Don’t Lose Your Head Over Doctrine

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.

Wrongheaded Doctrine

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.***

    1. Head and Body = One Flesh
    2. Cornerstone and Living Stones = One Temple
    3. 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.


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28 Responses to Don’t Lose Your Head Over Doctrine

  1. “These teachers assure the wife that her husband will bear all the responsibility for leading his wife astray.” We only have to read the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 to see such teaching is not in line with what the New Testament tells us about the early church. Sapphira was held to account for her own actions. There is no suggestion in the text that she was less responsible because she had to obey her husband in the deception. She was treated as an equal. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out too well for her, as we know, but the point is Peter didn’t let her off the hook on the grounds she was being obedient to her husband who under this teaching represented Christ. She was accountable for her own decision to agree with her husband in their deception.

  2. Deanna says:

    Great post, Tim, and it sounds like a great book, definitely going on my list! I could’ve used it a couple of weeks ago-it was my turn to lead my home group, and the text I got to lead on was the end of Ephesians 5! I did manage to find enough resources online to fully explore the relevant issues, including the proper meaning of kephale and how to reconcile it with the mutual submission required by vs. 21. But I am always looking for more resources on this topic, so thanks for this review!

  3. Pastor Bob says:

    Heard this many times:
    “The husband is indeed the head, but the wife is the neck that turns the head.”
    — The most famous source is “My Big Fat Greek Weeding.”

    Today, honoring those who have given all to protect what we have now…..

  4. Tara says:

    So grateful to God we figuratively lose our heads in love which enables the human race to continue! Thank you for clarifying a “good figure” of man and woman in Christ.

  5. Kenny Pierce says:

    Tim, this is great, and in a realm that I LOVE. Bear with me for what follows/

    I was just speaking with a friend the other day about her difficulty in translating phrases a song of hers into Spanish (one of my 2 mother tongues). This is a frequent topic of discussion with my mother as well (when we sort of have inside jokes that my younger siblings who aren’t fluent don’t always get). Literal translations didn’t work for my friend, and as you say, I have to find an equivalent phrase to try to come close to the sentiment desired. In some cases, there was no equivalents to common expressions that she’d use. I speak Italian and French as well, and there we introduce gender,subjunctives, cases, etc. things that don’t exist to a great extent in English.

    Having majored in English Literature, I took enough courses in Chaucer, Spencer and such to have caught a glimpse at the version of English written and spoken in the 12th century (Middle English, used 1200 years after the death of Christ). I’d challenge most readers, without a primer, to understand the political and social references in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from that time and, indeed, to get through it at all with a modicum of understanding. Here’s one sample passage:

    “Nay thanne,” quod he, “I shrewe us bothe two, / And first I shrewe myself bothe blood and bones, / If thou bigyle me ofter than ones. / Thou shalt namoore, thurgh thy flaterye, / Do me to synge and wynke with myn ye; / For he that wynketh whan he sholde see, / Al wilfully, God lat him nevere thee.”

    The following is a reasonable facsimile:

    “No,” said he, “I’d sooner curse both of us. And I’ll curse myself completely before I let you beguile me one more time. Your flattery will never again make me sing and close my eyes to danger; for anyone who willfully closes their eyes to danger, God should never let thrive.”

    Scottish poet Robert Henryson, in 1452, adapted the fable. English at that point (200 years later) looked something like this:

    “Fy, puft-up pryde ! Thow is full poysonabill !
    Quha favoris the on force man haif ane fall:
    Thy strenth is nocht, thy stule standis unstabill;
    Tak witnes of the feyndis infernall,
    Quhilk houndit doun wes fra that hevinlie hall
    To hellis hole, and to that hiddeous hous,
    Because in pryde thay wer presumpteous..”

