Submit to one another, part 7: What is “headship”?

Many years ago, when my wife and I helped move my aging parents to a house nearby, I took my mother shopping for new furniture.  Posted prominently behind the sales counter at one store was a sign that read, “Men are not permitted to choose fabric without their wives present.”  One can only imagine the disagreements that prompted such a sign: from “Um, sweetie?  That really doesn’t go with the carpet” to “You ordered what?  Over my dead body!”

And then there’s the scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the mother of the bride teaches her daughter an important life lesson: “The man is the head.  But the woman is the neck.  And the neck can turn the head anywhere it wants.”

So much, it seems, for male headship.  But before we tackle that controversial idea in Ephesians 5, let me reiterate: we should come to this text with a worshipful attitude, one in which we celebrate the mystery of a gospel that bids believers to live in grace-based unity.

Many couples, I think, approach this passage too legalistically.  They might not find the sign in the furniture store amusing, whatever the husband’s talent at  home decor.  Some couples have been taught that to be obedient to Scripture, the husband should first make his top three fabric choices, then allow his wife to make the final decision from among those options.  But do we really believe that this is how Paul, the apostle of grace, wants his counsel to be understood?

The crux of the matter is what Paul intends by “head.”  Arguments rage over whether the Greek kephale should be taken to mean “authority” or “source.”  But as theologian Sarah Sumner has argued, that debate turns mostly on how the word is used outside the Bible.  Inside the Bible, kephale usually means “head” in a direct sense, as in the place your hair grows (Matt 10:30) or what John the Baptist lost to Herod the tetrarch (Matt 14:11).

And Paul’s full metaphor necessarily includes the head’s relationship to the body:

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.  (Eph 5:23-24, NIV)

We can’t understand what kind of head the husband is without looking at what kind of head Christ is, and we can’t understand the latter without considering how Christ as head relates to his body, the church.  Paul brings these images together again just a few verses later:

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 their own body, but they feed and care for their body, 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.  (Eph 5:28-32, NIV)

When I officiate weddings, I ask couples what Scripture passages they want used in the service.  The quote above from Genesis is a popular one, but why?  Not, presumably, because the verse speaks to them of authority and hierarchy — but because it symbolizes the unity they desire in their marriage.

Here, Paul applies that same metaphor to the relationship between Christ and the church.  Indeed, our union with Christ and therefore with each other as believers is a recurring theme in Paul.  That wondrous mystery is the meaning framework within which the husband’s headship is understood: the head and the body are an inseparable union.

As suggested in previous posts, Paul’s “big picture” is God’s restoration of unity to a broken world, a work we join by being a community characterized by humble mutual submission.  Paul neither endorses nor condemns patriarchy here, but encourages a gospel-centered transformation of social structures from the inside out.  Thus, whatever readings of headship may be possible, in the immediate context, it seems to refer to a relationship of deep and mysterious unity and loving care.

In the next and final post, we’ll look at what Paul says about love and respect in marriage.

2 thoughts on “Submit to one another, part 7: What is “headship”?

  1. First off, I have really enjoyed your series here on submission, not an easy subject. What spoke to me most on this post is the third paragraph; “we should come to this text with a worshipful attitude”. I believe that if we do this then the Spirit has the opportunity to inscribe the Word on our hearts, from there submission is basic.

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