Spiritual Umbrellas and the Oppression of Women

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.


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75 Responses to Spiritual Umbrellas and the Oppression of Women

  1. Riley says:

    “I’ve always said I want my husband’s umbrella to be really big so I have a lot of room to spread out!”
    “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.”

    There’s a problem with this particular line of thought. Sometimes you just don’t see just how big or small his umbrella is until after the wedding, and by then it’s too late, so you still may never get a chance to spread out.

    • Tim says:

      The way that plays out might be him thinking “Why does she want to do things that I don’t see as important?” or her saying “He’s not the man I thought he was before we got married.” The umbrella structure means they might end up feeling stuck with each other, while the real relationship they have with God and each other would be a means for each to grow and explore what God has for them.

  2. FW Rez says:

    Great article. Thanks for taking the time to carefully explain this. What a tragedy it would be if my wife were limited spiritually by such hierarchical constraints!! More tragic would be to think that God was limited in His work by having to maneuver through such a hierarchy. A wife is much better off putting her hope in a God that is not limited by such arrangements as to have to wait for God to strike Husband A dead so she can marry the more spiritually mature Husband B.

    • Tim says:

      Maybe that’s how the umbrella people would explain Abigail and Nabal and David?

      • DSwank says:

        Actually, Bill Gothard taught that Abigail lived the reminder of her life under God’s judgement. He pointed to the name she later gave her son (Daniel, which means, “God has judged me” found in 1 Chronicles 3:1) as proof of her recognition that she had wrongly usurped Nabal’s authority. Mr. Gothard even went so far as to say that if David had killed Nabal’s household, perhaps his regret would’ve prevented future mistakes. As a member of the facebook group of that spawned the “Recovering Grace” site, I can testify that the damage done by the idea that GOD expects one to “obey an authority even unto death, provided you aren’t being asked to sin” as taught through the twisted interpretation of this story was profound and far-reaching. When we were voting to name the site, “Recovering Grace” received the most votes, but the name that came in second was “Redeeming Abigail”.

        • Tim says:

          Mr. Gothard also fails to recognize that Abigail was the manager of the household, which meant she had a duty to protect all the servants and slaves under her. She carried out her responsibilities, and if her husband weren’t a fool he’d have reconciled with David at that pont.

        • Retha says:

          Daniel, according to Bible dictionaries, does not mean “God judged me” but “God is my judge”. God is the judge of everyone, but some are judged more positively. This is not evidence of wrongdoing.
          (For example, Rachel calls her son Dan because God is her judge – after God ruled in her favour.)

        • Tim says:

          So Mr. Gothard teaches a judgment unsupported by Scripture. It looks like Abigail was saying she trusted God, not felt herself condemned by him.

        • Greg Hahn says:

          Retha is right. Also- 1 Chronicles 3 only mentions the name of the boy and his mother in a list of David’s children. So wouldn’t David have been the one to name the boy? (cf Luke 1:60)

      • FW Rez says:

        There should be a strategy board game where the person who ends up under the largest umbrella wins. The object is to gain upgrades without stepping out from under your current umbrella. Causing an upgrade to the holder of an umbrella above you through manipulative passive-aggressiveness is particularly rewarded as long as there is no evidence of you going out of bounds.

  3. Pastor Bob says:

    How can some people be so short sighted? *sigh, because we can and are.

    My wife is a visionary-period. I am not, although I have ideas, sound observations, accurate predictions (not always!) – I am not a visionary person, buy the design of God.

    The complement for such a person is the one who makes these ideas – visions work. Every visionary needs a person like this.

    To split hairs now, the umbrella illustration is like many aspects of the human condition, it is incomplete. Like a diamond with its 58 facets, the human experience has countless many more. Some marriage situations could function like that, but again there is more. To take one aspect of the human experience and make a doctrine out of it simply wrong. Like a diet of one vegetable, it too is incomplete.

  4. Retha says:

    Among the problems with the umbrella metaphor is:

    > The Gothard picture implies the rain (whatever evil that is a metaphor for) is above Christ, like rain is above and bigger than an umbrella – an umbrella covers a tiny area, rain the whole region. What is above Christ?
    > It implies God has holes (is insufficient) – why else would you need a second and third umbrella?
    > It calls the woman smaller in meaning and influence than the man. Usually, even the patriarchy crowd say women are equal with different roles. This picture shows them as unequal with the same (umbrella) role.

