Umbrella or Safety Net of Protection?

I have a lot of friends who grew up under the concept of the “umbrella of protection” associated with Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles. In their lives, this resulted in an authoritarian family and church structure that was particularly limiting to women. In the last few years, it’s become known that, as often happens in strict religious groups, many young women were sexually abused in families and churches that implemented Gothard’s principles. In fact, Bill Gothard was forced to resign from his organization after allegations of sexual abuse and harassment were put forward in a lawsuit.

Gothard used the phrase umbrella of protection to put forward his version of the Biblical concepts of headship and authority. I actually like the phrase, but I have not wanted to use it because of the associations with his ministry of limiting women’s voices and usefulness in the church and then using women for his own perverted sexual purposes. I haven’t wanted to talk about headship at all the last few years as my concerns grew over the theological backflips complementarian leaders such as Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem took to try to prove a headship that pre-dates the Fall in order to preserve a type of universal female submission/subordination to men.

But then I studied I Corinthians 11, the classic confusing passage on headship, for my upcoming book, Is the Bible Good for Women?, and haven’t been able to get the concept out of my head since. Like most things in the Bible, if we can get past the way a concept or teaching has been misused for private gain or to support biases against a specific group, there is always something life giving in the actual Biblical concept that aids in human flourishing. Headship is no different.

[I wrote on Thomas Jefferson as a case study in what headship was supposed to protect against in I Corinthians 11, particularly the sexual subjugation of captives prevalent in Corinth that was associated with shaved heads of captives or covered heads for protected married women.]

I Corinthians 11 speaks of God as the head of Christ, Christ as the head of the man, and the man as the head of the woman. Whatever headship is supposed to mean between the man and the woman, we can learn from the headship of Christ to His church and from God to Christ. By the way, this is why Eternal Subordination of the Son became so important to the founders of complementarian thought. They couldn’t prove an eternal, functional, categorical subordination of women to men without first proving it between Christ and God. But that ship has sailed, and I am glad to see such teaching fall by the wayside even among strong complementarian proponents.

As I pondered writing this post, I wracked my brain trying to think of the best examples in Scripture of true headship. I read through Deborah’s story in Judges 4-5, but there wasn’t enough between the lines to figure out anything of the personal dynamics of her life. I thought about Phoebe in Romans 16:7. Paul seems to cover her and protect her with his words of introduction and affirmation of her so that she is welcomed and heard by the church at Rome. Could I learn anything about headship from Priscilla? Or maybe Ruth? But then it dawned on me, as I Corinthians 11 indicates, that I should first and foremost look to Jesus!

If you want to read an inspiring case study in headship, read the book of Luke and watch Jesus’ interactions with both the men and the women in its pages (remember that Jesus is the head of all believers, male or female). I could read and reread the account of Jesus and the sinful woman at the end of Luke 7. It is such a helpful look at Jesus’ headship. According to Ephesians 5, He is the example for husbands of love, care, and self-sacrifice for their own wives.

When I look at Luke 7’s story of the sinful woman or John 8’s story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus tweaks my idea of the umbrella of protection. An umbrella stands over you. It covers you from above. But the clear indication in Gothard’s teaching of the concept was that it also limited you. You had to stay UNDER the umbrella, and if you got out from under it, you were in rebellion to authority and likely to get stoned, figuratively or literally like the woman caught in adultery in John 8. The problem in Gothard’s system was how often the ones that would figuratively stone you were the same ones claiming to hold the umbrella of protection.

There is a sense in which Jesus did indeed protect the woman caught in adultery in John 8 from being stoned, acting as a barrier between her and her accusers like an umbrella of protection. But the analogy to an umbrella misses that Jesus then sent her off. “Go, and sin no more,” He said. Rather than an umbrella of protection, I see Jesus as this woman’s safety net that allowed her to get up and go forward after a disastrous fall.

Consider the difference in a net under acrobats at a circus and the netting around an eagle at a zoo. Both limit from danger, right? But one also restricts God-given potential. The netting around an eagle may keep it from being harmed, but it also keeps the eagle from soaring over its territory and finding its own food as it was designed to do. This difference is of utmost importance in how we discuss headship, authority, and protection in Christian circles. Jesus protects us from spiritual harm, but He also sends us out to fulfill our God-given calling.




