This is part of a series on partriarchy, headship, authority, and submission. See this index.
I concluded Headship: Authority or Preeminence? by saying:
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.
Half an hour after I made that post, writer Deep Strength at the Christianity and Masculinity blog posted this:
[It is true] that the Ephesians 5 passage is easily warped (e.g. “love your wives” instead of “love your wives for the purpose of sanctification”) and is likely 1000x more destructive on current Christian homes than pericope adulterae.”
Here is the passage being referenced:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her, so that he could make her holy, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he could present the church to himself as a glorious church, not having a spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but so that she would be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands are obligated to love their own wives as their own bodies.
What DS means by warping the passage is so-called “servant leadership” where a husband effectively gives his wife whatever she wants to make her feel better. But the purpose of a husband’s love is to sanctify his wife, not make her feel good. The purpose of Christ’s sacrifice is sanctification—holiness and purity. So far so good. He also argues that…
…God gives husbands the same mission again to be the head of their wives and guide / teach / correct / rebuke them toward holiness rather than sin. To help them choose the tree of life rather than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
This is where we part company. There are many who say that the failure in the Garden of Eden was Adam’s failure to guide and teach Eve, a failure of leadership, and that her sin was first and foremost his responsibility, thus his sin. Under this framing, husbands in Christ are now restored to try leading again. But this interpretation is mere inference. It is not deductively valid.
DS defines the nature of Christian marital submission:
Headship — submission — this the relationship between the Church and Christ, and husbands and wives. In this relationship, unlike authority-submission Christ and husband has no ability to compel obedience from Church and the wife. The husband heads/leads of the marriage ideally as commanded through love, but the wife must choose to submit to this headship. In general, the Scriptures tell the wife to submit to the husband so the relationship operates in unity. But is the wife does not submit to the husband’s headship she disrupts unity which is rebellion which is sin.
I agree with everything, except the title and the last sentence, because the dictionary definition of ‘headship’ means ‘the position of leadership’, and this is not a New Testament concept. As noted in Kephalē in the New Testament, ‘head’ figuratively primarily refers to firstness or preeminence. In the head-body metaphor, the husband is the visible top, and the wife is the bottom: the covered, hidden parts that people do not see, but both are different parts of a unified—and inseperable—whole.
This is not a mere abstract metaphor. In a Ancient Near East context, a married woman wouldn’t go out into public either unveiled or without a male escort. She would instead spend most of her time in her home. She was hidden in public, but visible (and in authority!) at home. The head-body metaphor carries the primary sense of unity. As I noted in “Headship: Authority or Preeminence?”, loving wives is submissive:
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.
In telling husbands to love their wives, scripture is telling husbands that if they fail to submit to their wives, they dishonor themselves. But worse, he disrupts their unity, which is rebellion, which is sin. The purpose of loving and submitting is unity, not authority and obedience.
DS further writes:
Having done more research on all of the instances used on kephale in the Scriptures (of which there are 76 times it is used), I conclude that headship is authority in marriage.
This is an error.
In the authoritative Liddel, Scott, and Jones Greek-English Lexicon (LSJ), which includes many ancient Greek sources including the New Testament, ‘authority’ or ‘leader’ is not given among the possible meanings, which includes:
- noblest part
- source, origin, starting point
None of these carry the sense of authority, but all carry the sense of firstness or preeminence/prominence. The head-body metaphor can be best understood where the husband is the top (or foremost part) of the marital whole.
Richard S. Cervin notes that none of the Greek lexicons from the 1800s and 1900s contain the meaning of authority or leader, with the exception of one by D. Dhimitrakou in Athens who explicitly states that the meaning of ‘leader’ is medieval. Paul is the only known Greek author in the first century to use the term kephale within the context of male/female relationships. Other writers use different Greek words when they want to explicitly define rule and leadership in marriage, the secular norm. This informs us that Paul is talking about something else.
The ancient Hebrew and modern English words for ‘head’ carry the connotation of authority. The first-century Koine Greek word for ‘head’ does not. This is why the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament almost never translated the Hebrew rosh into the Greek kephale. Most of the time different Greek words were used when authority was in view. Out of 180 instances in the OT where ‘head’ (rosh) meant authority in the original Hebrew, there are just 4 fairly unambiguous readings where kephale is used in the Septuagint. This is likely the result of Hebraic influence and so there is no indication that Hellenized Jews would have understood what these instances meant. Of the sixteen times rosh was used figuratively in the OT and translated as kephale in the Septuagint, most are best explained by translators faithful and stubbornly translating literally, even though the translation didn’t make sense to Greek readers. There are no instances in the New Testament where kephale means authority, because native Greek speakers would not have understood that meaning.
