What Does “Head” (Kephalē) Mean in Paul’s Letters? Part 8: Ephesians 5:23

Preston Sprinkle

Introduction

We come now to the first of our two highly anticipated texts in Paul. (The other being 1 Corinthians 11:3, which I’ll wrestle with in a future post.) Ephesians 5:21-24 reads: 

…submitting (hupassomenoi) to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, [submit] to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head (kephalē) of the wife as Christ is the head (kephalē) of the church, he himself [being] the Savior of the body. But, as the church submits (hupotassetai) to Christ, so also wives [submit] to their husbands in everything.1My translation, slightly modified from the NIV.

The leading question, of course, is what Paul means when he says that “the husband is the head (kephalē) of the wife as Christ is the head (kephalē) of the church.” Does this mean that husbands possess authority over their wives? Or that they are the life source of (and not in authority over) their wives? 

Another important question has to do with how much of the first century culture and context carries over into modern application. If Paul is introducing some radically reorienting Christian household principles into a context that is deeply patriarchal—as a modern western missionary might do, for instance, in a cross-cultural context where women are viewed as unequal to men and marriages exist to serve the man’s needs—he might not be totally abandoning all species of patriarchy all at once. Wise application of Paul’s words, in this case, would require a bit of nuance and sensitivity to Paul’s missionary concerns in his specific cultural context.2See the pioneering work of William Webb along these lines: Women, Slaves, and Homosexual.

Before wrestling with Ephesians 5 (and 5:23 in particular), let me first summarize several observations from my previous 7 posts that I’m bringing with me as I seek to interpret Paul’s use of kephalē here.

  • In at least a couple dozen cases in extra-biblical Greek, kephalē conveys some sense of authority or rule, especially when used in relationship between a person and other people. Most significantly, we see several instances in the LXX (around 13, in my estimate) where kephalē conveys some sense of authority or refers to someone in an authoritative position.  
  • Kephalē very rarely conveys some sense of “source” in extra-biblical Greek (and never in the LXX). We do find a few cases in extra-biblical Greek and in the church fathers where it might be used to conveys this idea, especially in early interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11:3. These latter texts are written well after Paul, so are of limited value in determining what Paul might have meant. 
  • There is extensive evidence from medical writers and some ancient philosophers that the literal head was believed to be the control center of, and thus exercising some kind of rulership over, the body. We also have some evidence that the head was believed to be the body’s life source, and this idea was often correlated with the head’s rulership over the body. 
  • In Ephesians, kephalē does seem to convey some sense of “authority” in 1:22 and “life source” in 4:15.
  • Paul’s household code (5:22-6:9) appears to be subverting several social values assumed in other household codes. In particular, Paul challenged the notion that wives were inferior to their husbands, that husbands should rule over or subjugate their wives; rather, Paul’s description of the husband’s self-giving love for the wife is unparalleled in ancient literature and appears to be particularly highlighted in this passage. 

All of these observations will come into play as I seek to understand what Paul meant by—and what he was doing with—the word kephalē in Ephesians 5. (I would also invite the curious reader to carefully read all of the comments I’ve received in previous posts, especially the critical ones. All of my posts are exploratory, not definitive or dogmatic.)

Turning Kephalē on Its Head—Michelle Lee-Barnewall 

There’s a lot of exciting work that’s been done on Ephesians 5:21-33, some better than others, but the most compelling study, to my mind, is Michelle Lee-Barnewall’s “The Rhetoric and Reversal in Ephesians 5:21-33.”3“Turning kephale on Its Head: The Rhetoric of Reversal in Eph. 5:21-33,” in Christian Origins and Classical Culture: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament. Vol. 1 of The New Testament in Its Hellenistic Context, eds. Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts (Leiden: Brill, 2013): 599-614. For similar approaches, see Kelvin F. Mutter, “Ephesians 5:21-33 as Christian Alternative Discourse,” TrinJ 39 (2018): 3-20; Lynn H. Cohick, “Tyranny, Authority, Service: Leadership and Headship in the New Testament,” Ex Auditu 28 (2012): 74–90. Lee-Barnewall argues that “while kephalē does have definite connotations of ‘authority’, the primary significance of its use is the way in which Paul reverses the cultural expectations of the ‘head’ according to the radical new values of the Christian community.”4“Turning kephalē on its Head,” 599. Instead of looking only at what the individual word kephalē means, Lee-Barnewall focuses more on what Paul does with the word. Paying close attention to Paul’s rhetorical strategy helps us understand “not only the meaning of words, but the way in which those words were used in arguments.”5601. And this attention to Paul’s rhetoric, I believe, will yield more interpretive fruit than approaches that become overly fixated on the lexical meaning of Paul’s individual words.

Lee-Barnewall points out that head-body metaphors were common in the ancient world and were used in a variety of ways. Oftentimes, the “head” in the head-body metaphor referred to a person of prominence and authority. The emperor Nero, for instance, was called the “head” and Rome is his “body.” Galba is also called a “head” over “a vigorous body…meaning the Gallic provinces” over which he was invited “to assume imperial power.”6Plutarch, Galb. 4.3, cited in Lee-Barnewall, 603. We’ve listed these and several other texts in my THIRD POST that say something similar: the “head” is associated with authority and the people under his authority are described as a “body.” 

