NLQ FAQ: The Bible and Male Headship – Part 2

NLQ FAQ: The Bible and Male Headship – Part 2 October 13, 2010

by Kristen Rosser ~ aka: KR Wordgazer

The question being asked in Part 1 was:

Doesn’t the Bible say the man is the head of the woman and that the husband is the head of the house, the instrument of God for directing the family? Isn’t he God’s designated authority, the one God holds responsible for all decision-making on behalf of the couple and their children?


With the understanding from Part 1, of 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.” As discussed in “Quiverfull and the Bible,” we will 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 with Christ 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?

Discuss this post on the NLQ forums! Comments are also open below.

[Note: This article is intended for those readers who have chosen to accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on the assumptions on which it is based.]

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  • chaidrinkingfool

    Wonderful post! Thank you!

    Here’s some of what I see…

    In Eph 5:21, all Christians are told to submit to all other Christians, out of reverence for Christ. I do not see this being limited to times when we’re in a church building, or it not applying within the marriage relationship. If this “one another” means something other than, literally, “one another”, what effect does that have on all the other “one another”s in scripture?

    Verse 22 does indeed separate out wives’ submission to husbands: within the context of Christians’ submission to one another. I do not think it negates the instruction of the verse before it. It may clarify the way in which the submission of a Christian wife differs from the societal/cultural wifely submission of the time. It may also indicate how the redeemed submission of a wife differs from that sort of submission that came about as a result of the Fall.

    Verses 25-31 are addressed to husbands: within the context of Christians’ submission to one another. A husband is told to love his wife as Christ loves the church. I have heard of this described as difficult, and/or as being willing to lay one’s life down–which is usually interpreted as “being willing to die for her” in a literal sense of bodily death. I will not disagree with either observation/interpretation.

    I propose, however, that the husband laying his life down–or rather, more often “being willing to lay his life down” for his wife is not intended to be limited to a theoretical point in the future in which the husband will take a bullet that is meant for his wife.

    It seems often overlooked that the aspect of Christ’s love for the church that husbands are to emulate/strive to embody is specified by Scripture. ..”just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word”…

    Christ as *savior*. As husbands are sinful humans just as wives are, this cannot mean that husbands provide salvation for their wives. What does it mean?

    Christ blessed us by coming to earth and living with us as fully human. He provided us all with an example of the sort of life that is pleasing to God. What a gift! But how did he become our *Savior*? By emptying himself of all power. Ah ha. Just as husbands are to empty themselves of the power granted to them, as males, by society (this power may be more obvious in the Southern US than the Northern US, and is certainly more pronounced in other parts of the world than it is in the US generally, but it does still exist in the US).

    And why don’t some people see that if only wives have to submit, as they are singled out, then they are not expected to *love*, as only husbands are singled out? Does that not follow, if we apply the same logic?

  • chaidrinkingfool

    Oh–I meant to say specifically that your inclusion of Aristotle’s household code is very helpful. It sounds creepily familiar to those of us coming out of even mildly “complementarian” traditions. It’s amazing the way that today’s pastors fall for an understanding of these scriptures that designates the husband as the leader of the wife. Do they not study ancient culture at all in seminary? It is so obviously the source of that interpretation. Thank you again.

  • Barbara

    Great essay! My understanding from reading “progressive” Christian blogs is that patriarchy is a tradition handed down from ancient Greece and Rome. Women may not have been “equal” in the ancient Jewish tradition that informed Jesus and Paul, but I get the idea that they were allowed more autonomy than pagan Greek & Roman women.

    As I’ve written on this website before, I believe that the reason that Christianity succeeded where dozens of religions which existed concurrently died out, is because Christianity actively recruited women. Incidentally, both the mothers of Constantine and Augustine, became Christians before they did, and doubtlessly were influential in their conversion.

  • Sehr schöner Blog, gefällt mir gut. Bitte weiter so 🙂

  • BA

    I’m not sure I get the “mutual submission” reference. What does it mean when it says “the husband is the head of the wife?” Or in the pastoral epistles when it holds the husband responsible for the management of the family? Isn’t there a beautiful order on display here and in several other passages that equates the relation of the husband and wife to the relation of Christ and the Church? The Church submits to the authority of Christ; He in turn gave it all for the Church and loves her unconditionally. These are not positions of equality (such a notion would be heresy). Christ is head of the church just as the husband is the head of the household. If you’re going to say the husband and wife are equal in relation to one another, then the analogy to Christ and the Church can only be true if Christ and the Church are equal to one another – as mentioned, such a notion would be heterodox at the least and heretical when applied in its fulness.

