Ephesians 5 | The Husband as Kephale

Ephesians 5 | The Husband as Kephale January 16, 2020

Before you read this article, please bear in mind that it’s a simple Word study.  That’s all.  I’ve found that certain terms in Scripture can and do give us great insight into the Word of God.  In this case, there is a term in Ephesians that cannot be ignored.  Paul applies the Greek term kephale to the husband in Ephesians, and in other Epistles.

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The Husband as Kephale

There are plenty of times that you will find this term used in the New Testament (NT) and by Paul.  In keeping with our study, I’ll quote one verse to start.

For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church.  He is the Savior of his body, the church. – Ephesians 5.23, NLT

I am in no way chauvinist, sexist, etc., but I cannot ignore God’s Word either.  While I believe that we can press toward a clearer understanding of this term, I will not attempt to apply it for your life.  In fact, I don’t even claim to have the clearest definition of the term.  I’m only a little concerned that it has been misinterpreted at times.  I hope that this word study will provide a little more clarity.

I believe there are many presuppositions in the Text that could take me in a variety of directions, but I’ll just choose two.  The first important presupposition is that Paul does not bother to make a case for gender differences.  He seems to presume that we have common Biblical ground on this topic.  There is a second presupposition that I must point out.  Everything we are discussing falls under the heading of Spirit-filled living.  Paul establishes that we are talking about being Spirit-filled in the preceding verses.  Therefore everything about our Spirit-filled lifestyle must affect everyone closest to us.

i. Misunderstanding kephale

First of all, I think I’ll deal with one incorrect definition of the term “head” from kephale.  I’m sure there are plenty of wrong ways to look at this term, including some ways that inadvertently give men the license to take their God-given role and lord it over their wives.

However, I’m going to consider something a little more closely related to the language.  There are some who have attempted to draw a deeper meaning from kephale by stating that it can mean the headwaters of a spring or river.  Their conclusion is that like the head of a spring, the grace of the family flows from the husband.

As good as this sounds, it is a fallacious argument because kephale is really never used as the headwaters of a spring at all in the NT.  In fact, this use of kephale rarely occurs in the Greek language in general.

So to ascertain that kephale refers to the source or headwaters of a spring, and not to the role of chief, is to misconstrue this common term in the NT and in the Greek.  As stated above, this may only be one way we misconstrue the term “head” or kephale.

ii. The context of kephale

Perhaps far more important to the Greek mindset is to think of an empire that has conquered smaller kingdoms, which are made up of tribes, which are made up of clans.  This is how Israel is structured at the time, and it is still the prevailing way of life in many sub-kingdoms of Rome when Paul pens these words.

The family was the basic social unit of the empire, though by “family” is meant “extended family” or “household” (domus).  The domus included husband, wife, children, slaves, and others living in the house, and this enlarged sense of family had significant repercussions for the expansive authority wielded by the father (paterfamilias, the oldest living male descendant) and for the transmission of wealth and status.[1]

Because of this very common way that kephale is used in the Greek and in the historical grammatical context, I could probably make a good argument for “chief” as a better translation than “head.”

So when we’re looking at words in the Bible, sometimes we gain great understanding from the term itself.  At other times, we take a step back and look at the term in light of how it’s predominantly used in NT times.  We have to be careful in such cases because sometimes NT authors are not drawing on the greater meaning from the Greco-Roman culture.  Sometimes NT authors are reinterpreting a term, baptizing it so to speak, and reintroducing it to their culture.

In this case, it is apparent that kephale carries the same meaning one would expect it to have anywhere in the Roman Empire.  “Chief” and “first” are two translations we often pull from kephale.  They are interchangeable meanings.  “However one chooses to translate kephale (‘head’) here, the firstness indicated by this term is difficult to avoid.”[2]

iii. Toward a NT understanding of kephale

This is a very tentative interpretation.  However, to begin to understand what kephale comes to mean in the NT, it may be good to take a step back once again and look at the culture.  One truth surfaces from Rome that probably bears quite a bit of weight.

Rome itself was imagined as one household with Caesar as the father of all.  This portrait surfaced in the ongoing characterization of the emperor as the sire of his people, their benefactor and savior.[3]

Before we completely write-off this nugget of historical truth because the term “savior” is used, let me assure you that it is used in a different sense.  Hopefully I will be dealing with the term “savior” in the next week or two.

Nevertheless I can make another salient point from the above quote.  Caesar not only holds the office as head of state.  He in some way attempts to hold the office head of household for the whole empire.  In some way, this understanding of Caesar may be a preparatio evangelica for Christ, who would launch a new kingdom as the both head of state and head of household.

We see a similar development in the ancient Near East (aNE), including Israel.  People sometimes refer to their estates as the “Father’s House,” or bet’ab.  Therefore, there is no great stretch when thinking of God as a benevolent Father, and His Son Jesus Christ as the active agent and head of house, clan, tribe, and kingdom.  For a brief vlog on the bet’ab in the aNE CLICK HERE

Is it possible that both the nation of Israel and the Greco-Roman Empire are ready for a new chief to arise, a new head of a new kingdom?

iv. Scriptural context for kephale

Our primary text is Ephesians 5.23: For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church (NLT).

We find kephale only three times in Ephesians, but all three are consistent with the meaning I have developed in this article.  If Paul or a close associate writes Ephesians, then we can assume that the other Epistles from Paul will develop a similar meaning for kephale.

Indeed, every time Paul uses the term kephale in all of his Epistles, he fleshes out a similar meaning.  It has to do with the lordship of Christ, the role He has given to the husband, or another theme related to leadership and honor.

Wesley Adams, a commentator, states that Paul makes it clear that this is God-given authority.  Paul compares the husband’s authority to Christ as head of the church.  So men and women are blessed in their God-given roles.[4]

Closing where we opened

I make these closing remarks in light of the two opening presuppositions.  First, I believe God not only creates people as males and females in His image, I also believe there are roles or functions within marriage.  Paul does not even leave this question open for debate.

Second, if indeed this passage falls under Paul’s heading in Ephesians of Spirit-filled living, then what does a Spirit-filled husband look like?

A Spirit-filled husband probably already knows that his role looks and functions something like our Lord’s.

If you’re a wife, please give your husband a little slack at this point.  The pressure is on him, but I’m sure your husband does not have a messiah complex.  More than likely, he understands that he is in a role of honor, as a tangible representative of Jesus Christ in the home.

So again I ask, what does a Spirit-filled head of the household look like in your home?

I hope this series will assist you as you work it out.

To listen or watch a related sermon CLICK HERE

Rev. Jared V. Ingle
Pastor: Long Lake Friends Church
Supervised Therapist: Personal, Couple, and Family
Traverse City, MI

Meet Jared


These are related articles and sermons from this series on marriage and family from Ephesians 5-6.  Take a moment to read a related article, or tune into a message on your morning commute.


Submission CLICK HERE

Submission in the House of God CLICK HERE

The Sanctity of Water & the Word CLICK HERE


Submission CLICK HERE

Sanctification CLICK HERE

Sexuality CLICK HERE

Husband, Head & Savior CLICK HERE


[1] Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson, Introducing the New Testament: It’s Literature and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 47. [2] David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 231.

[3] Achtemeier, Green, and Thompson, 48.

[4] Wesley Adams, Ephesians, in the Full Life Bible Commentary: An International Commentary for Spirit-Filled Christians, eds. French L. Arrington and Roger Stronstad (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 1076.

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