Kephale is a Body Part: Unified Interdependence in Relationship in Ephesians 5

by Christy Hemphill | April 30, 2021

Reframing the Debate over Figurative Meaning

In the spring of 2015, I listened to my NT Greek professor explain different interpretive approaches to “For the husband is the head [kephalē] of the wife as Christ is the head [kephalē] of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior” (Eph 5:23 NIV). He explained that some people think kephalē means “authority” and some people think it means “source.” His comments echoed what I had heard in almost every treatment of Eph 5:23 I had read. Such treatments turn on lexical studies of kephalē and the figurative senses available for the word in Koine Greek.1 I asked why no one argued for the clear primary sense of kephalē, the body part, since it is clear “head” is being used in a body metaphor.2 Body metaphors are prevalent in Paul’s letters, and metaphors generally rely on the primary senses of words. I did not get a satisfying answer then, and I continue to encounter arguments about “headship” that begin or end with positing one or another figurative sense of kephalē without offering any rationale why the primary sense, a body part, functioning quite normally in a metaphor is not considered as a possibility.

It is a mistake to focus on word-level or sentence-level arguments in discussing Eph 5:21–33 (and other kephalē passages), instead of appealing to relevant discourse-level features of the text and what we know about how people process the figurative meaning of metaphors. The primary exegetical task when considering the assertion “the husband is the head of the wife” should be discovering the meaning of this head-and-body metaphor, not arguing for an extended metaphorical sense of half of the metaphor—the single word, kephalē. Insights from discourse analysis and cognitive linguistics (described below) could reframe the discussion of debated passages like Eph 5:21–33, where the context and figurative meaning are central to the interpretation.

This article will describe certain differences between word-level or sentence-level approaches and discourse-level approaches to meaning and will explain why discourse-level approaches are often more appropriate when considering debated passages. Then we will explore how human brains process the figurative meaning of metaphors. We will see how cognitive linguists approach metaphors, not merely as words or phrases, but as conceptual tools that underlie language and help us understand abstract ideas. Multiple passages in Scripture about the relationship of Christ to his people and of the members of the church to one another rely on underlying conceptual metaphors to explain interdependence and unity. Identifying the underlying conceptual metaphors that give rise to the figurative language used by Jesus and the NT authors can help us hypothesize better about the shared cognitive environment that would have shaped the discourse and guided the inferences of the audience of Ephesians. This helps us get closer to what they likely inferred when they processed the metaphor “the husband is the head of the wife.”

The word-level approach to analyzing the meaning of Eph 5:23 that seems to prevail among Bible scholars misses the cognitive context and explanatory power of the conceptual metaphor, unity is a whole body, underlying Eph 5 (conceptual metaphors and the use of small capitals to express them are explained below). Furthermore, word-level arguments over figurative senses of kephalē have been marshaled to support unfortunate doctrinal assertions such as male headship in the home and church and, more recently, the eternal subordination of the Son of God.3 This flawed approach to metaphor should have been questioned as linguistically dubious long before so many pages were dedicated to arguing over which figurative sense of kephalē is preferred and what the choice of “authority” or “source” implies about the Trinity. We should instead reframe the debate concerning Eph 5:21–33 and related figurative language in Paul’s letters around understanding the meaning of the metaphors. This discourse-level approach reveals an intent to communicate about unified interdependence in relationship, not about authority.

Shifting from a Sentence-Level Focus to a Discourse-Level Focus

Linguistic analysis happens at various levels, starting with the sounds that make up a language (phonemes), then the units of meaning that are put together to make words and use them grammatically (morphemes), then complete words (lexemes), then words put together in sentences (syntax), and finally sentences put together into whole texts (discourse). The discipline of discourse analysis is a branch of linguistics whose relevance to biblical interpretation is increasingly recognized. Discourse analysis attempts to move beyond word meaning and even syntax to address “pragmatics.” Pragmatics refers to aspects of meaning that are inferred from the shared context of the speaker and hearer and cannot be calculated based on individual word meanings and grammatical constructions. In other words, discourse analysis looks at how texts function in their communicative context.