Lee-Barnewall goes on to point out that people were eager to sacrifice themselves for the safety of the “head” (as the authoritative leader): “a primary concern was to protect the head at all costs.”7606. After all, “the safety of the whole depends upon his [the head’s] well-being.”8606. Seneca, for instance, writes: 

Not without reason do cities and peoples show this according in giving such protection and love to their kings, and in flinging themselves and all they have into the breach whenever the safety of their ruler craves it. (Clem. 1.3-4)

Plutarch likewise says: 

For if, as Iphicrates analyzed the matter, the light-armed troops are like the hands, the cavalry like the feet, the line of men-at-arms itself like chest and breastplate, and the general like the head, then he, in taking undue risks and being over bold, would seem to neglect not himself, but all, inasmuch as their safety depends on him, and their destruction too. (Plutarch, Pel. 2.1)

Plutarch compares the general to a “head,” his troops to a body, and mentions preserving the head for the safety of the whole unity. It would have been startling to Plutarch for someone to suggest that the head should sacrifice himself for the body

Lee-Barnewall also shows that “the head, as ruler, was not called to be the one who loves, but rather was more deserving of being loved.9608 Aristotle says “it is the part of the ruler to be loved, not to love or else to love in another way.”10Clem. 1.5.1-2 cited in Lee-Barnewall, 608. And Seneca refers to the “love” that people have for their “head,” who is Nero (Clem. 1.3-4, cited above). “The difference in roles,” writes Lee-Barnewall, “was a reflection of the asymmetrical relationship between the head and the body of the good of the whole.”11608. As leaders, heads are preserved and receive love from the body; members of the body give love and ensure the safety of the head—even if it costs them their life. 

As an aside, I want to point out that these passages and many others are often ignored in the typical word studies on kephalē. After all, Seneca is writing in Latin not Greek, so some think that his use of “head” (Lat. caput) is irrelevant for an ancient understanding of kephalē. Or some might say that the use of kephalē in Plutarch (who is writing in Greek), is also irrelevant since he uses it as a simile (“like the head”) not a metaphor (“is the head”). I find these methodological restrictions too pedantic and unnecessary, and I’m glad Lee-Barnewall and others have broadened their methodological scope as they’ve sought to get inside of what Paul’s doing in Ephesians 5. Looking at metaphorical uses of the Greek word kephalē is important, no doubt. But so is trying to breathe the same conceptual air that Paul and his readers were inhaling. Once we take a wide-angled look at this conceptual world of the first-century, where leaders and people in authority were compared to the “head” of a body (in both Greek, Latin, and extensively in the Hebrew Bible), it seems quite plausible that Paul’s readers wouldn’t have much trouble understanding the head-body metaphor in Ephesians 5 along similar lines. I just think they would have been quite shocked at what Paul does with this metaphor. 

As we move to Ephesians 5, you can probably see where Lee-Barnewall is going. Paul uses the head-body metaphor in a way that would have been familiar to his audience; the head is the leader and the body therefore submits (5:22-24). “Consequently,” writes Lee-Barnewall, “it is the head’s responsibility to ensure its own safety and the body’s responsibility to sacrifice itself for the sake of the head.”12608. We would, then, “expect Paul to instruct the wife, the body, to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the husband, the head.”13608. But, Paul argues for the exact opposite in 5:25-33 and in doing so he “turns kephalē on its head.” Lee-Barnewall writes: 

When Paul asks husbands, and not wives, to love and sacrifice, this reversal would be shocking in light of traditional status conventions because he tells the most honored part, the head, to perform the duties of the less honored member.14610.

This kind of reversal is quite common, of course, throughout the New Testament, including Paul. The last will be first, the humble exalted, and leaders are to serve as slaves.15Matt. 19:30; 20:16; 23:12; Mark 10:31; Luke 1:51-52; 13:30; 14:11; 18:14; John 13:1-13; Phil 2:5-11. Or as Paul says: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world…to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Cor 1:27-29). Though an apostle, Paul refers to himself as a “slave” (1 Cor 9:19) and urges believers to view themselves the same (Gal 5:13).16See Cohick, “Tyranny,” 78. While Paul’s rhetorical strategy might have been startling for his immediate audience, it would end up being yet another thread in a thick strand of New Testament thought. 

Lee-Barnewall sums up the intended effect of Paul’s rhetoric of reversal: 

[T]he passage works by seeing both how kephalē functions as a metaphor connoting authority and leadership as understood in the ancient Mediterranean culture and how Paul radically reorients it through his application of Christian values. It is the unexpectedness of this reversal that ultimately gives the metaphor its power in this passage.17613. David M. Park argues for a similar view: “Thus, the Apostle equated kephalē to agapē and Christ’s atoning death, thereby redefining kephalē not structurally in terms of one person dominant over another but Christologically in terms of servanthood, sacrifice and love” (“The Structure of Authority in Marriage: An Examination of Hupotassō and Kephale in Ephesians 5:21-33,” EQ 59 [1987], 122). Gregory Dawes takes issue with this interpretation, since Paul’s command to love is “not on the basis of his [the husband] being kephalē tēs gunaikōs” but “on the term sōma” (Dawes, 138 n. 57). But as Payne, Bartlett, and others rightly point out, Paul does define Christ’s headship in terms of being “the Savior of the body” (5:23), which is further explained as his self-giving love in 5:25-29.

The interpretive significance of the head/body metaphor, therefore, can’t be derived from the meaning of the words alone, or even the narrow context of 5:22-24, but from Paul’s rhetorical movement in 5:21-33 as a whole.18On this point, see also Christy Hemphill, “Kephalē is a Body Part: Unified Interdependence in Relationship in Ephesians 5,” https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/kephale-body-part-unified-interdependence/  

I want to point out that even the context of 5:22-24 alerts us to Paul’s redefinition of authority. Already in 5:23, Paul subtly defines Christ’s headship in terms of sacrificial love. He writes: “For the husband is the head (kephalē) of the wife as Christ is the head (kephalē) of the church; he [being] the Savior of the body.” This latter phrase, “he [being] the Savior of the body” (Greek: autos sotēr tou somatos) is in apposition to “Christ is the head of the church,” which means that being the “savior of the body” explains what Paul means by “head” (5:23). This phrase, “savior of the body,” anticipates Paul’s subsequent description of Christ’s self-giving love for his bride—and the husband’s self-giving love for his—in 5:25-29. The specific kind of authority Paul intends to convey by the head-metaphor is narrowly defined as self-giving love.