    Granted, there are horrible husbands. Always have been. These husbands as in violation of that order, and appropriate biblical measures (from prayer and counseling to divorce in the cases of infidelity and abuse) should be pursued.

  • Kristen

    BA – the idea that Christ as “head” and wife as “body” is not descriptive of Christ’s authoritative relation to the church is only heterodox if Christ as “Lord” is denied. No one is saying Christ is not Lord– we are saying “Lord” and “head” are different words with different meanings, particularly in the koine Greek, where authority was not one of the usual connotations of the word “head.” Eph. 5 is equating husband-as-head to Christ-as-head, not husband-as-lord to Christ-as-Lord. If “head” does not mean “Lord” (and it doesn’t), then the husband-wife relationship is not one of authority– because only ONE aspect of Christ’s relation to the church is being pictured, and that aspect is not “Lordship.”

  • Kristen

    PS. “Head of the household” is not a term ever used for husbands in the New Testament.

    Also, the Bible never says the wife is to “submit to the husband’s authority.” “Authority” is not a word that appears in the “head” passages at all. Nor is “authority” expressly implied by the word “submit.” “Submit to one another” in Eph. 5:21 cannot mean that everyone has authority over everyone else.

  • Zec

    The problem with this line of reasoning is that it calls the whole faith into question. Can we really claim that a God we believe created the whole world with the brush of his mind can’t write a book? How can we ask people to believe that an immortal being found a way to kill Himself and then raise Himself back from the dead but can’t keep the cultural biases of a few fishermen from corrupting His Word? Its ludicrous, either the Bible is 100% true or the whole thing is a farce and a lie. Also, what other things do we get to declare cultural irrelevancies now? Do we really need a prohibition on adultery anymore? How about pornography? Surely God wouldn’t condone censorship. Why should I as a man be bound by ancient, apparently flawed texts while women are free from same? Sorry ladies, if you want to keep Christianity’s protections then you have to take its restrictions.

  • Zec

    Could it be that the reason Christianity “succeeded” is because its true?

  • Zec

    You are exactly right, women are not required to love their husbands. Why is it so radical that He might of actually said what He meant? Do you honestly think God can’t write down a coherent thought? That he can’t protect His Word? Why do you think your watered down neutered deity can save your soul when he can’t save his own thoughts, the very thoughts that were supposed to have created you? Your logic is very hard to follow. You don’t have to be a Christian. There are plenty of other religions out there that will let you be your own god and make up your own rules. Go be on of those for a while. You may find you enjoy having a strong, capable God who knows what He thinks and stands by it. If so please come back to Him.

  • Kristen

    “Either the Bible is 100% true or the whole thing is a farce and a lie.”

    This either-or dichotomy is false. It is you who are defining what “100% true” means, and what it means to you is that it can’t be the book it shows itself quite clearly to be– a book that was intended to be understood as having been transmitted in different times and cultures. Why is it that almost every book begins with words such as “this is the message that came to such and such a person during the time of so-and-so”? It’s because God intends us to understand that it is to be understood in that way– and not as a memo from the Boss left on our desks yesterday.

    It is you who are insisting that there’s only one type of word God could have given, and that it can’t be understood as containing cultural assumptions, or it isn’t God’s word.

    God doesn’t seem to have intended to inspire the kind of book you think He ought to have. But what is inspired is the original intent of the writer of the text, as would have been understood by the original audience, not what you think it means 2000 years and another whole language apart.

  • Kristen

    There is also a misunderstanding of the Protestant doctrine of the perspecuity of Scripture here. The doctrine as understood since the Reformation is that the Scriptures are clear on everything a human being needs to know to be saved– not that the Scriptures are, or were intended to be, clear in every passage without the need for study or understanding of history. What do we have church leaders for? It’s supposed to be so that the scholarship that helps the layperson understand the original authorial intent regarding non-salvation issues can be communicated to everyone. Instead, church leaders often use their position to shore up traditional lines of power. This ought not to be so. But yes, scholarship is needed to understand some of the texts. That ought not to be a stumbling block to anyone’s faith.

  • Kristen Rosser

    You have no business inferring that you know whether or not I’m walking with God. Please desist in making personal judgments.

  • Kristen Rosser

    . . . or whether or not chaidrinkingfool is walking with God, which, on second glance, is whom you were talking about. . .