Federal headship

Some scholars have proposed (1) that man and woman were equal before the fall and that there was no “hint of a headship . . . or hierarchical relationship” (2) or that headship is a “new theology . . . that permits no compromise or diversity.” (3)  In general, those who believe in a pre-fall equivalent role status (4) are referred to as “egalitarians.” (5) One scholar noted “there is nothing in Gen. 2 to indicate a hierarchical view. . .  [and] no hint of a headship of one over the other or a hierarchical relationship between husband and wife.” (6) He further proposed that before the fall there was full equality in “resemblance/constitution, in relationship, and in representation/function.” (7) Those who believe in a pre-fall non-equivalent role status are called “complementarians.” (8) In general, they believe the “creation order emphasizes an ontological equality (nature/essence/being (9)) with functional differentiation.” (10) One author stated, “Genesis 2 teaches male-female equality and male-female role differentiation simultaneously.” (11) The purpose of this essay is to highlight Adam’s Legal responsibility before the fall.

Federal headship equals legal representation

The theological term federal headship (32) refers to legal Representation. One theologian summarized it this way: “Federalism has to do with representation, with one person acting on behalf of another.” (33) Another author stated, "'Federal headship’ is a term which has almost entirely disappeared from current religious literature—so much the worse for our moderns. It is true that the expression itself does not verbally occur in Scripture, yet . . . it is a necessity in theological parlance and doctrinal exposition. The principle or fact which is embodied in the term ‘federal headship’ is that of representation.” (34) The word legal involves a law, lawgiver, judgment, punishment, reward. This concept is not a recent theological development in reaction to feminism, as some suggest (35), but a legal-judicial concept found in the Old and New Testaments. (36)

Hierarchical's vague meaning

Egalitarians' ubiquitous use of hierarchical in headship discussions gives the word an all but vague meaning. One scholar noted hierarchical “is negative and polemical.” (12) Hierarchy comes from the Greek word hierarchiap, which means “an arrangement of items (objects, names, values, categories,  (people), etc.) . . . represented as being ‘above,’ ‘below’ one another.” (13) Other definitions say it is “a system of persons or things arranged in a graded order,” (14)  “a system in which people or things are placed in a series of levels with different importance or status.” (15)  The doctrine of federal headship doesn’t place Adam and Eve above or below one another and different roles do not mean they are in a graded order or on a series of levels. Ellen White said Eve possessed no “inferiority nor superiority to man . . . but in all things . . .  [was] his equal.”  (16) However, her other statements show that the “all things” do not refer to everything. The context indicates “all things” refer to ontological equality and independent judgment, not role differentiation. Elsewhere, she declared Adam was “appointed by God to be monarch of the world,”  (17) and was “father and representative of the whole human family.” (18) These statements are not mutually exclusive and indicate that Adam and Eve had different roles allowing them to function uniquely according to God’s purpose. Hierarchical is unfortunately a misleading word.

Inflated adjectives and descriptions

When reading egalitarian articles challenging “Headship,” one notices strong adjectives that tend to distort and mischaracterize the complementarian position. For example, words such as “superior,” “inferior,” “incompleteness,” “completeness,” (19) “subordination,” (20) “subjection,” “submission,” (21) “dominion,” (22) are encountered.  One author said, “human dominion over another human being is not found in Genesis 1-2.” (23) In general, complementarians do not regard Adam as in dominion or superior to Eve, nor do they see her in “subjection,” “submission,” “subordination." (24) Certainly Adam was not complete until Eve was created, but this had nothing to do with role differentiation or federal headship. Dr. Gerhard Hasel noted that role distinctions do “not infer inferiority; equality does not demand role interchangeability; difference does not imply subordination . . . there can be role differentiation in the male-female relationship without inferiority.” (25) Of course, there are some who teach a distorted, unbiblical view of a headship principle, and use it as a hammer to subordinate and repress. However, the use of inflated adjectives are unfair descriptions and do not clarify the issues.