This point isn’t me being creative or slippery. It’s just how metaphors work. Metaphors typically convey a specific meaning based on context. For instance, the phrase “he’s such a pig” can mean various things depending on how it’s used. If I were looking at a guy shoving a bunch of food down his mouth, “he’s such a pig” means something like he’s eating very sloppily or it could also mean he’s eating way too much (or possibly both). I probably don’t mean he’s eating on all fours or is feeding on rotten vegetables from a trough, or everything else that might come with pigness. In another context, the sense of “eating too much” might not be present. If I were watching a 1 year old with mushy peas all over his face, high chair, bib, and hands, and then I said “he’s such a pig,” here I probably only mean “he’s a messy eater;” I’m not necessarily saying anything about the quantity of peas going down the kid’s gullet. Not everything about pigness transfers over in the use of the metaphor.

We might encounter another meaning altogether for “he’s such a pig.” In another context, “he’s such a pig” could refer to how a guy is treating women. “That guy is such a pig! He dates a different girl every week, and everyone he’s with, he treats them like crap.” Here, the pig metaphor has nothing to do with eating. But we know this from the context. The phrase alone—“he’s such a pig”—cannot tell us what exactly it is about pigness that’s being communicated.

I think something similar is going on in Ephesians 5. The metaphor of “head” by itself conveys some sense of authority, but we need the context to tell us what exactly Paul means by authority, which of course he does. He defines “head” with “Savior,” and then spells out in detail what Christ as Savior looks like—self-sacrificial love and service. Paul does not mean that the husband has categorical authority over his wife in every sense and in every way that Christ has authority over the church, nor does he mean that a husband, as “Savior,” atones for the sins of his wife through his sacrificial death. Paul tells us exactly what he means by “head/Savior.” He means self-giving love and service toward his wife (5:25-29).19Gregory Dawes makes a similar point: “By choosing the word kephalē to link the husband with Christ in vv 22-24, the author has highlighted some aspects of both realities, downplayed others and caused a third group of qualities to simply disappear (for—as we have seen—this is the effect of every metaphor). The aspect which has been highlighted is that of authority: it is this which the husband and Christ are seen to have in common when viewed through the ‘filter’ of the metaphor.” (Dawes, 137). Where I depart from Dawes, however, is I think the nature of authority is further defined through the self-giving love of Christ. So, it’s not authority in a comprehensive sense, but in the particular sense of service.

Perhaps Paul could have argued for some kind of comprehensive authority of a husband over his wife if he had called Christ “Lord” instead of “Savior” in 5:23 and then went on to describe Christ’s cosmic rule over all things, as he did in 1:22. In a different context, kephalē could have communicated some kind of kingly rule over subjects under his control. But the kephalē metaphor cannot mean that here in Ephesians 5, because Paul specifies what he means by authority when he narrowly defines authority in terms of Christ’s sacrificial love for the church. He means giving up of oneself. Paul is not reinforcing some kind of social-hierarchy; he’s subverting it. He meets them where they are at by using language they understand, but he doesn’t let them to define the concept of headship on their own terms. 

Now, some scholars draw attention to the “head” and “Savior” connection to argue that “head” does not refer to authority since Paul’s description of Christ’s self-giving love (5:25-29) “states nothing about Christ’s authority.” Rather, “[t]hese are his actions as savior, the source of life and nourishment of his body, the church.” So when “Paul calls the husbands to imitate Christ’s actions in relations with his wife,” this means he does “not…assume authority over her.”20Payne, Man and Woman, 284.

We’ll deal with the possibility that kephalē means “life source” below. For now, I want to simply point out that it’s a false dichotomy to say that Christ’s (and the husband’s) self-giving love is at odds with authority in the Christian sense of the term “authority.” To argue that “Savior of the body” refers to the self-giving love of Christ/husband and therefore not to their authority assumes a secular notion of authority, not a Christian one. Of course, someone in authority in the secular world, both ancient and modern, would not give up of themselves for the sake of the other, especially one deemed lesser than by the broader culture. CEOs don’t wash the feet of janitors in the modern world, any more than husbands would do the same for their wives in the Greco-Roman world. But this secular sense of authority is precisely what Paul is redefining. Paul meets his audience where they are at, by using language of authority (“head”) and submission, but then redefines what these mean in the Christian household.

In short, I do find Lee-Barnewall’s understanding of kephale to be compelling, not just in terms of what the metaphor means, but also with what Paul does with this metaphor throughout Ephesians 5:21-33 as a whole. 

Deconstructing Marital Hierarchy 

Lee-Barnewall’s reading also correlates with other statements in Ephesians 5 that deconstruct marital hierarchy (a hierarchy where the husband is the superior ruler over everyone else in the household, including his wife). By deconstructing hierarchy, Paul will establish a marital relationship that is much more mutual. By mutuality I do not mean sameness, and mutuality doesn’t necessarily mean there can’t be any “role distinctions” (though I find that phrase to be anachronistic). By mutuality, I simply mean interdependence within a framework of ontological equality instead of social hierarchy. 

Mutual Submission (Eph. 5:21)

The first push toward mutuality is, of course, the leading statement about mutual submission that sets up the household code: “…submitting (hupassomenoi) to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). There are at least 2 general approaches to the significance of this statement for the following passage. 

