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.
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.
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.)
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.