    Roughly 150 years after the above was penned, just past the Elizabethan period and the time of Shakespeare, settlers were first landing in America, just after those at Roanoke vanished and others were landing in Massachusetts for the first time. It was at this point that the King James Version of the Bible was completed. Authors had the presence of mind and integrity to notate frequently anything that might have variant meanings or might have been uncertain, for all of the reasons that you cite. This, what is considered by many to be authoritative and the only legitimate version of scripture. If we reference correspondence (letters in English from missionaries in Japan in 1611), the language at that point looked something like this:


    hands to doe the best, that my wife and children, and
    my good acquaintance may heere of mee ; by whose good
    meanes I may in processe of time, before my death heare
    newes, or see som of my freindes agein. The which thinge
    God turn it to his glory. Amen.

    Dated in Icqjon the two and twentieth of October 1611.
    By your vnworthy friend and seruant, to
    command in what I can,

    William Adams.

    So this was what English looked like at the time of the KJV, 1600 years after the death of Christ, with translations into this from Ancient Greek to Ancient Latin (each also similarly different from what we now know) having occurred in the interim. As we sit here in 2015, we’re only about 350 years past the point that this last letter was written and a little over double the amount of time that it would take to get back to the first sample, from the time of Chaucer. Never mind going an additional 1200 years back to the death of Christ. All the while, we assert truths based on exegesis of the language used above.

    If any of the above made sense, I guess my point is that language is very organic. It lives and breathes based on time and place, and it evolve. Unless you dwell in the mind of the scribe, who transcribed what he or she understood to be that which was conveyed to them by the author, I daresay that nothing is 100% “clear and true.”

    Your piece is great and (to me) illuminates the fluid nature of communication.

    Thank you for it (and indulging my verbosity).

    • Tim says:

      Dwelling in the mind of the scribe – that is really helpful, Kenny. Your examples over the centuries form just the English language show how careful we must be when reading ancient texts frmo another language entirely. Thanks for the guidance,

  6. mkubo2013 says:

    Christian tradition has often ascribed allegorical interpretations to what should be metaphor and/or parable. And that has been the source of many problems that plague us today as we try to sort out what the original incident/story might have been communicating, and what the author/recorder’s purpose was in putting down the words and in word choice.

  7. Jeannie says:

    It sounds like Krizo’s book would be very helpful; thanks for directing us to it, Tim. I like this quote: “Metaphors are meant to convey deeper meanings, not to transform the object into something else.” As you point out, recognizing that would prevent a lot of misunderstanding and poor theology.

    • Tim says:

      It took me a few pages to get into the dialog style used throughout the book, but you’ll probably catch on quicker than I did, Jeannie.

  8. Thanks you all! Here’s an other excerpt from chapter 8 that talks about metaphors:

    Christian: But how do we know what the writer’s intentions were?
    Theologian: Usually the metaphor is simple enough for us to be able to immediately see what is being said.
    Christian: But when that’s not the case?
    Theologian: Then we need to spend some time considering what the writer is trying to tell us, especially since we know that we often see what we want to see instead of what is really being said.
    Christian: This is going to be difficult…
    Theologian: Not necessarily. We can always use the method of comparing Scripture with Scripture. It is usually a reliable way of finding the truth, since Scripture can never contradict itself.
    Christian: Sounds good. What portions of Scripture should we compare with each other?
    Theologian: Since Knight feels he doesn’t have the time, or the space, to tell us about the relationship that exists between Christ and the church other than the how it relates to marriage, I think it’s a good starting point. The metaphor is, after all, based on this relationship.
    Christian: Okay, so how do Christ and the church relate to each other, and where do we find it in the Bible?
    Theologian: Paul talks about it throughout his letter to the Ephesians:

    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)
    … 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.
    … Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of
    God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (2:19-22)
    … 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)
    … It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s 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. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into 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. (4:11-16)