Some scholars see the mutual submission here as controlling the rest of the passage (5:22-33, or perhaps 5:22-6:9 as a whole). Wives submit to their husbands and husbands also submit to their wives, since the whole household code has been set up by 5:21.21Payne, Man and Woman, 277-283.  After all, the word “submit” doesn’t even occur in 5:22.22Hupotassō does occur in several early manuscripts (e.g. Sinaiticus, A, I) but it’s omitted in P46 (one of the earliest and most reliable attestations to Paul’s letters) and in B. Most critical editions of the New Testament follow the mss that omit the verb in 5:22 (NA27, UBS4, Nestle, Wetcott and Hort), while the recent Greek New Testament published by Tyndale House (Cambridge) retrains the verb. Virtually all scholars (egalitarian and complementarian) follow the mss that omit the verb, but see Peter Gurry, “The Text of Eph 5.22,” for an argument that the verb hupotassō should be retained in 5:22. The text literally says: “…submitting (hupassomenoi) to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, to your own husbands as you do to the Lord (5:21-22). The implied command, “Wives [submit] to your own husbands,” depends on the mutual submission of 5:21. “Paul does not give any command here in Ephesians 5 that applies only to husbands (and not to wives) or applies only to wives (and not to husbands),” writes Phil Payne.23The Bible, 113. Just as husbands are told to love their wives (5:25), all Christians are commanded to love one another (5:2). Just as wives are told to submit to their husbands (5:22, 24), all Christians are commanded to submit to one another (5:21). 

Other scholars, however, maintain that 5:21 is speaking about mutual submission in general, but that’s he’s not making an absolute claim.24Hoehner Ephesians, 717; O’Brien, Ephesians, 401-4. That is, submission is a virtue applied to every Christian, but this does not mean that every Christian submits to every other Christian in the same way in every case.25So Blomberg: “…if mutual submission is defined as the same two people deferring to one another in the same way, on the same issue, at the same time, then it is logically incoherent. So egalitarians and complementarians alike, whether they realize it or not, must concede that mutual submission means certain people submitting only to certain others, in certain ways, at certain times” (Blomberg, “A Response,” 118-119). For instance, the statement “submitting to one another” (5:21) includes both parents and kids, but that doesn’t mean parents should submit to their kids. There could be some asymmetrical relationships within the general pattern of mutual submission. We see this in other “one another” statements in the Bible. For instance, “greet one another” (Rom 16:16;1 Cor 12:25) is symmetrical and mutual. Two people are doing the same thing to each other at the same time. But when Revelation 6:4 says that people “would slaughter one another” (Rev. 6:4; cf. Gal 6:2 and 1 Cor 11:33; see also Jas 5:16; 2 Chron 20:23), this means that “some members of the group slaughter others.”26Campbell, Ephesians, 243. The phrase “one another” does not have to mean submission is always symmetrical—every single person submitting to every single person.

Scholars who take this latter view point out that whenever submission is mentioned in the context of husbands and wives, it’s always the wife that submits to the husband, never the other way around (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:7). The Bible never says “husbands submit to your wives.” Plus, even though the word “submit” is absent in Ephesians 5:22, it does occur in 5:24: “But, as the church submits (hupotassetai) to Christ, so also wives [submit] to their husbands in everything.” 

I’m still wrestling with both of these views and think both make good points. I’ll offer a few additional observations. 


First, the whole concept of mutual submission in 5:21 would have been startling. Even if we take the second view (where husbands are not to submit to their wives) it does shape how we view 5:22-33. This doesn’t mean the first view is correct, that mutual submission in 5:21 means that husbands are to submit to their wives and wives to their husbands. But “submission” was intrinsically asymmetrical and based on social hierarchy in the ancient world. So even if we think Paul is telling only wives to submit to their husbands, it is quite plausible that the nature of this submission is augmented by the fact that the implied verb in 5:22 is dependent upon mutual submission of 5:21. I like how Richard Hays puts it: “the hierarchical structure of the relations described is tempered by a comprehensive vision of the church as a people living in humility and mutual submission.”27Hays, Moral Vision, 64, cited in Arnold, 356-57

Second, as I noted in my previous POST, we cannot view submission through a secular lens. Submission has been wrenched from its hierarchical and oppressive context and turned into a virtue through the submissive pattern of Christ (John 13; Phil 2; etc.).28See Sydney Park’s excellent book, Submission within the Godhead and the Church in the Epistle to the Philippians: An Exegetical and Theological Examination of the Concept of Submission (LNTS; London: T & T Clark, 2007). Even if submission is asymmetrical—wives to their husbands and not husbands to their wives—this cannot mean that wives are called to do something bad or demeaning, and it certainly doesn’t mean that wives are less valuable, important as, or equal to husbands. That would be a secular view of submission, not a Christian one. For the Christian, the virtue of submission should be put on part with courage, strength, power, and holiness. 

Third, whatever shadow 5:21 casts on the household code, I think it ends at 5:33 and does not carry over into 6:1-9 where Paul addresses children/fathers and slaves/masters. I used to think that viewing mutual submission between husbands and wives is unlikely since this would demand that we also view mutual submission between fathers and children, masters and slaves. But as Phil Payne rightly points out: “5:21 is grammatically and verbally linked to 5:22, not to either of the sociological pairs in chapter 6, where Paul uses a different verb, ‘obey’, not ‘submit’.”29Payne, The Bible, 114. Plus, Ephesians 5:33 sums up Paul’s instructions to the wife and husband, which essentially gives closure to his argument from Ephesians 5:21-32.30See Dawes, 106.

