“Equal but different”: applying male headship thinking to race

No-one denies that blacks and whites are equal. God created both blacks and whites in his image. They are both equally capable of leading.

But not everyone can be a leader and the Bible teaches us He created black and whites for different roles, to complement each other.

White people were created to be leaders. There is something about whiteness that makes whites need to be in charge. Whites have a need to be respected by being in charge. Their authority needs to be respected or they won’t feel like real whites.

Black people, on the other hand, were created to submit to white leadership. They don’t have the same need to lead, and when they respect the order of creation by submitting, they will feel much more fulfilled.


It sounds so racist and so evil! Yet a lot of evangelical Christians believe that woman, although created equal, are not permitted leadership roles and should submit to their husbands in the home. Conservatives have some strong biblical reasons for thinking like this, stronger than any attempt to make a similar argument about race. But our reaction of horror to this type of thinking in race should sound alarm bells at the blindspots that patriarchy has created in us when we think about the sexes.

My wife and I are currently doing some reading and thinking toward a theology of male and female.  I’ll just offer some preliminary responses to those who think the Bible’s teaching on male and female is absolutely clear.

1. The household codes which call on wives to submit to their husbands in the letters of Paul and Peter are revolutionary! Such was the impact of the gospel that for the first time women were viewed as moral agents with choices about how they lived. (The secular household codes which Peter and Paul have adapted do not address women but only men.) The good news had caused women to enjoy new found liberation, which some of them were using in ways which upset the spread of the gospel and scandalised conservatives. Paul and Peter are urging them in their particular situation, for the sake of the gospel, to adopt ‘revolutionary subordination’. It is not a timeless command but a response to their particular situation.

In our situation, it is scandalous to the secular world for wives to submit to their husbands. Paul and Peter may be making opposite demands on the church if they were writing to us today.

2. The trajectory of the gospel, the thrust of the Christian story is toward Galatians 3:28 where the divisions of male and female, slave and free are overcome in the body of Christ. It is this ideal toward which the church must aspire.

3. I’m well aware that this leaves some key texts which still cause problems for the egalitarian Christian. There is diversity in the Bible and it is something we may never completely resolve. But it is worthwhile wrestling with all the texts, not just the ones which support our position.

5 thoughts on ““Equal but different”: applying male headship thinking to race

  1. I believe you have taken the equal but different complementarian view and incorrectly applied it to race. Jew and Gentile are one in Christ and white nor black are ever mentioned as superior in the normative. Men and women are also co-heirs with Christ yet men are designed by God to be the head (Eph 5), the are not called to be the head of the home they are the head of the home. They lead either by their Christ-like example or lead in their abdication of responsibilities.

  2. Thanks for your comments.

    The application to race was hyperbolic and ironic, meant to disrupt the idea that ‘equal but different’ is actually equal. It doesn’t sound equal if applied to race!
    There are passages in the epistles where Paul and other writers call on wives to submit and assume that men are heads of the house. But as my post points out, I don’t believe this is normative for families today.

    Shalom, Nathan.

  3. Nathan: It good to run into your blog! I was searching the web for someone who has summarized Yoders Nevertheless for a class I am teaching here in Pennsylvania on Active Nonviolence. I stumbled onto your blog. Great stuff! It would be good to connect again via email if you can extract mine from this blog. peace..jon

  4. Hi Nathan,
    John Yoder points out that the bible is a story with direction whose central story is the story of Jesus. Jesus is the spirit empowered liberator of all the oppressed who announces the coming of the reign of God.

    Within first century patriarchal Jewish society where women were second class, Jesus brings dignity and lifts them up so that they are the first witnesses to his resurrection.

    In my opinion (and I may well be wrong), Paul seems to have two sets of social ethics in relationship to male/female roles: one which shows women and men how to act within the given patiarchal structure and another which transcends first century social structures and provides renewal through personal and social transformation in the right direction
    when a critical mass of people transform
    their thinking and behavioural relationships to line up with the coming reign of God.

    John Arthur

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