Part 1 of this series showed how the covenant community of the church fits into the Bible’s Great Story as a redeemed spiritual family– a family in which all Christians are brothers and sisters and God is our Father– let’s begin now to examine some of the passages that refer to men as “head.” Now I want to look at the cultural assumptions that would have been shared between a writer of a New Testament Epistle and the original audience, in order to see how the message might have been heard differently by them than it sounds to us today. Hand-in-hand with this, we must look carefully at what the original audience would have understood the Greek word translated as “head” to actually mean.
Beginning, then, with the most frequently cited “headship” passage, Ephesians 5:21-22:
“Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body.”
In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul’s big theme is who the church is “in Christ.” The first three chapters are about the church’s salvation, adoption, spiritual position and unity. In the fourth and fifth chapters he goes on to speak of how unity is to be maintained in the way individual members relate to one another. It is into this context that he places the section on how members of individual households are to relate to one another. This type of teaching has come to be known as a “household code.” The passage on husbands and wives is part of this code. (See Michael Kruse, “Household of God” online series, "Household: The Household Code.")
What we may not understand, reading this from our own cultural understanding, is that the original Greco-Roman audience would already have been very familiar with household codes. Household codes were very common at the time, and were based on the first household code of its kind, set forth by Arisotle in the 4th century BC. Selections from Aristotle’s household code read as follows:
“And now that it is clear what are the component parts of the state, we have first of all to discuss household management; for every state is composed of households. Household management falls into departments corresponding to the parts of which the household in its turn is composed; and the household in its perfect form consists of slaves and freemen. The investigation of everything should begin with its smallest parts, and the primary and smallest parts of the household are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children; we ought therefore to examine the proper constitution and character of each of these three relationships, I mean that of mastership, that of marriage, and thirdly the progenitive relationship.” (Aristotle, Politics, 1253b)
“Further, the relation of male to female is one of superior to inferior, and ruler to ruled. And it must be the same way for all human beings” (Politics, 1254a32-b16).
“For the male, unless, I suppose, he is constituted contrary to nature, is fitter to command than the female, and the elder and mature is fitter to command than the younger and immature” (Politics, 1259b1-4).
“. . . By nature most things are ruling and ruled. The free person rules the slave, the male the female, the man the child, but they do so differently. All have the parts of the soul, but they have them differently: the slave is wholly lacking in the capacity to deliberate; the female has it, but it lacks authority; the child has it, but it is incomplete.” (Politics, 1260a5-14)
This, then, is the kind of household code Paul’s audience was expecting to hear. The code was expressed in terms of the rulership of the male head of household. Slaves, females and children were spoken of only in terms of being ruled; they were not addressed personally. The pater familias himself was Aristotle’s intended audience, and the pater familias was the intended audience of later Greek and Roman household codes based on Aristotle‘s originals. Men were told how to manage their wives, children, slaves and wealth for the good of society. Slaves, women and children were simply to be ruled.
Further, as John Temple Bristow points out in his book What Paul Really Said About Women, “Aristotle laid a lasting philosophical foundation for the notion that females are inferior to males. . . . Centuries later, church leaders who themselves were a product of Greek culture and education, interpreted Paul’s writings from the perspective of Aristotelian philosophy, even to the point of assuming that when Paul spoke of the husband as being head of the wife, he was simply restating Aristotle. . . .” (pp. 6-7).
But was Paul actually simply restating Aristotelian ideas? Looking at what Paul’s code actually says in Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9, what he says would actually have been startling for his original readers to hear. Paul never tells husbands, masters and fathers to “rule” their households. Instead, he uses words like “love . . . as Christ gave himself,” “nourish and cherish” to husbands. To fathers he uses words like “provoke not to wrath.“ And he tells masters to “forbear threatening, knowing that your Master also is in heaven.” Then servants, children and wives are addressed directly, and are asked to give respect and submission to the master, husband and father “as unto the Lord,” — in other words, that they understand that they are not simply the objects of rule, but are being asked to make a choice to serve, as a service to Christ. Further, though Paul uses the word “obey” to both slaves and children, he never tells wives to obey their husbands. (The Greek word for “obey” is “hupakouo,” which is a word never used in the New Testament as a command to wives. Even in Titus 2:5, the word “obedient” there is actually the Greek word “hupotasso,” which is the same word translated “submit” in Ephesians 5:21-22, and which means voluntary yielding. “Hupotasso,” according to Ephesians 5:21, is something all believers are to do to one another.)
In short, what Paul is really doing is standing the Aristotelian household codes on their heads. He is deliberately undermining the authority structure where the pater familias ruled all, by telling him to act in an entirely different manner. And he is treating wives, slaves and even children as individuals able to make choices and determinations of their own (note that “children” here would have been understood by the original audience to mean grown children as well as minors).
Paul does not seek to overthrow the authority structures of the culture in which the Ephesian church found itself. But what he does do is teach those in the family of God, a new way of relating to one another “in Christ.” The expected rule of the pater familias over his wife, children and slaves is reset within a paradigm of mutual submission and is re-focused on Christlike humility, love and nurturing rather than control, and on laying down his life rather than taking charge. God’s family is a new kind of family in which we are all brothers and sisters. The highest in society must change the way they relate to the lowest, while the lowest must not take advantage of their new status and disrespect those who are socially higher. All are to voluntarily yield and defer to one another as servants, just as Jesus also said in John 13:12-14.