My fourth observation is more of a question: should we view the commands given to the husband toward his wife as a kind of submission, even if Paul deliberately avoided the exact word “submit” when referring to the husband’s actions toward his wife?31I think Lynn Cohick has one of the most careful and nuanced articulations of this view in her commentary on Ephesians, “…we return to our question of whether Paul qualifies his charge in Eph 5:21 that believers submit to each other by exempting husbands in 5:22 from submitting to their wives. The answer is a complicated ‘no’ that starts with a qualified ‘yes’. It would be almost impossible from a cultural standpoint for Paul’s audience to make sense of a direct statement for husbands to submit to their wives, for the social expectations would not have envisioned it. Moreover, the legal codes treated adult women as ‘minors’, which would have made nonsense of Paul’s request. Yet in terms of actual practices, Paul does in fact ask husbands to submit—in his command that they love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up to death on the cross that the church might live. Such actions undermine the gender hierarchy by ceding honor to the wife as worthy of the husband’s self-sacrifice” (Ephesians, 352 emphasis mine). Frank Thielmann, for instance, points out: “Although the head of the household retains his position of authority, his use of that authority is tempered by an attitude of service to those over whom he has bene placed.”32Thielmann, 373, citing Bruce 1984: 382; Lincoln 1990: 366; Best 1998: 516-17. Some people take this as evidence for the husband submitting to his wife. After all, his actions toward his wife are typical of domestic slaves—washing and bathing and doing the laundry (5:26-27). Con Campbell—who leans egalitarian, by the way—pushes back on this: “this view confuses submission with service. Of course, all believers are to serve one another in a symmetrical sense, but this does not mean that all are supposed to submit to one another. The two concepts are related, but distinct.”33Campbell, 244.

I do wonder if we are quibbling over semantics. If the husband is giving up of his life for his wife—putting her needs and desires first; serving her in ways that the broader culture might find demeaning—how much does it matter if we call this “submission” or “service?” Paul says something interesting along these lines in 1 Corinthians 16:15-16: 

You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves(etaxan heautous) to the service (eis diakonian) of the Lord’s people. I urge you, brothers and sisters, to submit (hypotassesthe) to such people and to everyone who joins in the work and labors at it. 

Submit to the ones who are devoted to being servants! Paul is clearly deconstructing the whole concept of submission and leadership. It’s at least interesting that Paul’s word for “devote” is tassō, the same root word for hupotassō. The two words mean different things, but one wonders if Paul is playing a bit with the typical hierarchical assumptions that often surround those who submit and those who receive submission. I love how Frank Thielmann puts it: “There may be a difference between placing oneself in the service (eis diakonian…tassō) of others and submitting to others (hupotassō), but it is not large.”34Thielmann, 374.

To sum up my thoughts on mutual submission: I’m not yet convinced that we should understand Paul to mean that husbands are to submit to their wives and wives to their husbands in a complete symmetrical sense. At least, I don’t think that this is what Paul was saying to the first-century Ephesians believers. Husbands are never described as submitting to their wives, and wives are not called the “head” of their husband. Paul retains some semblance of male authority in the home, as we would expect from any good missionary who’s sensitive to cultural context. And yet he’s clearly pushing toward mutuality in a way that deconstructs the typical hierarchy of first century marriages. It may even be that the behavior Paul prescribes for husbands toward their wives was, in a way, virtual submission, even if Paul purposely avoids using the word hupotassō.

The Unity of the Body (Eph. 5:28-32)

Another push toward mutuality comes toward the end of the passage. After redefining authority in terms of service in Ephesians 5:25-27, Paul describes marriage in a way that’s profoundly mutual and interdependent:

In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodiesHe who loves his wife loves himself29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Eph 5:28-33)

What Paul does with the body metaphor is striking to say the least. I think Gregory Dawes has done some of the best work in teasing out what Paul does with the head/body metaphor throughout Ephesians and in chapter 5 in particular.35The Body in Question: Metaphor and Meaning in the Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21-33 (Leiden: Brill, 1998). He points out that in Ephesians, Paul uses the body metaphor in two general ways: partitive and unitive. What Dawes calls the partitive use is one where the body is distinguished from the head. In Ephesians 5:22-24, the head is the husband/Christ and the body is the wife/church. Paul’s use is similar to several extrabiblical texts that we’ve looked at, where the head is in authority over the body (whether literally or metaphorically). 

Elsewhere in Ephesians (and in Paul’s letters as a whole), the body is used to in a unitive sense; it described the unity of the church, which has many parts but one body (e.g. Eph. 4:11-16). What’s striking is that Paul begins with the partitive function of the metaphor in Ephesians 5:22-24 but then uses the same body metaphor in a unitive way in 5:29-32. The head no longer stands in authority over the body; the head is at one with the body. The two are—as Paul’s use of Genesis 2:24 shows—one. “[W]hat the author draws on here,” says Dawes, “is not the distinction between the head and the body (for the term kephalē does not occur in these verses). Rather, what the argument relies on is the unitive use of the term soma, expressing the idea that the wife and husband form ‘one flesh’.”36Dawes, 201.  In sum: 

[W]e may speak of two distinct uses of the terms kephalē and sōma within Eph 5:21-33: one use in which the “head” is spoken of as distinct from the body and which distinguishes wife from husband (vv 22-24), and another in which the term “body” is used to emphasize their unity (vv 25-31).37Dawes, 202-203.

This rhetorical movement of sōma from partitive to unitive corresponds to Paul’s redefinition of kephalē in terms of self-sacrificial service that we saw earlier. One could say that Paul meets his audience where they’re at in 5:22-24 and then takes them on a journey toward mutuality and interdependence in 5:25-32—something already hinted at in 5:21. 

Kephalē as Source? 

Thus far, I’ve argued that kephalē conveys authority, but that the nature of authority has been redefined as self-sacrifice and love. Some scholars, however, maintain that kephalē means “source” here in Ephesians 5:23 and that it does not convey any sense of authority.38While all scholars who take this view are egalitarian, not every egalitarian takes this view. In fact, from my vantage point, it seems like more and more egalitarian scholars of late do not interpret kephalē to mean “source” (see e.g. Gupta, Terran Williams [?], Cohick.