  5. DSwank says:

    Another noteworthy aspect to the umbrella: the rain that you see represented the attacks of Satan. We were taught that “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” (Samuel 15:23) in that like witchcraft, rebellion puts you in “Satan’s realm”. The fear this created in women and teens just looking to assert their own decisions is hard to explain. Illustrations about teens in cars listening to (forbidden by parents) rock music, traveling to be with friends or other places that their parents disapproved of being killed in cars (clearly God’s judgement) and other similar examples, were prolific. Then the Story of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, was then provided as the knock out punch.

  6. bekamartin says:

    My adult daughter is serving a ministry very well, even though I am not, nor is her father (we are divorced). She was serving it before she met and married her husband and now they serve it together.

  7. JYJames says:

    This is an excellent post – classic. Should be a book. Pertinent deprogramming from leaky umbrella teaching. Nice that you use Scripture to argue what the Bible is really saying. God’s Word is not a smorgasbord. The Bible explains itself well. Cross-referencing is good study practice.

    Any person as an umbrella has holes or leaks; they are human. “All have fallen short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23.

    An older woman, as in Titus 2:4, clarified this for me years ago, early in my 30-year marriage, after another woman Bible study teacher had misled the younger ones in the congregation with this false “umbrella – covering” teaching.

  8. Laura says:

    As always, thanks for speaking out on this issue Tim. And the Gothard umbrella illustration has always been maddening to me. I’ve meant to blog on it but never have.

  9. Thanks for this detailed analysis, Tim. This analogy fails on so many levels, as your post and the comments make clear!

  10. Dixie says:

    Wow, thank you for being bold enough to break this controlling religious teaching we have all heard so many times growing up in church. When we married (both been married before and struggled with this issue then too) we came to realize we must love and submit to each other and let the other go to do what God has called them to do….we are both ministers. When we made ourselves the ones responsible for our own callings and quit trying to control the other we finally found peace to be responsible for our own peace…then we were healthier together. He chooses to work in an organized church, and I choose to work outside the structure (a head shaker for many) and it works for us…though questioned by many believers who see ME as the rebellious wife. Its Okay because Jesus smiles with me. I love this blog!!!! Dixie, Life Coach, Author, and teacher

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    In the words of the prophet Steve Taylor:

  12. MeganC says:

    This is FANTASTIC!! I totally bought into the umbrella theory in my first (and very abusive) marriage. Sadly, my ex was more like one of those thin plastic camping parkas that stays pretty much in its own little plastic case and I tended to want to be a large family-sized red and white polka dotted umbrella. He did all he could to squash me and I let him, as a “godly” wife. It is such a blessing, now, (at age 43) to be trying new things . . . doing new things . . . discovering my talents. And with a man who encourages me! And he is larger than life, as well! Sharing this on Give Her Wings and my own page. Keep this up, Tim! My heart has been deeply encouraged, as have many others!

  13. I write about this in my book Raising the Hood: A Christian Look at Manhood and Womanhood. If you don’t mind, I would like to comment here what I wrote.
    “There is no indication in the Old Testament from the Prophets, or in the Gospels, that the Messiah would share his Lordship with human males on earth. There was no time of foretelling that husbands would share lordship with Christ.
    Jesus makes no mention of bequeathing a husband the privilege of representing him on earth, nor does Jesus make any mention that a woman would be presented to Christ by her husband, nor does he indicate that males can give “covering” to females, nor does Jesus indicate that husbands or males can lead anybody into holiness. Jesus promised that he would leave an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, on earth to lead us. With the Holy Spirit within us, women need no further representation, or role play actor, or leader, and certainly not a male head. For how can a man provide leadership that the Holy Spirit cannot?

  14. Barb says:

    BINGO! This is good stuff, Tim. How I desperately wish I’d heard more such truth when I was much younger. Thanks!