Conservative biblical interpretation in the twentieth century tended to assume the code model of communication. In this model, the intended meaning of the speaker or author is seen as encoded in specific word choices and grammatical structures, and it is assumed that any hearer or reader who knows the words and the grammar can decode the intended meaning. Consequently, Bible scholars paid the most attention to the immediate linguistic context of a passage—the specific words (their etymology and range of meaning) along with the grammatical features of the sentences the words comprised. However, the prevailing paradigm in communication theory is no longer the code model, and linguists now lean toward the inference model of communication.4 In this model, words are triggers that activate a person’s knowledge, memories, and beliefs. Speakers rely on the common ground they share with their hearers (concepts, cultural frames, linguistic conventions, contexts) to guide the inferences the hearers make about the intended meaning. These inferences work in predictable ways, based on commonalities. Within this model of communication, focus is not on the individual words and grammar structures. The context in focus is the cognitive environment of the speaker and hearers—all the common ground they rely on to make the proper inferences. With this shift in understanding regarding what context is in focus, much more attention must be dedicated to discourse-level features of the text, since this is where many clues about the shared common ground and intended inferences can be found.

Sentence-level versus discourse-level approaches to meaning are at the heart of many interpretation debates. Those who want to demote Junia in Rom 16:7 to something less than an apostle focus their attention on the meaning of the word apostolois (“apostles”) or grammatical structures involving the preposition en (“in, among, by”). Those arguing for Junia’s full-fledged apostleship take into consideration lexical arguments, but they also look at discourse-level features of how Paul talks about his female co-laborers across multiple biblical texts and try to determine how that broader context should inform inferences about the meaning of the specific greeting in Rom 16:7. Arguments claiming Phoebe was not a church leader tend to center on the best translations of diakonos (“servant, deacon”) or prostatis (“patron, helper, leader”) and what those individual words connote—authority, office, role. Counter arguments may address these word-level issues, but they also focus on the entire discourse context of Romans and what inferences would be drawn about the authority and role of a commended letter-carrier in that culture. Proponents of exclusively female submission in marriage tend to focus on the meaning of the verb hypotassō (“submit, yield”) in Eph 5, Col 3, and 1 Pet 3. A discourse-level approach to the same passages not only takes into consideration the connotations of the verb, but also the function of household codes in the first-century context and how the biblical texts appropriate that genre. The focus is on the shared cultural context of hearers familiar with household codes, and what they would have inferred was most relevant when they heard how Paul and Peter adapted them.

David deSilva, writing about the kinds of word studies and lexical analysis that students learn in seminary, offers this observation about the frequent disconnect between exegesis and linguistics.

The study of the meaning of words, however, has often proceeded in isolation from the science of language (linguistics), with the result that some basic fallacies have become endemic to the very word-study enterprise.5

deSilva goes on to explain that one of these endemic problems is that

individual words are routinely made to bear the weight of concepts that are generated not by the word (and hence are not ‘meanings’ of the word) but by the discourse surrounding the word.6

When it comes to most discussions of Eph 5:21–23, both egalitarian and hierarchical interpretations get mired in sentence-level semantic debates that start with the premise that if we can uncover the correct figurative sense of the word kephalē, then we should be able to calculate the correct meaning of “the husband is the head of the wife.” But we should instead put aside the outdated code model of communication, learn from the science of cognitive linguistics about how the figurative meaning of metaphors is processed, and focus on the inferences the body metaphor in this passage might have triggered.7

How Metaphors Work Linguistically and Conceptually

Figurative Meaning of Words versus Figurative Meaning of Metaphors

Most discussions of Eph 5:23 center around the intended sense of kephalē, not the intended meaning of the body metaphor. So, a brief description of the distinction between figurative senses of words and figurative meanings of metaphors is in order. Many words have more than one meaning or “sense.” Over time, words for concrete things often develop additional abstract, figurative senses because they are repeatedly used in metaphorical expressions in the discourse of a community. The inferred figurative meaning of a conventionalized metaphorical expression eventually becomes associated with the word itself in some of its uses. In a dictionary or lexicon, the different senses of a word are listed in an entry together. For example, a typical dictionary entry for the word head in English would first list “the body part containing the eyes, nose, and mouth,” followed by “mind or brain,” “leader of a group,” and “unit of measurement.” The first meaning, the name of the body part, is the primary sense, or what some people call the “literal” meaning. The other meanings are figurative senses that are metaphorical extensions of the primary sense.

