today as it was when he first said it. Unfortunately, this includes too much of the Christian world as well. It is past time to confront men’s sense of entitlement and to reclaim this co-opted cultural argument and bring it back into scriptural and historical perspective.

Mistake #2: Embracing Hierarchy

Headship theology teaches that hierarchy was God’s purpose for humanity from the very beginning. Though men have been ruling over women since The Fall, hierarchy isn’t God’s will for His church. If we want to look for the antithesis of His will we must look to the Catholic Church, whose hierarchal and sacramental principles have elevated men to take the very place of God.

Here is the evidence that hierarchy is a curse that came to men and women at The Fall:

  • In creation we don’t see a decreasing hierarchy, but one that builds increasingly from incomplete to complete. The creation of man and woman is also a progression from incomplete to complete, just like the rest of the creation story.
  • If being created first gives you a higher position in creation, then the plants and animals have a higher position than Adam.
  • Eve was created not from Adam’s head or his foot, but from his rib. Ellen White’s says that Eve was created “to stand by his side as an equal.” (Patriarchs and Prophets, 46)
  • Headship theology says that it wasn’t until Adam fell that the world fell under the dominion of evil. However, this can just as easily go the other way: since Adam and Eve were co-regents (with equal headship/rulership), it was only after both Eve and Adam had sinned that the earth fell under the dominion of Satan.
  • The original word “helpmeet,” which occurs nineteen times in the Bible, most often refers to someone (God) who is stronger or more powerful (with the rest referring to an equal). In scripture this word never refers to a subordinate. Yet this is not surprising. As we see above, God created Eve from a rib, not from a head or a foot.

The power of Satan is best represented in this world by his system of reward and punishment, his duel system of good and evil (think The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). In this ranking system, addressed by Jesus in Mark 10:42, you are (seemingly) fine until you break the rules, and then your punishment always embodies the threat or act of violence (an act offensive to God).

Hierarchy originated in this Jekyll and Hyde system of contrasted good and evil, where value and freedom depend on one’s success at dominating others or on whether one is naughty or nice (by the arbitrary standard of those in power).

God abhors Satan’s divided hierarchical system because it is totally antithetical to His undivided government of indiscriminate, unconditional, and self-sacrificing (agape) love. God always treats His creatures the same whether they are good or bad. In God’s government mutual submission (relational subordination) is of greatest importance. Jesus lived and died to reveal this.

To pin any sort of hierarchy on God is to insult Him by making Him in the image of Satan’s divided and violent system of iniquity.

Headship theology is new to the Seventh-day Adventist church (late 1980s), co-opted from Calvinists theology. Before this, there was no hint of it in Adventism. Indeed, historical Adventists were teaching just the opposite in order to defend Ellen White.

Mistake #3: Attacking Liberty

Hierarchal errors in ordination strike to the very heart of our liberty in Christ because those who support them seek to force them on everyone against conscience and culture. The spirit of persecution is the biggest clue pointing to who is right in the Seventh-day Adventist gender disagreement. Biblical truth should be defined on the basis of the Bible alone but never forced on everyone by majority vote.

Mistake #4: Attacking Equality In Christ

Not ordaining a pastor, simply on the basis of their gender, is a clear violation of Fundamental Belief #14, “Unity in the Body of Christ.” This Fundamental Belief is based on Galatians 3:28, Joel 2:29, and Revelation 1:6.

Mistake #5: Attacking Ellen White

How are we even having this debate on women in ministry when the most influential clergy person in Adventist history was a woman, forty four times ordained by our church? Ellen White openly declared that God ordained her and, though she was outspoken on many things, she never once reprimanded the church for issuing her ministerial credentials. Indeed, she did just the opposite, declaring often that women and men should be equal in the work:

  • “It is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God.” (Testimonies for the Church Volume 6, p. 322)
  • “Women…should be set apart…by prayer and laying on of hands.” (Review and Herald, July 9, 1895).
  • “When God created Eve, He designed that she should possess neither inferiority nor superiority to the man, but that in all things she should be his equal.” (Testimonies, 3:484).

At its very worst, headship theology is an attack on Ellen White’s ministry because it teaches just the opposite of what our early pioneers were preaching in order to defend Ellen White’s ministry.

Mistake #6: Denial of Purpose Driven Scriptural Interpretation

Sometimes it takes more than a literal interpretation of scripture to understand the truth. Many Seventh-day Adventist doctrines rely on this. Even Jesus sometimes took a purpose-based interpretation of scripture, such as when the Pharisees accused him of commanding people to work (carry their bed) on the Sabbath in violation of the clear scriptural command in Jeremiah 17:21. Sometimes the “plain thus saith the Lord” of headship theology is not so plain.

