Headship: Authority or Preeminence?

Law And Justice Concept

During my recent series on sanctification in marriage, I touched on the topic of ‘headship’. The modern way of thinking has diverged from the Ancient Near East mindset where authority derived from status, not the converse.


In Sanctified Marriage: Part 2, I noted that ‘head’ in Ephesians 5 means ‘preeminence’, not ‘authority’:

The word head (kephalē) means preeminence (of higher status, exalted, elevated, or the first position), not authority. This is why wives are told to submit by respecting their higher status husbands.

You might obey someone in higher authority, but you respect someone who is of greater status. When Paul speaks of the husband being the head of the wife, he is referring to his preeminent status. Any authority (and thus obedience) is a function of honor or respect.

In Sanctified Marriage: Part 3, I noted that the submission in 1 Peter 2-3 is centered on respect and honor.

When Peter tells servants to submit to their abusive masters, he instructs them to respect (or fear) them. He also tells husbands to honor their ungodly wives. The concepts of respect and honor refer to the status of the recipient, not their authority.

In particular, when Paul talks about believing husbands and their unbelieving wives…

“…Peter instructs believing husbands to honor [or respect] their unbelieving wife, granting her the status of co-equals for the purpose of guiding her to sanctification. This flips the script!”

Again, the focus is on respect or honor, not authority. Any authority granted is a function of respect.

In Sanctified Marriage: Part 4, I noted that submission is mutual. In particular, a husband loving his wife is submissive:

The wife submits ‘in everything’ to her husband because the husband is preeminent, not because he has authority. He has authority because she submits. Furthermore, this is mediated by two things. First, he is not preeminent in everything. Second, he is told to give up his preeminence by applying the Golden Rule.


For a man to apply the Golden Rule to his wife was to give up his primacy, to culturally debase himself, treating her as his equal. This is why Paul quoted from Genesis: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”

Lastly, in Kephalē in the New Testament: A Review I went over the evidence showing that Paul’s use of ‘head’ does not mean leader, but refers instead to preeminence. In Kephalē in the New Testament: The Meaning, I shared the following definition of ‘head’:

Referring to preeminence, priority, authority or superiority in some broad sense encompassing shades of these meanings.

Here authority is encompassed only within the frame of preeminence or priority.

Jesus and John the Baptist

The idea that preeminence was culturally far more important than authority and that the emphasis on authority developed centuries later is also evident in the book of John.

John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. — John 1:15 (KJV)

John the Baptist said that Jesus came before him. Since the 4th century, this has typically been interpreted to mean that Jesus preexisted John. But this is a poor interpretation and misses the point.

This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ — John 1:30 (NIV)

Jesus the man did not preexist John as a man. John was conceived and born first, so how could Jesus have come before John? This is the language of preeminence. Jesus came first in priority and surpassed John, despite coming second in order. John the Baptist had to explain this, because normally he who came first (John) had implicit preeminence over the one who came later (Jesus). John the Baptist explained:

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’  The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.  He must become greater; I must become less.” — John 3:27-30 (NIV)

The writer of the book of John is making his meaning quite clear. John the Baptist had been preeminent, but he had to set aside his preeminent status because a man greater than him had come, bearing a greater message. Jesus came before John because Jesus was greater than John. John was sent ahead of Christ to prepare the way for one who was greater than he.

Jesus came from behind John in priority. Jesus stepped forward and took priority from John. This is not an argument about authority, it is an argument about preeminence, about status. Jesus always had greater authority than John, but he didn’t always have greater preeminence. Furthermore, John had to explain that Jesus’ preeminence was not based on is order of birth or his order of appearance.


The reason women in the Ancient Near East had restrictions upon them is because husbands (and men in general) were preeminent. Any authority they derived was justified because of their preeminence, their order of creation (and the fact that they didn’t bleed uncontrollably every month resulting in impurity and defilement).

But as with John the Baptist, preeminence is not a fixed trait. Neither did Paul think preeminence was fixed. And why would they? Consider the cultural hospitality requirements of the Ancient Near East. Guests to a house were granted the highest preeminence. It did not matter what their authority was. While they were guests, they were treated with the highest honor. Dishonoring the guest dishonored the host.

When Paul wrote of husbands loving their wives, he had in mind that dishonoring one’s wife dishonored one’s own self, just like the law of hospitality. Because they are one flesh, husbands should raise their wives to the same level of preeminence that they have. Yet, even as husbands were to elevate their wives to equal status, wives were to nevertheless submit and respect their husbands as they would to someone of greater status. In instructing wives to submit and respect and husbands to love and care, he was equalizing them without completely denying or eliminating their differences.

Paul never discusses what those differences are, nor does he ever emphasize them, nor does he try to remove them. They simply are. Paul isn’t making some grand statement about what marriage should be like, quite the contrary. He gives instructions for how to behave within the existing context. It’s not even the preeminent status that is important, for that is what it is. What is important is how husbands and wives relate to one another, which is primarily about self-sacrifice for each other: mutual submission.

The term ‘headship’ itself is a misnomer. ‘Headship’ means the position of a leader, which as discussed is a 4th century anachronism. Paul never talks about husbands leading their wives. He talks about the husband being the head of the wife, or in modern parlance, the husband being the face of the marriage.

The idea of a husband (or wife) being the face—outward appearance—of the marriage is not really common anymore. Even the man that says a husband should have full and complete authority over his wife usually doesn’t view himself as the face of his marriage, and certainly society doesn’t. It’s a cultural anachronism. Sure, you can find a few that argue that females are inherently morally inferior to men, or that females have no moral agency at all, but this is a rare view even among those who espouse traditional patriarchy.

By insisting on authority, we are left with a Pharisaism: the overconscientious rule maximizing that we have to bring back the complete ANE cultural framework, rather than applying Paul’s instructions to any and every cultural framework. Mutual submission in marriage works for all people in all times. Marital headship does not. Even if a husband is the leader of his wife, they still reside in a culture where the husband is not the head (or as they say, the face, image, or representation) of the marriage. Authority can’t fix that. It can only result in overconscientious rule maximizing.

The focus on strict hierarchical, unidirectional, non-mutual authority structure is fundamentally wrong. It’s like tithing anise and cumin, while neglecting the higher matters. Headship authority can never sanctify.

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