From Bondage to Blessing

Chapter 12 - Headship in Ephesians 5:21-33

"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, 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 ... In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church -- for we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery -- but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." (Ephesians 5:21-33, NIV)

Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 are the two primary verses which Christians use to advocate that the Bible teaches a hierarchy of authority, with men (or husbands) over women (or their wives) as the "head". This passage in Ephesians has further been used to justify the domination of husbands over wives because of Paul's discussion about submission. Men are fond of quoting that wives are to submit to their husbands, conveniently ignoring the next verse which tells them to love their wives the same way Jesus loved the Church and gave up His very life for her. Even so, this passage has much more to say to us, if we will examine some of the Greek words used. There are three key words used here that paint a picture somewhat different than the traditional interpretation of this passage. They are the words translated into English as "head", "submit", and "love".

"Head" - ruler or source of life?

In chapter 10, we looked briefly at the Greek word that was translated "head" in 1 Corinthians 11. It is the same word here - kephale. Let's take a more in depth look at the word in this chapter. Lawrence Richards, in his Word Bible Handbook, comments on Ephesians 5:

"Like many other Bible terms, the concept of headship has been warped by importing secular notions. To call someone head of a corporation or project identifies him as a person with control over others. But the New Testament term is not used in this sense. Instead the biblical emphasis is on the head as 'source' or 'origin'. Thus Jesus, as 'head over everything for the church' (Ephesians 1:22) is seen as source and sustainer of life of His body ... Headship does not speak of power but of serving!"1

Earlier in Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul substantiated that this concept of Jesus as the source of life is what he meant when he wrote " ...from him [as the head] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love." The understanding of kephale as meaning "source of life, top or crown, originator and completer"2 fits when we look at the larger context. Philip Payne concurs by noting that "the idea of authority was not normally associated with the word for 'head' in Greek thought." He also notes that the Greeks believed "the heart, not the head, was the central governing place of the body, the seat of control and the seat of intelligence."3 So the word kephale would not have been the word used if Paul were describing one who governs, controls or directs in the husband-wife relationship.

Payne's point is borne out by Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen who claim to have studied "the most complete Greek-English lexicon (covering Homeric, classical and koine Greek) in current existence", a two volume work of over 2,000 pages published first in 1843. In regards to the word kephale, they said the list of possible meanings included the literal meaning (the literal, physical head of a man or animal) and 25 figurative meanings. None of the figurative meanings included the concept of authority, leader or anything similar.4 Payne actually argues that they have understated the case. He notes that another prominent lexicon lists 48 separate English equivalents of the figurative meaning of kephale. "None of them implies leader, authority, first or supreme".5 He also cites a number of sources from the first and second century who used kephale to clearly mean "source of life."6 The Mickelsens noted that the Septuigint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) only used kephale as a rendering of the Hebrew ro'sh, meaning leader or chief, 4% of the time (8 instances out of 180). "Kephale would have been the natural word to use in all 180 instances if the word had been commonly understood to mean 'leader or chief'. Its rare usage indicates that translators knew that kephale did not commonly carry this meaning."7 It must be pointed out that Paul was a Greek-speaking Jew who grew up in a Greek-speaking city. He would have had an understanding of what the word conveyed to the people of his day. We can only conclude, then, that he was not conveying any idea of hierarchy, authority, prominence or control.

I think it is very possible that what we have done is confuse Jesus' role as Savior with that of Lord. As Savior, He is head of His body the Church. We are one with Him and He is our source of life. He makes us whole, completes us, transforms us. He is our Bridegroom, the lover of our souls with whom we have a deep, spiritual union. He is our friend, our brother, our lover. We give Him our time, our love, our hearts. As Lord, however, He is our master. He now owns us instead of the devil. We are his "bondservants". We give Him worship, reverence and obedience as the Lord. I think it very possible that we have read into this passage our understanding of Christ as Lord, when Paul was speaking of His role as our Head, as our source of life and the One who completes us.

