EDIT: in the first edition of this post, I quoted Benjamin Jowett's translation of Aristotle's Politics: "The rule of a household is a monarchy, for every house is under one head." The use of the word "head" there is quite misleading, because the word kephale is not, in fact, used in the original Greek. I've updated it to below to eliminate this confusion. Thank you to Preston Sprinkle for correcting me on this point.
In Monday's post, in conversation with Preston Sprinkle's podcast Theology in the Raw, I took issue with the idea that authors can truly be objective about their material, and whether there's a better goal to strive for. That was a tangent from the issue he was actually discussing, which is whether Egalitarians have any credible reason for interpreting the Greek word kephale (literally "head") in Ephesians 5:23 as something like "source" rather than "authority."
On X/Twitter, an individual suggested that translating "head" as "source" was a "classic example of semantic disjunction and restriction." That's a fancy way of saying that it's a bad translation. I don't agree, so today I want to take the opportunity to explore these specific questions:
- What does it even mean to interpret "head" to mean "source"?
- Are there any grounds for doing so?
- If we do, what are the implications?
The thing atop your neck
We've all been there: someone tells an inside joke and everyone laughs except you. That's because while you heard the words, you didn't have the context that made it funny. Interpreting a 2,000 year old metaphor is a bit like that. The original audience of the Letter to the Ephesians most likely would've intuitively understood what Paul meant by the word "head," but we don't. Why? Because you and I don't read household codes all the time. We've probably never read a household code (outside the Bible), and we most likely don't even have any idea what one is. We're not familiar with the system of Greco-Roman patriarchy, its idea of a paterfamilias, how those households were structured, or why they needed instruction. Furthermore, we don't know what was expected of the "head of a household." We don't know how Israelites structured their homes, and how their ways were similar or different from Rome's.
We're ignorant about the key context that makes it all make sense, so to figure it out we have to do what scholars do: learn.
Let's start with the word that matters most here: "head." What is a head? Well, it's the thing atop your neck, obviously! When Paul says that a husband is the head of his wife, though, he's pretty clearly speaking in a non-literal way. So metaphorically, here are a couple of creative ways people use "head":
- Your head is where your brain is. The brain is like a little command center of the body. Therefore, your head is in charge of the body.
- Your head is where your mouth is. The mouth is where the food goes, which then goes down your throat and nourishes your body. Therefore, your head is the source of life for the body.
These are pretty different metaphors, even though they both lean on the same physical object. The big question in Ephesians 5:23 is which one of these two directions Paul is going. To figure that out, we have to look at the context and see if there are any hints that tip us off, one way or the other.
Most of us instinctively assume that the word "head" refers to an authority because we use it that way quite often. When we ask someone to be the "head" of an initiative at work, we're asking them to own it, to take charge, to direct others toward a goal. When we talk about "heads of state," we're talking about presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, etc. The "headmaster" of a school is the one who is in charge.
On the other hand, for most of us, the idea of "head" meaning source feels super weird and unnatural. That's because we don't use that kind of metaphor as often, but we do use it occasionally. If we talk about the "headwaters" of the Colorado River, we're talking about the source of that river—where its waters originate. A "headline" outlines the subject that the rest of an article flows out of.
These metaphors aren't as far apart as you might think. You can actually reimagine some of those "authority" metaphors and recast them as "source" metaphors. For example, you could say that the "head" of a committee is not the one who is in charge of the committee, but is the source of the committee's direction, order, and agenda. You can recast the "head of state" not as someone who has unmatched authority, but as the source of stability and societal order for millions.
This kind of reimagining is precisely what I think Paul is doing in Ephesians 5.
Aristotle's household code
Ephesians 5:21-6:9 isn't entirely original. It's something called a "household code," which was a form of instruction to men about how they should run their households. I say men intentionally because these were only written to male heads of households. Aristotle says this, for example:
For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.1
His household code is explicitly situated in terms of authority and obedience:
[T]he freeman rules over the slave after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature.2
Aristotle even envisions the household as a mini kingdom where the members of the household are ruled by the man:
...the government of a household is monarchy (since every house is governed by a single ruler)3
Therefore, it's not crazy to think that perhaps this is what Paul means by it in his household code, too. Before we just assume that conclusion, though, we need to look at the passage linguistically and find hints about the direction Paul is going. The kinds of "hints" we're looking for are like what Aristotle gives us there.
This monarchical language of "ruling" would be quite fitting to apply to Jesus, given that he is our King, our Lord, etc. Indeed, we do see that Lordship language in verses 17, 19, 20, and 22. We give thanks to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. This title presents Jesus as one who is over us. Again, in v. 22, we are told that wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. So far, all of this sounds quite similar to Aristotle.
