Authoritarian Husbands – the failure to follow Scripture and revere Christ

Tucked into a lengthy passage on how all who belong to Jesus are to submit to one another because of Jesus himself (Ephesians 5:18-6:9) is an interesting point about wives and husbands:

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.  (Ephesians 5:23.)

This is a flagship verse for those who insist wives are subordinate to husbands in the family, and for some churches it is used to insist that all women are subordinate to all men. How do they reach this conclusion? By saying that the word translated “head” from the Greek kephale is a metaphor for leadership.

It’s not.

There is a lot of scholarly work on the meaning of kephale in the time Paul was writing, and it shows the word was not used for the concept of leadership. I won’t reproduce it here, but will note that one Wheaton professor gathered the resources and said:

For Paul and his correspondents, the use of the word kephale for “ruler” or “authority” would have been as meaningless as attempting to do the same today with tête in French, or Kopf in German. (Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, Ch. 5, end note 13.)

To force the meaning “leadership” onto a word more ancient than any in English is cultural hegemony. Those who do so are allowing their modern culture to dictate how they read ancient documents, and when the ancient meanings don’t fit their modern culture the ancient meanings are discarded in favor of the modern straitjacket.

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632)

What is the ancient meaning? Other than the literal meaning of one’s head, the metaphorical possibilities include “source” and “origin”; this correlates to the creation account of Eve being formed from Adam’s side. (Bilizekian, id.) Some who – in the face of this scholarship – admit that leadership is not the right metaphor might then say that source connotes authority and therefore the husband still has authority over the wife.

This passage doesn’t support that either.

Source does not equal authority

Whether being the source of someone or something equates to authority depends on context. You might say parents are authorities over their children because they are the source of those children. Of course, most would agree this lasts only until the children are grown and out of the house. Also, an adopting parent has authority over a minor child in the home even though that parent is not the source of the child. So source equaling authority doesn’t work even within closely related contexts.

If the people insisting on source leading to authority want more proof that it doesn’t, they should look at the words of Jesus himself.

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

“The son of David,” they replied.

He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”’

If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Matthew 22:41-45.)

Woe to You, Scribes and Pharisees, James Tissot ca. 1886-94 (Wikipedia)

The issue with the Pharisees was Jesus’ authority. They constantly asked him to justify himself, his work and his teachings. He in turn asked them about their understanding of the Messiah, the one promised to come and deliver God’s people forever. They saw David as the source of the Messiah. Yet Jesus said this source did not carry authority, but that the one who came from the source is the authority.

This brings Paul’s letter to the Ephesians back to mind.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  (Ephesians 5:21.)

All who belong to Jesus – male and female, unmarried and married – are to submit to one another “out of reverence for Christ.” There is no authority structure in this verse, nor is there in the use of the word kephale in the later phrasing concerning women, men, Jesus and the church.

This doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t the authority over God’s people. It just means that this passage is not the one that explains his authority. That is found elsewhere, as in the conversation Jesus had with the Pharisees. Since this Ephesians passage isn’t about Jesus’ authority, it also shouldn’t be twisted to create support for a man’s exercise of authority over a woman. Also, just because Jesus’ authority is found in a multitude of scripture passages elsewhere doesn’t mean a husband’s authority should be assumed to exist. That would take actually finding supporting passages. They don’t exist.

What does exist is a verse that tells all of God’s people to submit to one another regardless of relationship. Authority has nothing to do with mutual submission. Reverence for Jesus has everything to do with it.

Let go of authority and hold on to Jesus.

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18 Responses to Authoritarian Husbands – the failure to follow Scripture and revere Christ

  1. Great post, Tim! Also, in the Corinthians passage where it talks about man being head of woman, it also talks about God being head of Christ. So if it means authority, then that is saying that God has authority over Christ, which would essentially be confirming the Eternal Subordination of the Son heresy (since Paul was talking about God being head of Christ in the present tense, not when he was on earth).

  2. Heather G says:

    While you made a lot of great points, one other thing not being taught in this passage is mutual submission. You make a lot of great points about the passage not being about male authority…but it just isn’t about mutual submission either.

    • Tim says:

      Do you read verse 21 as a conclusion to Eph. 5:18-20, an introduction to 5:21-6:9, or a hinge verse linking the sections before and after?

  3. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    I really like the part about “source” in relation to David, and how the one COMING from the source, not the source itself, is actually the one in authority. That’s so helpful. Great post, Tim.