Headship misunderstood

The term headship has become a misunderstood buzzword, and a definition would be helpful. The word headship originated in the 16th century and referred to a leader, captain or shipmaster of a boat (“head” + “ship”). (26) Later, the word came to refer to any “position or office of a leader,” (27) "chief authority,” (28) “position of being in charge of an organization,” (29) ”the first or foremost position,”  (30). Headship is someone with the responsibility of decision making, that carries greater accountability than others in the same organization, corporation, institution, agency, society or family. While the Bible never uses the word headship (or trinity, millennium), the biblical principle is seen throughout the Old and New Testaments. In society, headship implies “dominion,” “superiority” and “ruler ship," as seen in business, politics and corporate entities. However, in Scripture, it is servant-headship leading by example, service and love, while possessing distinct functions. Therefore, the principle of federal headship is not pejorative--one author called it “uncompromising headship theology” (31)--but a role of accountability and of servant-responsibility. It is in this capacity we are using headship--differentiation, not gradation.

Adam was legal representative of humanity

“The fact that Adam was the federal head . . . that he did act and transact in a representative capacity, and that the judicial consequences of his actings were imputed to all those for whom he stood” (37) is most clearly explained by Paul in Romans 5:

V. 12- “by one man sin entered into the world, and death. . . so death passed upon all men.”

V. 15- “through the offense of one many are dead”

V. 16- “the judgment was by one to condemnation”

V. 17- “by one man’s offence death reigned”

V. 18- “by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation”

V. 19- “by one man’s offence man were made sinners”

“The offense of one” refers to Adam in the Garden. At the moment Adam sinned, “the frown of God came upon all His children. . . The curse of the broken law descended upon all Adam’s posterity. It is only thus we can account for the universality of depravity and suffering. (38) One author put it this way, “There is no way to avoid the obvious teaching of Scripture that Adam’s sin had dreadful consequences for his descendants. It is precisely because of the abundance of such biblical statements that virtually every Christian body has composed some doctrine of original sin linked to the fall of Adam.” (39) Ellen White affirms this in the following statements:

[Adam] fell . . . and his posterity became depraved.” (40) “He [Christ] redeemed Adam’s disgraceful fall, and saved the world.” (41) “Willingly He [Christ] passed over the ground where Adam fell, and redeemed Adam’s failure.” (42)

If sin came to humanity through Adam and Eve, Paul would have written: “by one man and one woman’s disobedience." 1 Corinthians 15:22 reinforces this understanding, stating that Adam acted for humanity, “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” One author has said: “the language of 1 Corinthians 15:22 is equally unintelligible except on the supposition that both Adam and Christ sustained a representative character, in virtue of which one involved the race.” (43) Adam’s legal status was delegated to him by God, he acted not only for himself, but for all mankind. His role as legal representative placed him in a different position than Eve’s. The whole human race was on trial in the Garden of Eden. “Adam acted not for himself alone, but he transacted for all who were to spring from him.” (44) When Adam disobeyed God, all of his descendants shared his fallen nature, and inherited from him a “bent towards evil.” (45) “When Adam sinned, he sinned for all of us. His fall was our fall- the curse of  (Adam’s) Fall affects us all.” (46) The created world also suffered under the penalty of Adam's sin: “the creation was subjected to futility not willingly, but because of him [Adam] who subjected it. . .” (Rom. 8:20-22). (47) In our own government, we see the principle of federal representation at work. “Every popular election illustrates the fact that a constituency will act through a representative and be bound by his acts. Human affairs could not continue, nor society exist without it. Why, then, be staggered at finding it inaugurated in Eden?” (48)

Ellen White affirms Adam’s legal headship in unmistakable language when she noted: “Adam was appointed by God to be monarch of the world, under the supervision of the Creator.” (49) And, “under God, Adam was to stand at the head of the earthly family, to maintain the principles of the heavenly family.” (50) She further states that the command not to eat of the tree (Gen. 2:1-17) was “placed in his hands.” (51) Finally, she declared that Adam was “the father and representative of the whole human family.” (52) One egalitarian asserted that “sin came into the world because Eve did not submit to the headship of Adam and not because she ate of the forbidden tree.” (53) This is an inaccurate understanding of Adam’s legal responsibility. Sin came into the world because Adam ate of the tree, which resulted in a legal penalty for him and his constituents, not from Eve’s rejection of Adam’s headship. 