Berkeley and Alvera Mickelson explain that the head-body metaphor used by Paul in Ephesians is speaking of interdependence not a chain of command. They note that the Scriptures which present Christ as "head" of the Church do not emphasize His authority over the Church, but rather His oneness with the Church. In Ephesians 5, they observe, this oneness is applied to husband and wife. They summarize by saying that Christ's headship of the Church could be illustrated this way: "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ... that he might present the church to himself in splendor ... Christ gave himself up to enable believers (the church) to become all that we are meant to be ... so the husband is to give himself up to enable (bring to completion) all that his wife is meant to be. The husband is to nourish and cherish his wife (verse 29) as he does his own body, even as Christ nourishes and cherishes the church."8 Fuchsia Pickett says it all with her gracious description of the biblical "head". She says, "A godly leader will have abandoned the macho, domineering image that is a reflection of his carnal nature and adopted the attitudes and behavior of Christ-modeling sacrifice, giving and caring."9

"Submit" - what it really means

We have a context for Paul's discussion about submission in Jesus' talk about relationships among believers in Mark 10:42-45. His emphasis was that relationships were to be characterized by servanthood, not the exercise of authority. Jesus said in this passage,

"You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45, RSV).

In Ephesians 5:21, Paul similarly speaks of mutual submission, which is the theme and the thread throughout the remainder of this passage which discusses headship, wifely submission and love. The Mickelsens note that the word for "submit" does not appear in verse 22 "in the better Greek manuscripts". This means, as they point out, that the meaning is brought down from verse 21, making the context of the verse the mutual submission required of all Christians.10 This mutual submission to one another is a major theme of the New Testament. This idea is mentioned also in 1 Peter 3:7; 5:5, Philippians 2:3-4, Romans 12:10; 13:1-7 and 15:2.

Payne brings out that in verses 28-32 of Ephesians 5, Paul is focusing on unity of the head and the body. "As Christ and the church are one body, so husband and wife are one flesh ... Paul bases his appeal for submission on the loving nature of the head-body relationship in which the head is the source of life."11 The Mickelsens agree that Paul's emphasis here is unity, stating that it is obvious from his quotation of Genesis 2:24 (where the husband is to leave parents, cleave to his wife and become one flesh with her).12 This is clear in his statement that the man who loves his wife loves himself (verse 28), thereby equating the two as one.

In speaking of "submission", what does the Greek convey here? The word Paul used is hupotassomai. John Bristow comments that in using the middle voice, Paul was emphasizing the voluntary nature of being subject to. He was requesting that wives voluntarily, willingly and actively submit to their husbands.13 It is noteworthy that the apostle used a form of the same word in 1 Timothy 2:11, when he was writing to Timothy in Ephesus. Both 1 Timothy and Ephesians address the peculiar attitudes of the women in Ephesus who had been influenced to some degree by the goddess worship and Gnostic heresies. The Gnostic teachings were perhaps the most deadly since they used Christian words and symbolism. These teachings constituted an assault on marriage, as man was rendered unnecessary and unimportant in Gnostic cosmologies.14

In what way were wives called to submit to their husbands in Ephesians 5? As we saw in the previous chapter of this book, the word hupotassomai suggest a voluntary willingness to be responsive to the needs of others, to be considerate, willing to serve and honor one another. It can also mean to give allegiance to, tend to the needs of, be supportive of, be responsive to, and to place oneself at the disposition of. Bristow notes that it is also a military term referring to taking position in a group of soldiers in the sense of returning to the line, joining his fellows, being supportive of them and fulfilling his part of the assignment." For this reason, "Paul could tell all the members of the Church to be subject to (hupotassomai) one another ... For hupotassomai is not a ranking of persons as ruler and being ruled. It is a concise appeal for the Church to have its members live out their call to be 'the body of Christ and individually members of it' ... to be willing to 'bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ' (Galatians 6:2). What is true of the Church, Paul added, is true of marriage."15 It is really describing the mutual submission required in teamwork, whether it is a team of many, or a team of two.

To dispel the popular concept that this word means "to obey", there is a Greek word which carries the idea of dutiful obedience. It is used a few verses later in Ephesians 6:1 to convey the thought of children obeying their parents. It is important that Paul did not use this word in speaking of husbands and wives. It is also important that he did not use the word peitharcheo, which describes obedience to someone in authority.16

Husbands "love" your wives

Paul exhorted husbands three times in this passage to love their wives. Guidelines for Scripture interpretation clearly note that any repetition of statements or commands in the Scripture are a cause for special attention. Repetition is a red flag waving at us which says, "Pay particular attention here!" Paul must have been adamant about getting his point across! He used the Greek word agapao. Bristow notes that this word fits with Paul's use of hupotassamai because "both involve giving up one's self interest to serve and care for another's. Both mean being responsive to the needs of the other ... Wives are to hupotassomai their husbands; husbands are to agapao their wives."17

I think the apostle may not have been legislating behavior here so much as he was trying to bring a revelation of what husbands and wives both need from one another. In other words, he was telling us how we can "in honor prefer one another" in a way that is meaningful to each spouse. Men, because of the nature of their insecurities, need respect, honor and support. Women, because of the different nature of their insecurities, need to know they are loved, valued and cherished.

