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Did male headship begin before the fall of man or was it instituted as a result of sin? Many believe that male headship began only after sin and was part of the curse that was placed upon women:
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee (Genesis 3:16).
Ellen White indicates that something significant took place in the relationship of Adam and Eve as a consequence of the Fall. She says that Eve “was now placed in subjection to her husband.” From this, we would conclude that she was not in subjection to her husband before the fall:
Eve was told of the sorrow and pain that must henceforth be her portion. And the Lord said, ‘Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’ In the creation God had made her the equal of Adam. Had they remained obedient to God—in harmony with His great law of love—they would ever have been in harmony with each other; but sin had brought discord, and now their union could be maintained and harmony preserved only by submission on the part of the one or the other. Eve had been the first in transgression; and she had fallen into temptation by separating from her companion, contrary to the divine direction. It was by her solicitation that Adam sinned, and she was now placed in subjection to her husband. Had the principles enjoined in the law of God been cherished by the fallen race, this sentence, though growing out of the results of sin, would have proved a blessing to them; but man’s abuse of the supremacy thus given him has too often rendered the lot of woman very bitter and made her life a burden (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 58).
But what about their relationship before the fall—did Adam have headship over Eve? And if he did, how would that headship relationship differ from Eve’s subjection to Adam that came as a consequence of her sin?
In the creation story, God gave dominion equally to Adam and Eve, equal authority over all the earth (Genesis 1:26). But within this equality, Adam alone was clearly the vicegerent of planet earth. Adam was given vicegerent reign but that headship position did not affect the equality found in the duties they shared, caring for this earth. Eve did everything that Adam did as relating to exercising dominion over the earth.
Adam was the vicegerent of the Creator. His was not an independent rule. The earth is God’s, and He has committed all things to His Son. Adam was to reign subject to Christ. When Adam betrayed his sovereignty into Satan’s hands, Christ still remained the rightful King (The Desire of Ages, p. 129).
When Adam and Eve sinned, it was to Adam that God addressed the question, “And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9). He was the head of the earthly family.
Under God, Adam was to stand at the head of the earthly family, to maintain the principles of the heavenly family (Counsels to Teachers, p. 33).
Paul says that Adam was first formed and then Eve, revealing to us that Adam’s headship was established before the Fall. Then Paul points to the fall of Eve as an additional reason for Adam’s headship. Part of the curse was that the wife was to be in submission to her husband. That curse, however, would prove to be a blessing because it would preserve unity and harmony in the home.
Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression (1 Timothy 2:11-14).
As further evidence that Adam’s headship preceded the fall was the fact that Eve was replaceable. If Adam had not sinned, Eve would have been replaced and this earth would not have come under the sovereignty of Satan. Because headship was given to Adam at the very beginning, Satan had to cause him to sin to win planet earth.
He [Adam] did not realize that the same Infinite Power who had from the dust of the earth created him, a living, beautiful form, and had in love given him a companion, could supply her place (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 56).
Because Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, after their likeness, we should expect to see some parallels in the relationship between Adam and Eve to the relationship between the Father and His Son.
God is the Father of Christ; Christ is the Son of God. To Christ has been given an exalted position. He has been made equal with the Father. All the counsels of God are opened to His Son (Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 268).
The Son of God was next in authority to the great Lawgiver (Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 2, p. 9).
Next in authority, but made to be equal: that is the relationship that exists between the Son of God and His Father. We would expect to see a likeness of relationship reflected in the pre-Fall relationship of Adam and Eve. This would mean that she would be equal in every respect to Adam while at the same time being next in authority to him.
Notice this similarity in relationship: what would have happened if the incarnate Son of God had yielded to the temptation of Satan as Eve did? The universe would not have come to an end. God the Father would still sit on the throne. Yet the Son of God would have ceased to exist just as Eve would have.
How do we know that? Because Jesus was tempted by the devil. Unless there is the possibility to sin there is no temptation. According to the word of God, if Jesus had sinned, He would have died. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20).
Remember that Christ risked all; ‘tempted like as we are,’ he staked even his own eternal existence upon the issue of the conflict (General Conference Bulletin, December 1, 1895).
The new tomb enclosed Him in its rocky chambers. If one single sin had tainted His character the stone would never have been rolled away from the door of His rocky chamber, and the world with its burden of guilt would have perished (Manuscript 81, 1893, p. 11, Diary entry for Sunday, July 2, 1893, Wellington, New Zealand).
