The Headship Issue in Ephesians 5:22-23

Over at Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight has another guest blogger in Lisa Baumert, who has written an article looking at the issue of headship, especially as found in the well-known Ephesians 5 passage, vs22-23.

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 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.

I had posted an extensive series on the role of women a couple of months back (see here and here), looking at passages like the early chapters of Genesis, some passages in the New Testament on the new creation, and some of the more debated ones like 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15. It is also my desire to finish out the series in the near future, looking at two more highly debated passages in 1 Corinthians 11 and this text in Ephesians 5. But I believe that this article by Lisa Baumert over at Jesus Creed presents some very solid material. To quote a few statements:

Therefore, notice in 5:21 that Paul states that the Holy Spirit enables Christians to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Submission is presented here as a characteristic of the new humanity in Christ, not merely a feminine ideal—as common interpretations of this passage assume. All Christians are to submit to one another in love and humility—an idea which, at the time Ephesians was written, would have drastically challenged society’s understanding of human relationships. Rather than advancing the accepted and widespread hierarchy of his day, Paul challenged all people—men, women, slaves, and free—to be filled with the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and so to submit to one another.

Later on, Baumert explains:

Male authority and leadership in the home and church is frequently supported by verse 23 which says, “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” The term “head” is often read today to mean “ruler” or “authority.” The original Greek text of Ephesians however, does not allow for such an ordered interpretation of the word “head.” In this passage, the limits of the English language blur an important distinction between several meanings of the term that is translated “head” in English. Rather than indicating hierarchy, and therefore the unilateral submission of wives to their husbands, the Greek word for “head” used here by Paul is properly understood to convey the ideas of dependence and unity.

Kephale, the Greek word which is translated “head” in this passage, means “source,” and conveys the idea of one who willingly sacrifices and lays down their life. Thus, kephale indicated to Paul’s audience chronology rather than leadership or authority. This understanding of “head” is consistent with Paul’s assertion in 5:23 that Christ is the head or kephale of the church. Another Greek word which can be translated “head” in English is arche. Arche was used in Paul’s time to convey the idea of hierarchy, and was also utilized to mean “leadership” or “ruler.” Significantly, Paul did not use this word when speaking of marriage in Ephesians and thus he explicitly avoided conveying the idea of gender hierarchy and therefore male authority.

And finally, she concludes with these words:

Additionally, by selecting the Greek word kephale, or “head,” Paul speaks both of marriage and salvation history. Just as Christ’s body was the source of life for the church, so too Adam’s body gave rise to Eve (Gen.2). Thus, Paul was also seeking to highlight the unity and mutuality by which husbands and wives were to live. Christ and the church exist in a reciprocal and unified relationship of dependence. The church is dependent upon Christ for its wellbeing and life, and Christ lived and died for the sake of the church. Likewise, husbands and wives are to be unified and mutually loving toward one another. Therefore, the metaphorical similarity between the relationships of Christ and the church, and husbands and wives, is found in the idea of “source”—social dependence and unity—rather than in the commonly interpreted ideas of hierarchy and authority.

These thoughts give a solid basis for understanding 1) the Greek word kephale, 2) the idea of the Spirit-filled life of mutual submission in the greater context, and 3) that Paul is not addressing hierarchical authority here.

If you would like to read more over at Jesus Creed, you can find the post here. And if you want to read more of my articles on the role of women, you can find those posts here and here.

Finally, here is another good article over at Jesus Creed on ‘headship’ and authority in marriage.


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