Bible scholars have put significant time and effort into cataloguing the set of figurative senses that developed from the body part kephalē in Koine Greek through the study of extra-biblical literature of the same time period. They claim these figurative senses include a leader in a position of authority and the source of something.8 After establishing that these figurative senses were available in the language, interpreters have gone on to argue which figurative sense they believe should be attributed to the word used in Eph 5:23. Richard Cervin notes that, while collecting evidence to support their arguments, people have sometimes confused or conflated using a word in a metaphorical sense with using a word in a metaphor.

Some modern authors have disregarded the use of kephalē as a metaphor. In their zeal to “prove” that “source” or “authority” is a legitimate meaning of kephalē in extra-biblical Greek, some have provided citations of kephalē in other Greek authors where the actual use of kephalē is in fact literal, not metaphorical.9

How do people understand the figurative meaning of a metaphor if the words in the metaphor are not being used in their metaphorical senses? Metaphors typically take the form X is Y, where X and Y are dissimilar concepts with a salient point of commonality. When the hearer infers from the shared context with the speaker that the “literal” meaning of the X is Y statement is not the intended meaning, they try to infer the intended correspondence between the two concepts in order to process a relevant figurative meaning instead.

Metaphors typically make use of the primary sense of words. If someone says, “His face was an open book,” there is no need for an additional figurative sense of the word book to exist for hearers to infer the intended meaning of the metaphor. Using a word in a metaphor does not automatically create a figurative sense for the word. We would not include in the dictionary entry for book, “where thoughts or emotions are visible so others can interpret them” simply because the metaphor “his face was an open book” is an understandable expression. The figurative meaning of the metaphor comparing a face to a book is not processed by accessing figurative meanings available for the word book. In our minds, related ideas and experiences are organized into bodies of knowledge that cognitive linguists refer to as “conceptual domains.” To understand the meaning, we make a mental connection (a mapping) between two conceptual domains. The mental image related to the primary sense of book (within its associated conceptual domain that includes reading to find out information) is linked to the mental image of the primary sense of face (within its associated conceptual domain that includes facial expressions communicating emotions). The hearer infers the intended correspondence between a face and an open book—a face is something you can “read” to learn how someone feels.

To further illustrate the distinction between figurative senses of words and figurative meaning of metaphors using an example from Scripture, consider John 10:11. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” The Koine Greek word poimēn (translated “shepherd”) has a primary sense that means a person who cares for sheep. The word poimēn also has a figurative sense that means a pastor who cares for a congregation. In Eph 4:11, the word poimēn is used in this figurative sense (“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers” [NIV, italics added]). No one argues that the list of vocations here includes literal sheep-tenders. But to understand Jesus’s metaphor and the figurative language in John 10, a person would indeed access the primary sense of poimēn, a person who takes care of sheep. The metaphor is processed by inferring points of correspondence between the conceptual domain associated with herding sheep and the conceptual domain associated with Jesus and his followers. It is not necessary or helpful to appeal to the available figurative sense of the word poimēn that means “pastor” to understand the figurative meaning of the metaphor. In short, “I am the good pastor” is not a good English translation of John 10:11, because it removes the metaphor and thus changes the meaning.

