A Response to Michael Hill’s Book

The Heart of Marriage: Loving Your Spouse with a Christian Mind by Michael Hill
Response by Irene Voysey
Irene is a journalist and was the editor of the Bible Society in Australia’s national magazine for 10 years.  Irene is also the author of “By the Way”, a book that recounts her journey through the mysteries of sharing the gospel.  Information about “By the Way” is here 

Michael and Wendy Hill came to Kincumber Anglican parish in Newcastle Diocese several years ago, after Michael had retired from Moore College, where he lectured in Philosophy and Ethics for 27 years.  Michael and Wendy’s wholehearted contribution to the working life of our parish has been invaluable and is deeply appreciated by the members of St Paul’s, Kincumber, St Bede’s, Saratoga, and St David’s, Avoca Beach.  The Hills’ enjoyment of each other is obvious, so it’s no surprise that Michael’s book reflects his deep desire for all married couples to have what they evidently have – a happy marriage lived out under God’s authority.  ‘Other person centred love’ is something I have heard Michael preach about many times, and I have no doubt that this concept is what he practices in his marriage.

The traditionally troublesome words: “male headship”, “submission”, and “authority” are included in his book, but Michael has set out to emphasise that when marriage is lived out the way God intends, it will be a foreshadowing of humanity’s relationship with God.  It is a good book except for the evidence that Michael supports the view held by many in Sydney Diocese on the roles of a man and a woman joined together in holy matrimony i.e., that in the New Testament, the headship of the husband is clearly spelt out in scripture.

However, many leading evangelical scholars hold a different view from Michael.  Ian Howard Marshall, Professor Emeritus of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, wrote: “We must further bear in mind that the New Testament teaching is given in the social context of patriarchy; the teaching assumes these structures and says, in effect, that husbands and wives must do those things which are culturally acceptable.” [1]

I have recently written an article on Russell and Kay Clark,[2] whom I interviewed almost a year ago.  Theirs is the story of another happy Anglican marriage, also lived out under the authority of God’s written word, also committed to ‘loving your spouse with a Christian mind’ (the subtitle of Michael’s book) but with different views from Michael’s on the role of a husband and wife and the interpretation of scripture on this issue.  In the course of my interview with Kay, Russell (now a Senior Lecturer in the Medical Professional Unit at St Vincent’s Hospital) interjected more than once, ‘She’s a natural leader!’  Theologically, as well as in other ways, Kay certainly is, with an impressive list of qualifications.  She topped Australia with First Class Honours when she gained her Licentiate in Theology (Th L) followed by a Master of Arts at Moore College.  Her ministry in Hong Kong and in Tanzania has been wholeheartedly supported by Russell who delights in his wife with no hint of `headship’, `authority’ or `submission’ in their marriage, all of which the Clarks believe are man-made and culturally-bound restraints.

The views of Kenneth E Bailey are especially worthy of note.  Bailey’s credentials are impressive. Presbyterian author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies New Wilmington, PA USA; Canon, Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and Research Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute Jerusalem.  In his book, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, an exhaustive study of men and women leading in worship, he includes the marriage of Aquila and Priscilla.  He wrote: “Priscilla was a ‘professor of theology,’ who, with her husband taught the famous Apollos (Acts 18:26).  Living with this prominent Christian couple for eighteen months, and having them as personal friends, it is impossible to imagine Paul writing a letter to the Corinthians that would demean Priscilla.  For more than a year, he had eaten at her table.”  Bailey also writes: “From the book of Acts we know that Greek women of high standing were attracted to the preaching of Paul.  Such women would not have been attracted to a movement that did not treat them as equals.” [3]

While Michael believes that the Bible clearly teaches that men and women are equal in all respects, he takes the long-held view that in a deadlock situation between husband and wife following loving negotiations around an issue, the husband must make the final decision (albeit for her good) because “the husband is the head of the wife.”  This disregards the alternative interpretation of the word `head’ by scholars such as Catherine Kroeger, Adjunct Associate Professor of Classical and Ministry Studies, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, USA, who wrote: “If a Roman woman was formally attached to her husband’s family rather than her own, her legal position became that of daughter with respect to her own husband.  In the transfer to his family, she was said to have forfeited ‘head.”’  

“In an era when a woman was legally required to have a ‘head’, Paul called upon the woman to join herself in an attitude of both accountability and commitment (hypotasso, ‘to submit to, identify with or assimilate to’) to a husband, freed of repressive family hierarchy and responsive to Christ as head.” (emphasis mine)

Michael does make it clear that the final decision by the husband should only be made with the good of his wife in mind, but when a husband is caught up in the pressures of our world the tempting loop-hole of being final decision-maker can easily be utilised to vary interpretations of what may be considered `good’.  For example, I know a Christian wife who was deeply offended and unnerved by finding her Christian husband watching porn on the internet.  Gifted women who believed they were called to lead Christ’s church have also been held back because of a husband’s incorrect interpretation of `head’.

