Exploring the Meaning of “Head” in Ephesians 5:23

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I’ve been thinking about what it means for the husband to be the “head” of his wife(Eph5:23).  This verse is primarily read with the assumption that the word “head”  means “authority”, “the one in charge” or “the head of the house”.  It is taught that the husband is the leader, and is responsible for making decisions for the family in the interest of solving a power struggle within the marriage.  It seems that complementarians believe that there is a power struggle within all marriages, so it’s only natural that God needed to put someone in charge in order to solve this problem, and to make things run smoothly.  It’s my opinion that this is a false dilemma and a very dim view of marriage.  It’s also sad to me that comps think that the solution to this dilemma is placing one person in authority over the other. It’s like saying, “Let’s solve our future conflicts by having you be declared ‘right’ in every future disagreement we may have.  That way, we’ll never argue!”  So even if the wife is “right”, it makes no difference, because the husband can override her opinion whenever he wants.  This situation is demeaning to the woman, and no matter how many times complementarians shout, “women are equal!” it doesn’t matter, because they cancel out equality by making the wife permanently at the mercy of her husband’s good will for their entire married life.  Marriage is supposed to be a man and woman joined together as one flesh, NOT a hierarchy where one person is in permanent submission to the other. Using the husband’s false authority as a way to avoid conflict is a cop-out, and a very ineffectual way to solve problems in marriage.

In order to find out what is meant by the husband being the “head” of his wife, I think we need to go beyond the dispute between “head(kephale)” meaning “authority” or “source”.  I believe we can find what Paul meant by the husband being the “head” by seeing what the Bible itself has to say about it.  This is not to say that interpreting the New Testament in light of the original Greek isn’t important.  However, in this case I think Paul sheds light on what he meant by his description of what it means for Christ to be “Head of the Church” and then compares it to the husband/wife relationship.  What follows are several verses from Scripture that define what it means for Christ to be Head of the church.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.  From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” ~ Ephesians 4:15-16(emphasis mine)

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.“~ Ephesians 1:22-23(emphasis mine)

Submit to one another out of reverance for Christ.  Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives must submit to their husbands in everything.  Husbands, love your wife, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present to her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who love his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds it and cares for it, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body.” ~ Ephesians 5:21-30(emphasis mine)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have supremacy. ~ Colossians 1:15-18(emphasis mine)

So, what does it mean for Christ to be Head of the Church?

Christ’s headship has to do with the building, edifying, and unifying of His Church.  Ephesians 5:29 tells us that Christ’s Headship also includes nourishing the Church.” ~ Woman this is War! by Jocelyn Andersen(page 107)

Christ makes the church grow, feeds it and cares for it, gave himself up for it.  He is the Capstone(Matt. 21:42), He holds the church together, builds it up, edifies it.  He is also the one by whom “all things were created”, and this is the point where the metaphor cannot be completely perfect, since men didn’t create anything.  In the context of Ephesians, where the subject is marriage, Christ as Head in terms of authority or supremacy is never mentioned.  It is only in the context of Christ giving himself up for and nourishing the church that the husband is the head, as Christ.

Therefore, the husband is to love his wife by helping her grow, nourishing and edifying her while giving himself up for her, loving her as his own body.

The wife submits to her husband by being loyal only to him and no other man, and the husband loves his wife sacrificially by giving himself up for her.  He does not have authority over her.  He does not have the “burden” of making the final decision.  The Bible simply never tells husbands to lead or have authority over their wives.  The husband as head of the wife is a metaphor, not a model for hierarchy in marriage.  This is all very mysterious(Eph. 5:32), and cannot be understood completely in human terms.

It’s demeaning to the mysteriousness of the one flesh union between husband and wife to define it in terms of a hierarchy.  Wade Burleson points out, “Jesus explicitly forbids any one individual assuming authority over other adults in the Christian community(Matthew 20:20-28).” I agree.  No adult should ever have to permanently surrender their will to another person.  This is idolatry, as we should be surrendered to Christ and Christ alone.  He is the way, and we do not have to go through another person to get to him.

The husband is the head of his wife, as in the one who can lift her up, edify her, and help her grow.  He is not her authority.  Christ is her authority.

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About creativehomeschooler

I'm a homeschooling mom of two creative children. I created this blog to highlight the things I'm thankful for during my days. It can be a challenge to homeschool, but I try to look at the grace my children and I experience. And these kids come up with some neat projects, so I hope to encourage and inspire others who may be reading.

13 responses »

  1. This is almost identical to Bilezekian’s paper on headship at CBE. I agree with both, it is always worthwhile to let the Bible itself define the terms it uses when one can do this.

  2. Don,
    Thanks for the comment. I just read his article last night at CBE and was pleasantly surprised to see how similar it was to mine! I hope he knows I didn’t copy it, last night was the first time I had seen it. At any rate, I think it’s really important in the “headship” case to define it using the description Paul provides for us right in scripture, instead of reading definitions into it that aren’t there. Thanks for reading, I hope you continue to visit this blog:)

  3. I was just trying to point out that figuring this out yourself was a worthwhile accomplishment. All of us see thru a glass darkly so getting confirmation is useful.

  4. Pingback: Are Husbands the “Head of the Household”?* « a profound mystery

  5. Great blog Stephanie, I enjoyed your analysis here and have long had trouble with the term “head” in scripture. The idea that the head (or brain or mind) leads the body is a modern concept. For most of human history, it was thought that either the gut or heart led the body, not the head. During Christ’s time, it was believed that the omphalos or navel led the body, not the brain (or head). However, what I have had a hard time determining was that if the omphalos led the body, what was the role of the head in Jesus’s time? I know that in this blog you used context in order to determine what the word head meant – but I am wondering if you came across the idea of what the people of Jesus’s day thought the purpose of the head was considering they thought that our decisions were made in our gut? Thanks again for a great entry.

  6. Mediazombie,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have read that during Christ’s time, the heart led the thoughts and emotions of the person. I haven’t heard of the omphalos or navel as leading the body, (although I don’t doubt what you’re saying.) I’ve been going through Philip Payne’s book, “Man and Woman, One in Christ”, and he presents a very solid case that “head” would have meant “source” in Christ’s time. I have never been very convinced of that interpretation, but his evidence is pretty persuasive. And no, I haven’t come across what people would have thought the purpose of the head was…very good question. I’ll have to look into that one more, thanks:)
    Stephanie

  7. I might have missed something…but didn’t Ephesians say that the husband is the head in the same way christ is the head of the church? So if I flip it around, the wife is the church and the husband is christ. Therefore, if “Christ is her authority” as you stated in your last sentence and she is supposed to have a relationship with her husband the same way a church has a relationship with christ, then her husband is her authority. Is this inaccurate?

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