  15. Lisa says:

    Great article! I can testify that the whole authority/ submission issue has caused havoc not only in my marriage but in the church. Instead of being free to use my giftings, and being encouraged to do so, my attempts were always first challenged and scrutinized to see if I was “in my place”. Many times I sought to be a blessing to my husband when we had a family woodworking business, with a pure heart, wanting him to prosper and be well-spoken of, but always it was taken as a threat to his authority or headship. You know what? I finally lost heart, and found other outlets for my giftings, where I can be appreciated and blessed. It is really sad. I could go on.
    So what would the correct Biblical interpretation be for the husband being the head of the wife? And the wife submitting to her husband in everything? I have personally discarded the whole umbrella teaching as un-Biblical, but I know if I were to share this article, I would be expected to explain what those Scriptures mean.
    Again, great article. Perhaps it will open up some dialog .

    • Tim says:

      If you follow the link to Marg Mowczko’s article you’ll find more on what head really does mean in that passage.

    • Lisa, I am not sure what Tim will say but let me try. Interpret 1 Corinthians 11:3 this way “Now I want you to realize the head of every man and every woman is Christ (remember that I told you that it is like your own family where the husband is the head of the woman) and Christ has this authority because Christ has his beginning as God.” Paul was not establishing a way for it to be, but addressing the way it was then. As for submitting to husbands in everything, why would women need Christ?

      • Lisa says:

        So how do you interpret Ephesians 5:24 then?

        • Tim says:

          As I said above, Lisa, read Marg’s article linked in my post. She goes over headship extensively.

        • Lisa, glad you asked. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. The plain meaning would put husbands on equal footing with God.

          • The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. The plain meaning gives husbands salvation rights, judgment rights, forgiveness ability, healing ability, miracles, obedience authority, to accept worship, to answer prayers, and the right to receive tithes.

          • The husband is the savior of the wife just like Christ is the Savior of the church. The plain meaning makes husbands saviors of their wives. Why would the great I AM, share His salvation right with an earthly man?

          • The church submits to Christ. The plain meaning makes husbands worthy of having wives submit to them.

          • Wives should submit to their husbands in everything. The plain meaning makes man divine and infallible.

          Does any Christian believe that men can save their wives, and that wives should submit to their husbands in absolutely everything? Ask your pastor about this and he will begin to qualify this statement. It is qualified when they say that women should not follow their husbands into sin. It is qualified when they say a wife should not endure physical abuse. It is qualified when they make old age or infirmity of a husband an exception to allow wives to make decisions for their aged or infirm husbands.
          Anyone who reads Ephesians 5:23 and insists that this scripture means that the husband literally has spiritual or physical charge over his wife, has made a golden idol and named it husband. To read this scripture that way gives man divinity and nullifies the whole Bible that proclaims only “One” God.
          The plain meaning of this scripture is scary, yet it is quoted so casually that we have accepted the part we want to hear “that wives should submit to their husbands,” and have ignored the significance of the remaining part of that sentence.

  16. Kathi says:

    “The key is allowing everyone under the umbrella enough room to grow.” This reminds me of Piper’s latest statement of men “creating space” for women to grow. Why folks believe that only men can create the ability for women to grow is beyond my comprehension. I would think that God gives plenty of space for women (and men) to grow as He has created them.

    • Tim says:

      Men are responsible for women’s growth? It makes me wonder if he truly understands the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all God’s people. women and men,

    • Lea says:

      Men do not need to ‘create space’ for women, they merely need to stop restricting it.

      • Kathi says:

        Oh, Lea…I’m afraid my sassy-pants are on when it comes to things such as this. In my opinion, men are restricting the work of the Spirit when they restrict women. They’ll have to answer to God as to why they thought it was wise to do such things.

  17. One more much-needed expose of the false Gothard teachings. It reminds me of a time a woman confided, “My husband never reads to me.” I looked at her all puzzled and said, “Can’t you read to yourself?” I just didn’t understand the umbrella-headship thing, apparently, and I had even been a Gothard aficionado. The analogy that had seemed so clever when I was a twenty-something, well, it’s as full of holes as an old moth-eaten umbrella.

    • Tim says:

      Husbands and wives reading to each other might be a great pastime in some families, but as a spiritual rule it doesn’t sound like anything remotely related to what the Bible says about marriages.

      • Yes, it looks like I failed to give the context–that she was talking about how he wasn’t the “spiritual leader” he should be. I thought, “If women are waiting for their husbands to read to them before they can follow the Lord, then heaven help us all.” But that couple was in the process of coming out of a very spiritually abusive environment.

