Headship Matters

What the Bible does—and doesn’t—say about male headship

Laurel Damsteegt
Headship Matters

From time to time a “godly” leader falls, someone you had really appreciated, trusted, and been blessed by. Somehow it is far worse than if someone with no profession of spirituality had done the same deed. A righteous anger wells up within that can embitter and disillusion you and irreparably sour your outlook on the church.

Unfortunately, misinterpretation of Scripture has often excused the dark shadow of secretive crimes including rape, beatings and other forms of physical and verbal abuse, child abuse, subjugation of women, slavery and more. Throughout history, such crimes have been done in the name of God, then hidden behind a cloak of piety. If discovered, rather than sincerely confessing and forsaking the sin, perpetrators are moved to another district (often to repeat their sins).

Such abominations give God’s beautiful ideal of righteous leaders a bad reputation. No wonder the term “headship” is so despised by some! But such wickedness cannot in any way be linked to God’s ideal. Headship, understood in its true, pure, biblical sense, actually is a blessing—something God intended for our fulfillment and happiness.

How Do We Interpret Scripture?

As Seventh-day Adventists, “the people of the Book,” we accept the whole Bible as the inspired, authoritative Word of God, transcending time and culture.

In 1986, the world church voted a document, “Methods of Bible Study,” which outlines how Seventh-day Adventists are to interpret Scripture. It affirms, “The Bible is the Word of God and is the primary and authoritative means by which He reveals Himself to human beings.” It further states, “Although it was given to those who lived in an ancient Near Eastern/Mediterranean context, the Bible transcends its cultural backgrounds to serve as God’s Word for all cultural, racial, and situational contexts in all ages.”2

Headship, understood in its true, pure, biblical sense, actually is a blessing.

Therefore, we cannot ignore or dismiss parts or fictionalize scenarios about cultures of which we know little in order to rid the Bible of portions we don’t like or understand. Furthermore, although some certainly misinterpret the Bible for their own ends, that does not negate the Bible’s teachings and its Spirit-led application.

Let us get the broader picture of what the Bible says about male/female relationships by starting at the beginning.

In the Image of God (Gen 1:26, 27)

When God formed Adam from the dust of the earth, He designed different organ systems for specific purposes. He formed the head with the brain’s frontal lobe to be the governing authority of the whole body, the seat of moral decisions; the temporal lobe would house the memory and emotions. God created the brain as the undisputed master of all organs, yet a brain with no heart, lungs, or kidneys will die with the rest of the body. One can never ask which is the most important organ.

All body systems are interrelated. Every part of the body adds to life. God’s design does not compete but complement. Systems of the body are not jealous of each other’s functions (see 1 Cor 12:12-26). In fact, Scripture uses the brain’s authority over the body, (“the head”), as an analogy throughout Scripture for governing power.

While God designed Adam first, preeminent, the monarch of the world,3 God understood his singularity and said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Gen 2:184). 

Once more the Creator fashioned a spectacular human. This time God would use pre-existing matter, a transplanted rib from Adam (Gen 2:21, 22; 1 Cor 11:12). A rib—not brain, nor skull; not a toe. A rib is part of the protective structure for the delicate organs within, symbolizing the shield and protection Adam was to be to his wife.

Eve was beautiful in every way, complementing Adam’s every desire and need. Together they would satisfy each other while populating the earth. Eve was Adam’s love, his fulfillment, his helper (‘ezer) indeed. 

Man and woman were created equal in worth (sometimes called ontological equality) and are not interchangeable. Both male and female are necessary to family. God created man and woman to be complementary, not clones. This is basic to God’s design and architecture for family and government.  

While all living beings have nervous systems and brains, God made the human brain unique; humans may choose rather than being ruled by instinct. 

“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them . . . and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion . . . over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen 1:27, 28). 

Functional Differences

Understanding the functional difference between male and female enables us to understand a small picture of God. He is One but plural (see John 10:30; also, “Let Us make man.” [Gen 1:26]). Though One, God is three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). 

