Male Headship & Societal Injustice | Esther 1:17-22


Queen_Vashti_Refuses_to_Obey_Ahasuerus_CommandToday’s post falls into both our new section of the site called Marginalia and our on-going series on Women in the Church.

For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.”

This advice pleased the king and the officials, and the king did as Memucan proposed; he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.
Esther 1.17–22

I can imagine a conservative evangelical looking at this and saying to themselves, “Now, the king’s court is recognizing a natural order in the way God has made a marital relationship to work, even though they go about reinforcing this biblically-supported picture in the wrong way–through force and not love”. I hope that’s a fair representation.

But either way, (1) they would not want us to pull from this text any lessons about how male headship itself is wrong, just how it’s done badly here, and (2) they would still think the concern of these males is justified (and perhaps even right), as we’ve seen similar dynamics play out in our culture in the aftermath of feminism.

And yet, notice a few things here:

First, notice that fear is the driving factor here behind this mindset–a mindset the seeds of which many conservatives would agree. I would propose that all thinking like this fundamentally comes from a place of fear, a desire to control, and a perpetuation of relating to one another on terms of “authority” and “power”. This story powerfully puts on display the dynamics that give rise to this thinking.

Notice I didn’t say that this is the thinking behind these individuals who think this way. But I do think that fear and control are the historical, philosophical, sociological, and psychological roots of the mindset. As time goes on, the thinking may be justified by appealing to a whole host of other things (including the Bible), but at its origin and root, I still think the fundamental foundation is anything but Christ-like.

Relatedly, see why are they afraid. It’s because of the filter of power through which they view everything. As I wrote recently, much of the complementarian mindset is the logical extension of seeing all human relationships as more-or-less zero-sum power grabs, where the “Christian” view of relationships is found in how you “structure” and “distribute” this power, authority, and “headship”. As I said then, I think this is wrong.

Next, I thought it was interesting that they want to use the civil law to enforce this. They fight to see the codification of their desired family norms into the very structure of society. It’s not enough to advocate for personal choices, they feel the need to use all authority–religious, cultural, and civil–to reinforce their preferences.

Even though I’m passionately egalitarian, I think that means that each family has the responsibility to see for themselves what dynamics work. I don’t think it’s sinful whenever a male leads his household practically, emotionally, spiritually, etc. If that’s what works for them. Some women absolutely flourish in complementarian-like structures. That’s fine. But, I don’t think there’s a universal, inherently “better” nature to any particular family dynamic.

The problem with ascribing fully to universally-applied male-centric leadership family structure is that it makes you want to appeal to any structure to enforce this thing you think is an inherent universal good. That may not be what many individual complementarians are doing today, but its history is long in doing this elsewhere at other times and places.

Now think of this in the context of the Church. By putting this into the structures of law, they intend to enforce male headship the only way it can ever be enforced at the corporate, structural level: fear. Once more, I am not saying that individual households are based on a foundation of fear. I am saying that trying to put in place at the corporate, group level an imperative for all families to look like this can only be enforced through coercion and fear. Male headship is not a self-evident good in the midst of communities that generally leads to human flourishing. To enforce and instill this into a group has to be done by an appeal to outside authority (in Christian circles, it’s usually one type of reading of the Bible) and fear (usually of falling short of pleasing or obeying the God of this reading of the Bible).

Lastly, notice what they think will cause women to act this way they don’t like. It’s not because of a misunderstanding, some lie, or a perversion of any kind. There are no feminists rising up or people twisting religious texts. What is it that will be making women as a whole stop being simplistically “submissive” to their husbands and letting them be the “heads of their households”? Truth, information, and the self confidence those things instill.

Similarly, I would argue that what leads people away from the conservative ideas of male-exclusive leadership, is not lies, cultural accommodation, or perversions of Scripture. Rather, it is seeing scripture all the more clearly and embracing its truth and authority rightly.

Hopefully, in the end, we can see that this king and his advisers are not supposed to seem like examples we should follow–neither in methods nor beliefs they hold. The kind of separating out “the right idea but a bad way of enforcing it” is not at all found in these verses. Here, we see a complete repudiation of the philosophy at the root of male-headship, and association of it with leaders that perpetuate societal injustice and evil.

See other Marginalia here. Read more about the series here.

[image credit: “Queen Vashti Refuses to Obey Ahasuerus’ Command” by Gustave Dore]

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One thought on “Male Headship & Societal Injustice | Esther 1:17-22

  1. Pingback: #Marginalia Weekly Round-Up #1 [2/24-28/14] | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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