Mistake #7: Promotion of Other Heads In the Church Besides Christ

There is no suggestion in scripture that any man should be at the head of the church. Yet headship theology insists that this is the case, setting up men in the place of Christ. When we set up men in a hierarchal position over women in the church we are saying in effect that men are between Christ and women. This is incorrect because the Bible and Ellen White are crystal clear that Christ is the only head of the church. The rest of us, men and women, follow His lead in service.

Mistake #8: Insistence On A Hierarchal Order Instead of the Flow of Love

Headship theology teaches a hierarchal order: God is head over Christ—Christ is head over man—man is head over woman. However, such results are obtained by manipulating Paul’s text. He clearly teaches that headship is not about taking power, but about giving life, about the flow of love. 1 Corinthians 11:12 is speaking of origination—the giver of life (servant life giver)—instead: out of God came a man, and out of man came a woman, and out of a woman came man. Headship only indicates the source or direction of flow within the cycle of love. Any other interpretation cannot be squared with the clearest definition of love: mutual submission. Nor can it align with Galatians 3:28.

Mistake #9: Ignorance of the Biblical Symbolism of Marriage

If we are headed toward corporate marriage to Christ, where Christ is the head of us all—the husband to both men and women—and no one will stand between, then we will see the realization of what marriage has always symbolized: a fellowship of all believers, where we are all the bride, focusing on the bridegroom and celebrating each other’s insights, gifts, and differences.

This leaves no room for hierarchy since Paul says that no part of the body is more important than any other part, though it may seem so. Both men and women, though being different parts of the same body, are destined for a deeper experiential revelation of what it means to occupy the same exalted position: the bride of Christ.

God is leading us away from hierarchy, back toward His original plan for marriage. Inspiration lucidly points to men and women jointly occupying a priestly and ministerial role in Christ’s body (Revelation 5:9-10). Clearly stated, God is moving us from the Old Testament male priest system to a priesthood of all believers. It is time to follow marriage to its biblical conclusion and accept each other unconditionally as equal parts of the same body, the body of Christ.

Mistake #10: Misunderstanding the Eternal Equality of the Godhead

By representing women as being created below (subject to or in submission to) men, headship theology misrepresents the relationship of the Trinity by insisting that Christ is eternally in voluntary submission to God the Father. Hierarchy dictates that the woman is eternally submissive to the man, as the man is eternally submissive to Christ, as Christ is eternally submissive to the Father.

Yet this is not the nature of love. By definition, mutual submission is the nature of love, and is the only way love can work. Love cannot work within a hierarchy. The oneness within the Trinity is the fruit of mutual submission. The Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary had this to say about it:

“The interpersonal relationships within the Trinity provide the ultimate model of love and self-sacrifice for us. As such, they do not furnish a model for a top-down governmental structure for human leadership within the Church” (On the Unique Headship of Christ in the Church: A Statement of the Seventh-Day Adventist Theological Seminary).

Finally, those who believe in the eternal submission of Jesus to the Father have a critical problem: If women are to be subjugated by men in perpetuity (as headship theology claims Jesus is to the Father) and thus unqualified for ordination, then doesn’t that preclude the ordination of Jesus as our High Priest?

Mistake #11: Misinterpretation Paul’s Teaching On the Husband of One Wife

This argument is used as a definitive proof that a church leader cannot be a woman. However, as James White noted, “man” and “men” in the Scriptures generally mean both men and women. He ends his argument by saying, “The Book says that it is ‘appointed unto men once to die.’ Don’t women die?”

Paul goes out of his way to make this point too, correcting the Old Testament “he/him/his” to “they/their/those/you” when he quotes it in Romans 3:18, Romans 4:6-7, Romans 10:15, and 2 Corinthian 6:18. See this article for more information.

The bottom line is that we can’t enforce our own opinions in defiance of reason and context. What’s good for the gander is good for the goose.

Mistake #12: Overlooking the Proverbs 31 Woman

Here is a woman that shakes the moorings of headship theology. She is a strong, biblical woman that most overlook. The Proverbs 31 woman is not as subservient as many would have us believe women should be. She ran her household. Not only that, but she was a businesswoman (a merchant), bringing home earnings to expand the family’s fortune.

This woman, that the Bible envisions and idealizes, is a vision of leadership and equality. She holds her own within her family and community.

Mistake #13: Misinterpreting Peter’s Teaching On the Pastor As Overseer

Peter makes it quite clear that women can be ordained to the office of overseer. In 1 Peter 5:2, he says to the local church leader: “Shepherd (poimainō, the same word as “pastor” in Ephesians 4:11) the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers (episkopeō, the same word as “bishop/overseer” in 1 Timothy 3:2).”