So what did Paul mean, exactly, when he said the husband was the “head of” the wife? Notice that Paul says the husband is “head of the wife even as Christ is head of the church.” Therefore, the husband cannot be “head” of the wife in any way that goes beyond the way in which Christ is “head” of the church.
Notice that Christ as “head” of the church is used within a metaphor where the church is also the “body” of Christ. What Paul is talking about, then, is a metaphorical picture of a head and a body, which together are one being. It is how Christ and the church relate to one another as “head and body” that must inform us as to how husbands and wives are intended to one another within that same metaphor. The question, then, is “How is the head-body relationship between Christ and the church defined in the Epistle to the Ephesians?”
One mistake that is easy to make is to impose metaphorical meanings of “head” as we use it in English onto the original Greek metaphor. We think of the “head” as the house of the brain, which is the control center of the body. To us, “head” often means “authority” or “leader.” But in the ancient Hebrew and Greek way of thinking, it was the heart that housed the intellect, will and emotions, and “head” had a different connotation. The main metaphorical meanings given to the word “head” (“kephale” in ancient Greek) were: 1) that which is prominent or in a pre-eminent position; and 2) source or origin. The physical head’s relation to the physical body was seen as the source of energy and growth. Authority or leadership, while commonly associated with people who were “heads” in terms of pre-eminence or prominence of social position, was not actually a primary meaning of the word “head” as it was used in Paul’s day. (See Michael Kruse, “Household of God” online series, "Synopsis of the Head Metaphor in the New Testament." )
“Head” of the church, therefore, would simply not have been seen by the original Ephesians readers as synonymous with “Lord” of the church. Neither would “head” of the wife have meant “lord” of the wife. Though Christ certainly is Lord of the church, He is also Savior, redeemer, sanctifier, recipient of worship, and Master of the church. But Paul deliberately limits husband’s role towards the wife, to being the “head.” Husbands are not to appropriate to themselves any of Christ’s other roles, or seek to become as Christ to their wives. This would be idolatry, and to the extent churches today encourage married couples in such a practice, they are teaching idolatry.
But if you look closely at how Christ and the church are shown in that “head-body” description, there is not one place in Ephesians where this metaphor includes Christ exercising authority over the church. Instead, Christ as “head” is shown in two functions.
First, in Ephesians 1, we see Christ as the catalyst for our adoption as “sons.” Paul speaks of how Christ was raised from the dead and placed “far above all principality, and power, and might and dominion” with “all things under his feet.“ Christ is here said to be “head over all things to (or “for the sake of”) the church, which is his body.” (Eph. 1:21-22). But an important distinction is being made. The church is NOT among the things named as being under Christ’s feet. Instead she is spoken of as being raised up with Christ and “seated together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:6.) Christ is seated in the heavenly realms “above” all rule and principality and authority and power– and the church is seated up there with Him. The Greek word “kephale” (head) here seems to have its Greek metaphorical meaning of “prominent/preeminent one.” But the church as Christ’s body is pictured, not under that preeminence, but in an organic oneness withChrist in His preeminence. Christ’s relationship to the church as “head” to “body” is here shown not as a relationship where the high position of Christ is exercised over the church, but one where the high position of Christ is exercised on behalf of the church while she sits with Him on high.
A pater familias, accustomed to a high and prominent position, and keeping Chapter 1 in mind as he read on through Chapter 5, would have understood that as “head” in Chapter 5, he was expected to “give himself” for his wife as Christ did for the church, with the result that the church was raised up to be glorious (Eph 5:25-27). Laying down his prominence of place in regards to his wife, and raising his wife up to be beside him in oneness, and exercising his social position on her behalf and for her good, is part of what it meant for a husband to be “head” to his wife as ‘body” in Ephesians 5.
The other place where the head-body metaphor is used for Christ and the church is in Chapter 4. Here Paul says, “But speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together. . . maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” Here the “head” is clearly seen as the source of growth and energy for the “body.” A pater familias, keeping this in mind as he read Chapter 5, would understand that as “head” in this sense, he was to “nourish and cherish” his wife as his own body (Eph 5:29).
But nothing about “leading” or “having authority over” the church or the wife is mentioned as part of the “head to body” relationship anywhere in the Epistle to the Ephesians. Nowhere is Christ as “head“ spoken of in terms of “leading” or “ruling” the church. Nowhere is the husband told to “lead” his wife or “rule” his household. And to the original audience, which was expecting to hear such words, the absence of any such words would have shouted.
What is the result? Paul was trying to grow an infant religious movement, which meant not fighting existing authority structures– but if within the body of Christ, Christians in positions of authority did not act on that authority, but laid down their privilege and served, and where those in subordinate positions did not passively resist or actively rebel, but willingly gave their best and served, it would all end up in a kind of functional equality, existing in Christian households in an age where the concept of “equal rights” as we now know them, did not yet exist. Paul’s teachings on Christian relationships would, if followed, undermine ancient societal norms from within, eventually resulting in more just, equitable social structures in cultures influenced by these teachings.
Christians reading the Scriptures this way in the last century began to crusade against the institution of slavery, understanding that Paul’s intent was never to perpetuate social injustice in the name of being “biblical.” Why, then, does the church perpetrate male dominance over females in the name of being “biblical”? Isn’t what we are actually perpetuating, the results of the Fall and not the power of the Resurrection?