    Theologian: The idea that the “head” has authority, which is what Knight argues, comes from chapter 1, where Jesus is portrayed as the head of the body.
    Christian: But didn’t we already agree that the word “head” cannot refer to authority?
    Theologian: We did.
    Christian: [Sigh] Is there no way we could finally put the idea that the word ”head” refers to authority to rest? I mean, doesn’t it seem bizarre to you that how we arrange our marriages and lives in general depends almost entirely on the meaning of this one word?
    Theologian: It is rather bizarre, and actually, there is a way to prove that kephale doesn’t mean authority. But let me show you something
    first. When we read through Ephesians we find that chapter 1 says we are the body and Jesus is the head; chapter 2 says we are being built into a temple, Jesus being the cornerstone; chapter 3 says Jews and Gentiles belong to the same body, and are therefore heirs of the same promise; chapter 4 says we grow into the head as we speak the truth in love instead of being disconnected from the head, which is what happens when we follow false teachings. No mention is made of authority.
    Christian: But if Ephesians never says Christ has authority over the church, why do we find authority in Ephesians 5?
    Theologian: Well, why don’t we give Knight a chance to explain himself?

    Her [the wife’s] equality is evident in the verb form always used in this admonition and in the fact that it is wives who are addressed, not husbands. (The New Testament never commands husbands to subordinate their wives, i.e., to force them to submit).

    Christian: But if the Bible doesn’t command husbands to subordinate their wives, how can they have authority?
    Theologian: I think what Knight means is that since God is telling women to submit, husbands shouldn’t have to. A wife who doesn’t submit goes against God, not the man.
    Christian: But then the man has no authority over the woman.
    Theologian: You’re right, he doesn’t. But I don’t think Knight saw the weakness of his own argument.

    • Pastor Bob says:

      Problem is, symbols can change form writer to writer.
      Problem is, one passage can have different meanings, the multi-layered effect of God’s word (made up term, application should be understood)
      Problem is, humans are involved.
      One really useful solution: Pray for wisdom and guidance.

  9. This is a very interesting take on the use of head. I guess personally it doesn’t matter if head is meant for unity or for leadership. In both of those cases I see no reason why leadership means absolute submission to everything that a husband says.

    I would see no reason why the leadership of the man would not look like the idea of equipping your wife to use her gifts and talents to build up the body of Christ like Ephesians 4 talks about with the leaders in the church. It would seem, at least in a few examples that I’m close to, that so the gifts are ignored or at least severely reduced and wives are simply put into the roles of mothers and homemakers regardless of their gifts and talents.

    • Tim says:

      One thing I’ve seen in the marriages I admire is that when it comes to leadership the spouses each take on the role. Where strengths are found, they get to be used no matter who has the Y chromosome in the family.

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  11. Christiane Smith says:

    I once wrote a comment on Wade Burleson’s blog that I would like to share, this:

    1 Corinthians 7: 1-7

    Directions concerning Marriage

    7 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’
    2 But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.
    3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
    5 Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
    6 This I say by way of concession, not of command.
    7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. ”

    I like how Wade has emphasized Apostolic teachings that reflect mutual obligation of spouses to respect one another’s marital rights. The whole idea of a blessed Christian marriage is that Christ is the Authority in that union.

    If you continue to read the teaching into verse seven, you find these words:
    “. . But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. ”
    Notice how closely these words mirror the biblical descriptions of the Body of Christ, where the members each bring their own gifts to share with one another and to build up their union, with Christ at the head.

    The language in verse seven is not a coincidence. It is very telling.
    The connections are shown between:

    A. the marriage union model (as the two becoming ‘one flesh’ under the Authority of Christ as the Lord of Life);
    B. the descriptions of the Body of Christ (we are ‘in Him’ made one).

    The Authority in each model resides in Lord Christ.”

  12. Christiane Smith says:

    The problem with putting one’s husband up on a pedestal and kow-towing to him as lord and master, is that women know what some men often don’t care to know:

    Our Lord Himself washed the feet of His own disciples, a very lowly job in those days.
    If a husband feels he needs to ‘be raised up’ in order to be respected by his ‘properly subordinate’ Christian wife, all he has to do is to imagine how Christ was ‘raised up’.

    Then he will quietly walk away from all thought of pedestals;
    because he will remember that the Only One Who ever deserved to be on one,
    chose the Cross instead.

    • Tim says:

      Great point, Christiane. We are all under Jesus’ authority as our only authority, and he refused being put on any pedestals no matter how much people begged him to climb up on one.

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