As with poimēn in John 10:11, translators must make a judgment about the sense of kephalē in Eph 5:23 and decide whether it is being used in its primary sense in a metaphor or a figurative sense in a statement that is not a metaphor. If it is being used in its primary sense in a metaphor, the primary sense must be translated, thus retaining the metaphor. If it is being used in a figurative sense, the figurative sense must be translated. Words do not necessarily have the same figurative senses in two different languages, and translators need to find a word in the target language that expresses that meaning, as we saw with “pastor” instead of “shepherd” in Eph 4:11. Several French Bible translations (NEG 1979 and LBT, for example), make the husband in Eph 5:23 le chef (“leader”) of the wife, not la tête (“head”), thus removing the metaphor in favor of translating a figurative sense of kephalē. Since there is indeed a metaphor, this is a translation error. Sometimes metaphors do not translate well, and the translators decide to remove the metaphor and render the meaning of the metaphor directly.10 But if that were necessary in this case, the idea the whole metaphor communicates should be translated—for example, “The husband is one with the wife.” In contrast, “The husband is the leader of the wife” and “The husband is the source of the wife” are translations of figurative senses of kephalē, not translations of the meaning of the metaphor.11

If “the husband is the head of the wife” is a metaphor in Eph 5:23, then kephalē is used in its primary body part sense, and discussions establishing secondary senses that mean “authority” or “source” are irrelevant, because those senses are not accessed when processing the figurative meaning of the metaphor. The relevant question is what correspondence the original audience inferred between the conceptual domain of marriage and the conceptual domain of bodies. There are discourse-level reasons to believe that “the husband is the head of the wife” is a metaphor, not a propositional assertion of the husband’s authority or leadership over the wife and not an identification of the husband as the wife’s source, as would be the case if kephalē were being used in one of its secondary senses. When we look at the passage, we see an analogy to another familiar body metaphor in Eph 5:23, 28 (the church is Christ’s body), and the ensuing discussion continues to refer to bodies. As Christ loves his body, the church, husbands are to love their bodies, their wives. Paul asserts that the body forms an integral whole with the headed self. He who loves his wife (his own body) loves himself (Eph 5:28).

The interdependence and unity of the head and the body as an integral whole is emphasized by alluding to the establishment of marriage in Genesis where a man unites with a woman and becomes one flesh (Gen 2:24, Eph 5:31). The final command in Eph 5:33, “each one of you should love his wife as himself so that the wife can honor/respect her husband,”12 is a reiteration of the idea that the wife forms a united whole with the husband. She is the body that forms the whole unified self with the head. They are one. The point of correspondence between marriage and bodies that is explicated in the passage is that both husbands/wives and heads/bodies form a single whole. In the next section, we will investigate how the existing mental connections in the minds of the audience between unity and whole bodies would have helped them process the meaning of the metaphor.

Conceptual Metaphors

Paul frequently relies on body metaphors to explain abstract theological truth. This brings up another discourse-level linguistic discussion, the role of conceptual metaphors in explaining and understanding abstract ideas.13 I have provided a more in-depth discussion of conceptual metaphor theory and its usefulness in biblical exegesis elsewhere,14 but the following is a brief introduction to the main idea.

Cognitive linguists distinguish between traditional literary metaphors (they use the term “image metaphors”), which describe one thing in terms of another thing (“his face was an open book”), and “conceptual metaphors,” which are cognitive tools foundational to human thought and reasoning. Much of the meaning we process from language depends on using these implicit conceptual metaphors to explain and understand abstract ideas. Both image metaphors and conceptual metaphors rely on the brain making a connection between two conceptual domains. For image metaphors we link a single concept or image from one conceptual domain (book) to a single image or concept from a different conceptual domain (face) in order to describe a point of similarity. This process of linking corresponding concepts is called “conceptual mapping.” Conceptual metaphors, however, rely on mapping not merely one concept or image to another, but an entire conceptual domain to another conceptual domain to explain how something works.15 Conceptual metaphors use a source domain derived from everyday human experience to explain a target domain that is more abstract.

