Against Patriarchy, Part Six: Concerning Headship

The patriarchal reading of Scripture requires a specific reading of “head” in the many passages that uses this word, indeed their whole interpretation depends upon it. They must read it to mean “authority over.” Were such a reading to crumble, there would be nothing left for the patriarchalist to make his case.

It will now concern us to examine the passages which use this word and see what they mean, grammatically and contextually.

The Meaning of Kephale, “Head”

There are five passages in the New Testament which use the word “head,” which is kephale in the Greek (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-26; 5:23; Col. 1:18-19; 2:19). We’ll want to look at each of these in turn. (It should also be noted that the Old Testament never uses “head” to speak of authority, or at all). We begin, first of all, by quoting the warning of St. Athanasius from his work De Synodis Anathama concerning the use of “head”: “For the Son is the Head, namely the beginning of all: and God is the Head, namely the beginning of Christ,” and “For the head, which is the source, of all things is the Son, but God is the head, which is the source, of Christ.” The emphasis here is mine. Athanasius clearly understands “head” to refer to “source or origin” rather than “authority over.”

Ephesians 1:22-23: “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

We must start, as always, with what comes before, in order to establish the context. Paul tells the Ephesians that his purpose in writing is to make known to the Ephesians what the Father was making known through Christ, namely to reveal “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” (Eph. 1:9-10). We can run past this phrase “the fullness of time,” so we ought to note that this word “fullness” (pleroma) means “bring to completion” or to “fill up.” The mission of Christ was to “fill to completion” the ages by uniting heaven and earth and everything in them. Already we are seeing that Paul uses water imagery to speak of Christ’s decisive act of redemption, to speak of Him as the source of all new creation. The ascension of the Incarnation of Christ was a “plan to fill up the ages to completion,” by being the source of blessing and life for all things in the new creation.

Paul’s focus goes from wide to narrow; his epistle isn’t just to point out that Christ is the source of all life, but that He is the source of the Church’s life, which is the principle actor in bringing about the redemption of all things. He speaks of “we who were the first to hope in Christ,” and emphasizes our union with Christ: “In Him you also…were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit [by baptism],” (Eph. 1:12, 13). By this sealing and union, the Father has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing,” “blessed us in the Beloved,” “In Him we have redemption” according to “the riches” which He “lavished upon us,” “In Him we have received an inheritance,” (Eph. 1:3, 6, 7-8, 11). The reason these blessings can flow to us is because Jesus accomplished the plan by which the Godhead intends to “fill up the ages to completion,” (Eph. 1:9-10). The Church has received this fullness: The Father “gave Him as head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all,” (Eph. 1:22-23).

Already we see a progression of filling: from the Father to Christ, Who accomplished all His purposes, and from Christ to the Church, the “fullness” of Christ to the Church from “head” to “body.” Just as Christ is fullness, “In Him” the Church is also the fullness of the ages, the fullness of the One Who fills all things. Christ’s authority over all principalities and powers is a secondary feature of the accomplishment of the Father’s plan (Eph. 1:20-21), a necessary precondition only so that He would be the only source of life in the New Creation, the Church, so that there would be no rival sources of life and everything. Notice Paul’s logic: The Father put all rivals under Jesus’s feet so that Jesus might be the source of the Church’s life and fullness, which is united with Him over all things and as the fullness of all things (Eph. 1:22-23).

Ephesians 4:15-16: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

This passage is not a change of subject from what we have seen in chapter one. Paul is still speaking of the deliverance or the rescue of the Church from the principalities and powers (Eph. 2:1-7), and in so doing elevates the whole Church to the highest place with Christ, in Whom the Church stands united: God “raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Messiah Jesus,” (Eph. 2:6) so that “in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Messiah Jesus,” (Eph. 2:7). This fullness of Christ results in the shattering of the barriers and bringing peace/shalom (Eph. 2:13-18) so that Jews and Gentiles alike are fellow citizens of the Kingdom, “Messiah Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy Temple in the Lord. In Him you are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit,” (2:19-22; cf ch. 3).

So when Paul comes at last to chapter four, he has been discussing grace and the Church’s source of life in Christ and the Spirit, and arguing that Gentiles are equally able to enjoy this access to (Eph. 3:12). It is “through the Church” that the “manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” (Eph. 3:10). Far from asserting Christ’s authority over the Church, Paul in fact asserts the opposite; he claims that the ascension set Jesus over every principality and power (Eph. 1:20-21), and that the Church is elevated to the same place in union with Him (Eph. 2:6; 3:10), so that “you may be filled with all the fullness of God,” (Eph. 3:19). Once again, fullness is used to indicate the sort of relationship Christ has with the Church, a relationship as source, as the mighty headwaters from which the Church receives her life and blessings and all things. God gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” until the Church attains the “stature of the fullness of Christ,” growing up “in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ,” (4:13, 15). In this context, “head” means the source of growth, not “one with authority over.”

Ephesians 5:23: “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church, and is Himself its savior.”

Paul’s ethical exhortations not to be like those who are darkened in their understanding are set in the context of the Church’s growing up into the Temple which is Christ’s Body, in imitation of what Christ has done for them (Eph. 4:32). In chapter five, Paul turns to how one might imitate God, by walking in love “as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us,” (Eph. 5:1-2). We should pause here for a second to realize that this is exactly what Paul says later about marriage, only the context is how believers, regardless of gender, are to behave toward one another. This sets the whole context in the proper order. His comments about marriage come in the broader context of how believers are to treat one another, namely by imitating God.

