Local Assembly Basics – “Headship” (Part 5 of 8)

Local Assembly Basics

5. The Local Assembly Displays Divine Order

We take our leave of the subject of “lordship” to look now at “headship”. These two topics – both of which significantly impact assembly life and testimony – need to be carefully distinguished. Lordship has to do with rule; headship with role. Lordship emphasises supremacy and sovereignty; headship emphasises function and office. Lordship means that God has absolute rights over men and women equally; headship that He has different roles for men and women administratively.

The Bible says that God is the head of Christ, but never “God is the Lord of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3). Why? – because, though Christ is administratively subject to God as to His role and function, He remains essentially equal to God in His nature and being. Similarly, men and women are essentially equal, but have different roles in divine order – man as head, woman as helper. So, though the man is the head of the woman, he is not the woman’s lord. Headship is not the power of a superior over an inferior. To be someone’s head is to be in a position of authority over them and of responsibility for them, though they may be your equal essentially.

Properly understood, Satan’s first attack in the Bible – in Eden – was an attack on the order of headship. Yes, Satan wanted our first parents to rebel and disobey their Creator: but the way in which he went about it showed he was also intent on undermining and overturning divine order in the process. He approached the woman, Eve, and lured her into taking the lead in the first transgression (Gen 3:1, 1 Tim 2:14). In the words of J Allen, “…Eve stepped out of her place; in so doing she overturned a divine order and Adam, with eyes open, accepted her leadership with disastrous results. Both thus violated their God given status; Eve by an assumption of authority or dominion she did not rightly possess, and Adam, in a renunciation of authority he had no right to make”.1

For His own glory, for the preservation of His people and for the eye of angels (1 Cor 11:10), God desires Eden’s chaos to be reversed in the local assembly, as divine order is accepted and acknowledged – both literally and symbolically.

Literal Acknowledgment

Headship is demonstrated in the local assembly as men take responsibility in leadership and participation as head, while sisters submit to that lead in their role as helper. In 1 Tim 2 Paul speaks to the issue of authority and male headship, stating “I will therefore that the men [the males] pray in every place” (v8, JND), and then outlines the numerous ways in which sisters, as helpers, fulfil their role alongside the brothers; by their godly dress and deportment; by their good works; by their submissive silence and by their godly faithful role in the home. So, in the local assembly, the glory of men as head is seen in their speaking and leading, while the glory of women is seen in these aspects of their role as helpers.

In our day of egalitarianism and feminism it is vital to understand the reason why women are not allowed “to teach nor to exercise authority over man” (1 Tim 2:12, JND). It is not because they are inferior, nor is it a punishment for being deceived in the garden of Eden. Adam’s guilt in Eden was actually greater than Eve’s, due to his status as head. It is simply because of the order of headship in creation. “Adam was first formed, then Eve” (v13). In other words, the original plan and design of God, before sin entered into the world, was that Adam should take the lead as head, while Eve fulfilled the role of helper.2 And, argues Paul, what went wrong in Eden, on both Adam and Eve’s part, is to be corrected in the assembly. Men are not to sit passively and silently, never praying or participating in any way; and women are not to speak out on their own, because public prayer and preaching are both representative acts of leadership, not becoming of their role in the order of headship.

Symbolic Acknowledgment

Headship is also to be demonstrated symbolically. How? – by men having uncovered heads and women wearing head coverings in assembly gatherings. As a woman puts on a head covering she is saying, “I am here to help, but I am under authority”. Likewise, a brother with an uncovered head is saying, “I am here to take my role of godly responsible leadership in participation and teaching.” Notice that 1 Cor 11:10 calls a head covering a “symbol of authority”. A.T. Robertson explains: “The veil on the woman’s head is the symbol of the authority that the man with the uncovered head has over her”.3 So, if a sister refuses to wear a head covering she is saying, “I reject the authority of man”. Effectively she is saying “I want to be the man”. Thus she dishonours man – her head – and rejects her role in God’s order. Likewise if a man puts a head covering on, he takes the place of a woman and dishonours his head – Christ – by refusing to take his proper place in the order of headship.

1 Cor 11:7 says man is “the image and glory of God”. The way the words ‘image’ and ‘glory’ are joined here by ‘and’, means this phrase can be translated “man is the majestic image of God”. That is, in Eden man’s function was to represent God as His vice-regent on earth. Eve, his wife, fulfilled a supporting role. She was created “for the man”. However, note that, when describing the woman, Paul simply says she is “the glory of the man”, not his image. Why? – because while man represents God, the woman does not represent man – she complements man. She is the “glory of man” in the same sense that the Eiffel Tower is “the glory of Paris” – it enhances Paris and adds to its majesty and renown. In the case of a husband and wife we read in Prov 12:4, “A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband”. So, in the assembly, as the sisters – married and single – cover their heads and give submissive help, support and service, they function in their God-given role as “the glory of the man”. Stephen Hulshizer helpfully summarises the teaching: “The man demonstrates, by his uncovered head…that he…is to lovingly lead in willing submission to his spiritual head, Christ. The woman demonstrates, but her covered head…that she willingly submits to his spiritual leadership”.4

Gender distinction

Even when the assembly is not gathered, there is a natural every day way in which God’s order of headship for men and women is to be displayed – by short hair on men and long hair on women (1 Cor 11:14-15). J.N. Darby helpfully states, “…a woman’s [long] hair, her glory and ornament, showed, in contrast with the hair of man, that she was not made to present herself with the boldness of man before all. Given as a [natural] veil, her hair showed that modesty, submission…was her true position, her distinctive glory”.5

The two subjects of hair length and head coverings are closely connected in 1 Corinthians 11. J Hunter explains: “In v5 the refusal to wear a covering is assumed (in the sight of God) to be equivalent to having no covering of any kind…If the long hair and the covered head of the woman set forth her recognition of the headship of the man, then the uncovered head and the cut or shorn hair declare her insubjection to the man.”6 The Bible teaches that if a woman refuses to wear the spiritual sign (the head covering), she might as well take off the natural sign as well (her long hair), because the head covering is, in the assembly, what the long hair is in nature – a sign of submission. And these two signs of submission complement each other; the woman’s long hair is given to her as a natural covering “answering to” (v15) her spiritual head covering or veil. Thus if a woman deliberately has short hair, she is being insubmissive. She is refusing to take her place in divine order by looking like a man. And, vice versa for a man who has long hair – “it is a shame unto him” (v14).

May the Lord help us to understand this vital subject and, in both the literal and symbolic acknowledgement of headship, joyfully and intelligently take up our God-given roles in accordance with revealed Scripture.

Michael J. Penfold

  1. J. Allen, What the Bible Teaches, 1 Timothy (Kilmarnock, John Ritchie Ltd. 1983), p. 208
  2. Gen 2:18-25, 1 Cor 11:10-16, 14:34-35, 1 Tim 5:8-15
  3. A.T. Robertson, New Testament Word Pictures, comments on 1 Cor 11:10
  4. S. Hulshizer, The Truth of Headship (York, PA, USA, Spread the Word 1992), p. 39
  5. J.N. Darby, Synopsis, Vol 4 (Winschoten, Netherlands, H.L. Heijkoop 1970), p. 232
  6. J. Hunter, What the Bible Teaches, 1 Corinthians (Kilmarnock, John Ritchie Ltd. 1986), p. 122-123