Linda Belleville, for instance, believes that Paul “most certainly” uses kephalē to mean source, and “Paul’s four references to Christ as kephalē of his church without a doubt mean ‘source’.”39“An Egalitarian Perspective,” 100. Belleville points out that in Ephesians 5, kephalē as source “goes back to the creation of male and female” where the woman was created out of man, and Paul’s allusion to this creation story (Genesis 2:21-24) in Ephesians 5:32 “is unmistakable.”40“An Egalitarian Perspective,” 101. Philip Payne also argues that kephalē means “source” in Ephesians 5:23, but highlights the wife’s social dependence upon the man in the first-century context: “[T]he husband, in that culture, was the source of life for his wife since he provided all that was essential for her to live.”41The Bible, 115. “Wives depended on their husbands as the source of food, clothing, shelter, the physical source of her children, and her emotional source of love.”42Man and Woman, 288). Thus, “Christ is the source of life, love, and nourishment for the church as husbands should be for their wives.”43Ibid., 290.

We should distinguish, then, between two difference senses of “source.” One is ontological and another social. The ontological view points back to Eve’s creation from the side of Adam, while the social view looks to the ancient cultural where wives were dependent on husbands for their livelihood. Both senses could be at play in Ephesians 5, but it’s more likely that Paul has either one or the other in view—if indeed he’s using kephalē in the sense of source.44Cynthia Long Westfall argues that both (ontological and social) senses are at work in Ephesians 5:23 (Paul and Gender, 100-101).

I don’t find much credibility in the ontological view of source in this context. While it’s a plausible understanding of kephale in 1 Corinthians 11:3 (in light of vv. 8-9), it doesn’t make much sense of what Paul’s doing in Ephesians 5. Paul does cite Genesis 2:24 in Ephesians 5:31, but this part of the creation story speaks of the marital unity of Adam and Eve (which supports Paul’s point), not Eve’s creation from the side of Adam. Sure, Eve’s creation from Adam is part of the original creation story as a whole, but that part of the story doesn’t contribute anything to what Paul is doing in Ephesians 5. It seems forced to think that Paul is saying something like: Wives, submit to your husbands because Eve was created out of Adam’s side. I think we should consider other ways to understand this passage before we reach for this one. 

I think Payne’s understanding of source—in terms of the wife’s social dependence on her husband—is more plausible. In the end, though, I don’t think interpreting kephalē to mean “source” is more credible than the interpretation of Lee-Barnewall and others who see kephalē as some kind of redefined sense of authority. But let’s consider the arguments for kephalē as “source” in the social sense. I’ll briefly sum up each argument and respond to each one in turn. 

First: “‘source’ is better established as a meaning for ‘head’ in Hellenistic Greek than ‘leader’ or ‘authority’.”45Payne, Man and Woman, 290.

Response: I’ve found the opposite to be true, as my previous posts (HEREHERE, and HERE) have shown. While it’s possible that kephalē can mean “source,” when used to describe a person’s relationship to another person or people, this meaning is very rare. But it’s fairly common, as we have seen, for kephalē to be in some way associated with authority. 

Second, Christ’s role as “Savior of the body” is in apposition to his role as “head” (Eph. 5:23). That is, kephalē is defined by Christ’s role as Savior (not Lord or leader), which contributes to the idea of Christ being the “source” of the body, not its authority. 

Response: I’ve already summed up my thoughts about this line of thinking above. In short, I agree that “Savior of the body” is in apposition to “Christ is the head of the church” and therefore explains what Paul means by “head” (5:23). I just think it’s a false dichotomy to say that Jesus’s sacrifice is at odds with his authority. I find it more compelling, and exegetically accurate, to say that Paul redefines authority, rather than saying he’s not at all dealing with authority. In order for Paul to redefine authority, he must mention it in the first place. 

Third, Paul clearly uses kephalē in a head/body metaphor to mean “source” in Ephesians 4:15. Therefore, he’s most likely doing the same here in Ephesians 5:23. 

Response: This, to my mind, is the strongest argument in favor of “source.” As my previous POST has shown, I do think kephalē conveys some sense of “source” (i.e. the head is the source of life for the body) in 4:15. However, even though both passages (4:15 and 5:23) use kephalē in a head/body metaphor, Paul seems to be doing something different in each passage.46See especially Gregory Dawes’ incisive and thorough discussion on the use of kephalē in Eph. 4:15 and 5:23 (The Body in Question, 122-149). He too argues that while kephalē means something like “source of life” in 4:15, the context of 5:23 is different and kephalē clearly conveys some sense of authority in this latter passage (as well as in 1:22).

  • While both passages describe Christ as head and the church as his body, 5:22-24 applies this to a social relationship (husband and wife) within the genre of a household code, which naturally carried themes of authority and submission. 
  • Eph. 5:21-24 has language of submission connected to kephalē (as does Eph. 1:19-22), which lends support for interpreting kephalē as authority rather than source.
  • The head/body description in 4:15-16 reflects the kinds of descriptions of the head/body in medical writers and philosophers who believed that the head was the life source of the body. Ephesians 5:22-24, however, does not reflect the same kind language. 

I think people dead set on interpreting kephalē as “source” here will continue to do so. (I really hope it’s not because they think that an egalitarian interpretation rests upon this view of kephalē; it does not.) I think interpreting kephalē as conveying “authority”—aside from the exegetical strength for this view—just makes much more sense of what Paul’s doing in Ephesians 5:21-33 on a rhetorical level. Which leads to my fourth point.

Fourth, translating kephalē as “source” blunts the teeth of Paul’s rhetorical reversal. If kephalē means “source” and not “authority,” then what is Paul turning on its head? Interpreting kephalē as “life source” essentially has Paul agreeing with and reinforcing first-century patriarchal assumptions, where the wife was utterly dependent upon her husband for food, clothing, shelter, etc. To have Paul saying that wives should submit to their husbands since he’s the life-source of their wives sounds more like Aristotle than Paul.

