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Head of the household?

“Why did God make man the head of the household?”

That question stared up at me from the study one of the men in our small group had written. We were discussing a chapter from C.S. Lewis’ classic, Mere Christianity, but also looking at Ephesians 5.

Lewis echoes a popular sentiment (especially in his day) that in decision making, a couple should talk things over but if they cannot decide, the man should cast the deciding vote, since you can’t have a “majority vote” in a group of only two people.

I’m a huge Lewis fan. I was an English major at  Wheaton College, for heaven’s sake, where Lewis is highly venerated. I’ve read most of his books. He’s smart and scholarly, but not infallible. Further, he was writing in 1943, in Britain, to a mostly white middle class audience, where women’s sphere of influence was mostly the home. He had no frame of reference for a woman as a leader, only a woman as bossy housewife. He also wrote as a bachelor! He wrote that man should be the boss because no one would really want a woman bossing her husband around.

And therein lies the heart of the problem. To assume that “head” in Ephesians 5 and elsewhere means “boss” is an erroneous assumption. In English, head literally means the round body part on top of your neck. And the Greek word in Ephesians 5 means that same thing: a part of the body. It does not mean authority or boss. it does not mean chief person or leader or authority. It certainly doesn’t mean bossy or nagging.

In other words: you keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The Koine Greek noun kephalē  means head, but if we look at its other uses in the Bible, we see that it means the head of a body. A man and wife are like a head and a body–they need each other and help each other function, they work best in unity. The same Greek word is used in 1 Corinthians 12, where again Paul writes of a human body as a metaphor for unity within the body of Christ. But this word has often been misunderstood. It does not mean what we think it means when we hear it in English.

The word kephalē  does not mean boss or even “chief person,” as scholar Marg Mowczko writes: “In Koine Greek, the Greek of the New Testament, the word kephalē (head) also has metaphorical meanings; however “leader” or “chief person” is usually not one of them….The concept of kephalē carries the connotations of kinship, association and connection.  A head is nothing without a body, and vice versa.  Moreover, the head and body have an affinity and are part of the same unit.” (From the New Life blog article The Metaphorical Meanings of Head in Paul’s Letters, read the whole excellent article here.)

The word could also mean source or “fountainhead”—like the head of a river. Woman was created out of man, just as the church was created out of Christ’s sacrifice. Christ’s headship is one of sacrifice, not casting deciding votes. Christ is the source of nurture and love for the church, and man is a source of nurture and love for his wife.

The use of “head” in Ephesians reminds us of the unity of creation, where we were created in the image of God, male and female. Just as there is no hierarchy in creation, there is none in Christian marriage. Mutual submission means we lead our families together, each using our gifts (like different parts of the body).

Ephesians 5 is a call to restore the oneness that we were created in. It provides a general statement: submit to one another, then offers specific instructions to both men and women. Wives are to submit (by definition something they do by choice, not by their husband’s compulsion) and husbands are to love, give themselves up for, and care for their wives.

Choosing to submit and choosing to give oneself up for another are quite similar—in fact, it would be hard to distinguish the two in practice. Wives give themselves up for their husbands when they submit; husbands submit when they give themselves up for their wives. So how, in the instructions to love, give himself up for, and care for his wife as he would his own body (again a statement of unity and equality) do we find the instructions that the man gets the deciding vote in a disagreement? We don’t.

Many, including my friends, would say you need to have someone to break the tie. I suggested that God would break the tie, if you continued to seek God’s wisdom, asking to be led by the Spirit to unity. In a way, giving the man the deciding vote keeps God small, and prevents the man from actually having to do what Ephesians 5:21 says: submit to one another. If you know you’ve got the deciding vote, you aren’t really submitting.

If you trust that God is able to lead and give you the right direction, why does one person need to be the tie-breaker? Is it impossible for God to lead both a man and a woman to peace about a decision? Why the man? Can men hear God better than women? Is God incapable of speaking directly to both husband and wife?

So in small group, when it was my turn to answer the question, “why did God make man the head of the household?” I looked up and said, “God didn’t.”

This raised a bit of a ruckus, even from the wives in the group, who firmly believe that is what the Bible teaches.

But the text doesn’t say “head of the household.” It says, “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.”

The text does say, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) How can you submit to one another when one person is the “head of the household” meaning the boss or authority?

Photo from Lightstock.com

Photo from Lightstock.com

My friends argued that head of the wife in the text “implies” head of the household. Really? If you claim to take the Bible literally, but then say that “household” is implied by the word “wife” –it seems to me that you are not taking the Bible literally. The word wife does not mean household. The text does not say household.

Other verses about Christian households tell children to obey. Whom are they instructed to obey? If husbands are the head of the household, and children are members of it, it seems that we’d read something like “Children, obey your father.”