A conceptual metaphor is a conventionalized mapping (a pattern of associations between the elements of two conceptual domains stored in long-term memory), and linguists refer to them using small capitals in the form target domain is source domain. For example, a common conceptual metaphor is anger is heat. Someone relying on this implicit conceptual metaphor might explain their emotions saying, “My feelings had been simmering under the surface for a while, but in that moment, they all started to boil over, and I blew my top.” They cannot communicate all of the same meaning with an image metaphor like “My feelings were a pot of hot liquid.” If they try to put the meaning into non-figurative, “literal” terms, “I was a little angry for some time, but in that moment, I got really angry, and then I acted out angrily,” they still lose some nuances of the intended meaning. To process the figurative language and understand how anger works, the hearer must be able to mentally map multiple elements from the concrete conceptual domain associated with heat (temperature rising over time, boiling liquid, steam, cooking containers with lids) onto multiple elements of the conceptual domain associated with anger (anger intensifying over time, control of emotion, physical sensations of anger, emotional outbursts).

One important distinction between an image metaphor (“his face was an open book”) and a conceptual metaphor (anger is heat) is that image metaphors describe something with language, but conceptual metaphors are implicit and help us to explain or understand something at the conceptual level before we put it into language. Another important distinction is that image metaphors can be novel comparisons that the hearer has never considered before and still be understandable. The mental mapping that makes understanding the metaphor possible can happen as the metaphor is processed. But understanding figurative language that relies on implicit conceptual metaphors involves accessing pre-existing mappings between conceptual domains that are stored in long-term memory.16 In other words, figurative language based on implicit conceptual metaphors is comprehensible because the hearer has already learned to associate the two conceptual domains in their mind because of their prior experiences with discourse in a particular language and culture.

Implicit conceptual metaphors often result in metaphors and other figurative language that must be analyzed at the discourse-level, not the sentence-level. This is because the figurative language that arises from implicit conceptual metaphors can flow across paragraphs and entire texts. Making the intended inferences requires tapping into a shared cognitive environment for context (i.e., identifying the existing mappings between conceptual domains that are conventional in a language and culture), as opposed to merely analyzing the immediate linguistic context of the words and grammar used in a sentence.

Unity is a whole body and Related Conceptual Metaphors in the New Testament

In the NT, the underlying conceptual metaphor unity is a whole body results in metaphors and other figurative language that both describe and explain how members of the church should relate to each other. The longest passage based on this conceptual metaphor is 1 Cor 12:12–27 where Paul explains the interdependence and mutual care that brings unity out of diversity. God “has put the body together . . . so that there should be no division in the body” (1 Cor 12:24–25 NIV).17 Each part shares in the experience of the other parts as a united whole (“one” is repeated eleven times). Interestingly, in the hypothetical dialogue between the body parts (1 Cor 12:15–21), the head does not have any special status. It is simply another one of the many parts that needs all the other parts. Historian of ancient philosophy and medicine Teun Tieleman writes that Plato viewed the other organs as subservient to the head and thought the head was the most honorable organ. So it is significant that in a cultural context informed by Platonic philosophy,

The role played by the head in the fable is exquisitely suited to driving home the point about the fundamental equality and unity of the members based on their interdependence and in spite of their seeing themselves as being more or less important.18

As Paul points out, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor 12:26 NIV). Elsewhere in the NT, being united as members of one body entails a calling to peace (Col 3:15). This peace is manifest in the “one body” of Christ who destroys barriers of hostility and unites Jews and Gentiles in himself as “one new humanity” (Eph 2:14–16, 3:6 NIV). Bodily integrity demands moral integrity, and members of one body must be truthful with each other (Eph 4:25). In addition to the many parts serving different functions, the wholeness of one body entails an equality in which “each member belongs to all the others” (Rom 12:4–5 NIV).

Jesus Christ is repeatedly designated the head of his body, the church (Eph 1:22, 5:23; Col 1:18). Connection with the head is seen as what leads to growth and nourishment for the body. Paul warns against those believers who have “lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow” (Col 2:19 NIV). He says that Christ “feeds and cares for” the church as his own body (Eph 5:29 NIV).

