Morning sun peeked through the apartment window, lighting the steam that hovered over my cup of tea. I sipped while the roomful of women stared at me.
Finally one woman responded to my statement that had stunned them all. “Is it really not in the Bible? That a husband is the head of the home?”
I smiled at her. “I promise you, it’s not in the Bible. You can look for it, but it’s not there.”
As a guest speaker, I was sharing about my journey out of depression and toward emotional health with an international group of women. They gathered weekly to encourage each other and grow healthy together. All of them had been or were still in destructive relationships. The part of my story that arrested their attention was about my discovery of biblical egalitarianism, of learning that I had equal standing with men in the church and in my home. My life changed the day I had realized that the phrases “priest of the home” and “head of the household” were not in the Bible, and now this discovery was revolutionizing theirs.
They were so interested in this comment that I set aside the rest of my prepared talk on depression recovery and instead opened the Bible to share God’s freedom from oppression with them.
“The Bible doesn’t say that men are the priests of the homes or heads of their households,” I told them. “It does say that husbands are the heads of their wives, but what does that actually mean?”
These ladies were from many different cultures, both Eastern and Western, yet somehow in spite of their many differences in biblical interpretation, they had all been told them same thing by their abusers (and sometimes their churches): “The Bible says the husband is the head of the house, which means he gets to make the decisions. A wife’s role is to support whatever he says.” Because these women desired to honor and obey God, they followed this practice, and it kept them in abusive relationships, submitting to abusive authority.
Instead of lovingly following the example of Christ, these men used the Bible as a weapon to control their wives. One specific way they did this was by interpreting the word “head” in Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 to mean “authority” or “overlord.”
In the kingdom of God, all people are equal in worth and in opportunity—women are not under the power of men, nor are wives specifically under the one-way authority of their husbands. Understanding this principle helps eliminate abuse.
Here are the verses in question:
A husband is the head of his wife like Christ is head of the church, that is, the savior of the body. (Eph. 5:23, CEB)
Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor. 11:3, CEB)
In Greek, in both of these verses, the word translated “head” is kephale. Literally, kephale means the body part that sits on top of the neck. Translating it into English as “head” makes sense and is the closest we can get from the Greek—it’s not perfect, but it’s very close. But a word-for-word translation from language to language doesn’t always convey the range of meanings, connotations, and cultural inferences that are inseparably tied to a word.
Re-examining these verses and the range of possible meanings for kephale is important, because it helps the church understand the author’s intent and safeguards against the sinful power of intimate partner violence and domestic abuse.
First, it can help to consider the word Paul did not use in these verses. Helga and Bob Edwards, in their book The Equality Workbook, point out that Paul could have written archon (the Greek word for “ruler”) if he meant husbands or men were rulers over wives or women.
Paul didn’t use a common Greek word for ruler; he deliberately used the word for head. What are possible meanings for kephale other than ruler or authority over?
Many egalitarians favor the translation “source” for kephale. In English we have a similar understanding, like when we say “the head of a river.” We mean the starting point, the beginning, the source. The Edwardses show how this works well in 1 Corinthians 11:3:
The human race was created through Christ (John 1:3); he is the “source” of “every man.” Adam, the first man, was the “source” of Eve, the first woman (Genesis 2:22). God was the miraculous source of Jesus’ incarnation as a human being (Luke 1:35).1
Professor Alan F. Johnson published a meta-study of the history of scholarship on the range of meanings for kephale. You can read his entire paper to trace the linguistic discoveries and nuances of this word in the Greek Old Testament, the Greek New Testament, and other Greek literature of the period. He summarizes Gilbert Bilezikian’s work on the subject, which favors “source”:
The idea includes the meanings “derivation,” “origin,” “starting point,” and “nurture,” but not “chief,” “boss,” or “authority.” . . . in 1 Corinthians 11:3, kephalē means “source” or “origin,” and in Ephesians 5:23, it means “source” of life (Saviorhood), source of servanthood (gave himself), source of nurture. 2
Kephale can mean the actual head of the body, as Paul goes on to talk about later in 1 Corinthians 11, about men and women covering their physical heads.