But do not go in sin. Go, be, and do as God created you to be in perfection and is restoring you now through Jesus Christ. While Jesus’ headship protects, it is also very much a launching pad for great upward mobility, for true human flourishing, though not in the sense of the prosperity gospel.

This is the type of headship Jesus models for us and that husbands should aspire to in their homes. This is the type of headship that Jesus models for us and that women should receive as beneficial, life-giving, and LAUNCHING for God’s purposes in our lives.

I am thankful in my own life to have been in relationship with a number of men in authority over me, particularly my dad and four of my last five pastors, who modeled such Christlike sacrifice and launching for me. Men who instructed me. Men who listened to me. Men who supported me. Men who had my back. Men who saw my giftings and encouraged me to develop them and use them. The limitations I have felt with them were the ones that constrain all of us, those of God’s word to us. But the safety net they provided for me have allowed me to go further and higher than I could have on my own, living out God’s call on my life and using my gifts for His name.

This is a headship that is good for women and, in turn, good for the entire Body of Christ.

23 Responses to Umbrella or Safety Net of Protection?

  1. A J MacDonald Jr October 27, 2016 at 11:19 am #

    One of the big problems I have with the ESV and other modern versions, which depend upon the modern critical Greek text, is that they tell us “the earliest manuscripts do not include John 7:53–8:11”. This leads some Evangelical teachers and preachers, like John Piper, to reject the story of the woman caught in adultery as uninspired.

    Word Magazine # 31: Review: John Piper on the Pericope Adulterae: Part One:

    Word Magazine No. 32: John Piper on the Pericope Adulterae. Part 2: Can we preach from (supposedly) uninspired texts?

  2. Helen Louise Herndon October 27, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

    I find an element missing in the umbrella or safety net of protection theory and perhaps even the male headship leadership. They fail to address singleness. Even with a father being a head, there comes a time when a single woman can make her own decisions as an adult. In following the Lord’s leading in my life, I went to a Christian college–an act at the time my father could not understand nor did he support. Following my graduation (and I think he was proud of my perseverance), he died a week later. Being fatherless and husbandless, I’ve never had a male head other than in the church perhaps as a pastor or in my ministry with a mission. But I never had to go to them as individuals to grant permission for anything in my life.

    • Wendy October 27, 2016 at 8:46 pm #

      That’s why I think it is helpful to think of head as more than authority. Sure, Jesus offered authority, but even He as God wasn’t authoritarian. He wasn’t a control freak. He gave instruction, but He also gave protection that launched others into ministry. And He often launched them with very little specific instruction on what to do.

      There are 3 main relationships of authority — fathers/parents, pastors/elders, and husbands to wives. They all have limits, but there is a lot of helpful input they can offer to even mature older singles. I have received great help from my father and elders when I have been single. My pastors in particular have been great covers over me to protect me in ministry.

    • The Quiet One October 28, 2016 at 9:16 am #

      As another single woman, I have also struggled with the concept. Like Wendy, I have come to the conclusion that the example for how single women should operate in the Church is to be found in how Christ interacted with women, several of whom appear to be single: Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Martha. It is remarkable to me that so much of the church’s written and unwritten rules regarding interacting with women are not seen in Christ’s ministry. For example, Billy Graham’s popular rule so many Christians cite as being protection from adultery, that of a man not ever being alone with a woman who isn’t his wife. Christ did not practice that rule, which was a cultural rule of his day. He interacted one on one with women whose moral reputations were notorious in the culture. He also taught women as equals with men, allowed them to ask him questions, and most of all, gave them the privilege of being key witnesses to his birth, life, death, and resurrection. When I read past and present church leaders’ views on women (Augustine of Hippo, for example), I often feel isolated by their low opinions. When I read Christ’s example, I feel reassured that women, married and single, have equal access to the riches of Christ.

    • Sue M. November 2, 2016 at 10:10 am #

      For all practical purposes, I’m what you might call a “single” married person. My almost 61-year old husband is in long-term care because of frontotemporal degeneration. This is a disease that shares features with Alzheimer’s disease, but is distinct from it. He was placed in long-term care after I cared for him for 3 years at home since his diagnosis. We have no children, since we married later in life and God didn’t bless us with any. At almost 61 and almost 63, our parents are deceased except for my husband’s mother, who is awaiting placement in a memory care unit because of Alzheimer’s.