The English word ‘headship’ means “the position of leader or chief.” Neither that word nor any Greek cognate is used in the Bible in the context of marriage. The first-century Greek word ‘head’ does not correspond to the English word ‘headship’. They are not related words. Moreover, as a matter of probability, claims of ‘hierarchical authority’ or ‘male authority’ are even less likely than mere authority, which as we’ve seen is itself not justified.
Early writers such a Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp all emphasize the importance of mutual submission for the purpose of unity and harmony in the church. As far as later church fathers go, Clement of Alexandria, commenting on 1 Corithinans 11:3 in the third century, does identify kephale with princely rule, but commenting on the same passage, Athenasius (4th), Ambrosiaster (4th), John Chrysostom (4th), Theodore of Mopsuestia (4th), Socrates Scholasticus (5th), and Cyril of Alexandria (5th) all deviate from this view.
The notion that we think with our head is a modern notion. Even the Bible explicitly identifies the heart as the source of thought. It makes no sense to say that the husband is the head—the supposed controller of the mind—when the wife is the body—which contains the heart. Moreover, the ancient Hebrews identified the lungs/diaphragm as the source (or literally breath) of life. Here is one list:
- The head was the seat of understanding.
- The heart was the seat of affection, courage (“take heart”), and memory (learning by “heart”).
- The intestines (bowels) were the seat of pity, mercy, and compassion.
- The closely linked spleen was the seat of passion and anger.
- The liver was the seat of honor.
- The kidneys were the seat of conscious joy and grief.
- The loins were the seat of strength and power.
The vast majority of one’s identity is found in the body, not the head. Ironically, strength and power are not found in the head. The point of the head-body metaphor is to emphasize dependence and unity.
In Paul’s instructions to husbands, he tells them to love their wives six times. Loving, caring, and nurturing is not leadership. These traits that Paul focuses on are—to this day—widely considered to be feminine traits.
Contrary to the patriarchal view…
That sex and marriage under a structure of Headship is the primary vehicle of sanctification for a large number of individuals. Headship is what brings God’s blessings, joy, peace, and presence into the home. Headship is what allows children to know God while they’re growing up.
…’headship’ cannot sanctify; for it is a foreign, non-biblical concept. It is an error of causal attribution. Since rebellion—especially from feminism—is so common, any patriarchal-style marriage where the wife submits completely to her husband’s authority is one in which she is not rebelling. In other words, it is one in which the wife is ‘united’ to her husband’s will (but not necessarily he to her will). This is why headship ‘works’: it is one possible means towards unity that meaningfully addresses feminist rebellion and disunity. But unity does not require, nor does it prefer, authority. Far better than a husband and wife sacrifice for each other, as Christ sacrificed everything for his church, such that power struggles are completely unnecessary. This is Paul’s vision, the elimination of power, the transformation to the glory of unity:
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:18
As in the church, it is unity in Christ—not authority—that brings joy, peace, and presence. When a wife is in rebellion to God, the power that comes with authority can coerce her to get in line, but this is not truly transformative. She remains (quite literally in ancient times) veiled. Headship is—at best—a worldly approach to a worldly problem (feminism), but it cannot sanctify. Authority is not holiness.
As has been discussed throughout this series, sanctification is one’s self being holy, pure, loving, sacrificial, and being a servant. One sanctifies their spouse—whether male or female, believing or unbelieving—by the example of holiness that they set. Authority can never sanctify. One cannot, by mere force of their power, make anyone holy.
Patriarchy is ultimately a matter of unbelief: disbelieving the transformative power of Christ within a marriage. It is disbelief that a husband and wife can be in unity without a hierarchical authority, as the Bible says in Genesis:
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
…and Paul says…
For we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” [..] However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. [..] Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.
“For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”
The Bible is plain that husband and wife are united, mutually dependent, and whose firstness is mutual. Claims of authority are mutually exclusive with this, and constitute a rejection of Paul’s instructions. Paul never described the marital relationship in terms of authority and leadership, but he was very explicit about the importance of unity.
 2 Samuel 22:44, Psalm 18:43, Jeremiah 31:7, and Lamentations 1:5.
 The Bible does explicitly command children to obey their parents, but it does not command wives to obey their husbands. Applying the word ‘headship’ to parents over their children is linguistically a bit weird, but technically appropriate. It is inappropriate for a Christian marriage.
 The cognate antonym of hypotassō (‘submit’) is anupotaktos (‘unruly’, ‘wild’, or ‘rebellious’). In instructing wives to submit, he is telling them not to be unruly, wild, or rebellious. This does not logically imply obedience.