I’ve seen too much pain in the gender wars in the church, too much using the Scriptures as a weapon. As a result, I came to avoid passages like Eph. 5:22-33. It was only when I gave my future wife a copy of the newly published The Message (just the New Testament at the time) as an engagement gift did that passage become readable to me. The way Eugene Peterson rendered the text made me weep. He had brought new life to the Scriptures for me and had opened up a window into what God intends for our relationship.
Too often, we look too far afield to see what Paul intended when writing about the headship of husbands in Eph. 5.
Does “head” mean “source”?
There is the approach that looks at headship as meaning “source,” just as the head of a river is the river’s source. Now, having been to the head of a few rivers near my home in central Oregon, there’s no way this is the image that Paul intended.
I was blown away the first time I saw a river’s source. I was standing on dry land and yet just a foot away was a full-blown river, 50-feet wide. It didn’t trickle out of the ground beneath my feet and slowly spread out. No, it came out forcefully and in abundance. It was as if something came from nothing. Where I stood, there was no river. But inches away, there was an entire river.
Now, if Paul had Adam and Eve in Gen. 2 in mind, I can see how he might see Adam as the source of Eve, since Eve was created from Adam. In that story, yes, the man is the source of the woman. But in my relationship with my wife, no. And in no other relationship between any men and woman. No man is the source of any woman. In fact, women as child-bearers have the distinct right of calling themselves the source of all men and women. From Eve in Gen. 4:1, saying, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man,” to every woman who has born a son since, women have been the source of men. Like a headwaters, where the water was underground before springing forth as a river, so in birth men were underground in their mothers’ wombs before springing forth in birth.
No, men are not the source of women. Not physically. Not spiritually. I cannot say that my wife derives her spirituality from me. I hope that I contribute to her spirituality in healthy ways, but in no way am I its source. Only God himself is her source spiritually.
Does “head” mean “authority”?
The only other option that seems to be left when “source” is rejected as a meaning for head is “authority.” The head is on top of the body and is where our brains are located, so it seems to make sense that whomever is the head is above all others as the source of the executive functions of the body.
When we think of ways that head is used as a metaphor, we come up with head of the table, head of the class, head of the household, and head of the line — each of which designates a place of primacy and respect, though not necessarily of authority. I have a hunch that each of these uses of head as metaphor derive from Paul’s use in Ephesians, but they don’t help us understand why he used it as a metaphor himself. And it’s a mistake to read backward from our uses to his.
The reality is that Paul is the one who invented body imagery as a metaphor for human relationships. His use of of body imagery in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and throughout Ephesians is the source of our use of words like corporation (based on the Latin word corpus or “body”), incorporate (to make part of the corpus), and membership (a member being an organ, a part of a body). Yep. It all goes back to Paul.
The problem with thinking of the head as the source of the executive function for the body — the will — is that’s not how ancient cultures thought of their bodies. They viewed the heart or the guts as the place where human will was located, not in the head. We still have the phrase “venting your spleen” as a holdover from ancient views of the body. And even locate most of our unsettled feelings are located in the core of our body, not in our heads. I vividly remember the butterflies I had in my stomach (not head) before telling a certain girl of my feelings for her, before getting on stage to act in a play, before giving my first public speeches. But we’ve been so influenced by modern science and what it’s told us about our brains that we have relocated our sense of will into our heads. Paul wouldn’t have done so, and his readers wouldn’t have understood their wills to be in their heads. They would have agreed with us that the head is the place of vision and voice, but not of authority.
So, if “head” refers neither to source nor to authority, what is Paul getting after?
First of all, we have to stop looking for clues outside of Paul’s writing for the use of “head” or “body” as a metaphor. As I said above, Paul is the one who basically invented body as a metaphor for a community, so looking outside of his writing is a mistake. Also, I believe it’s a mistake to look outside of Ephesians itself. Yes, Paul uses body as a metaphor significantly in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, but when he uses it in Ephesians, he isn’t necessarily importing the nuances he’s using elsewhere. Rather, he’s establishing his own nuances in how he’s using it in Ephesians itself. And his use of body imagery is pervasive throughout Ephesians, making it the central metaphor for the entire letter.
The over-arching theme of Ephesians is unity. Paul is more interested in the unity of the body than in defining which parts have supremacy over the others. In fact, to focus on supremacy would undermine his whole emphasis on unity.
To give you a sense of how pervasive his use of body imagery is throughout Ephesians and what he’s getting at with each of them, here are all of Paul’s body references in the letter:
With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (1:8-10) While this isn’t a body reference, it sets out Paul’s thesis for the entire book of Ephesians: unity in Christ.