But we don’t. The text says, “Children, obey your parents, and honor your father and mother.” (Ephesians 6:1-3)

Other passages of Scripture concur: honor your father and mother. (Exodus 20:12)

Certainly these instructions to children seem to point toward a partnership or shared authority of the parents. The text does not say to honor and obey only the father, but both parents.

My friends shared stories of times where the women had let their husbands decide, even if they disagreed—and it had turned out for the best. They said they were glad to surrender that choice. I agree that sometimes, we do that. Because Ephesians 5:21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” So if my husband and I are submitting to one another, it means sometimes he’ll decide, but sometimes I will.

It’s not that I don’t want to submit. As a Christian, I am called to put others first, to be unselfish–to submit. But the Bible calls both of us to submit, not just the wife. In fact, we submit not only in marriage but in the church–and again, it’s not just the women, but all of us, one to another. And submission is not something someone can coerce. By definition, submission is something a person chooses to do.

This passage calls us to keep on seeking God, believing that he will lead us to unity. Because that is what Ephesians 5 is all about: unity, not authority. Verse 21 hinges the section before it (about unity in the church) to the section following it (about unity in the family). The whole chapter is about unity and connection, not authority. It’s about oneness, mutual submission and sacrifice, not who casts the deciding vote.

Read more on this from biblical scholars or check out Beyond Sex Roles by Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, professor emeritus at Wheaton.

What does mutual submission look like in your relationships? Is the man the head of the household? 

 

24 Comments

  1. By the way, my friend Tim has an excellent blog post on this topic as well from a little while back: https://timfall.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/marriage-is-not-a-democracy/

    • Thanks for the shout out, Keri. 😉

      As I read through your description of how others take that passage, if they really thought that metaphor was head as leader then they’d be forced to see the wife ad the muscles of the relationship. After all, without the body the head is going nowhere. So they must be saying he’s the brains and she’s the brawn.

      Your take on it makes much more sense.

  2. This is only second to another expression that irks me: man is to be the spiritual leader of the home. What?! Again, it elevates the “head” in an unnatural way. Anyways, good thought here, thanks for sharing.

  3. I love this post! Thank you so much, Keri!

  4. I read Eph 5 this morning and found myself doubting my egalitarian stance. Your article is somewhat reassuring, however do you think the fact that English uses ‘head’ to mean leader as in ‘headmaster’ or ‘head of the organisation’ has grown out of a misunderstanding or would head have had a connotation of ‘leader’ in greek? The head certainly seems the preferable part of the body to be, it is still a troublesome analogy for me.

    • Natalie,
      Thanks for your honest comment. it is hard. But the Bible was not written in English, and we don’t always have a word that has the perfect translation. The word kephale in Greek (the Greek word translated “head” in this passage) did not have that connotation of “leader.” I hope you’ll click through and read this more scholarly article that explains the Greek word. Please read this article http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/kephale-and-male-headship-in-pauls-letters/…also, as for the head being the “preferable part”–that reflects our Western, rationalist thinking, which developed centuries after the Bible was written. In the culture of the Bible, the body part that represented decisions and will was the heart. Which is squarely in the middle of the body, not the head. See for Example Luke 6:45: “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.” Keep digging, keep searching. Also, I highly recommend Dr. B’s book, which I link to in the post.

  5. Very complete and descriptive! Thank you for this post.

    My husband and I are in an equal marriage. We really don’t have trouble with tie breakers much because usually after hearing both of our thoughts it is clear which way we should go. We’ve decided that if we ever cannot decide that we will get counsel from an outside source if it can’t be worked through. I love you encourage us that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to speak to and change both of our hearts!

    • Ashley, thanks. I’ve been married 24 years and we never have had trouble with a “tie-breaker.” We pray, and God leads us. The few times we’ve come to an impasse, we usually let the person who has more to lose (or will pay a higher “price” emotionally or time-wise) make the choice. Or the person who has more passion about the decision. We’ve also learned to trust God’s timing to bring us to mutual agreement. I love the idea of seeking outside counsel–we’ve also sometimes done that, and it’s always been helpful.

      • I love this article, and this comment especially. My wife and I are newly awakened to egalitarian principles, and we’ve been drinking in everything we can on the subject.

        This explanation makes a lot of sense to us already. I love what you said about an outside tiebreaker. With the man in charge, if he needs advice in his decision, he’s going to ask his buddies, or pastor, etc. Then he’ll take it to his wife. The decision is already likely made by that time – who’s going to go against husband and pastor/elder?
        Under mutual submission, when you need advice, you both have to be honest and open about your struggles, and both are involved in the advice-taking process. There’s no headship filter keeping influences out. Even on my best days I’m selfish.