In short, I think interpreting kephalē as conveying (redefined) authority not only makes more lexical sense, but it also contains more explanatory power of Paul’s rhetorical movement in the passage. 

Authority Redefined 

I’ve tried to hold off viewing the whole debate about kephalē through the lens of modern complementarian and egalitarian debates. I think it can fog up our exegetical lenses when we come to the text with these modern pre-packaged categories and think that Paul is working with the same categories. This is why I’ve been trying to let the text breath a bit without racing too quickly to determine whether Paul was egalitarian or complementarian. 

In any case, I don’t mind offering some thoughts that might be more directly applicable to these modern debates.  

In general, I do find myself agreeing more with the exegesis of scholars who happen to be complementarian in their understanding of kephalē as authority rather than source (or prominence). And yet, when we appreciate Paul’s rhetorical movement in Ephesians 5:21-33—especially in light of other household codes—I think I end up with a mutual marriage relationship that does not reflect how many complementarians apply Ephesians 5. I think it would be wrong to say that the husband’s authority means that he has the tie-breaking vote when he and his wife disagree, or that he’s in charge of which house they will buy, which car they will drive (and who will drive), how they will spend their money, where they should live, how they should raise their kids, where they will attend church, how they should disciple their kids, who reads the Bible to them at night, etc. To make these kinds of applications misunderstands how metaphors work; Paul has a specific kind of authority (= self-giving love) in view (remember my “he’s such a pig” analogy). This application also cuts against the grain of the point Paul is making about redefining authority. The specific way that the husband is in authority over their wives is by giving up of themselves for their wives; by loving and caring for them. This is different from saying the husband is in authority over his wife in the modern sense of the term, like when we talk about being “the head of the household.”

I also want to challenge the notion that husbands are in authority over their wives, and oh, by the way, they should also be loving and caring while they are ruling over the house (as some complementarians view the passage). Rather, the husband is in authority over his wife in that he is to give himself up for herAt least, I think that’s closer to what Paul is doing in Ephesians 5. Whether Paul or other biblical writers still believe that husbands possess more comprehensive authority over their wives—in the tie-breaking vote sense—might be found elsewhere, but that does not seem to reflect Paul’s point of the kephalē metaphor in Ephesians 5. 

While Paul still uses the language of “head” and “submission,” after he gets done redefining these terms, we practically end up with the stunning notion of mutual authority Paul expresses elsewhere: “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife” (1 Cor 7:4). 