The more concrete source domain of bodily wholeness (various body parts, different functions, interdependent functions, parts that are uncovered, parts that are private, parts that are considered more or less important, growth, health, nourishment, injury, weakness, strength, dismemberment) is mapped onto the abstract target domain of unity (individual differences, membership, interdependence, mutual service, moral integrity, common purpose, belonging). Beyond simply describing a unified relationship, this underlying conceptual metaphor that links the two conceptual domains allows Paul to better explain abstract truth and exhort people to righteous behavior as well. The “husband is the head of the wife” is figurative language that accesses the same implicit conceptual metaphor, unity is a whole body, as Paul’s metaphors and figurative language explaining the unified functioning of a healthy church and the unity of Christ with his church. Precisely how authority works in this united wholeness is not something the metaphor explains.19

Other metaphors and figurative language describing the relationship between Christ and his people rely on similar metaphors of interdependent wholeness and structural integrity. Consider Jesus as the vine and his followers as the branches, or Jesus as the cornerstone and his people as a temple. In these metaphors, Christ has a central but interdependent role. Authority is not a part of what these metaphors explain either. For example, in John 15, Jesus teaches that the flourishing of the branches is dependent on “remaining” in the vine. Branches that are cut off, or dismembered, from the whole “can do nothing” (John 15:5 NIV). They are thrown away, they wither, and they are destroyed. Although it is not explicit in the passage, the vine needs the healthy branches to bear fruit. If all the branches are cut off, the vine is fruitless, a picture of interdependence and wholeness, not hierarchy. Jesus exhorts his followers to “remain in me, as I also remain in you” (John 15:4 NIV), a description of mutual commitment. Just as the head forms a single whole self with the body, the vine forms a single whole plant with the branches. Later in the passage, when the focus shifts from remaining in the vine to remaining in Jesus’s love, he rejects the hierarchical master/servant relationship to which he is entitled, but rather focuses on the connection and sharing between himself and his followers, saying, “Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15 NIV). Then he returns to the image of fruitfulness that began the passage, fruitfulness that depends on the connected wholeness of the plant.

Another metaphor of structural integrity and wholeness in Ephesians that precedes the body metaphor in ch. 5 is the image of God’s people as a temple with Christ as the cornerstone or foundation. This metaphor of Christ as the cornerstone appears in the Synoptic Gospels and in 1 Pet 2:1–12 (all quoting Ps 118:22), and Peter pictures God’s people as living stones being built into a spiritual house. First Peter and Ephesians are typically dated by evangelical Bible scholars to about the same time period (early AD 60s), so this building metaphor was probably familiar in early Christian discourse and the teaching of the apostles. Paul says that in Christ Jesus, “the whole building is joined together and rises up to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:21 NIV). In Eph 2:20 and 1 Pet 2:6, the word typically translated “cornerstone” is akrogōniaion. But elsewhere, when quoting Ps 118:22 (Matt 21:42, Luke 20:17, Mark 12:10, Acts 4:11, 1 Pet 2:7), the Greek phrase used to refer to the cornerstone is kephalēn gōnias (“head of a corner”). The cornerstone’s “headship” was derived from its function providing structural integrity to the whole building. This metaphor is another one of interdependence and wholeness, not hierarchy. A cornerstone alone is not a functional building. A building without a cornerstone falls apart. The structural integrity of the building depends on its unified wholeness, not on the authority or hierarchy imposed by the kephalēn gōnias.

Paul also uses a head and body metaphor to explain the relationship between God, Christ, men, and women in support of an argument for head coverings: “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3 NIV). Unpacking the relationship of this body metaphor to the teaching on head coverings requires familiarity with the prevailing first-century beliefs about bodies, hair, sexuality, and reproductive anatomy that would have been part of the conceptual domains of the hearers when they inferred the figurative meaning of the metaphor, and that is beyond the scope of this article.20 But note that in this passage that begins with the head and body imagery (which elsewhere in Scripture is clearly used to teach about unity), the interdependence of men and women is explicitly asserted in 1 Cor 11:11: “in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (NIV).