A better solution to the question of deciding what is honestly `good for others’ and `benefits others’ has been suggested by Cornelius Plantinga Jr, Professor of Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and former editor of the Calvin Theological Journal. Plantinga wrote:

F. F. Bruce, a world class Paulinist of impeccable evangelical credentials, once made a telling remark in this connection.  After stressing that Galatians 3:28 and kindred passages are the ‘foundation principles’ of Paul’s teaching in the light of which problem passages on female subordination must be understood, Bruce added: ‘In general, where there are divided opinions about the interpretation of a Pauline passage, that interpretation which runs along the line of liberty is much more likely to be true to Paul’s intention than one which smacks of bondage or legalism.’ [5]  (emphasis mine)

In his article, My Journey from Male Only Leadership to Biblical Gender Equality, Alan F Johnston suggests several alternatives to the husband having the right to make the final decision.  All his alternatives avoid the patriarchal model of decision-making[6] which Michael supports.  Johnson is Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Christian Ethics, Wheaton College; Adjunct Professor of Christian Ethics, Wheaton Graduate School and Emeritus Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College.

This of course is the quandary which curious people like me face as we hear the views of Bible teachers such as Michael and at the same time are confronted with the alternative views of distinguished, and internationally respected evangelical scholars.  I have listed quotes from some of those scholars on my website.[7]

For example, Walter C Kaiser Jr’s interpretation of the key word `helper’ differs from Michael’s view that Adam had the whole of the Garden of Eden to care for and it was in this context that God declared that Adam should not be alone.  Michael’s interpretation of a passage that is right at the beginning of the Bible had once firmly convinced me (and many other women with whom I have discussed this issue) that man/husband is the worker, the leader, and the woman/wife is (merely) a helper, obediently accepting instruction from the leader.  Since I was not taught the correct interpretation of the word `helper’, I, and many other women, once believed that God Himself indicated in Genesis that women are somehow inferior to men – a belief I struggled with for many years because my loving earthly father never differentiated between his son and his daughters.  His treatment of us differed from the view of a church leader in Sydney who told me a couple of years ago, ‘When men don’t step up God uses women.’  That would once have reinforced my view that God sees women as second choice, despite the gifts He may have poured out onto them for His glory.

Kaiser has written in explanation of the term ‘helper’: Now, there is nothing pejorative about the translation “helper”, for the same word is used for God, but it is also variously translated as “strength”, as in “He is your shield and helper [=strength]  (‘ēzer)” in Deuteronomy 33:29; 33:26.

But R. David Freedmam… has argued quite convincingly that our Hebrew Word ‘ēzer is a combination of two older Hebrew/Canaanite roots, one ‘-z-r, meaning “to rescue, to save,” and the other, ģ-z-r, meaning “to be strong,” to use their verbal forms for the moment. The difference between the two is in the first Hebrew letter that is today somewhat silent in pronunciation and coming where the letter “o” comes in the English alphabet. The initial , or ģhayyin, fell together in the Hebrew alphabet and was represented by the one sign ע, or ‘ayyin. However, we do know that both letters were originally pronounced separately, for their sounds are preserved in the “g” sound still preserved in English today, as in such place names as Gaza or Gomorrah, both of which are now spelled in Hebrew with the same letter, ‘ayyin. Ugartitic, a Canaanite tongue, which shares about sixty percent of its vocabulary with Hebrew, did distinguish between the ģhayyin and the ‘ayyin in its alphabet of thirty letters, as it represents the language around 1500 to 1200 B.C. It seems that somewhere around 1500 B.C. the two phonemes merged into one grapheme and, thus, the two roots merged into one.  Moreover, the Hebrew word ‘ēzer appears twenty-one times in the Old Testament, often in parallelism with words denoting “strength” or “power”, thereby suggesting that two individual words were still being represented under the common single spelling.  Therefore, I believe it is best to translate Genesis 2:18 as “I will make [the woman] a power [or strength] corresponding to the man”.[8]

Kaiser is the Colman M Mockler distinguished Professor of Old Testament and President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Mass.  He received his Bachelor of Arts from Wheaton College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Wheaton Graduate School.  He has earned both a Master of Arts and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Mediterranean studies from Brandeis University, and has contributed to such publications as the Journal for the Study of Old Testament, Journal of the Evangelical Society, Westminster Theological Journal, the Evangelical Quarterly and Christianity Today.  He has also written numerous books.  I would strongly recommend a reading of Kaiser’s paper, Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women. [9]

The correct interpretation of `helper’ is of great importance to both women and men today and, I believe, will not only help to protect a young husband from the temptation to become `the boss’, but will ensure that women/wives do not assume that God sees them as inferior to men simply because of their gender.