  • 1
    My translation, slightly modified from the NIV.
  • 2
    See the pioneering work of William Webb along these lines: Women, Slaves, and Homosexual.
  • 3
    “Turning kephale on Its Head: The Rhetoric of Reversal in Eph. 5:21-33,” in Christian Origins and Classical Culture: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament. Vol. 1 of The New Testament in Its Hellenistic Context, eds. Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts (Leiden: Brill, 2013): 599-614. For similar approaches, see Kelvin F. Mutter, “Ephesians 5:21-33 as Christian Alternative Discourse,” TrinJ 39 (2018): 3-20; Lynn H. Cohick, “Tyranny, Authority, Service: Leadership and Headship in the New Testament,” Ex Auditu 28 (2012): 74–90.
  • 4
    “Turning kephalē on its Head,” 599.
  • 5
    601.
  • 6
    Plutarch, Galb. 4.3, cited in Lee-Barnewall, 603.
  • 7
    606.
  • 8
    606.
  • 9
    608
  • 10
    Clem. 1.5.1-2 cited in Lee-Barnewall, 608.
  • 11
    608.
  • 12
    608.
  • 13
    608.
  • 14
    610.
  • 15
    Matt. 19:30; 20:16; 23:12; Mark 10:31; Luke 1:51-52; 13:30; 14:11; 18:14; John 13:1-13; Phil 2:5-11.
  • 16
    See Cohick, “Tyranny,” 78.
  • 17
    613. David M. Park argues for a similar view: “Thus, the Apostle equated kephalē to agapē and Christ’s atoning death, thereby redefining kephalē not structurally in terms of one person dominant over another but Christologically in terms of servanthood, sacrifice and love” (“The Structure of Authority in Marriage: An Examination of Hupotassō and Kephale in Ephesians 5:21-33,” EQ 59 [1987], 122). Gregory Dawes takes issue with this interpretation, since Paul’s command to love is “not on the basis of his [the husband] being kephalē tēs gunaikōs” but “on the term sōma” (Dawes, 138 n. 57). But as Payne, Bartlett, and others rightly point out, Paul does define Christ’s headship in terms of being “the Savior of the body” (5:23), which is further explained as his self-giving love in 5:25-29.
  • 18
    On this point, see also Christy Hemphill, “Kephalē is a Body Part: Unified Interdependence in Relationship in Ephesians 5,” https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/kephale-body-part-unified-interdependence/
  • 19
    Gregory Dawes makes a similar point: “By choosing the word kephalē to link the husband with Christ in vv 22-24, the author has highlighted some aspects of both realities, downplayed others and caused a third group of qualities to simply disappear (for—as we have seen—this is the effect of every metaphor). The aspect which has been highlighted is that of authority: it is this which the husband and Christ are seen to have in common when viewed through the ‘filter’ of the metaphor.” (Dawes, 137). Where I depart from Dawes, however, is I think the nature of authority is further defined through the self-giving love of Christ. So, it’s not authority in a comprehensive sense, but in the particular sense of service.
  • 20
    Payne, Man and Woman, 284.
  • 21
    Payne, Man and Woman, 277-283.
  • 22
    Hupotassō does occur in several early manuscripts (e.g. Sinaiticus, A, I) but it’s omitted in P46 (one of the earliest and most reliable attestations to Paul’s letters) and in B. Most critical editions of the New Testament follow the mss that omit the verb in 5:22 (NA27, UBS4, Nestle, Wetcott and Hort), while the recent Greek New Testament published by Tyndale House (Cambridge) retrains the verb. Virtually all scholars (egalitarian and complementarian) follow the mss that omit the verb, but see Peter Gurry, “The Text of Eph 5.22,” for an argument that the verb hupotassō should be retained in 5:22.
  • 23
    The Bible, 113.
  • 24
    Hoehner Ephesians, 717; O’Brien, Ephesians, 401-4.
  • 25
    So Blomberg: “…if mutual submission is defined as the same two people deferring to one another in the same way, on the same issue, at the same time, then it is logically incoherent. So egalitarians and complementarians alike, whether they realize it or not, must concede that mutual submission means certain people submitting only to certain others, in certain ways, at certain times” (Blomberg, “A Response,” 118-119).
  • 26
    Campbell, Ephesians, 243.
  • 27
    Hays, Moral Vision, 64, cited in Arnold, 356-57
  • 28
    See Sydney Park’s excellent book, Submission within the Godhead and the Church in the Epistle to the Philippians: An Exegetical and Theological Examination of the Concept of Submission (LNTS; London: T & T Clark, 2007).
  • 29
    Payne, The Bible, 114.
  • 30
    See Dawes, 106.
  • 31
    I think Lynn Cohick has one of the most careful and nuanced articulations of this view in her commentary on Ephesians, “…we return to our question of whether Paul qualifies his charge in Eph 5:21 that believers submit to each other by exempting husbands in 5:22 from submitting to their wives. The answer is a complicated ‘no’ that starts with a qualified ‘yes’. It would be almost impossible from a cultural standpoint for Paul’s audience to make sense of a direct statement for husbands to submit to their wives, for the social expectations would not have envisioned it. Moreover, the legal codes treated adult women as ‘minors’, which would have made nonsense of Paul’s request. Yet in terms of actual practices, Paul does in fact ask husbands to submit—in his command that they love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up to death on the cross that the church might live. Such actions undermine the gender hierarchy by ceding honor to the wife as worthy of the husband’s self-sacrifice” (Ephesians, 352 emphasis mine).
  • 32
    Thielmann, 373, citing Bruce 1984: 382; Lincoln 1990: 366; Best 1998: 516-17.
  • 33
    Campbell, 244.
  • 34
    Thielmann, 374.
  • 35
    The Body in Question: Metaphor and Meaning in the Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21-33 (Leiden: Brill, 1998).
  • 36
    Dawes, 201. 
  • 37
    Dawes, 202-203.
  • 38
    While all scholars who take this view are egalitarian, not every egalitarian takes this view. In fact, from my vantage point, it seems like more and more egalitarian scholars of late do not interpret kephalē to mean “source” (see e.g. Gupta, Terran Williams [?], Cohick.
  • 39
    “An Egalitarian Perspective,” 100.
  • 40
    “An Egalitarian Perspective,” 101.
  • 41
    The Bible, 115.
  • 42
    Man and Woman, 288).
  • 43
    Ibid., 290.
  • 44
    Cynthia Long Westfall argues that both (ontological and social) senses are at work in Ephesians 5:23 (Paul and Gender, 100-101).
  • 45
    Payne, Man and Woman, 290.
  • 46
    See especially Gregory Dawes’ incisive and thorough discussion on the use of kephalē in Eph. 4:15 and 5:23 (The Body in Question, 122-149). He too argues that while kephalē means something like “source of life” in 4:15, the context of 5:23 is different and kephalē clearly conveys some sense of authority in this latter passage (as well as in 1:22).
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18 comments on “What Does “Head” (Kephalē) Mean in Paul’s Letters? Part 8: Ephesians 5:23

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  1. Andrew Bartlett on

    ANCIENT MEDICAL KNOWLEDGE
    Preston writes: “There is extensive evidence from medical writers and some ancient philosophers that the literal head was believed to be the control center of, and thus exercising some kind of rulership over, the body.”
    I think you (and Michelle Lee-Barnewall) have been pushed off track here by mistakes in some scholars’ work. The idea that the head was the ruling part of the human body was seriously controversial in Paul’s day and remained so for a considerable time afterwards.
    Hippocratic medicine had originally taught (5th/4th century BC) that the head ruled, but Aristotle, Diocles, Zeno and Chrysippus taught that the heart was the seat of intelligence and control, and the Hippocratic treatise ‘On the Heart’ (possibly as late as 3rd century BC) taught that the control center was in the left ventricle of the heart, contrary to the earlier Hippocratic understanding.
    Philo (contemporary with Paul) recorded that both views were held in his own day, and there is abundant evidence in his writings that he did not firmly commit himself to one view rather than the other. Rufus and Galen are not directly relevant, being after Paul’s time. The continuing uncertainty was noted by Sextus Empiricus (late 2nd century AD).
    If we’re hoping for some help from ancient medical knowledge in understanding how Paul’s audience might have thought about his head metaphor, we need to consider more than the controversial binary question ‘ruler of the body or not?’ We need to consider ALL of the functions of the head in relation to the body, as understood in the first century AD, and which of them were generally accepted.
    If you’d like references to the medical literature, let me know and I can email them to you.

    Reply
  2. Josh Curtiss on

    I agree with the premise that husbands have authority, but it should be used to love and serve their family. I’m not sure if you can separate using authority in service to one’s family and, in some ways, having the final say in decision-making. Jesus is the gold standard in sacrificial authority, but he overrides his disciples’ wishes for their own good (Matt 16:23, John 13:1-17). Another example might be a military commander charged with leading a group of soldiers. If the squad doesn’t submit to their authority, it doesn’t matter if the commander uses authority selfishly or sacrificially. When you don’t give the leader the final say, you are no longer falling under their protection.

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