The nature of headship - 2
Yesterday we looked at Paul's use of kephale-head in 1 Corinthians 11. Today, let's take a look at his use in Ephesians 5.
"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." (Eph 5:23)Because the context of this verse mentions submission, some interpreters are quick to infer that headship involves an authority relationship. A careful examination of the full context, however, reveals that this simply is not so.
First, Ephesians 5:21 begins this discussion by calling all believers to submit to one another! This serves as the governing principal behind the rest of Paul's remarks in this passage on the family.
Second, Paul does not say, "Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Ruler or Master," but, "of which he is the Savior." While it certainly is true that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords, this is not the parallel Paul makes when speaking of him as kephale-head. Instead, the parallel for kephale is Jesus' role as Savior of the body -- a word that carries far more nurturing connotations than authoritarian ones. Paul's ensuing discussion demonstrates that this is no accident.
Since, as we learned yesterday, kephale implies an organically connected source that provides life or nourishment (as a fountainhead feeds the life of a body of water), the next logical step for Paul is to give us a practical example of how kephale-headship looks and works. Rather than illustrating kephale-headship with an example of lordship or authority, Paul goes on to call men to imitate what is certainly the greatest act of submission and service the world has ever seen -- the submission unto death that Jesus rendered for his bride! While wives are called to imitate the church's relation to Christ, men are told:
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, and to present 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 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. (Eph 5:25-30)Note the words I've emphasized above. They show what Paul understands the role and meaning of a kephale to be and there is no hint of authoritarian structure or hierarchy. Rather, notice how nurturing and life-giving and supportive the kephale is. Submission, as stated in verse 21, is to be mutual (cf. 1Co 7:4-5). Subservience is to be the kephale's distinctive hallmark. It is not something the kephale demands of another but something he gives freely in love and in imitation of Christ.
Now, is it possible that to the first-century people Paul wrote to that kephale also carried the connotation of being one in authority? Of course! It is not just possible but most certainly the case! But the consistent genius of Paul's use of this word kephale is that he repeatedly contrasts Christ's example as Lord and kephale with the worldly concept of being an authority or arche.
Masters, husbands, and fathers were of course people who saw themselves as superiors and as owed submission by subordinates. But Paul turns on its "head" their concept of what it means to be a "head." He tells both the high and the low (by cultural standards) that both have the same imperative: Both must become imitators of Christ in mutually loving and submitting to each other.
Regardless of whatever high and self-important position men may hold by worldly standards, Paul tells them that the greatest of all leaders and authorities, the one who is the very source (kephale) of all rule and authority (arche and exousia) has redefined what it means to hold those positions--and has, incidentally, triumphed and defeated all rule and authority as being at emnity with him and all he stands for (Ep 1:20-23; 6:12). Paul goes so far as to describe Christ as disarming all rulers and authorities [αρχας και τας εξουσιας], making a public spectacle of them(!) and triumphing over them by the cross (Co 2:15).
So then, does "male headship" exclude women from being leaders alongside male counterparts? Are women relegated to a subordinate role in the marriage relationship or in the church or society on the basis of headship?
To the contrary! Christ's kephale-head is God. But God raised Christ to sit at his right hand in power and authority. Christ is the kephale-head of the church, who is his bride. Yet Christ not only bowed down and served her, washing her and nurturing her, he also lifts her up to sit with him in the heavenlies above all rule and authority (Ep 1:20-21; 2:6). He empowers her go into the world teaching and preaching his gospel, and leading in the advancement of his kingdom! This is the example Paul tells us to follow. It is not one of subjugating or shoving aside others so that we can be exalted. Rather, it is to elevate those we love, to empower them to reach their fullest potential in Christ, using all their Spirit-given gifts, and to treat one another as more important than ourselves (Php 2:3-4).
Where this lifestyle defines a people, there can be no talk of hierarchy or subjugation.
Coming up: We'll revisit Corinth and some of the passages often misunderstood as silencing the women who actually prophecied there.
(For more thoughts on headship, click here.)