        When my daughter was analyzing a certain young man as a potential husband, she said she wasn’t sure he would be the “spiritual leader” she needed. I said, “You don’t want someone you have to follow. You want someone you can walk beside.” I didn’t really think about the fact that I was expressing non-complementarian thought–an arena of debate I hadn’t wanted to enter.

  18. Lisa says:

    Thank you for your patience with me, bwebaptistwomenforequality. I am really trying to see it. Been under this teaching for over 20 years and although I know it can’t mean what it simply implies, it’s going to be hard for me to explain those Scriptures to others when asked.

  19. overseas worker says:

    We’ve been overseas for almost twenty years. All this is fairly new to me in that when we left for the mission field, other than what I knew about Gothard-ites, I had not heard a lot of this.
    More recently as we’ve had new, younger folks coming to the field, I”m starting to hear more things like what you’ve written about. I had one married young lady tell me that her husband had told her she didn’t respect him and she was really working on trying to honor her husband.
    I about fell over. I bit my tongue and said nothing.
    It seems that this type teaching is more and more prevalent in the States and is now making it’s way overseas among new missionaries.
    It’s sad really.
    My husband and I were talking about Spiritual Authority yesterday and he said to me, “The most ridiculous thing I can think of is a husband telling his wife that she should respect him or a pastor telling his congregation that they should respect him. You shouldn’t have to demand respect. If you’re loving and serving and encouraging…then the respect is there.”

  20. nmcdonal says:

    I agree there is something evil in the Bill Gothard patriarchy movement. As an honest question – do you have a coherent definition of the kephale metaphor? I’ve not heard one from those who oppose it as a way of expressing authority.

    • Tim says:

      The link to Marg’s article on it is a starting point. It was used metaphorically at times in the sense of source such as head waters of a river, rather than authority such as the head of a committee. A river and its headwaters are inextricably joined, which seems to be what Paul is getting at in this passage. Once married, the husband and wife should not consider their existence apart from the other but rather see each other as essential to the whole – “the two are united into one” as Jesus put it in Mark 10.

  21. Mary Anne says:

    Hoooo, boy. One of the women in my book group came up in this system–word for word from her parents–and as you can guess, she and her husband are not wildly enthusiastic supporters of Christian belief, now. One night after book group we were at dinner and it came up during the conversation. There was much hilarity and quite a few umbrella-related puns. Funny . . . but sad for her that she was given such ideas.

  22. Pingback: Weekly Ponderings | Pondering Nomad

  23. Aethelfrith says:

    That umbrella graphic is stupid. Who, in real life, ever nests a small umbrella under a big umbrella? They’re telling me that either 1.) Christ is insufficient protection for the little ones or 2.) The chain of comman–er, I mean, protection is unnecessary, since Christ covers all.

  24. Wondering if this video has already been posted here. It came out just a couple of days ago, and mentions the umbrellas.

  25. LisaK says:

    So much twisted stuff comes with this umbrella theory. I have a friend who, when her husband was drinking and neglecting his responsibities as the head of the home, needed to report to a church elder as a kind of “fill-in”…..she was told to come to the church elder whenever she needed direction or answers for the children, etc…..sooooo bizarre! Reporting to and seeking direction and protection from another woman’s husband! But that is what happens when the umbrella teaching and accompanying doctrines of authority are believed. God forbid you have a woman running around with no “authority” over her! She has to be “under” somebody! Anybody! God have mercy.

    • Tim says:

      I read a post where a woman was visiting a church while in town for a week. The pastor asked where her husband was. She said she was single. He asked where she was staying. She said a hotel. He asked if she wouldn’t be more comfortable staying with him and his wife since she didn’t have family to stay with. She declined.

      • JYJames says:

        Too bad, with the current trends, including or maybe especially in the church, this sounds creepy. Could have been a kind gesture. However, nowadays, one never knows.

      • Sherry Weers says:

        Maybe they were just being hospitable. Does the Bible not say” the husband is the head of the wife”?

  26. Pingback: Umbrellas & Oppression: Study Notes #2 – Songbird Unchained

  27. Virginia says:

    I. Love. This. Thank you. Thank you SO MUCH. I pray for more real men like you. Specifically, one I can call my own! This article is much needed today.

  28. Dana Cash says:

    Please email me.

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