Had the head of Christ been touched, the hope of the human race would have perished. Divine wrath would have come upon Christ as it came upon Adam. Christ and the church would have been without hope. (Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 256).
So what changed in the relationship between Adam and Eve as a result of the fall? Eve was now placed in submission to Adam. Before the fall there was no need for one to be in submission to the other because they were in perfect harmony and unity.
Now when a difference arises, Eve must submit her own wishes and will to the will of Adam. This is the only way that unity and harmony can be preserved in the home.
The husband is the head of the family, as Christ is the head of the church; and any course which the wife may pursue to lessen his influence and lead him to come down from that dignified, responsible position is displeasing to God. It is the duty of the wife to yield her wishes and will to her husband. Both should be yielding, but the word of God gives preference to the judgment of the husband. And it will not detract from the dignity of the wife to yield to him whom she has chosen to be her counselor, adviser, protector (Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 308).
This change can also be seen in the relationship between God the Father and His Son. Before the Son of God “took upon His sinless nature our sinful nature” (Medical Ministry, p. 181) there was no need for Him to subordinate His will to His Father’s because they were always in total unity. Their wills were in total harmony.
But when Jesus took on our fallen human nature, their union would be maintained and harmony preserved by submission on the part of the Son of God; He would submit His will to His Father’s will. We see this demonstrated in the Garden of Gethsemane. The will of Jesus was that the cup of woe be removed. This was not the will of the Father. Their wills were now in conflict.
Listen to the prayer of the only begotten Son of God, ‘O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.’ And the second time He prayed saying, ‘O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.’ And the third time He prayed saying the same words. It was here the mysterious cup trembled in the hands of the Son of God (Christ Triumphant, p. 24, all emphasis added unless otherwise indicated).
Our eternal salvation was at stake in this struggle. Praise God that harmony and unity was preserved in the Godhead by the Son submitting to the will of His Father.
Because we are created in the image of God, husbands and wives have the amazing opportunity to portray the relationship of God the Father and His Son. In the pre-Fall state the husband was the head of the wife. That headship continues post-fall. And now that we are living in a fallen world, the wife has the awesome privilege of demonstrating the submission that our Savior had to His Father as she submits to her husband (only as it is fit in the Lord–Colossians 3:18) in order to preserve harmony and unity in the earthly family. The husband, in turn, will love His wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. The apostle Paul sums it up nicely in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.”
Just as unity and harmony can only be preserved by the submission on the part of the one or the other in the home, so harmony and unity in the church can only be maintained by heeding God’s Word that commands us to “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17).
As members of the body of Christ, men and women have equal standing in the church—all are to submit themselves one to another. A woman is to submit to another woman and to another man just as a man is to submit to a woman and to another man.
Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:21).
Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5).
But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren (Matthew 23:8).
Amongst the lay members of the church, men do not have headship over women. The wife is only to be in submission to her own husband’s headship, not to other men.
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord (Colossians 3:18).
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything (Ephesians 5:22-24).
The church has one head which is Christ. All alike, elders and laymen, submit to Christ alone. Men and women alike submit to the ecclesiastical authority that the elders have been given by Christ. There is no difference in the submission that a woman gives to the elders from what a man also gives. A woman stands in the same position as a man stands in the church. All alike can serve in any capacity they are called to. The only difference between a man and a woman in the church is that a woman is not called to a headship position for the purpose of reflecting the order of the home and the order of heaven.
In the local church those “that have the rule over” are the ordained elders. In the church at large it is the voice of the General Conference in session. If a union or division did not submit to the decisions of the General Conference and acted contrary to voted policy, they would be misrepresenting the order of heaven.
The church is the bride of Christ; she is represented as a woman in Scripture. Submission to her Head means submission to those that God has placed in authority over her. We are grateful for the witness that the North Pacific Union is giving by their willingness to respect the authority that God has invested in the General Conference. Their decision to wait for the General Conference to complete its work on the issue of Women’s Ordination will promote the unity that Christ prayed for.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: John and Sharon Witcombe have ministered in churches in Washington and Oregon. John began to serve as a pastor in 1994. Presently they serve in Southern Oregon. Their daughter has recently blessed them with a grandchild.