        Good stuff all around.

  6. Well said. My marriage would have been much better in the early years, if I had learned this earlier. thanks for putting together argument plainly. Honestly though, i kept reading because of Inigo Montoya.

    Blessings

    Ben

    • Thanks, Ben. I’m not above using Princess Bride memes to snag readers. Glad you’ve joined the conversation! 🙂

  7. have you ever looked into the idea of covenant headship? worth a look.. it suggests headship is a position of responsibility rather than authority. i don’t quite think its right to call headshp simply the head of a body.. it seems a little reductionist, especially when we look at the relationship of Christ to us as our covenant head. thanks for your thoughts!

    • Thanks for your comment, Lynnea. Glad you’re joining the conversation. I’ll look up covenant headship. However, the term “headship” is not in this passage. It’s something Christians talk about, but I think it gets us off track. But my point is that Paul is using a metaphor of head and body to describe unity–which certainly is covenantal. But the term “headship” (or even the idea of it) is not anywhere in Ephesians 5. I think when it comes to marriage, as well as relationships within the church body, we called to mutual submission, and what Carolyn Custis James calls “the blessed alliance” of men and women working and leading together.

  8. Ephesians 5:22-24 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

    I appreciate your thoughts and the idea of balance and emphasis on mutual submission. I plan to read the links you posted as well.
    Regarding these verses in Ephesians 5 and the concept of marriage being a viable picture of the relationship of Christ to the church I don’t see how else to read the idea of the meaning here of the head.
    There is no way around the emphasis of the husband as being the head. As a church body we submit to the will of Christ.
    Not saying there is no truth in your analysis but wondering how one reconciles these differing concepts.

    • Thanks, Lisa. In the original Greek, Verses 22-22 were one sentence. So verses 22 in the Greek does not have it’s own verb. So it would be combined with verse 21, which actually combines with verse 20: …always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father, being submitted to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives, to your husbands, as to the Lord.” the text then adds some detail on that, them in verse 25, turns to husbands. So the overall message hinges on verse 21: being submitted out of reverence for christ: wives, to your husbands…and husbands, love your wives (vs 25). Mutual submission means both, and the passage contains instructions how each are to submit to the other. Should wives submit? Yes. But should husbands also submit? Yes. That’s what giving yourself up for someone means. (again, verse 25). It’s hard to let go of our English connotations of “head” but the Greek word in this passage does not mean ruler or boss.

    • I agree with your thoughts Lisa. I cannot see any confusing message with what Eph. 5 was telling clearly that the husbands are the heads of the wives. There is no battle of the sexes anyway when a husband will love his wife as he is commanded by God and the wife will submit to him according to God’s command. Loving your wife means listening also to her views, thinking of her safety and interests all the time, adoring her and respecting her worth as a person. Submitting to the husband means trusting him to take good care of you and honoring him as your head. In I Corinthians “the greatest of these is love”. Love and submission operates together. Therefore this does not mean that women have no say in the church or in the home anymore.

  9. I know I already left a comment, but I just have to leave another. This subject of submission, mutual submission, male authority/female submission, is something I have been wrestling with for some time now. I discovered that my church, and especially the woman in charge of women’s ministry, advocates a male authority/female submission interpretation of the Bible. And not just in marriage!

    I recently sat through (endured!) a True Woman 101 class to find out just what was being taught. That I didn’t walk into class ripping the book to shreds after the first week of reading it, I count as evidence that the Holy Spirit is developing the fruit of self-control within me. Even so, there were still a number of times I considered putting that book through the shredder. As my husband so aptly stated, “It’s not a study; it’s an agenda.”

    I’ve haphazardly read a few things here and there about the subject of submission since, but have mostly just wrastled with it in my spirit. I am more in danger of sitting back and abdicating my responsibilities than I am in usurping my husband’s. I have much more of a tendency to leave too much of the overseeing our home and family to him, than I do of elbowing him aside and taking charge.

    So, I love this post. Thank you for your study of the original language and your explanation of it. Your explanation flows logically, clearly, and understandably. I appreciate it so much. I shall click through the links you have provided. And I shall fully embrace my responsibilities rather than letting too much of them fall on my husband.

    • Thanks, Ellen, I appreciate your feedback. I am starting to work on a book on this topic. I’m interested in what you (and other readers) would like to see in a book on women in the church and family. What would you find helpful, and useful?
      Also, is True Woman the teaching that comes from the work of Nancy Leigh DeMoss?
      thanks for commenting.

  10. Kerri,

    I’m seeing this because you linked it on the BCE group on Facebook. It’s quite good. I’m interested in following up on the idea that I’m somehow NOT submitting, all day, all the time, to various people. That thought just occurred to me…

    M

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