But far from being identical, Each functions differently. God is Father and Supreme. Jesus is God the Son, who is “subject to Him who put all things under Him” (1 Cor 15:28) and was the active Agent in creation and redemption (Heb 1:2-3). God the Holy Spirit is Comforter, Teacher, and Helper interacting personally with individuals (John 14:26). All three Persons are equal, yet One.6

Paul is not saying that all women should submit to all men. Nor is he saying wives are “subjugated” or “subservient” to their husbands—or to anyone else for that matter.

With Adam’s family, he was head over the woman in a way similar to how God the Father is head of Christ. “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3, emphasis supplied). While Eve was bone of his bones, and flesh of his flesh (Gen 2:23), her cherished head was Adam. Together they were one. Just as Jesus is equal to but voluntarily submits to the Father, Paul explains that woman is equal, but called to submit willingly to her husband in the family (Eph 5:22, Col 3:18, 1 Pet 3:1). Ellen White affirms, “The relationship existing in the pure family of God in heaven was to exist in the family of God on earth. Under God, Adam was to stand at the head of the earthly family, to maintain the principles of the heavenly family. This would have brought peace and happiness.”7

It was God’s intent that Adam would lead kindly, gently, carefully, wisely. It was His plan that Eve would happily, joyfully live under Adam’s care forever. 

The Fall (Gen 3) 

Even before Eve was created, Adam as leader was warned, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). One of Adam’s functions as head of their family was protector. In a safe place like Eden with no malicious animals or violence, what was there to protect from? It turns out that the most dangerous, venomous serpent lurked in that forbidden tree. (God always knows what He is talking about!) It was Adam’s duty to protect his wife.

Later, angels also cautioned Eve “to beware of separating herself from her husband while occupied in their daily labor in the garden; with him she would be in less danger from temptation than if she were alone.” 8

But Adam was negligent. Eve wandered, taking the lead in choosing to sin; God’s beautiful plan failed because the first family disobeyed, succumbing to the serpent’s enticements.

Power of Choice, the Noble Difference 

In reality, every response to temptation implicitly submits either to God or Satan. God created humans with the power of choice;9 our decisions maintain our individuality. While others may influence, an individual is alone responsible for choice. 

God created man and woman in the image of God. Each was forever to have individuality,10 to have a conscience, to have the power of choice—power to join together in righteousness, or to pull away if the other chooses evil. Human beings have a conscience the Holy Spirit can impress, teach, and guide. 

Adam didn’t have to follow Eve’s disobedience. With his God-given power of choice, he could choose to obey God or to follow his wife, who had fallen to the serpent’s temptation.11 When one partner in a relationship goes bad, the other still has the power to choose God’s way. 

Biblical Headship vs. “Controlship”

As noted earlier, the biblical teaching of headship is sometimes distorted to justify horrendous crimes, such as rape or child abuse. Rape is the ultimate example of asserting personal desire over the other’s refusal, which is a total disregard of individual choice. True biblical headship does not allow for marital rape. 

There is a difference between headship and “controlship,” where one party attempts to control another party. There is never an excuse for force. 

When leadership is wise and affirming, it is almost transparent. True leadership encourages, loves, and listens.

Similarly, children within the home should never be forced to do something wrong (Eph 6:1). Jesus condemned in the strongest terms the violation of a child. He said it would be better for the offender to be drowned with a millstone around the neck (Matt 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2). Jesus left no room for such horrific offenses. Parents are to be their children’s protectors and guides.

Noble Womanhood

God never requires His people to submit to wickedness if one in authority goes bad. In 1 Samuel 25 we learn that kind Abigail did not stand idly by when her despicable husband refused help to David and his men. “Without consulting her husband or telling him of her intention,”12 she swiftly made arrangements for a caravan’s worth of provisions to deliver to the angry men. She went against her evil husband’s decision not to help. While seeming to be the ultimate in insubordination, she demonstrates the noble power of choice that God grants every couple. “One flesh” never means we support evil. 

