The Head of Household in the Bible

For context about why this post was written, read this.

What is a household?

In the Bible, “house” or “household” is referred to almost 2000 times. In Hebrew it is the word “beth” (as in Bethlehem, Bethel, etc.) and in Greek it is the word “oikos” (economy, ecology, etc.). The phrase “head of household” does not occur anywhere in the Bible.

Neither the Hebrew nor the Greek word “household” ever refers to the nuclear family (one husband, his wife, and children). They are used in reference to

  • a tribe,
  • group of tribes,
  • a nation,
  • or a generational family (father, children, grandchildren, and unborn descendants).

It is also used to refer to a place of worship (tabernacle, temple, etc.). When used in the context of a family, a household always included possessions, i.e. human slaves and livestock.

Some people wish to carry on the system of household organization into the modern church citing the Philippian jailer being baptized with his family as an example of male headship in a nuclear family. However, they seem to miss the part in the same chapter where a wealthy woman is baptized with her household earlier in the same chapter. Although there is no mention of Lydia having male relatives, there is nothing in the chapter to indicate she was a widow.

So, in Acts 16, a woman is baptized with her household and a man was baptized with his household. I do not see any basis for male-only heads of household meetings. If anything, that would be the basis for patriarchal-matriarchal meetings where the oldest or most respected member of the family attends the meetings and all the younger members of the family, married or not, do not attend.

 

Households in the Church

So, what does this all mean for the modern Church? If we were to hold head of household meetings in the biblical or ancient sense, then only the oldest male or female of the extended family or clan could attend. Married sons whose fathers or mothers were still alive could not attend.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:26-29

Paul says this in order to break apart the Old Testament model of household so that we each go to Christ directly.

A slave is not part of his master’s household when he is at church. He is an equal heir to the Kingdom of Heaven, part of the Body and Bride of Christ, and a brother in the household of Christ.

There is no more circumcision anymore. There is no more representation by circumcision or heads of household anymore. We are each individually baptized into the Body of Christ.

Women no longer go to God through their husbands and fathers. And men no longer go to God through the priests. On Sundays, Christ invites us into Heaven, into the Holy of Holies. He is the High Priest and we are each priests under Him.

And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth, to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

Revelation 1:5-6

When we step into church, we are one household in Christ with Him as our Head. We do not gather as individual households (i.e. clans or groups of generational families).

 

Baptism & Communion

Baptism is administered by the pastor as a representative of Christ who is the Head of the Church. It is not administered by the father or husband. Baptism comes directly from Christ. Communion as a renewal of baptism should be administered by the pastor and elders not by the father or husband. Christ’s sacrifice is communicated to us from Him through His representative, not through a father or husband. Practicing communion by having a so-called “head of household” distribute the bread and wine to the family is totally unbiblical.

 

So are Man and Woman Equal?

A common response to all of the above seems to be the horrified question, “Are you an egalitarian? Do you believe men and women are completely equal?”

Men and women are obviously not the same. God has created them differently and given them different gifts. Men are better at some things and women are better at others. God created Man first and Woman second but neither is better or lesser than the other.

Both are equally His image. Both are equally saved. Men are not more saved than women. Saying that men and women are equal in some ways is not egalitarianism.

Though it is common to think of God as male because that is how He chooses to speak of Himself most of the time, God is both male and female. He speaks of Himself in both terms and symbolically is both. Christ in submission to the Father models female submission. He speaks of Himself in female terms (Matthew 23:27). There is much more to be said on this but I will leave it at that.

Both men and women are created in the image of God but are different in order to reflect different aspects of God. If God were only male, then women could not be created in His image.

To understand the relationship between men and women, we need to go back to the Trinity because we are all created in His image.

There is hierarchy within the Trinity, but that does not mean the Persons are not equal. Within the Trinity, the beings are equal but are ordered in a hierarchical relationship.

25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.

26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.

33. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.

(from the Athanasian Creed)

Before God, a man and woman are equal. But they were created into a hierarchy. To maintain order, God ordained that Man is first and Woman is second.

Within the nuclear family, a husband is over his wife. But even there, they are each to submit to Christ first. They are brother and sister in Christ first, husband and wife second. If either desires or requires something from the other that Christ commanded against, allegiance ought to be to Christ first, spouse second.