      I’m not writing this for you to feel sorry for me. Our church family has very good to me and our priests (we are Anglican) have been, too. I love my husband very much. But I can’t submit to him any longer except for small things, like, “Where do you want to go for ice cream?” when I take him for a short outing?

      So who is my spiritual leader(s) now? Our priests?

    • Wendy November 2, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

      Thanks for commenting, Sue. Obviously the classic male heads of husband and father are unavailable to you. So in that sense, you don’t have one. I think pastors/elders or priests can offer similar guidance if you have a situation that you need them to speak into. It sounds like your priests have blessed you during this time.

      Your main example of your husband’s inability to be your head is submitting. But that goes back to a one-dimensional view of headship. I will point out your loss of someone you can call on when you need, someone who has your back. Of course many women have lost this type of person in their lives and have to cultivate independence to function.

  3. Linda George October 27, 2016 at 3:47 pm #

    I have read two of your articles now, this and the one on the permanent change to Genesis 3:16. It’s beginning to dawn on me that when man(kind) tries to save, it always goes wrong. In the small bible college I attended in New Zealand, Christian Psychology was a required course for Pastoral Counseling. Time and again the teacher said that he had one thing to teach us and if we remembered it, we would do well. That teaching is that there is a God, and that he is nether you nor me. Something I have come to appreciate and even share, especially in the Bible study I attend at the moment. I think it was CS Lewis who said it was a hard thing to be called to be a missionary in your own church. The gap between laity and clergy is still there, but someone it’s the laity who know more than the clergy!

    • Wendy October 27, 2016 at 8:47 pm #

      Welcome to the blog, Linda, and thanks for commenting!

    • Anita October 31, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

      Linda, do you remember what C.S. Lewis work includes this thinking? I have struggle with circumstances of being a missionary to my church and would love to read more on the topic.

    • Linda George October 31, 2016 at 4:05 pm #

      Anita, it was a book of quotes. Rather a thick book, but it was divided into topics. It might be under Church or Missions. I hope that helps.

      When I studied pastoral counseling (which I failed because God did not allow me to do my internship, but that’s okay because there is grace for failed councillors!) we did counseling in the local church as a subject. The teacher talked about how we operated in our own churches and he said I just “flew under the radar”. Which I did.

      Over years I lived in New Zealand, I occasionally conducted worship services in two local nursing homes. Those ladies who came to support by singing were able to get a glimpse of the gospel of grace as I gave a short message. The last time I took a service, a few of the singers were angry that so few of the patients in the cottage hospital were brought out. But I noticed one of the kitchen staff hiding by the door (we were the dining room), listening. We never know who Good has brought along, do we.

      In the end I had to leave that church – the minister said he would preach on healing until we all got it! I got it right there and then and voted with my feet, as they say in Australia. My husband left the next week. We desperately needed the means of grace, preaching-wise.

      In this new church back in Australia, one of the bible study ladies heard me speak from a strong reformed point of view and invited us to an evening bible study.

      It’s a hard place be, Anita, and you need allies! Do you have like-minded friends? Pray that the Will provide for you that area. Oir bible study leader peaches every six weeks in another church and he is preaching from Romans, hoping they will get it!

      All we can do is say what we believe the bible says. A few weeks ago I was saddened to hear one lady say that the minister’s preach should have healed someone emotionally. Then last week I heard the leader mention God’s grace twice! Because I always bring my statements back grace, I think they are finally getting it. One of the young mothers thanked us older ladies for the “meat” we were able to provide!

      May I encourage you to be “winsome” and have that gentle heart that God desires of you. You choose to be winsome because He softens your heart! Myself, I’m a tough Aussie sheila who’s heart the Lord has broken by the death of my father recently. I cry at small things, but it’s good to be compassionate, as the Lord has compassion on us.

      In the end, it is the grace of God working in us which will strengthen us. He has done everything for our salvation, even giving us our faith to begin with! So keep looking to Him, as it is His work through you that the enemy wants to stifle.

      I hope that encourages you for the day, I’m off to see what I can google for you…

    • Linda George October 31, 2016 at 5:00 pm #

      It would seem that quoting anyone or anything from a book without it’s context is a dangerous thing! I downloaded a PDF about CS Lewis that gives insight into being an evangelist in his own church, in the context that he kept more people IN churches rather than added to the number already there. (Although he did both.) I am going to print it up and read it myself. Nine pages, double columns, PDF. Not too hard to read.