Notice how God tells us to submit. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her. . . . So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church” (Eph 5:22-25, 28-29).

Note the importance of the context and what words mean. Paul is not saying that all women should submit to all men. Nor is he saying wives are “subjugated” or “subservient” to their husbands—or to anyone else for that matter. Subservient means to “obey others unquestioningly.”13 To be subjugated is to be brought “under complete control or subjection.”14 Here is no room for individuality! Such force is unbiblical and is definitely not what the text is saying. 

To “submit” means to “defer to another’s judgment” or “yield,”15 to “stop trying to fight.”16 If two cannot reach agreement, as sometimes happens, the biblical way is for the wife to “submit.” Ellen White advised, “We women must remember that God has placed us subject to the husband. He is the head and our judgment and views and reasonings must agree with his if possible. If not, the preference in God’s Word is given to the husband where it is not a matter of conscience. We must yield to the head.”17 

“Submitting” is what Jesus meant when He encouraged meekness (Matt 5:3, 5). When we submit to one another (Eph 5:21,1 Pet 5:5), then wives submit to husbands (Eph 5:22, Col 3:18), children to parents (Eph 6:1-3), and young people to those older (1 Pet 5:5). We all submit to governing authorities (Rom 13:1, 1 Pet 2:13), and we most of all submit to God and obey Him in order to resist the devil (James 4:7). 

But the Bible limits submission. Ephesians 5:22 says: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” This phrase demands every woman use her free choice, if what her husband requires is against the will of God. She must then not submit. She must still maintain her individuality. Like Abigail, who by disobeying her husband actually obeyed God’s will, every individual may choose God and His will over the will of any other head of family or state. 

There may be terrible consequences to such a stand. Evil husbands can become violent; governments may persecute. 

God’s Way

One flesh does not mean a merging of two God-given individualities. We must always heed Jesus, who not only created us, but purchased us. “For you were bought at a price, therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor 6:20). Neither man nor woman should submit to anything God forbids. 

However, just because God’s perfect government of a righteous man leading a godly woman in the family is thwarted doesn’t mean it is a bad plan or that God’s leadership ideal becomes obsolete. There are righteous men and evil men, and the same for women. That’s why Paul emphasizes that a good husband is to be like Christ Himself in selflessness and sacrifice (Eph 5:23-26).

The gifts of the Spirit that are given to bless the church do not supersede role distinctions God established at creation.

Ellen White counsels: “Before giving her hand in marriage, every woman should inquire whether he with whom she is about to unite her destiny is worthy. . . . Can she find true peace and joy in his affection? Will she be allowed to preserve her individuality, or must her judgment and conscience be surrendered to the control of her husband? . . . Can she honor the Saviour’s claims as supreme? Will body and soul, thoughts and purposes, be preserved pure and holy? These questions have a vital bearing upon the well-being of every woman who enters the marriage relation.” 18

God’s Family Structure and Church Leadership 

Because leaders can and do go wrong, Paul advocates that we pray and intercede for all in authority, “For kings, and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Tim 2:1, 2). 

It is still God’s plan for a godly elder to be a man having one wife and who rules his family well (1 Tim 3:2-4, Titus 1:6-9); “for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim 3:5). 

When leadership is wise and affirming, it is almost transparent. True leadership encourages, loves, and listens. Submission then is easy because two wills go the same way. Like the New Covenant experience,19 obedience is easy because your will is the same as the leader’s will—you would want to do it that way anyway. 

Women of Influence

While Paul encourages godly male leadership for all churches,20 women during Jesus’ time and in the early church exemplified godly submission. It did not mean that they surrendered the fledgling church to men, but that they worked along with God’s leaders to build the church of God together. 

Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening; Mary was also privileged to be the first to share with the disciples that Jesus had risen; Martha organized and cooked with genuine hospitality; Dorcas generously served the poor; Priscilla and Aquila gave Bible studies; Lydia, a wealthy merchant, met with believers by the river and served the church with her all, including her wealth. 

Among Bible mothers, Jochebed in her slave quarters reared Moses, and Mary in lowly perverse Nazareth taught Jesus. Think of the influence throughout history of those two women! 

All these Bible women were highly influential.

There are so many ways for women to serve the Lord without becoming an ordained leader. While speaking at the 1901 General Conference Session, Ellen White noted women’s important work: “I have wondered why our people, those who are not ordained ministers, but who have a connection with God, who understand the Scriptures, do not open the Word to others. If they would engage in this work, great blessing would come to their own souls. God wants His people to work. To every man—and that means every woman, also—He has given His work, and this work each one is to perform according to his several ability.”21

Spirit’s Call 

The Spirit who calls men and women to their tasks of ministry is the same Spirit who instructed that the qualifications of elder or overseer (minister) should include being a male (Greek anēr, 1 Tim 3:2) of one wife (gynē, see also Titus 1:6). The Holy Spirit does not instruct one way in the Word, then impress persons contrary to that instruction.

“The Spirit was not given—nor can it ever be bestowed—to supersede the Bible; for the Scriptures explicitly state that the word of God is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested. Says the apostle John, ‘Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.’ 1 John 4:1. And Isaiah declares, ‘To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.’ Isaiah 8:20.”22

The Holy Spirit’s gifts are not restricted to any gender. But the gifts of the Spirit that are given to bless the church do not supersede role distinctions God established at creation, namely, that males should exercise God-honoring leadership in both the home and church families. We cannot improve upon God’s plan, for Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).

Laurel Damsteegt, M.Div., M.S.P.H. lives in Tennessee. She and her husband conduct Great Controversy Tours to Europe.

  1. For more on hermeneutics and headship, see Edwin Reynolds, “Biblical Hermeneutics and Headship in First Corinthians.” <>
  2.  This document on hermeneutics is the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s official “Methods of Bible Study” document voted at the Annual Council held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 12, 1986, and can be found here: . For more on Ellen White and Hermeneutics, see P. G. Damsteegt, “Ellen White on Biblical Hermeneutics,” <> .
  3.  Ellen G. White, Confrontation, p. 16. Note, “monarch” by definition is “a sole and absolute ruler” (,, accessed May 6, 2022).  
  4.  Bible texts are quoted from the New King James Version.
  5.  “The Lord has constituted the husband as head of the wife to be her protector.” White, The Adventist Home, p. 215. See also Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 46. 
  6.   For more, see John W. Peters, “Restoration of the image of God: Headship and Submission”; 
  7.  White, The Review and Herald, January 16, 1913, par. 4.
  8. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 53.
  9.  Choice is also referred to as power of decision or will. White, Education, p. 289.
  10.  On rights of the individual, see White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 56. 
  11.  For more on Adam’s temptation, see White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 56.
  12.  White, Daughters of God, p. 42.
  13.   Urban Dictionary,  (accessed May 5, 2022).
  14.,  (accessed May 5, 2022).
  15.,  (accessed May 5, 2022).
  16.,  (accessed May 5, 2022).
  17.  White, Manuscript Releases, vol 6, p. 126.
  18. White, The Adventist Home, p. 47.
  19. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 668.
  20.  Paul’s letters were not meant only for the person or church being addressed, but were to be embraced by all the churches for which he felt responsible (see for example, 1 Cor 11:16; 1 Cor 14:33; Col 4:16; 1 Tim 3:15). 
  21. White, The General Conference Bulletin, April 22, 1901. Also, see Daughters of God, pp. 15-20; 102-104; 133-140, and Laurel Damsteegt, “Women of the Old Testament: Women of Influence.” 
  22. White, The Great Controversy, p. vii. See also The Great Controversy, pp. 593-598.

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Laurel Damsteegt