Monarch or Co-Monarchs?

Recently, a scholar proposed that “both [Adam and Eve] were monarchs of Eden.” (54) He reasoned that because “Adam and his companion were to bear rule over the earth” (55), they were monarchs. He goes on to say that Adam was “crowned as king after his creation . . .  [but] once Eve was created, they both were appointed as kings.”  And he concludes by stating that “after Eve sinned, Adam was the only faithful monarch left on earth” (56). These propositions are problematic for several reasons: 1) Scripture, never by implication or explicit reference, states that Eve was a “ruler” over the earth. Rather, it states she and her husband were to have “dominion” (Gen. 1:28) over every living thing. Having “dominion” (“bearing rule” (57)) over the created world, is not synonymous with Adam’s legal responsibility as monarch (58). 2) Dominion and “multiply, replenish the earth” are linked together in God’s command (Gen. 1:28). “Dominion” refers not only to Adam and Eve, but all their offspring. (59) There is no evidence that God “appointed” Adam’s offspring as monarchs.  3) There is no explicit or implied statement from Ellen White affirming Eve was co-monarch or monarch. It is important to note, that Adam’s role as monarch was not an absolute monarchy (as an autocrat with absolute power), but something closer to a constitutional monarchy (subject to established laws with powers limited by that law). Adam was “appointed as monarch” (60), a legal representative subject to Christ, but Eve was not. Conflating Ellen White’s statement that Adam was monarch, with Adam and Eve having dominion (Genesis 1:28) is an untenable proposal.

One egalitarian believes Ellen White nullifies the “headship” principle when she stated Adam and Eve’s “union could be maintained and harmony preserved only by submission on the part of one or the other.” (61) It is a false positive to conflate mutual submission in communication and independent judgment with role differentiation. Submitting to each other didn’t cancel out their own individual identity, gender distinctions or role differences. So, while it is true that Adam and Eve were similar in “resemblance, constitution, in relationship,” (62) it is incorrect to say they were the same in “representation [and] function.” (63) Adam was the legal representative. Eve was not.

Federal Headship in SDA Literature

In the 1957 book, Questions on Doctrine, Adam’s federal-corporate headship is affirmed: “the sinful nature that we all inherited from Adam. . .  (was) because of Adam’s sin  (Rom. 5:12 quoted).” (64) The book Seventh-Day Adventists Believe (1980), avers that the sinfulness of human nature is linked to Adam’s fall. (65) The 2001 Annotated Edition of Questions on Doctrine states: “The first death is a death resulting from Adam’s transgression . . . for all mankind.” (66) Morris Venden noted: “Because of Adam’s sin, his posterity were born with inherent propensities of disobedience.” (67) The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary affirmed: “sin has been in the world ever since the original transgression of Adam. . . the one act of Adam’s transgression caused sin as a principle to enter this world. . . . all the evils of Adam’s fall.” (68) The commentary goes on to say “sin and death, as a principle and power, proceeded from Adam to the whole human race . . . Adam’s sin is universal.” (69) The Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology states that “the source of sin and subsequent death is  (from) Adam’s fall . . . Adam sinned and therefore the whole world lies in sin . . . sin originated with Adam, because of Adam’s sin, we have inherited separation from God- and have a propensity to sin, wrongful tendencies, perverted appetites, debased morals, as well as physical degeneracy.” (70) These and many statements by Ellen White negate the belief that the “modern (71) headship doctrine” was unknown in the Adventist church “before the 1970s, and never appeared in any published book or article written by an Adventist before 1987.”  (72)

In conclusion, Scripture affirms that Adam was the legal “representative of the whole human family.” (73) And since Eve was a member of the human family, he was her legal representative as well. (74) As the legal head, he did fulfill a role different than Eve. Therefore, while it is true Adam and Eve were similar in “resemblance/constitution, in relationship,” (75) there was not “full equality in “representation, function.” (76) Legal headship does permit “diversity”  (77), where the Bible does allows for it, namely diversity of function with ontological equality. In Part Two, we will look examples of Federal Headship in Scripture, and make some conclusions regarding their roles.

See References

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