    • Tim says:

      That was the driving point for this post. I figured enough had been written on kephale as head not lending itself to leadership, but I can’t recall reading a refutation of source as leader in light of that conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. It can’t be a new thought but it sure isn’t as prevalent as the many posts I’ve read on the metaphorical used of head in koine.

  4. Kitti says:

    1 Cor. 11:3 totally kiboshes the idea that head = leader: “the head of every man is Christ”. Well, the LEADER of “every” man isn’t Christ – especially when you consider how often the Bible says that the world (unbelievers) is Satan’s domain.

  5. This is very interesting. How would you translate I Corinthians 11:3? “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”

    I believe it would be more accurate to say the source of Christ is God since Christ was the Word of God.

    Then how would you translate the next verse (4)? “4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.”

    • Tim says:

      In 1 Corinthians 11 it’s kephale and is still used as a source metaphor. One explanation of verse 4 is that it responds to the legalism that required men to wear a head covering to show submission to God, and that said women also must cover their heads in submission to men. Paul is saying their heads are fine without artificial coverings.

  6. Anu Riley says:

    I have no idea how in the world we got to thinking that “headship” means authority. I have no idea how I personally believed in that for so long.

    Unless we mixed up the phrase “head of the household” (which is NOT found in the Bible; it is a man-made phrase) which does indicate male authority and leadership, with the “headship” as described in the Word—and combined the two to make up a human commandment that God never intended.

    Another source of possible confusion is when the Word goes on to say that Christ is the “head” of the church, which many people would immediately associate to mean being the Leader/Authority over the church (which He is, but I don’t think this verse was pointing that out) So they apply that attitude to husbands as being the authority.

    If anyone has any thoughts about verse 24, would love to hear it: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (NIV version)

    Verse 22: “22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (NIV version)

    These are the verses that are used to justify submission of wives to husbands as an act of worship to the Lord.

    It DOES go on to admonish husbands to love their wives as they love themselves (which was a big deal to say back then) However, that too has been “twisted” to express that a husband who truly loves his wife is trustworthy, so she can fearlessly submit to him.

    Verse 21 says to submit to each other, then it goes on say to tell wives o submit to husbands. This is (again) how confusion can be created, because special instructions are given to wives.

    Any help or thoughts or insight is welcomed. Thank you!

    • Tim says:

      The NIV adds in words and makes word choices that are problematic. You might check how it compares to other translations. Perhaps the Common English Bible?

      • Anu Riley says:

        Yes that was definitely helpful! Here is a wonderful response I received on Facebook: It will hopefully bless other if they too were confusedly taught as I was about female submission as a woman, and as a wife. I would be remiss to imagine that I am the only one:

        It might help you to know that in those places where “wives” are supposedly being told to “submit” to their husbands, the only verbs in the Koine Greek that are in/near those verses and remotely translatable as “submit” are conjugated in the *masculine* plural.

        Therefore, the verbs could refer to men exclusively, or to men and women, but could *not* grammatically refer to women exclusively.

        Then let us look at how the Church submitted to Christ. The first Church…those men and women who followed Christ during His earthly ministry…did not sit around waiting for orders. They led their own lives, and went out to teach and preach even *before* Pentecost. They based their *chosen* actions on listening to the judges of the indwelling Spirit. They were far more self-directing than most adherents to any other religion of the day….

  7. Anu Riley says:

    I thought this link might be a blessing to others and goes along with this topic!

  8. Pingback: Cultural Hegemony… a guest post | geraldfordcounsel

  9. Kitti says:

    I just remembered another thought I had a few weeks ago.

    It’s foolish to believe that women owe men/ husbands unilateral submission just because of one or two verses talking about submission aimed at women. In order to invoke the “unilateral submission” clause, you absolutely HAVE to ignore the passage stating “submit to one another” (without gender preference). And if you’re going to choose that logic, then you HAVE to assume husbands must unilaterally love their wives, based on the verse that tells husbands to love their wives. (And strangely enough, I have heard of it; that or some weird redefining of the words “love” and “submit”.) But if you want to invoke the “unilateral love” clause, you HAVE to ignore verses that tell people (without gender preference) to love one another/ love your neighbor/ love your enemy. So if comp Christians follow their logic all the way through, they choose represent a god who is not loving at all – the very thing which works against their case! Not everybody has to submit – only women do. Not everybody has to love their neighbors, love one another, and love their enemies – only men must love!

    It’s no wonder non-Christians so often develop such contempt towards Christians with such sloppy representation like that.

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