When a husband and wife step into church, they enter as brother and sister in Christ, co-priests and co-heirs. Christ has no higher order for male priests and lower order for female priests. There is no higher order for married men and lower order for single men. There is no male and female. They are one in Him.

Another matter that complicates things is that in both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “man” means both “man” and “husband” and the word for “woman” means both “woman” and “wife” so how it has been translated into English has been up to the translators’ discretion.

 

What about male abdication and feminism?

Given the tumultuous history of male and female relations in American history and in the church, it is understandable that American Christians are especially sensitive about the roles of men and women.

It was sin for a the man in the Golden Days of the Fifties to abdicate, not lead his wife and children, and leave her to drag the children to church on Sundays and teach them the Bible while he stayed home and polished the car or went fishing. Women stepped in and filled the void.

The correct response to this should not be to punish her for being a Deborah or a Jael. The correct response to the abdication of men is not to suppress women. The Man should rise up where he stood back and glorify Woman, lifting her higher.

It is as much abdication for a woman not to attend church worship or church functions as it is for a man.

Interestingly, in the Old Testament, because men were the ones who were circumcised into the Covenant and the women were saved through the circumcision of the men, women were not required to attend the holy feasts. It was only required for men over the age of 20 (e.g. Deuteronomy 16:16).

If we were to be consistent with the household system with its covenant head representation, then only the oldest adult male of a family, the patriarch, should be allowed to the heads of household meetings. His sons and grandsons, married or not, adult or not, are not heads of households.

 

Church Members Meetings

Maybe you will say a wife is covenantally represented by her husband at the head of household meetings and that it is biblical to do so. There is no precedent for this type of system anywhere in the Bible, Old Testament or New Testament. Just because there is no precedent for something does not necessarily make it wrong but perhaps it is something we should think over some more.

If we were truly going to follow this model, then married sons whose fathers are still alive would not be allowed to attend. If we believe each member of the church is baptized into the church without a male mediator (aka, Head of Household), believe that Christ is our only mediator, and believe that circumcision has been done away with now that we are each baptized into the covenant, then there is no way to have a system of church meetings that only allows heads of households to attend.

[The rest of the paragraphs below are about the particular structure of government in the local church we were attending.]

Additionally, it is incorrect to assume that the males attending the meetings have any kind of authority in the meeting. The men attend as sheep. The men of the congregation are in a female role, as the Bride of Christ. Their votes have no authority over the church.

It would invite less misunderstanding to rename church votes as an “opinion poll” because that is what they are. The votes have no authority as they do in secular political terminology but are merely a way for the elders to gauge where the church members stand. The elders make the final decision and they are not bound by the congregation’s “votes.”

Voting is not an exercise of democratic authority but is rather a submissive representative delegation.

Doug Wilson, Mother Kirk, p. 167

If the votes have no authority then for women to attend them and voice their opinions is an act of submission and not in any way exerting authority over anyone. It is a way for Christ to listen to His Bride.

And as all married folks know, no matter how wonderful a marriage is, communication is difficult and imperfect and it is extremely rare for a husband to be able to express fully (or even accurately!) what his wife would wish to say at the meetings or to relay back to her all the discussion at the meetings.

The purpose for having meetings in person is to communicate and discuss. Women have a valuable voice that cannot be fully expressed if they are not present.

 

Conclusion

If women are individually baptized members of the Bride, just as men are, and the church business meeting has no authority over anyone, and the votes are in reality opinion polls, there is no reason for women not to attend and participate. In fact they should be encouraged to do so.

Note: This post was written from notes collected after my husband and I studied this with some friends in July, 2011, because we were attending a church where the pastor instituted Heads of Household meetings which excluded women. The pastor of that church told me I was not allowed to write anything more on the topic on my blog or on Facebook or discuss it with anyone in person without permission from the head of my household, my husband, and from him, my pastor … so I did not publish this then.

I know that not all churches practice HoH meetings in the same way and the details of church government in Protestant churches varies greatly from local church to local church. This post was written as a response to the particular way it was practiced in the local church we used to attend. I hope it helps others who are thinking through the issue.

To all those who are concerned I am a rebellious wife, let me assure you that my husband and I are of one mind and one heart.