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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the Biblical concept of head and headship. I’m interested in the concept in part because it is a theological point of great debate for those who like to discuss gender and biological sex in Scripture and the Church.
Headship (a word not actually in Scripture) can be used as a bludgeon to keep women and kids in line, and in some cases, to justify various forms of abuse in the church and home. But on a more practical level, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about headship because I lost one head in my divorce and fell back on another (my dad) after it.
Now, my dad is sitting in a hospital room, as dear to me as ever, fighting off congestive heart failure. Between tears and prayers, I contemplate all that he has meant to me as my head (a word by the way he probably has never associated with himself since it isn’t emphasized in his Christian circles). Daddy just IS a head, without being all focused on what the word means in debates about gender and the Church.
I also spent last weekend catching up on all the episodes I had missed of “This is Us” (SPOILERS AHEAD), including Jack’s death after rescuing his wife and kids from the house fire. The culminating episode for me was not the one with his death, but the episode about the family car, which became a metaphor for his desire to see his wife and kids happy and healthy, or as he put it, “OK.”
And the final scenes showed that they were OK. For all they had experienced, Jack’s care of them in life set them on a bumpy trajectory, yet one they survived and even in some cases flourished. He gave them a financial and educational footing. He sacrificed in life to provide for them. And 20 years after his death, his legacy lived on in their lives.
In terms of a Christian story of headship, Jack’s story lacked a vision of spiritual guidance and any kind of church involvement. But it did highlight to me an important nugget of Biblical headship, one that my dad also exhibits to me.
For all of our debate about AUTHORITY in the home as it relates to headship, Jack and my dad exhibit instead RESPONSIBILITY in the home as it relates to headship. There are all kinds of authorities in our lives who do not take responsibility for our well-being, for our flourishing. But Jack did for his family, and my dad has for his.
Now, don’t get me wrong. When Daddy says, “Jump,” all of his daughters ask, “How high?” Even as adults, we respect him as an authority in our lives. But Daddy doesn’t give orders much. He never has assumed an authoritarian role in our lives. And Jack didn’t either. Daddy never demanded the right to give us instructions.
But he earned the right. He sacrificed for us. Over and over again, he made the hard choices he needed to provide for us, including a college education he saw as a tool to launch us out into the world without debt so that we could in turn provide for our children. Today as an adult with some life experience under my belt, I am aware of the weight he bore on his shoulders to provide for us and take responsibility for our well-being. His delight is for his family to be happy and flourishing, and when we suffer, he steps in to carry it with us as best as he can still to this day.
“Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” gave us visions of woman as ezer and necessary ally in the image of God, but they both did so in unrealistic settings. Still, as a woman, I found both inspirational. In contrast, Jack in “This is Us” reminded me of the beauty and value of a father and husband who takes loving responsibility for the welfare of his family in a setting I could directly relate to. Jack didn’t seem to know Christ, but he made me think of fathers who do, my father in particular.
I have lost one head, and I have felt that loss in a thousand painful ways. But that loss highlights for me what the concept of head in Scripture represents and helps me now see it when it shows up in good and right ways. Jack was an inspiring picture of a flawed head, and the flourishing of his children (despite their scars and wounds) reminds me of the real life person sitting in this hospital room with me who has, for nearly 60 years, taken responsibility for the flourishing of his daughters and stood in the gap for us when others did not.
That, friends, is a Biblical head.
Wendy Alsup is the author of Practical Theology for Women, The Gospel-Centered Woman, and By His Wounds You Are Healed. She began her public ministry as deacon of women’s theology and teaching at her church in Seattle, but she now lives on an old family farm in South Carolina, where she teaches math at a local community college and is a mother to her two boys. She also writes at gospelcenteredwoman.com. She is a member of a local church in the Lowcountry Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America.
Find her online at Theologyforwomen.org.