Paul draws closer to the discussion of marriage by writing, “understand what the will of the Lord is,” (Eph. 5:17). God’s will is to be “filled with the Spirit,” (v. 18; note again the symbol of “filling”), all addressing all in psalms and hymns and songs in public worship (v. 19), giving thanks to the Father for everything (v. 20). “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your own husbands, as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is Himself its savior,” (Eph. 5:21-23). I have rendered the passage as it appears in the Greek, as a single sentence, and omitting the “submit” after “wives,” because it does not appear in the original. Thus the sense is not “wives submit,” but “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ…as to the Lord.” Paul’s point here is still the mutual submission of all believers to one another as they would to Christ, who dwells in them all, regardless of gender. This still requires wives to submit to their husbands, but in the context of their husbands submitting also to them.

Paul’s explication of this metaphor in Eph. 5:23-33 rests upon this foundation. The context is the “filling of the Spirit (v. 18), and Paul turns to the symbolism of the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden to reinforce his point. He says that the husband is head of the wife in the same way that Christ is the head of the Church, His body, so we must start with what Paul has already established about Christ and the Church. Paul’s point throughout Ephesians so far has not been to establish Christ’s authority over the Church, but to establish that the Church is in union with Him, in the same place as He, elevated with Him above all enemies, with Christ as the source of the Church’s fullness and life just as the Father is the source of His fullness and life. But the Father and the Son are one, co-equal on the Throne in being, authority, and power, each mutually submitting to the other. Thus, it is clear that Paul is saying that the “husband” is head of the “wife” in the sense that Adam was the source/origin of Eve’s life just as Christ was the source/origin of the Church’s life. Authority and submission are not in view here; if Paul had wanted to tell us that Christ was in authority over the Church in this way to provide a model for the husband, he would have used “Lord.” Instead, he chose to use the word “Savior,” and it was, of course, Christ’s sacrificial death of redemption that was the source of the Church’s life and fullness (Eph. 1:7-14).

Now, Paul is perfectly right to say that wives are to submit to their husbands “in everything” as the Church submits to Christ in everything (v. 24), but the fact that Paul says this doesn’t mean this exhausts the metaphor. No, Paul has been at great pains to establish a mutual submission between all believers, and focuses on husbands and wives because this was a place where there was the most abuse on both counts. The teaching at v. 21-22 means that, even while focusing for the moment on the submission of wives, the husband doesn’t get a free pass on submitting to his wife as an equal image of God, to whom submission is required “as to the Lord.” And this is not merely a creational ordinance, but a redemptive one, for every member of the Church is indwelt by the Spirit and by Christ, so that to look upon one’s wife is to look upon Christ in just the same way. This does not break the symbolism of Christ and the Church because Christ Himself told us He would submit to the rule of the Church just as she was to submit to His. When the Church binds and looses, both the Son and the Father will submit to her judgment (Matt. 16:19; 18:18-19; John 20:23).

Colossians 1:18-20: “And He is the head of the Body, the Church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things.”

The meaning of “head” here is pretty obviously source and not “authority.” Christ has temporal superiority over all things because He existed before them (v. 17). For this reason He is the head of the Church, His body because He existed first and is its beginning and source. He is the Church’s “beginning” by nature of the Resurrection, which flows to us. The “fullness of the completion of the ages” dwells in Christ and this fullness flows through Him to reconcile all things by His cross (vv. 19-20).

Colossians 2:19: “holding fast to your head, from Whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”

Once again this is pretty clearly “head” as source. Christ is the “head” of the Church because He is the life and source of the Church’s growth as a body. “Head” is also used in Col. 2:10: “For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in Him, Who is the head of all rule and authority.” At first glance this might be taken to mean “authority,” since Paul refers to “rule and authority” as the thing which Christ is “head” of, but we’re dealing with the same concepts here as elsewhere. Union with Christ, the “fullness” of God dwelling in Him which He has in turn “filled” the Church (v. 10). So the “rule and authority” here is the Church’s, who derives her authority from the source who fills her with the fullness of the Godhead. Thus, this is concerning the Church’s elevation above all principalities and powers, which is established by an examination of the following context, in which the powers that dominated the Church were overcome by the cross (vv. 11-15).

1 Corinthians 11:3: “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

Once again, Paul is dealing not with creational hierarchies but with creational sources. As we already saw, if this passage taught hierarchies it would teach the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, which was a central teaching of the Arian heresy. Thus, God being the head of Christ must refer to Christ’s source as the eternally begotten Son. And since all three pairings are compared and parallel, the other two cannot mean “authority” either. In the Greek there are not two separate words for “man/husband” and “woman/wife.” The same word is used for both English terms. Thus, the best rendering is not “husband” and “wife” here, but “the man” and “the woman.” Adam and Eve. Paul’s point in this verse is that the “source” of Adam was Christ since Christ made all things and Adam was made in the Image of Christ. And Adam is the “source” of Eve since she was drawn from his side. Discussion of the rest of 1 Cor. 11 must be postponed for a later time.

It should be therefore clear from this discussion that “head” in the New Testament refers to “source/origin,” not “one who has authority over.” Paul clearly teaches mutuality in marriage and public Christian worship and community life. This mutuality is seen from both Paul’s argument and the relationship between Christ and the Church, who co-rule the world and submit to one another. There is not, as Kostenberger claims, an extra submission required of wives: “there is a sense in which wives are called to submit to their husbands in a way that is nonreciprocal,” (God, Marriage, and Family, 59. Emphasis his). This conclusion is only possible when “head” is read as “authority,” and not “source,” which as we have also seen is simply impossible.


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