The following is, therefore, evident:

  • Both sides of the gender issue agree that all the spiritual gifts are gender inclusive (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4).
  • Both sides acknowledge, as well, that one of the gifts is that of “pastor” (poimēn), as listed in Ephesians 4:11, and therefore all agree that women, as well as men, may be “pastors.”
  • And Peter says that the “pastor” is one and the same position as the “overseer.”
  • Therefore, to concede that a women can receive the spiritual gift of “pastor” is to concede, if we allow all of Scripture to inform us, that a woman can be in the ordained office of “overseer” to a local church.

Mistake # 14: The Continuance of An All Male Priesthood

Though headship theology presses the Old Testament all male priesthood on the New Testament church, there are several reasons why this is unacceptable. Galatians 3:28 clearly announces an end to that old system. Why? Christ’s sacrifice made the entire Old Testament sacerdotal system of priests, temples and sacrifices obsolete.

On top of this, those who argue that the church should have no female priests in alignment with the Old Testament priesthood must also consider that this practice went far beyond gender. There were no priests of other races or even other tribes in Israel either. If this priesthood were still a model we should follow, it would mean all of our “priests” should continue to be from the tribe of Levi.

Yet there is a bigger reason why we must turn from the Old Testament system: in order to embrace the New Testament reality of Christ in us, Jesus once more in human flesh (through the Spirit). If Jesus is a king and a priest and He is going to be perfectly represented in and through us by the power of the Spirit, then all of us will also have to become kings and priests. 1 Peter 2:5 and 1 Peter 2:9 say as much.

This necessarily elevates each member of the body of Christ, regardless of status, race, or gender, to the exalted position of reflecting all that Christ is—including a king and a priest. We are priests through Christ—agents of reconciliation—distributing His completed ministry as our high priest to others. Our prayers of intercession release Christ’s finished work of intercession. His work empowers our prayers—our prayers release His work. He is the Generator. We are the distributors. That is how we are priests—all of us. There can be no hierarchy, inequality, or denigration of women in this reality.

Lastly, Ellen White clearly states “the tithe should go to those who labor in word and doctrine, be they men or women” (1MR 263). In the Old Testament, none other than the male Levite priests could use the tithe. This is pretty convincing evidence that the New Testament priesthood of all believers does allow for women to serve in positions of leadership equivalent to the Old Testament priests.

Mistake #15: Insistence That Women Should Keep Silence

How can any theology argue for the silence of women in a church whose most outspoken founder was a woman? This, really, is enough evidence to shut down this argument.

One of the problems with a hyper-literal reading of scripture is that it takes no account at all of the setting (context) in which the statement was made. The context of Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 2 on women keeping silent is important. It is smack in the middle of Paul’s warning against disorderly worship and speaking in tongues without an interpreter.

In the early church, only men sat in the sanctuary, while the women sat in the periphery. Since women had no opportunity to study formally, they often didn’t understand what was being said. This led women to shout down to their husbands about the meaning of what was being said and their husbands to respond. This caused pandemonium in church. This had nothing to do with a prohibition of women speaking authoritatively in church. Paul was simply practically addressing a church problem. This is the difference a principle-based reading can make in interpretation.

There are also a few time-honored principles of biblical exegesis that make headship theology’s interpretation of women keeping silent in 1 Timothy 2 untenable:

  • We shouldn’t build foundational doctrine on a word that occurs only once in an author’s writings. A definitive, literal translation of a word like “authentein” is impossible.
  • Interpretation needs to be consistent throughout the passage. In other words, the dress code and a women being saved through child bearing can’t be culturally relative and temporary, while the restriction on women’s ministry is universal and permanent.
  • Interpretation shouldn’t contradict the rest of the author’s teaching. Throughout his writings, Paul is supportive of the participation of women in the church, which contradicts the notion that women must be silent.
  • Interpretation shouldn’t contradict other New Testament teaching, especially that of Jesus. Jesus never ever implied that women should have secondary roles.

Finally, if Paul calls for women to be silent and in submission “as even the Law says,” where is this commandment in the Old Testament law? Nowhere. It isn’t there, not in the Pentateuch, or anywhere else for that matter. That simply isn’t what Paul meant.


Collectively these mistakes shine an irrefutable beam of truth on headship theology that will ultimately result in its utter discomfiture.


“You can’t hold back the dawn.”

– Gerald Winslow

* See here for a more in depth look at these issues

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Eric Sayler
    February 23, 2017
    11:21 pm #comment-1

    Excellent analysis of the headship heresy.

  2. Stefan
    February 24, 2017
    8:22 pm #comment-2

    Interesting article but the author’s interpretations of said texts and E. G. White quotes are his own.

    I am more concerned with the individual churches that exhibited a nonconformist attitude PRIOR to any conference decision than I am with ordain or not ordain and gender issue.

    The whole gender issue serves to distract from weightier issues n the church.

    What else can be changed?

    ~Pray /\

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