I recently posted an article encouraging women to use the talents given them by God, to be bold in growing into the person God created them to be, and not to pretend to be less than any of this in an effort to avoid offending those who think women are prohibited from doing certain things. Most commenters felt encouraged to pursue the potential God gave them and told of their own experiences in busting stereotypes.
Then I read this comment:
One of the hard things for some women to find is a man whose headship is comfortable to fit under. If you’re a visionary, finding a man with greater vision than you have takes a lot of prayer, patience, and contentment while you’re single.
The problem is if her husband’s vision is more limited than hers she cannot act upon what God has given her to do. And if an unmarried woman’s prayers, patience and contentment do not lead to a man with vision greater than hers then she will apparently have to choose to remain single. She has too much vision to get married.
Women and Their Husbands’ Potential
The commenter went on to say:
I heard a pastor once describe the family as a series of umbrellas. First God the Father with the largest umbrella. Next is the husband, then the wife and last the children.
The key is allowing everyone under the umbrella enough room to grow. … I’ve always said I want my husband’s umbrella to be really big so I have a lot of room to spread out!
This woman has been taught that her growth is limited by her husband. She might be made for more but if her husband’s headship isn’t comfortable to fit under, if his umbrella isn’t big enough, then – according to this teaching – she will never grow into the person God created her to be.
Umbrellas That Don’t Stand Up
Where does this teaching about umbrellas come from? It’s a concept popularized by Bill Gothard, who teaches legalism and authoritarian structures to churches and families through his organization Institute of Basic Life Principles. (See, Understanding “Umbrellas of Protection”: embracing the Biblical principle of authority.)
Like much problematic teaching, this article takes biblical truth and then applies it in ways not taught in the Bible. In fact, the attributes of this umbrella of protection are not found in Scripture at all. Instead, Mr. Gothard takes culturally-based patriarchy and tries to fit it with scriptural clothing.
It does not work.
The breakdown in the umbrella metaphor is illustrated clearly by attempts to draw it out graphically:
According to Mr. Gothard and others who adhere to the umbrella metaphor for family relationships, the umbrellas represent Scriptural authority put in place to be our protection (our umbrella) from ungodly influences and events. Yet while the Bible says much about authorities it never describes them in a way analogous to an umbrella covering someone. In fact, nowhere is anyone in the New Covenant life we have in Jesus told anything along the lines of “You are in authority and thus are a spiritual covering for those under your authority.”
Rather, we are told 1) that everyone is a servant to everyone else:
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35.)
2) that everyone is to submit to everyone else:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21.)
3) that the only true authority over any of us is Jesus:
… there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8:6.)
Umbrellas don’t work as a metaphor for this New Covenant reality.*
A Head Is Not an Umbrella
Some might point to this passage:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24.)
The first thing to keep in mind is that those verses follow immediately after verse 21 (above) which says we are all to submit to each other, and the word “submit” is not in verse 22 except by implication. This implication carries through the end of the passage and applies to all sorts of relationships, not just marriages.
Wives are addressed first; the paragraph immediately following is on how submission plays out for husbands. Then it goes on to address this mutual submission for children and parents, and finally slaves and masters.**
But what about verse 23, which describes the husband as head of the wife? Many are misled in seeing the word “head” as a metaphor for “leadership.” It’s not, because the 1st Century Koine Greek word “kephale” (the word used in Ephesians 3:23, as well as in 1 Corinthians 11:3) doesn’t lend itself as a figure of speech for authority the way “head” does in 21st Century English.
Many Christians erroneously believe that the word kephalē conveys the meaning of authority, and they interpret Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 to mean that husbands have authority over their wives. Some elaborate on their interpretation and understanding of kephalē even further and claim that husbands and fathers are the spiritual authorities in the home, and that wives and mothers do not have spiritual authority of their own. Paul never hints at such a doctrine. (Margaret Mowczko, The Metaphorical Meanings of “Head” in Paul’s Letters: Part One.)
The bottom line is that the Bible does not teach that men are spiritual leaders – let alone spiritual covers – for their families. Which brings us back to one of the main problems of the umbrella metaphor: it puts people in a position different from the one God places them in.
The Heresy of Umbrellas
Another danger of the umbrella metaphor is that it prevents people from doing what the Bible actually says they should do – fulfill the responsibilities and potential God created in them. Jesus told his followers that when it comes to their God-given talents, their responsibility is to use them as best they can. He explained it in a story describing life in the Kingdom of God:
Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. (Matthew 25:14-15.)
Each person was given vast wealth, since a single bag contained as much money as a laborer would earn in 20 years. Each person’s responsibility (five bags, two bags, one bag) was in accordance with that person’s ability. The story goes on to describe the man’s joy with those servants who had put the money to work, so much joy that he praised them and gave them promotions. One of the servants refused to take the responsibility given to put the money to work, though, which led to a harsh rebuke:
“You wicked, lazy servant!” (Matthew 25-26.)
Harsh words for someone who shirks their responsibilities.There is no refuge in saying that someone else was your spiritual covering and therefore it’s not your fault if their umbrella isn’t big enough to allow you to spread out to your full potential.
That type of blame-shifting is as old as Adam and Eve answering God’s questions about eating the forbidden fruit:
“The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Genesis 3:12.)
It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. A woman who pleads the excuse of a small husbandly umbrella is looking to the wrong place for her spiritual authority. Jesus is the only source of authority for carrying out all God has given you to do, and he is all the covering you need to reach it fully.
Women, don’t let anyone tell you that you need a husband whose vision is greater than yours in order to reach your spiritual potential. All you need is to follow wherever Jesus leads you, for his vision is great indeed.
* The umbrella metaphor also breaks down when you consider families without a husband/father. If a woman is a widow raising children, for example, the husband’s umbrella is missing. She must either take on protecting and providing for the family (the husband’s umbrella) or her family will live without them. Or not live. But assuming that these teachers allow her to take on those roles at least until she gets another husband, that means she is directly under Jesus’ umbrella for the time being. Yet they provide no Scripture that allows for the husband’s place to be take by his widow. I imagine they’d say it happens by necessity rather than by rule. This state of necessity which allows her to provide for and protect her family directly under Christ’s umbrella doesn’t do much to bolster their position, especially if (for whatever reason) she never remarries. They’d be forced to say that she is experiencing God’s second-best in her life without a husband, even while she enjoys all the blessings a man would receive by being directly under Christ’s umbrella. That position has no biblical – or logical – basis whatsoever.
** I’ve heard people say that the mutual submission of verse 21 carries on to apply to the later verses regarding slaves and masters mutually submitting, but then say it does not apply to the intervening verses of the relationship of husband to wife or parent to child. Not that I understand their position, but there it is.