We cannot untangle the role of women in the church without also delving into the relationship of husbands and wives. After all, the Genesis accounts that we’ve already studied deal foremost with marriage, not church governance.
Paul’s most thorough discussion of the relationship of husbands and wives is found in Ephesians 5:21-6:9. Because Paul deals very particularly with the subject, we must begin our New Testament study here.
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, 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. “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.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”-which is the first commandment with a promise-“that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
This familiar passage is often studied and taught in our Sunday School classes, most often when marriage is being studied. In fact, I have observed that those teaching this scripture in the context of how to have a good, Christian marriage often interpret it differently from those who are teaching regarding the role of women in the church. Certainly, we must understand it the same way in both contexts.
Headship in non-biblical sources
Before interpreting the passage, we must first come to an understanding of the meaning of “head” in 5:23: “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.” In First Century Greek, what did “head” mean when used figuratively of a person? Kenneth V. Neller, assistant professor of the New Testament at Harding University, offers some very helpful research on this question (“‘Submission’ in Eph. 5:21-33,” published in Osburn, editor, Essays on Women 1, pages 251-258).
In extra-biblical Greek literature, kephale (head) refers primarily to what is first or supreme, or to an extremity, end, or point. As such, the term was used to designate not only the head of a person or animal, but also the prow of a ship, head of a pillar, top of a wall, source or mouth of a river, or start of a period of time. The word could also signify what was prominent, outstanding, or determinative. … Nevertheless, there is no example of “head” being used figuratively for a person as “leader” or “chief” before the Septuagint.
Neller then points out that while “head” does indeed mean ruler in Hebrew, the translators of the Septuagint rarely translated the Hebrew word for head (rosh) as kephale, preferring Greek words that literally mean ruler or leader (typically archon). Thus, it appears that, with the occasional exception, the translators did not consider the Greek kephale to be a fair translation of the Hebrew word for head when used of a leader or ruler.
Unlike the Greek kephale, the Hebrew rosh means both head and ruler. But rosh, when used to mean ruler, is translated kephale only twice in the Septuagint. Isa. 9:14-15 uses rosh in a play on words to mean both a literal head and a metaphoric head as ruler, a play on words permitted in Hebrew (as well as English) but not in the Greek. The translators had to choose either the Greek word meaning literal head, kephale, or the Greek word meaning ruler, archon, and so chose kephale. This does not mean that the translators considered kephale to mean ruler — only that the passage demanded a word meaning physical head.
The one passage that uses kephale to mean something like ruler is Judg. 11:11, where the meaning is unmistakable. Bristow, ibid, argues that kephale means something like “leader into battle” in this context, but his argument fails since the Septuagint translation declares Jephthah as the kephale “over” others. The use of “over” disallows a softened meaning such as “leader.”
Taken alone, the Septuagint translation of Judg. 11:11 might justify translating kephale as ruler, but this verse stands alone in contrast to many scores of translations of rosh into other Greek words, typically archon, meaning ruler. Thus, it is much more likely that the Septuagint’s uninspired translation of rosh is simply a mistake by scribes who knew their Hebrew better than their Greek.
In the First Century, kephale could also mean “source.” This use is found, for example, in the writings of Philo, a contemporary of Paul. Philo was a Hellenistic Jew who wrote extensively on the Jewish religion. Thus, his use of “head” to mean source is an indicator of the background against which Paul wrote.
Ultimately, however, there is little evidence for the use of kephale to mean “ruler,” “leader,” or “source,” although certainly all three meanings are found and are possible. This scant evidence allows commentators to argue for whichever position suits their biases by allowing them to point out the obvious weakness of the evidence supporting their opponents’ interpretations.
Ultimately, while these and other meanings are possible in New Testament Greek, the meaning of “head” as a metaphor must always be derived from the context. This is in marked contrast to the English use of “head,” where “head” as meaning ruler is idiomatic. Thus, in English if I say that I am the head of the committee, the head of Joe, or the head gardener, no context is needed to know that I’m the boss. This is just not true in Greek.
For those not practiced in translation, it can be quite difficult to imagine how a word can carry entirely different connotations or idiomatic readings in different languages. “Head” is so well-established in English as “ruler” or “higher in authority” that it seems unimaginable that “head” could mean something else in Greek.
But for those of us raised on the King James Version, changing body-part idioms are actually fairly familiar. For example, the KJV accurately translates Philippians 1:8 as “For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.” In Greek, this surely was easily understood and dignified, but in English, this language is absurdly incomprehensible. That’s because in First Century Greek-speaking lands, the intestines were considered the seat of the deepest affection. Thus, the NIV translates, “the affection of Jesus Christ.”
If a First Century Greek were to read a modern text about the importance of having “guts,” he’d think we were talking about love, rather than courage, and he’d be astounded that anyone would associate courage with bowels. The fact is that we just can’t read our idiomatic use of words into other languages, no matter how natural it would seem.