Other scholars taught me long ago that some of Michael’s statements in Chapter 8: Who’s the Boss? can be misleading e.g., “The fact that the man twice named the woman indicated to the ancient world that the man had authority over her.  The order of creation that was reversed by Adam and Eve’s rebellion also pointed in this direction.”  Before the Fall Adam certainly had authority from God to name the animals, but God did not give him authority to name the woman; when Adam `called’ her `woman’ he used a play on the Hebrew word `man’.  Hierarchy clearly began after the Fall when Adam `named’ Eve, indicating authority over her.  Jesus overturned that position of authority.

Michael’s book sets out to help couples build good marriages, as many other good books have sought to do.  I hope that one day we will see a book which will expose the reasons why so many Christian marriages continue to run aground.  The high demand for counselling services within the church today seems to indicate such a need.  Gilbert Bilezikian, Professor Emeritus, Wheaton College, writes, “Is it any wonder that I feel pain today when I learn from professional counsellors that the rate of domestic violence is as high, if not higher, for Christian hierarchical households as it is among the general population?” [10]  His life’s passion has been “to recapture God’s intent for His Church as a ‘community of oneness.”’  Unlike Michael, he repudiates any hint of hierarchy, however loving, in the marriage bond.

I am wholehearted in my agreement with the following three statements in Michael’s book: The first is that love is directed at others and not the self.  The second is that love is committed to securing good for others and the third is that love will do that which benefits others even when it is costly.

A good example of love deciding `that which benefits others even when it is costly’ is found in the words of William Booth way back in the 1850’s.  Prior to their marriage Catherine told him of her frustration at the lack of freedom for women to use their spiritual gifts.  William wrote back: “I would not stop a woman preaching on any account.  I would not encourage one to begin… I would not stay you if I had the power to do so.  Although I should not like it I am for the world’s salvation; I will quarrel with no means that promises help.” [11]  He obviously understood that God gives gifts to whomever He wills and the use of those gifts should be encouraged, not restrained.

Finally, throughout my reading of The Heart of Marriage with its many marvellous Bible passages about the heart, one little verse kept surfacing in my own mind.  In the light of today’s Royal Commission and revelations that there has been clergy and church worker abuse of children and vulnerable adults in every Christian denomination, there is perhaps more sobering truth in that one little verse now than ever before: The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

Irene Voysey

Endnotes [1]   Ian Howard Marshall, “The Gospel Does Not Change But Our Perception of it May Need Revision” in Alan F Johnson, (General ed.), How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 150.
[2]   Rev Kay Clark was, before her retirement, assistant minister at Vaucluse and Rose Bay Anglican parish.
[3]  Kenneth E Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2011), 301.
[4]  Catherine Clark Kroeger in (C F Hawthorne, et al, eds.), ‘Head’ in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Fellowship, 1993), 375-377.
[5]   Cornelius Plantinga Jr, “How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership” in Alan F Johnson (General ed.), How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership, 194.
[6]  Johnson, “My Journey from ‘Male Only Leadership’ to ‘Biblical Gender Equality” in Alan F Johnson (General ed.), How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership,121.
[7]See http ://www.IreneVoysey.com/what-the-scholars-say/
[8]  R David Freedman, “Woman, a Power Equal to Man,” Biblical Archaeology Review 9 (1983): 56-58; and http://www.walterckaiserjr.com/women.html
[9]   See http://www.walterckaiserjr.com/women.html
[10]  Gilbert Bilezikian, “Renouncing the Love of Power for the Power of Love”, in Alan F Johnson, (ed.), How I Changed My Mind  about Women in Leadership, 54.

[11]  Don Cusic, The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel and Christian Music (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2002), 104; and “Sharing our story of faith across the ages”, Christian History Institute Issue 26, 1990, np.

3 comments on “A Response to Michael Hill’s Book”

  1. Martin Shields Reply

    While I agree with much of what you say about Genesis, and would even want to expand upon it (for example, if naming really is an assertion of authority why doesn’t the NT appeal to it if it is arguing for such a relationship between men and women?), I think Freedman’s understanding of ʿzr is readily shown to be incorrect, and certainly not convincing. It has long been recognised that behind the Hebrew ʿzr stood the common Semitic root ʿḏr meaning “to help, aid.” This root is attested in Ugaritic, Aramaic, Arabic, and old South Arabic. In biblical Hebrew, the Semitic consonant ḏ merged into z, accounting for the form of the word in Hebrew. Thus it is clear that the meaning ‘helper’ is basic to the Hebrew word עזר, and this meaning is not, as Freedman suggests, a later meaning derived from the merger of two earlier meanings.

    This is not to say that “helper” inherently denotes an inferior (just as it does not inherently denote a superior). The relative status of the helper and the one helped must be gleaned from the context.

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