The constant interplay between these prevalent metaphors in the writings of the early church implies that the speakers could count on the hearers’ existing mappings between conceptual domains like unity, interdependence, bodies, and buildings. Christ is the head of the church (Eph 1:22, 4:15, 5:23; Col 1:18), as the husband is the head of the wife (Eph 5:23). The wife is the body of the husband, the church is the body of Christ and also the bride/wife of Christ (2 Cor 11:2). Jesus is “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pet 1:19 NIV) whose literal body is offered to God in sacrifice so that the church, his metaphorical body and bride, can be presented “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph 5:27 NIV). Our individual bodies are members of Christ’s body and temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:15, 19), but we also come together as living stones forming the temple that has Christ as the cornerstone (1 Cor 3:16, 11:16; 1 Pet 2:4–6). The body of Christ is built up (Eph 4:12, 16) like a building as it matures in unity (Eph 4:13–15). These interwoven images of bodies, buildings, united parts, and growing wholes, and their underlying conceptual metaphors of connection, unity, and interdependence are clearly an important part of the cognitive environment of the speakers and hearers and affect the inferences they would make about the relevant meaning of “the husband is the head of the wife.” It is a significant interpretive leap to say they would have obviously inferred Paul was trying to teach that husbands have authority over their wives with this metaphor, because authority is not what these body metaphors explain.21

Conclusion: Move the Debate to the Discourse Level

Hopefully, this introductory overview of discourse-level analysis that pays attention to how metaphors and figurative language are processed and how the shared cognitive context of conceptual metaphors affects understanding of figurative language can help reframe debate over the meaning of “headship” passages like Eph 5:21–33. Instead of humoring the attempt to make it a debate over sentence-level syntax and semantics, egalitarian Bible scholars should take up some of the tools provided by the inference model of communication, discourse analysis, and cognitive linguistics. By digging into scholarship that investigates the power of metaphors and figurative language in making meaning, and applying more discourse-level analysis, they will find abundant support in Scripture for the idea that God calls men and women, not to hierarchy, but to interdependent relationships and wholeness in unity.


1. For a chronological overview of the debate over the available figurative senses of kephalē, see Alan F. Johnson, “A Meta-Study of the Debate over the Meaning of ‘Head’ (Kephalē) in Paul’s Writings,” Priscilla Papers 20/4 (Autumn 2006) 21–29.

2. Although scholars certainly have noted the salient presence of a body metaphor and have argued against translating a figurative sense of kephalē, their discussions of the metaphor have not drawn clear distinctions between inferred metaphorical senses of words and inferred meanings of metaphors. See for example, Gregory Dawes, The Body in Question: Metaphor and Meaning in the Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21–33, BibInt 30 (Brill, 2000) 127: “If κεφαλή is (as we will argue) a living metaphor throughout Ephesians, it does notmean’ ‘over-lord’. Nor does itmean’ ‘source’. It meanshead’, and should be translated ashead’, but with the understanding thatheadcan be used as a metaphor.” Dawes here locates meaning at word-level. The meaning of a metaphor, however, is found in the link, not in the sense of one of the words. Investigations from the field of cognitive linguistics exploring how metaphors work and how figurative language is processed are useful for making these important distinctions between primary and metaphorical word senses, and between the meaning of a word and the meaning of a metaphor, as this article attempts to demonstrate.

3. Kevin Giles, “Complementarian Theology in Crisis,” in Eyes to See and Ears to Hear Women: Sexual Assault as a Crisis of Evangelical Theology, ed. Tim Krueger, Jeff Miller, Mitch Randall (CBE International, 2018) 59–81,

4. For example, see Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, Relevance: Communication and Cognition (Blackwell, 1986) and Thomas Scott-Phillips, Speaking Our Minds: Why Human Communication is Different, and how Language Evolved to Make It Special (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

5. David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods, & Ministry Formation (IVP Academic, 2004) 703.

6. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament, 704.

7. For an example of a study of the household code of Eph 5–6 that includes discourse analysis, see Cynthia Long Westfall, “‘This Is a Great Metaphor!’ Reciprocity in the Ephesians Household Code,” in Christian Origins and Greco-Roman Culture: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts, vol. 1 of Early Christianity in Its Hellenistic Context, TENTS 9, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Wendy Porter (Brill, 2013) 561–97; for an example of a study of the head-body metaphor in Eph 5 that draws heavily on the discipline of rhetoric, akin to discourse analysis, see Michelle Lee-Barnewall, “Turning ΚΕΦΑΛΗ on its Head: The Rhetoric of Reversal in Ephesians 5:21–33,” 599–614 in the same volume.