Headship in the context of Ephesians
The solution is to find Paul’s meaning from the context —
(Eph. 1:21-23) In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And God placed all things under [Christ's] 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.
Paul refers to Christ as “head” over everything. But clearly Christ’s relationship with the church, His body, differs from His relationship with “everything.” Christ is head — not over the church — but for the church. His headship is for a purpose, and that purpose is for the benefit of the church. Moreover, we see the church referred to as Christ’s “body.” Paul then says that the church is the “fullness” of Christ “who fills everything in every way.”
The conclusion that Christians are not viewed in this passage as being under Christ as a “head” is confirmed by Ephesians 2:6-7:
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
First, we are shown a picture of Christ sitting on His throne in heaven at the right hand of God. Paul says that God “seated him … in the heavenly realms.” We now read that all Christians are seated with Christ in the heavenly realms. In this highly symbolic language, the thought is not that Christians (the body) are ruled by Christ (the head). Rather, the thought is that we Christians rule with Christ! This is not to say that Christ has no authority over Christians — only that Christ’s authority over the church is not the thought contained within the metaphor “head” as used in Ephesians.
Thus, the church is pictured as not so much in subjection to Christ as an extension of Christ. And being a part of Christ, there is no question of being “under his feet.” After all, the church cannot be both under Christ’s feet and a part of His body!
The next occurrence of “head” in Ephesians is in chapter 4:
15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16 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.
Once again, Paul refers to Christ as “head” and the church as His body. But we also see the image of the body growing “from him” with the “head” being seen as the source of growth and building up.
We modern folks know that thought and control come from the brain, that is, a part of the head. First Century Greeks thought of thought as coming from the midriff. “Bedale reminds us that the functions of the nervous system were not known to the ancients, who, accordingly, did not view the head as we do (they held that man thinks with the midriff, the phren)” (Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, ibid, pages 151-152). Thus, “head” does not refer to the man as the thinking member of the household.
While the ancient Greeks did not have the understanding of anatomy that is familiar to 21st Century readers, it would have been easy enough for a First Century reader to see the “head” as the source of nourishment for the body, and this certainly seems to be Paul’s image. And once again we see the image of the body as the extension of the personality of Christ, with each part doing its own work as part of a single living organism.
Paul wrote Colossians at about the same time as Ephesians, and they share many themes and much of the same wording. We can properly compare this passage to Col. 2:19:
He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
To this point, therefore, we see that Christ has the entire universe under His feet, and that He sits on His heavenly throne as a king, and yet we see the church made a part of the person of Christ Himself — not so much ruled as a part of the ruler! The church can hardly be in rebellion to Christ, because it is a part of Him.
Understanding of this mystical language comes from an appreciation of Paul’s teachings on the Holy Spirit, through whom Christ indwells His church and all Christians:
(Eph. 3:16-19) I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge-that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
In these and other verses, Paul teaches that Christians are indwelled by the Spirit and that this indwelling allows Christ to live in each Christian’s heart (seat of emotions) and gives Christians power to be filled with all the fullness of God. These are very similar thoughts to those taught by Paul with regard to Christ’s headship. This is how Christ fills everything in every way through the church (1:23).
In the imagery of Ephesians, Jesus does not “rule” His Christians through laws and edicts. Rather, He lives within the heart of each Christian to change how each Christian feels and desires. In so doing, the Christian is caused to want the same things that Jesus wants and the Christian becomes an extension of Christ’s love. I don’t deny the Lordship and rule of Christ. Rather, Christ’s rule of the church is just not the meaning of “head” in the image Paul paints for us.
This brings us back to 5:23: “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.” Plainly, the “headship” of Christ here is to be interpreted in light of what Paul just said regarding the relationship of Christ to His church. Indeed, the thought is quite similar to the “one flesh” relationship of husbands and wives described in Genesis 2. The church is the “fullness” of Christ and His body.
Thus, the husband, as head of the wife, has an obligation to nourish her, that is, to provide her with her needs for growth and for being built up, just as the church grows and is built up by Christ as its head. Just so, the husband’s headship is “for” his wife, not over his wife, just as Christ’s headship is for the church, with the world being under His feet (which feet are, of course, a part of His body, the church).
Likewise, the wife has an obligation to her husband, to be his “fullness,” that is, to complete that which is lacking in him — that is, to be a suitable complement. And this is to be done by the wife and husband becoming one — not just legally and physically, but one in heart, with common feelings, desires, and goals. This is the Ephesians metaphor of headship — and it is entirely consistent with Genesis 1-2.
One might object to this interpretation, relying on Col. 2:9-10
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.
In this verse, “head” appears to indicate “ruler.” But the NIV mistranslates by adding “over” after head. The word is absent in the Greek text, and the KJV is more accurate in translating “of.” Christ’s being the “head of” every power thus means that He is the source of all earthly power (See Dan. 4:17; John 19:11). In any event, the meaning of “head” in Ephesians must be found in Ephesians.