The unique headship of Christ

A 2014 statement from faculty of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University declared Christ is the only Head of the Church. This was repeated several ways: “[Christ is] the sole ‘head of the church,"; "there is only one Head of the Church, Christ,"; “Christ alone is the Head of the Church"; "the unique headship of Christ in the church." Several Ellen White statements were also used in support: “Christ, not the minister, is the head of the church,” “Christ is the only Head of the church.” The document asserted that neither Scripture nor "Ellen White apply the language of headship in the church to anyone other than Christ." This statement was later reaffirmed after an appeal from 25 professors, pastors and church members.


In its basic definition, headship simply denotes functions of responsibility that carry greater accountability and representation than others in the same organization, institution or family. The fundamental principle of headship is that of representation. In contradistinction to Christ’s supreme headship, there are subordinate headship roles delineated in Scripture. The Bible does not refer to these heads as the highest position, but rather as inferior managers, directors or elders under the authority of Christ. The biblical basis and the specific functions of these have been delineated in other places (for example, Gerhard F. Hasel's “Biblical Authority, Hermeneutics, and the Role of Women,” 1988; and Paul S. Ratsara and Daniel K. Bediako, Man and Woman in Genesis 1-3: Ontological Equality and Role Differentiation), and therefore are beyond the scope of this review. When complementarians use the term head or headship, it is in reference to roles under and submitted to Christ. 

Noun or Adjective

The seminary statement conflates the noun headship (headship roles in the church) with the adjective headship (Christ’s supreme headship). When used as a noun, headship generally means “any person in charge, i.e. a director, leader, governor, manager, captain, etc. in a subordinate role." However, when used as an adjective, it denotes an “Arch, Chief, leading, foremost, prime, premier, highest, supreme, pre-eminent” (Merriam-Webster). When complementarians use the term headship, they are using it as a noun, not an adjective. By all means, Christ is the only head, the sole head, the one head or unique head in terms of His governing, administrative, and legal authority. He has no equal. However, this doesn’t rule out subservient roles with delegated authority, also being called head.

Headship in Scripture

Scripture clearly declares that Jesus is the head of the church (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18; Eph.4:15) and “Head of all” (Col. 2:10; Eph. 1:22), but the Bible also refers to ancillary positions and functions as heads. The word head is used many times in Scripture, these include: heads of 1000s, 100s (Ex. 18:25), heads of people and tribes (Nu 1:16), heads as fathers (Nu 7:2), and heads of houses (Nu 10:4; Deut. 1:15; Josh 22:21). Although the exact term head is not used extensively in the New Testament, the principle of headship is found there. The twelve Apostles, Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Titus, and the elders [were] appointed as heads. The “apostle Peter cautioned leaders [heads] to ‘shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (Acts of the Apostles, 525, 526).

An appeal of the seminary statement, noted that the “relationship between Christ and the elders/ overseers is that of the Chief Shepherd to the under shepherds. These leaders receive their authority from Christ under whose authority they function in accordance with His word. Christ delegates leadership authority in the church to these officers.”  In the New Testament Christ “delegated authority was not centered in any one person. The apostles did not appoint a single leader for the church, but a plurality of leaders as they “appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23).” There are many implicit and explicit examples of headship in Scripture, apart from that of Christ, but they are always submitted and subordinate to Him. 

Headship in Ellen White

Ellen White affirms that the term head refers to positions of authority under Christ. For example: “the Lord will stand as the invisible commander; but there must also be a visible head who fears God” (PM, 84); “responsible men standing at the head of the work (RH, 1881); “let those at the head . . . move cautiously (7T, 283, 284). She stated: “'the great Head of the church superintends His work through the instrumentality of men ordained to act as His representatives’" (Acts of the Apostles, 360). Elsewhere she states, “Christ remains the true minister of His church, but He delegates His power to His under-shepherds, to His chosen ministers, who have the treasure of His grace in earthen vessels. God superintends the affairs of His servants, and they are placed in His work by divine appointment” (ST, April 7, 1890).

These and other statements show that Ellen White used the word head the same way complementarians do, as a subordinate position, still with authority under Christ. Of course, no “human being may rightfully claim” the absolute and ultimate “headship role in the church.” And yes, “Christ is the only Head of the church,” and His headship “is unique and . . . non--transferable.” By all means, Christ’s leadership cannot “be encroached upon by any mere human” (Seminary statement). But it is untenable to say a human may not rightfully claim a headship role in the Church where Scripture allows for it. There are positions that do assume headship roles adjuvant to Christ, the pre-eminent head. This brief survey of Scripture and Ellen White show there are functional roles that use the word head in their titles and yet do not arrogate Christ’s supreme headship.

Antichrist system of government and its forms

The seminary statement correctly contrasts God’s form of government with the counterfeit system of the antichrist. It describes Rome’s false headship principle as “hierarchical, based on a chain of command . . . elitist . . . sacerdotal. . . [taking] on ‘headship’ roles in the Church in place of Christ the Head.” The statement proposes that this structure “has been implemented in various forms” and is classified with the “antichrist system.” The context implies that the headship principle could be a part of these forms. Otherwise, why mention this? It is true that Rome has assumed headship roles belonging to Christ alone. These include assuming prerogatives of Christ to forgive sins, mediate and dispense grace (through sacraments) in a top-down, autocratic form of church government. It is not true, however, that the headship principle promotes or leads to human mediation, absolving of sin, sacerdotalism, infusion of power, or similar church organizational structures.

Trajectory of Statement

The underlying context of this grand declaration appears to be a call for gender-equality in the church. The statement references: 1) pre-fall equality, (“full equality without hierarchy”),  2) the linking of spiritual gifts (male and female) with all church offices, 3) the syncretism of the “priesthood of all believers” (soteriology) with church roles, and 4) the inclusion of Galatians 3:28 (“...neither male nor female”). Therefore, the overall trajectory of the statement seems to have less to do with Christ’s unique headship than it does with the promotion of egalitarianism, which leads to the question: why was this statement made? Was it to remind the church of Christ’s unique position although the majority agree with it anyway (including complementarians)? Was it to gain traction in the women’s ordination debate by implying complementarians are somehow in contest with Christ for leadership roles in church and egalatarians are “on the same side as Christ?" The implications of this declaration seem to be disconcerting.


On the surface, the declaration commune by the seminary is laudable--that Jesus is the head of the church! The majority of complementarians also agree with this great dictum. Therefore, there is consensus that 1) no human being can usurp Christ’s supreme headship, and 2) no “third category between the Head and body of Christ” can exist. And since there is no disagreement between complementarians and egalitarians regarding Christ’s ultimate position, this aspect of the document is superfluous. 

The statement declared that some forms of church government with hierarchy, ordination, and headship are a part of the antichrist system. What are these hierarchical forms? The context implies they include the headship principle. This is unfortunate, and instead of clarifying issues, they engender deeper divisions. Finally, an open letter from faculty, alumni, students and friends of the seminary noted that “instead of unifying church members it seems that the document has brought confusion in regard to the Biblical view of Christ’s headship and its implications for leadership under Christ in the church.” This appeal urged “the faculty to reconsider their statement and adjust it so that it considers the full biblical counsel on this subject and be in harmony with the vital Protestant and Adventist principle of ‘the Bible and the Bible only.’” In the end, the fact that Christ is the Head of the church is an ad oculos (obvious on sight), but redundant proclamation, which nearly everyone agrees with.