8. As a key example, see Wayne Grudem, “The Meaning of κεφαλή (‘Head’): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged,” JETS 44/1 (March 2001) 25–65.

9. Richard S. Cervin, “On the Significance of Kephalē (‘Head’): A Study of the Abuse of One Greek Word,” Priscilla Papers 30/2 (Spring 2016) 8.

10. For a metaphor to translate well, the hearers in the target language must be able to map the two images and find the intended correspondence between the two conceptual domains in order to process the figurative meaning. If conceptual domains are significantly different from one culture to another, this may not be possible, and the translated metaphor will be meaningless. Or the target language hearers may map the images differently than the original hearers, and an unintended meaning will be inferred. It can be especially difficult to translate metaphors that rely on implicit links between conceptual domains because the mapping required to process the meaning is conventional in the original language and culture, but may not be conventional in the target language and culture. If translators deem a metaphor too difficult to translate, they should do their best to process the meaning the original audience would have inferred and translate the intended meaning of the metaphor.

11. For example, at Eph 5:23, the 1971 paraphrase The Living Bible reads, “For a husband is in charge of his wife in the same way Christ is in charge of his body the Church.” Similarly, the 2017 Passion Translation reads, “the husband provides leadership for the wife, just as Christ provides leadership for his church. . . .”

12. This translation of Eph 5:33 is by Westfall, “This Is a Great Metaphor!,” 595.

13. For a comprehensive overview of how insights from cognitive linguistics (including conceptual metaphor theory) can be applied to Bible interpretation and theology, see John Sanders, Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think about Truth, Morality, and God (Fortress, 2016).

14. Christy Hemphill, “All in a Week’s Work: Using Conceptual Metaphor Theory to Explain Figurative Meaning in Genesis 1,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 71/4 (2019) 233–42,–19Hemphill.pdf, and “Dressing for Spiritual Battle and Other Challenges: Translating Passages with Underlying Conceptual Metaphors,” Journal of Translation 15/1 (2019) 23–34.

15. For an overview of conceptual metaphor theory, see George Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor,” in Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony (Cambridge University, 1993) 1–50.

16. Vyvyan Evans and Melanie Green, Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006) 295.

17. Perhaps the hearers would have inferred a parallel with the way God joins a man and a woman in the one flesh union of marriage, and “what God has joined together, no one should separate” (Mark 10:9).

18. Teun Tieleman, “Head and Heart: The Pauline Corpus Considered against the Medical and Philosophical Backdrop,” R&T 21 (2014) 98.

19. Modern people know the head holds the brain and is the source of thinking and associate the head with the “command center” of the body. This view of the head as the source of decision-making and will may predispose modern hearers to infer authority or leadership from the head metaphor. But this is imposing associations that were not necessarily part of the first century conceptual domain. For a case that Paul viewed the heart, not the head, as the locus of comprehension, deliberation, and intention, see Troy W. Martin, “Performing the Head Role: Man is the Head of Woman (1 Cor 11:3 and Eph 5:23),” in Theology and Practice in Early Christianity: Essays New and Old with Updated Reception Histories, WUNT 440 (Mohr Siebeck, 2020) 383–94.

20. For an article that gives important insight into first-century Greek concepts of the physiological relationship between heads, hair, and sexuality, see Troy W. Martin, “Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13–15: A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering,” JBL 123/1 (Spring 2004) 75–84.

21. How this body metaphor functions in the larger context of the household code in which it is found (Eph 5:21–6:9) is a separate question that I have not attempted to answer in this article. Paul presumes that husbands do have authority over their wives in this culture (5:22, 24), but he is clearly not, as some have claimed, bolstering this presupposition with an appeal to “headship” as some sort of ontological hierarchy. He is advocating for smooth functioning of the household flowing out of unity and mutual concern.