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. (1:18-19) Eyes and heart are, of course, body images. Interestingly, it’s the heart that has eyes, not the head. Remember, the heart is the seat of the will, not the head. But here Paul is moving the source of vision from the head to the heart as well, because it is only the heart that can know the hope, riches, and power of God for us.
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (1:22-23) Here, we have body introduced specifically, with Jesus specifically referenced as the head. Interestingly, the sign of authority has to do with his feet, not with his head — the head is over everything, but everything is under his feet. The church as his body is “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus (2:6). This, too, is implied body language, carried over from the end of Eph. 1 — bodies are raised and seated. The language here is concrete, not abstract. It is also plural, meaning this is us together as a single body which is seated in the heavenly realms, not you or me as individuals. The whole dead and raised and seated language refers to us together as Jesus’ body. Individualizing it ruins Paul’s intent. He wants us to see this as what God has done to us together as Christ’s body.
His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (2:15-16). What Jesus accomplishes in his body on the cross is the creating of one body of humanity out of two hostile peoples (Jews and Gentiles).
This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (3:6) See the comment just above.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (4:3-6) Even though Paul only uses the word “body” in 4:4, the sense of unity/oneness and of all pervades this whole passage. A body is both a singularity and a collective. It is both a single body and it is made up of its many parts, connected and working together. (Can we agree that thinking and acting too much as individuals is killing the body-community that is the church by dismembering it?)
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (4:11-13) God gave different people different gifts so that the body as a whole might become mature and grow into everything it means to be as the body of Christ. So, we have individual gifts, but they exist for the purpose of a united maturity. Another way to put this is that whatever has been given to an individual has been given to that person for the sake of the body as a whole. (Ever wonder why members of the early church sold property to care for the needs of others within the community?)
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (4:15-16) Again, resisting whatever would pull us apart, we go the way of love so that we will be held together and the body together will mature. Here, we have a second reference to Christ as the head but without any definition of what that means.
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (4:25) Secrets and lies keep us from unity and therefore tear apart the body God has made to be a unity.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (5:21) There is no body imagery explicit in this verse, but it is the controlling verse for Paul’s examples of the core relationships of husband-wife, parent-child, master-servant that follow. But there is body imagery implicit in it. For a body is a complex unit of mutual submission as any athlete knows. One part is always playing off another part in everything we do and the whole body only works when the individual parts are continually submitting to and supporting one another. We call this coordination. When the parts don’t submit to one another but head off in their own directions, doing their own thing, we call it uncoordinated. It’s humorous when it’s not dangerous, which is why most of our comedies surround a lack of relational or physical coordination.
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. (5:23) There is no explanation of what it means for the husband to be head of the wife as we encounter this third reference to Christ being the head of the church. What we do have is a sense of the unity between Christ and the body, since head and body are connected to one another and can’t live unless they are. While Paul calls the church Christ’s body, he stops short of calling the wife the husband’s body. In fact, just below, he will compare a wife to her husband’s body as far as the extension of affection is concerned without saying she is his body.
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. “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. (5:28-33) The primary relationship of the head to the body is finally defined. It is one of loving care. It is one of nourishing and cherishing. This is how the unity of head and body is maintained.
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. (6:11 and continuing through 6:18) We tend to think of this individually, as if I as an individual am to put on the whole armor of God. But this is yet another body passage, where together as a body we are to put on the whole armor of God together. It’s for us, not for me.
I hope that this run through all of the body passages in Ephesians gives a sense of the whole. In summary:
God’s intention is unity, for each part to find a common oneness and purpose.
God’s intention is the end of hostility.
God’s intention is maturity, as each part works in concert with the rest of the body.
God’s intention is for nourishing and protecting in a hostile environment.
This is God’s intention for all of humanity.
Why do we get these asides about husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants? Because these are the relationships most likely to blow apart instead of living into this Christ-won unity. Home and work relationships are our closest and most vulnerable relationships, and the husband-wife relationship is the most vulnerable of all. Because of this, Paul takes extra time encouraging us to live into what Christ has created for us in these most basic of relationships. They aren’t just plopped into the letter as nice asides. They are the main battlegrounds for unity.
Since each marriage is a microcosm of what God in Christ is doing in the world, we come to the need for headship: a husband’s commitment to remaining connected with his wife, to loving her, to nurturing her, to cherishing her, to dressing her up in wedding-gown beauty. This is coordinated submission. In response, this requires his wife’s respect, coordinating herself to him in submission as well.
Our Lord wants a healed and whole body, growing up and working for his purposes in the world, where his goal is to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”