      This is the link

      Let me know if it doesn’t work.

      There will be other articles out there… I googled “where does cs lewis talk about being a missionary to his own church?”

  4. Jenn October 27, 2016 at 10:28 pm #

    Hello Wendy,
    I am wondering where you even get the idea in the first place of a woman needing to have the covering of protection or authority of any man. I do not find this concept anywhere in the Bible. Jesus is the only authority a woman needs. I can see the exception of A husband if you are complementarian which I am not. But otherwise there is no mention of any special coverings over a single women that are different if there were coverings for man whether it’s an elder or a parent. A man if you believe they need. protection or the need for Authority would also have parents or elders for those positions.

    • Wendy October 27, 2016 at 10:45 pm #

      Paul says in I Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 that husbands are heads of their wife and man of woman. This is an attempt to work out practically what this means. It means something.

    • Patriciamc November 6, 2016 at 8:55 pm #

      Hey Jenn. I’m right there with you. No, I don’t think women have a need for any type of authority over them other than Christ. As someone who thinks that you have to go through Christ to get to Paul and therefore have to reconcile Paul’s teachings with Christ, I see “head” in Ephesians as servant, not authority, so the Ephesian verses on submission/headship are actually Paul giving an example of how to live out Christ’s teaching to love one another. Theologian Gilbert Bilezikian has some great articles that go more into “head” and its use in the Bible.

  5. Chris October 28, 2016 at 5:04 am #

    If you’re looking for examples of how headship works in Christ you’re probably looking in the wrong place if you look at his interactions with women. The analogy is husband/wife to Christ/church, not individual man/ individual woman and Christ/woman.
    Many orthodox woman quite rightly are upset when a complementarian approach is used to suggest that a woman is subordinate to men generally, rather than to submit to HER husband alone. I believe you’d be one of them. So, you can’t then look at Christ’s interaction with individual women as a guide here. He was not their husband except in the sense that He was the head of the church of which (presumably,we don’t know necessarily) they were, and are, a part. As such He is an example of how men should treat women, perhaps how Elders should minister to women, but not, directly, how ‘the Head’ relates to ‘the body’ (both church and wife are likened to the body of Christ and husbands respectively).
    So you can’t have it both ways. However, I do believe it is fruitful to expand Christ’s relationship to His church which, as Head, does indeed encompass much more than authority. But it does also definitely include authority, and rule, and a ‘fencing in’ if you like in a loving way and for the benefit of His body, the church. The Shorter Catechism talks of Christ ‘…subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us.’ I ,for one, as a member of that body am very glad of it!

    • Wendy October 28, 2016 at 7:14 am #

      Of course Christ’s interactions with women are an example of headship. You argue yourself right out of this point with your last paragraph. Christ is the head of the Church. Women are part of the Church. So Christ has headship in my life.

  6. Chris October 28, 2016 at 8:52 am #

    No, you misunderstand. The church is the body and Christ is head of all of it, as a whole entity. Your view is far too individualistic. The church is one entity, of which Christ is the head, but it is made up of individuals. We have an individual identity and also a shared corporate identity. Not ‘I have a corporate identity that I share with other individuals’ but ‘the corporate body I belong to has its own identity’. But when Paul speaks of Christ’s headship he is speaking of Christ’s headship of the whole entity i.e. the church, His body. Which is why he then goes on in Ephesians 5 to relate it to the union of men and women in marriage i.e. another corporate union and identity. This is the context and if you don’t appreciate how individuals can be both individuals and part of a corporate union that has it’s own identity, you’ll never understand headship, the church or even what union with Christ means fully. I’d suggest you’d be missing something fundamental about the Trinity for that matter.
    Paul is not saying that Christ exercises His headship one-on-one but that His headship is of the whole body (corporate). You are approaching this thinking Paul is saying how a husband (individual) should act towards his wife (individual). But he is talking about how men and women relate to each other as part of a corporate union, ‘one flesh’. Which is why he uses the analogy of Christ and His church, and not Christ and another woman (if you say, well, woman are part of the church and therefore we see how Christ is head of women when he interacts with women, men are also part of the body and how Christ exercises headship would look the same for them! But those examples don’t seem to be found relevant by you). The ‘great mystery’ that Paul is talking about is how man and woman can form ‘one flesh’ AND how Christ and His church can be one body – ‘I am talking about Christ and the church’.

