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.