It is here that Paul makes a fascinating move, though. Instead of leaning into Lordship language harder (and thus reinforcing the notion of hierarchical submission to an authority), he actually begins to subvert this kind of hierarchical rendering of male-female relationships. The way he does this is first by beginning to use a different title for Jesus: "Savior" (v. 23).
While it's entirely true that Jesus is Lord and King, and that all power and dominion belongs to him, it is also true that he willingly gave all of that up. Why? To save estranged, fallen humanity. So the title of "Savior" is one that calls to mind his willing self-humiliation to the position of a servant. In terms of power dynamics, he chose to put himself into a position that is lower than all to seek and save the lost. For that reason, it's quite a weird title for Paul to use if what he's trying to reinforce is male authority and female submission.
Instead of reinforcing this common societal understanding of male-female relationships, he subverts it. He's taking a common form (a household code) and a common metaphor ("head" as authority) and he's dumping it out like old wine. Then the next step is to give us new wine, a new way to think about submission, one that is shaped by Jesus's example.
According to the way of Jesus, it's not that submission itself is bad, it's just that this one-way submission of females to males is bad. The headwaters of this kind of submission is in Genesis 3:16, after the fall: "he shall rule over you," which sounds a lot like Aristotle. In other words, assigning authority to maleness and submission to femaleness is part of the exact curse that Jesus came to reverse. The only place in the New Testament that Paul explicitly uses the word "authority" regarding male-female relationships is in 1 Corinthians 7:4, where he assigns equal authority to the woman as to the man.
Under the fall, men use their natural embodied male advantages (especially physical strength) to rule over women, to domineer, to dominate, to belittle, to silence, to abuse. In comparing a husband to Christ as Savior, he is instructing the man to voluntarily forego what those embodied advantages might otherwise allow him to do, and to instead follow the self-lowering path of Christ. As our Savior, Christ is the one who raises us from death; he is the source of our new life.
If the word "Savior" was all we had to go off to make the case, it wouldn't be a very strong case. But there are other hints here that begin to tip us off that Paul is trying to subvert the head-as-authority metaphor and give us a new one of head-as-source of life. In verses 25-27 Paul explains the great lengths Jesus goes to in giving the Church new life:
- He gives himself up for her
- He sanctifies her
- He cleanses her
- He washes her
- He presents the Church in splendor without spot or wrinkle
These are not the actions of a king, but of a servant. He then says that husbands should love their wives "in the same way" (v. 28). Therefore, this further subverts the husband's expected status of head-as-authority over his wife because it makes him the servant to his wife. Note that I said servant, not servant leader.
But the hint that really hammers home what Paul is trying to do here comes in verses 28-30. Here, Paul gets back into explicit "body" imagery, so we know that we're talking about what "head" means again:
In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.
Paul has already told us that the husband is the head of the wife, so now he's telling us what it means (in the context of the metaphor) for the wife to be the body of her husband. If he wanted to double down on authority language in line with Aristotle, we might imagine him saying something like this:
Just as the husband is head of the wife, so the wife is the body of the husband. He must discipline his body and keep it under control.
That's not what he says, though! Instead, he uses "feeding" metaphors, saying that a husband should "nourish" and "cherish" his wife. These are source-of-life metaphors, not authority metaphors, and again he brings it back to Christ and the church as the example we are to follow.
He rounds out this section about husbands and wives by grounding his claim in the Genesis creation narrative:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
As a refresher, his quote from Genesis comes immediately after Eve's creation. Where did her life come from? From the side of her husband. He was the source of her life. Then, after he bursts into song after seeing her, the two stand before each other as equals. She is the one who is finally similar enough to him that she can be his complement (all the animals in the garden were too different).
Paul's final word to the husband is that he love his wife in this way so that he is a source of life for her. His final word to the wife is one of respect rather than the sort of bitter, backbiting vindictiveness that can creep so easily into a marriage.
Paul is riffing on the common form of a household code, which we can see easily in the writings of Aristotle. Those household codes were written to the paterfamilias, the "head of the household," who was viewed as a mini king over his wife, concubines, children, and slaves. The metaphor of head-body in that context was one of male authority and female submission. Paul subverts this metaphor, hollows it out, and gives it new meaning by saying that such a "head of household" should begin to mimic Jesus, who was a source of life to his bride the church, just like how Adam was originally the source of life to his bride, Eve. In this new world, a husband is a "head" of his wife because he nourishes her. The health of this relationship is marked by mutuality, love, self-emptying, humility, and respect.