When I fell in love with my wife (which, incidentally, happened before I became her husband), I kind of lost my head over her. I admit to being head over heels in love with her, and going out of my head over just the thought of her.
Here’s what else happened when I fell in love with my wife. I did not in fact lose my head because it stayed firmly attached to my shoulders, I did not turn somersaults across the floor every time I was in her presence, and my brain did not slip out of my skull when I thought of her.
Every one of those uses of the word “head” is figurative.
The thing about figures of speech is you need to know context in order to understand metaphor and idiom. That context can include cultural and language history, and a word or phrase used in one language sometimes doesn’t directly translate to carry the same meaning in another language.*
Idioms are popular expressions that explain something by using examples and figures of speech. … They are “cultural-bound”, that is why it is so hard to export them to another context, because the translator needs to find other cultural references. (Chiara Grassilli, Translation Techniques: How to Translate Idioms.)
Susanna Krizo covered the use of the word “head” as a figure of speech in her book Recovering from Unbiblical Manhood and Womanhood: a response to evangelical patriarchy.** The title is a take-off from the collection of complementarian and patriarchal essays collected by John Piper and Wayne Grudem in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism.
Krizo addresses each of their essays through a very readable dialog in the chapters of her book. The conversation is between a student and teacher, identified as Christian and Theologian. It becomes clear that both learn from each other as they discuss the problematic reasoning in the essays Piper and Grudem chose for their book.
In Chapter Eight she addresses the use of the word “head” found in Ephesians 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.
Krizo discusses the use of the original Greek word translated as “head” in that verse, and points out that it at times meant leader (as we would call someone the head of an organization) but was more often used for a different figurative meaning. She quotes John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th to 5th Centuries:
Thus, if you mark it, He is “the Head,” as we are “the body:” can there be any empty interval between the head and the body? He is “a Foundation,” we are “a building:” He “a Vine,” we “branches:” … All these things indicate unity: and they allow no valid interval, not even the smallest. (Recovering from Unbiblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 132.)
Later in the same chapter the Teacher summarizes various descriptions of our relationship with God to show they do not focus on leadership but unity.***
- Head and Body = One Flesh
- Cornerstone and Living Stones = One Temple
- God and People = One Kingdom
(Id. p. 143.)
The good thing about understanding the way the word “head” is used in Ephesians 5 is it keeps us from reading into the passage a role for husbands that would be completely unbiblical, even heresy.
[A] metaphor is a transfer, it changes the meaning of words temporarily to make a point. … Metaphors are meant to convey deeper meanings, not to transform the object into something else. … [It is a misuse of metaphor if] you transfer the reality behind the word and not just the meaning. (Id. p. 122.)
Krizo argues that to give the word “head” in Ephesians 5 the meaning of leadership not only uses it in a way that Paul did not intend nor would his readers have understood it that way, but it places the husband in a role the Bible nowhere puts on anyone in relation to anyone else.
If theologians transfer the reality of Christ to the husband [(that is, placing the husband in the role of Christ to the wife in the same relationship as Jesus has with his people)] he becomes literally a Messiah to his wife, and that creates all kinds of problems in theology. (Id.)
Sadly, these problems have actually arisen, as when preachers teach that wives must follow their husbands’ commands even if it goes against God’s word. These teachers assure the wife that her husband will bear all the responsibility for leading his wife astray. It’s as if the husband is a mediator between his wife and God. He’s not.
For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. (1 Timothy 2:5-6.)
Men and women each have a mediator, and it is not a pastor, a parent or a spouse. Our mediator is Jesus who loves us all and gave himself for women and men alike.
Any other understanding of our place in the Body of Christ is unbiblical.
*For examples of amusing idiom translation (including what it means to have tomatoes in your eyes) see 40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally.
**I received a review copy of the book without obligation to write favorably or even at all.
***This is not to say we aren’t led by God, of course. The Bible tells us that one of the blessings of the New Covenant is that we are led by the Holy Spirit.