As a metaphor, kephale could convey the unity between the head and the body. The body needs the head, and the head needs the body, and they cannot be separated without both dying. This is a beautiful picture of the unity of Jesus with his church as well as the unity between a wife and husband. They are intrinsically linked.
Johnson summarizes the work of Walter L. Liefield as pointing to “body part.” He sees kephale as
That part of the body that was (1) prominent, (2) representative, and less frequently, (3) eminent or most honored part of the body in the common perceptions of honor and dishonor with respect to the head in the first century.
Johnson summarizes the perspective of Anthony C. Thistleton from his 1 Corinthians commentary: “He prefers to use three English words to express the meaning of kephalē in 11:3: ‘preeminent’ (of Christ), ‘foremost’ (of man), and ‘preeminent’ (of God).”
Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen use a range of meanings, and Johnson summarized their thought this way: “In the New Testament, kephalē is better translated ‘source of life,’ ‘top or crown,’ ‘exalted originator,’ ‘completer,’ and not by ‘authority over.’”
Implications for Christian marriage
Jesus is both our lover and our lord. As we look at the marriage relationship representing the relationship between Jesus and the church, the analogy is between Jesus as lover—our giver of life, the one united with us, the one who loved first and loves sacrificially—rather than Jesus as lord. King Jesus is the one lord of both husband and wife—the wife does not need her husband to be another lord. Rather, they are mutual heirs of new life and mutually nurturing lovers to each other.
Scholar Ben Witherington III explains how Paul worked in the patriarchal Roman and Jewish worlds to move the churches toward equally valuing women. He points out that the passage in Ephesians 5 on marriage is not enforcing male rule but rather tempering it:
Paul is working to place the leaven of the Gospel into pre-existing relationships and change them. Similarly with the roles of husbands and wives, in Ephes. 5.21ff. Paul calls all Christians to mutual submission to each other, one form of which is wives to husbands, and then the exhortation “husbands love your wives as Christ did the church, giving himself. . . .” can be seen for what it is— a form of self-sacrificial submission and service.3
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible makes this important note on Ephesians 5:22, about wives submitting to husbands: “It should go without saying that this is a general principle not applicable to situations of abuse or participation in sin.” 4 All Christian ministers should remember to make this distinction when talking about these verses.
But they should go even further. Ministers should be clear that this passage requires mutual submission, and that kephale does not connote authority. A good translation and interpretation of this passage should rule out the kind of one-sided submission that can lead to abuse.
In light of what we know about kephale, the verses in question could possibly be paraphrased like this:
A husband is the loving, serving supporter of his wife like Christ is the loving, serving supporter of the church, the one who goes first in sacrificing. (Eph. 5:23)
The life-giving source of every human is Christ, and the life-giving source of the first woman was the first man, and the life-giving source of Christ incarnated is God.” (1 Cor. 11:3)
Understanding kephale like this, instead of as “authoritarian overlord,” helps make Christian marriages into examples of mutual, giving, divine love, rather than hierarchy and abuse.
When I shared with my friends that morning that the Bible does not give their husbands power to control them, it freed them. The Bible brings Jesus’s message of liberation, and Christians must be careful not to allow it to be used as a tool of oppression.
1. Helga Edwards and Bob Edwards, The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ from the Oppression of Patriarchy (Self-published, 2016), 48.
2. This and following Johnson references are from Alan F. Johnson, “A Meta-Study of the Debate over the Meaning of “Head” (Kephalē) in Paul’s Writings,” Priscilla Papers 20, no. 4 (Autumn, 2006), 21–29, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/meta....
3. Ben Witherington, “Why Arguments Against Women in Ministry Aren’t Biblical,” Bible and Culture, June 2, 2015, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2015/06/02/why-arguments-ag....
4. NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, Kindle location 268552.