    So, not so much ‘Christ has headship in my life’; more Christ has headship in OUR lives.

    And by the way, ‘umbrella’ and ‘safety net’ are both equally rotten analogies for how headship should be exercised, in my view!

    • The Quiet One October 28, 2016 at 10:07 am #

      In the Ephesians 5 passage, it says that Christ is the saviour of the body, i.e. corporately; yet he is also the saviour of the individual. So, it is no great leap of logic to say that Christ is our head both individually and corporately. In fact, I Corinthians 11 states this to be the case, “the head of every man [i.e. individually] is Christ.” The word ‘man’ there is in the generic use, signaling any human being, male or female, who believes in Christ. In the words of John Chrysostom, one of the earliest commentators on this passage:
      ‘“The head of every man is Christ.” Is He then Head of the Gentile also? In no wise. For if “we are the Body of Christ, and severally members thereof,” (c. xii. 27.) and in this way He is our head, He cannot be the head of them who are not in the Body and rank not among the members. So that when he says, “of every man,” one must understand it of the believer.’

    • Chris October 28, 2016 at 2:22 pm #

      Generic man?

      Disputed…to say the least!

  7. The Quiet One October 28, 2016 at 9:53 am #

    Wendy, I’m another who grew up under the umbrella teaching. It seems so ridiculously inadequate an analogy now for what both my parents (who, thankfully, never fully agreed with Gothard) were to me. I suppose any analogy is inadequate to fully represent a real relationship. I often ponder the meaning of headship verses, since the legacy of authoritarian religion as taught by Gothard still bewilders me sometimes. One thing that stands out to me clearly is that the description of Christ’s headship in Ephesians 5 primarily involves his sacrifice for the Church, “he is the saviour of the body”. A former pastor emphasized that the role of husband as head was one that called for a greater burden of self sacrifice on the man’s part, not a demand to one’s wife that she submit. I think, fleshly humanity being what it is, that men, not unnaturally, struggle with the idea of giving without receiving in return, and that is why so many church elders have failed to fully embrace the idea of self sacrifice and have become, as Paul warned against, bitter against their wives (or, in Augustine’s case, the woman – a former paramour who also became a Christian – who should have been his wife), which poisoned their teaching and writing.

    That being said, I Corinthians 11 clearly calls for wives who pray or prophesy in the gathering to carry a sign of their husband’s headship. In the modern day West, the wedding ring could well be an equivalent to the head covering, which in other cultures signals that a woman is married. So, there is some responsibility to the wife to ensure that what she does is all right with her husband, which is as it should be. As John Chrysostom said in his homily on this passage, ” For what if the wife be under subjection to us? it is as a wife, as free, as equal in honor…For with us indeed the woman is reasonably subjected to the man: since equality of honor causeth contention.” In other words, the man and his wife are equals, but they cannot always both be striving to be first in everything. One gives way, freely and voluntarily, to the other.

    • The Quiet One October 28, 2016 at 9:57 am #

      P.S. Due to an absent mind, I’ve used another of my screen names associated with my avatar, but I normally identify myself here as The Music Student. My desire for anonymity is not due to any malicious purposes, but rather to lessen the risk of being hunted down by internet trolls and hounded.

  8. Doug October 29, 2016 at 1:52 am #

    The focus on authority is what obscures the meaning of headship. Others have suggested “source origin” as a better concept. It has to do with marriage. As Christ was begotten of the Father, so Eve was sourced or originated from Adam. It is the same with all husbands and wives. The concept is anatomical, body love — “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.” It has much to do with words. Thus, a husband’s headship is best expressed by selflessly romancing his wife. Consequently, a husband’s failure in the area of headship will be evidenced by a wife’s dwindling sexual desire. A husband should be inspiring his wife to greatness as you described.

    • Wendy October 29, 2016 at 10:36 am #

      I understand the emphasis on source rather than authority, but that idea doesn’t work with God as the source of Christ. Then you get into serious Trinity errors, including the problems with ESS that have been well dissected the last few months. I think headship definitely has an aspect of authority, but our problem has been that folks lord authority over others exactly as Jesus warned against. The answer isn’t to downplay authority but to reclaim authority in the image of Christ.