Paul defines the actions that show this kind of agape love by again referring to Christ and the Church. The actions involve loving his wife "as he loves his own body" and "as he loves himself." They also involve laying down his life to serve her even as Christ laid down his life for the Church. This is not dying in the physical sense, of course, but dying to self.

The divine call to men is to be willing to lay down control, self-centeredness, personal ambitions and fleshly desires. It is also a call to nurture, lift up, support and release their wives. The divine call to women is to respect, support, honor and lift up their husbands, with a heart to bless and minister to their needs. The call to both is "in honor preferring one another" (Romans 12:10). My very wise mother-in-law commented once on the number of divorces today. She said her observation is that so often, it seems like the primary dissatisfaction in the relationship is that each spouse feels that they are giving more than the other. "Why don't people just go into the relationship willing to each give 75%? Then no one would feel used and abused and it would work out just fine!" I think she might be on to something biblical!

Summary

The real essence of Ephesians 5:21-33 is found in the three key words which the apostle Paul used: "head", "submit", and "love". In studying these words in the Greek, we find that they do not advocate a hierarchy of authority.

The word rendered "head" is kephale. A number of scholars have argued, quite extensively and thoroughly, that the traditional understanding of kephale as an authority or ruler is not supported by various lexicons which cover both Homeric, classical and koine Greek. The way in which the Septuigint translators handled this word strengthens their case that the word does not convey any idea of hierarchy, authority, prominence or control. Rather, kephale (head) is used in the sense of origin, source of life, and completer.

Hupotassomai is the Greek word translated "submit" in this passage. It describes the voluntary willingness to be responsive to the needs of others, to be considerate, willing to serve and honor one another. It is also refers to a person taking their position in a group of soldiers in the sense of returning to the line, joining one's fellows, being supportive, and fulfilling their part of the assignment. It does not imply ranking or hierarchy. For this reason, Paul could tell all the members of the Church to hupotassomai one another. It is really describing the mutual submission required in teamwork, whether it is a team of many, or a team of two such as husbands and wives.

The third key word the apostle Paul used was the verb agapao in describing the husband's part in the marriage relationship. He repeated it three times, which alerts us that he was calling attention to this admonition. Paul defined the actions which show this kind of love as a man loving his wife "as he loves his own body" and "as he loves himself." He also defined it as laying down his life to serve her as Jesus laid down His life for the Church.

Finally, we saw that in this passage the apostle was calling both husband and wife to a place of mutual submission, in honor preferring one another. Using different words, he called each to give up their self-interest to serve the other. He encourages us that the service of love and submission in the Holy Spirit will dissolve the barriers and walls of alienation erected by sin, allowing husbands and wives to join together in unity and truly be one flesh.

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Chapter 12 notes

  1. Lawrence O. Richards, The Word Bible Handbook(Word Books, Waco, 1982), p. 685.
  2. Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, "What Does Kefale Mean in the New Testament?" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 105.
  3. Philip Barton Payne, "Response" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 119-120.
  4. Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, "What Does Kefale Mean in the New Testament?" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 100-101.
  5. Philip Barton Payne, "Response" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 118, 122.
  6. Philip Barton Payne, "Response" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 124-125.
  7. Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, "What Does Kefale Mean in the New Testament?" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 102-104.
  8. Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, "What Does Kefale Mean in the New Testament?" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 109.
  9. Fuchsia Pickett, "Male and Female Created to Co-Labor with God", Spirit Led Woman (June/July 1999).
  10. Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, "What Does Kefale Mean in the New Testament?" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 108.
  11. Philip Barton Payne, "Response" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 130.
  12. Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, "What Does Kefale Mean in the New Testament?" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 109.
  13. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1988), p. 40.
  14. Catherine C. Kroeger, "1 Timothy 2:12 - A Classicist's View" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 232-235.
  15. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1988), p. 40-41.
  16. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1988), p. 39.
  17. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1988), p. 42.

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