Misused Scripture: Ephesians 5:23 "The husband is the head of the wife"

Misused Scripture: Ephesians 5:23 "The husband is the head of the wife"
Is this head in charge of you? Photo by Viktor Talashuk / Unsplash

Headship ≠ Leadership

Last time I talked about how Ephesians 5:22 needs to be read in the context of the verse above it's not just wives that need to submit to their husbands but husbands, but husbands also need to submit to wives! But, people ask what about the next verse, 5:23, that claims that just as Christ is the head of the church, husbands are the head of their wives.

So, here are a couple of things to get out of the way. First, the Bible never says, "Men are the head of the household." It is just not a verse that appears in Scripture in any English translation. The closest we come to biblical saying anything close to that is 1 Timothy 5:14, which says that women should manage or lead their homes.

The second thing we need to understand is that, just like in English, the word for head in Greek—kephale—can be used in three main ways.

One, it can be used for your cabesa, the home of your brain and your beautiful, beautiful faces.

Two, head can be used as a reference to leadership, such as the sentence, "Noted orphan Charles Entertainment Cheese is the head of the Chuck E. Cheese Corporation."

And three—and this is where we should pay attention—head can refer to the source or origin or a thing. This is less common in English, but we still use it when we refer to, say, the head or headwaters of the Mississippi River.

That third meaning—head as source or origin—is what is happening in Ephesians 5, and in general, whenever Paul refers to headship.

How do we know? Because in no place where Paul refers to headship (either of Christ or men) does Paul equate that to leadership, decision-making, or hierarchy. Rather, for Paul, headship is the call to self-sacrifice and the giving of one's self for the sake of someone else's well-being.

Now, you may be thinking, in what way is a husband the "origin" or the "source" of a wife? Okay, hang with me here. Behind the Greek words for "husband" and "wife," are words that more generally mean "man" and "woman."

In the Jewish imagination, shaped by the creation narrative of Genesis 2 specifically, there is one single human being, the a'dam. God takes flesh from the side of the a'dam and shapes a second human corresponding to—but different from—the a'dam. That person is the issha. The woman. The flesh from the side of the a'dam was the origin or source material for the issha.

Man being the source of woman, however, is not an argument for hierarchy. Rather, Paul is making a rhetorical argument to challenge the common perceptions of his day. Paul and everyone else in both his Jewish and Greco-Roman world were swimming in patriarchy. Paul, however, sees man as the head/source/origin of woman not as an excuse to continue the patriarchy, but undermine it.

Again, notice the actual language Paul uses when talking about what it means for husbands to be the heads of wives. "Husbands, love your wives,"—or, more generically—"Men, love your women." How? Just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." That phrase, "gave himself up for her," is the Greek word paradidomi. It means to hand something over into someone else's keeping. It's used in the Gospels for the giving over of money, to be giving over into prison, and for the action of Jesus being given over to be crucified.

So, do you hear it? Paul says, yes, men, you are the head, the source, the origin of women, according to Genesis 2. Therefore, you must be the same sort of head that Jesus is as head of the church. And the way that Jesus was the head, the origin, the source of growth for the church, was not by executive leadership functions. It was not by decision-making authority and power. Jesus was head by the fact that he handed himself over for the church's sake, for the church's health, and well-being.

In the same way, then, men, you too should be heads of wives, willing to offer up your bodies for the sake of the well-being of women.

This is Paul's giant fuck you to sexism and patriarchy. Men who use their bodies to abuse, harm, harass, or endanger women are not acting like Jesus. Men who use their power and authority to keep women out of leadership, out of teaching, out of decision-making—they are acting entirely opposed to this passage.

Rather, in any society or culture, where women are pushed to the margins, kept out of the room where it happens, or made to feel inferior or less than in any way, the best way for a man to be Christ-like and to lean into the calling as "head" is to do everything in their power—including putting their own resources and bodies on the line—to lift women up. That's what headship means.

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC