This is part of a series on partriarchy, headship, and submission. See this index.
The Bible metaphorically speaks of the head and body on a number of occasions.
In English, Latin, and ancient Hebrew idiomatic use, the head of a body may be interpreted as someone in a place of authority over another person or group, as the head and body are separate parts with one part ruling over the other, because in those languages ‘head’ is an idiom for being a leader or exercising authority.
In Koine Greek, this idiom often refers to unity, because in that language, ‘head’ is an idiom for preeminence and the head may be considered an inseparable part of the body. The idiom is most commonly used to compare the importance, status, or honor of the ‘head’ with the ‘body’. While leaders may not be preeminent, and those who are preeminent may not be leaders, it is quite common for a preeminent head to also happen to be a leader. Thus, describing a person as ‘head’ does not mean they are a leader or otherwise in authority, even if they happen to be.
The head-body metaphor is not unique to the Bible, so we’ll begin by reviewing the non-biblical use of the Greek metaphor.
On the Life of Moses
In On the Life of Moses, Philo speaks of the Egyptian Ptolemy Philadelphus.
…the whole family of the Ptolemies was exceedingly eminent and conspicuous above all other royal families, and among the Ptolemies, Philadelphus was the most illustrious; for all the rest put together scarcely did as many glorious and praiseworthy actions as this one king did by himself, being, as it were, the leader of the herd, and in a manner the head of all the kings.
Here he does not use the head-body metaphor, but we can see from his use how he understood the Greek word for ‘head’, which did not mean ‘leader’ or ‘authority’. Ptolemy Philadelphus was not literally the leader of all kings, he was superior to them. He was the preeminent king among all kings. It was his actions—glorious and praiseworthy—that made him superior.
On Rewards and Punishment
In Philo’s On Rewards and Punishment, he describes the position of the ‘head’:
For as in an animal the head is the first and best part, and the tail the last and worst part, or rather no part at all, inasmuch as it does not complete the number of the limbs, being only a broom to sweep away what flies against it; so in the same manner what is said here is that the virtuous man shall be the head of the human race whether he be a single man or a whole people. And that all others, being as it were parts of the body, are only vivified by the powers existing in the head and superior portions of the body.
Here Philo does employ the head-body metaphor. A virtuous man is obviously not the leader (or chief authority) of the whole of the human race. Nevertheless, the virtuous man is superior. His virtue is deserving of a higher level of respect and honor. Virtue makes a person inherently superior to the non-virtuous person. Philo notes that a body is given life by the head and other superior portions of the body. The position of the head is the most superior portion of a body, but is not the only important part. The head is not independent of the rest of the body, but an integral part. The parts of the body that most contribute power to the life of the whole (which in this example is measured in virtue) are considered the superior parts.
Philo also blends the head-tail metaphor of the animal with the head-body metaphor of humanity. The head-tail metaphor is an ancient one. In Deuteronomy 28:12-13 ‘head’ refers to superior national prosperity compared to the ‘tail’ (other nations). Isaiah 9:8-21 refers to Israel’s misfortune from its ‘head’ (the one with highest honor) to the tail (the lowest, the liar). Isaiah 19:1-15 also states that no one from the head to the tail (greatest to the lowest) will be able to assist Egypt, whether brother, friend, idols, mediums and ghosts and spirits, fisherman, weavers, workers, princes, advisers and wise men, chieftains, leaders, or drunkards. This is a common theme: heads can and do govern the body, but it is their elevated position that matters, just as with the virtuous man who lacks authority, but is superior to all.
Whereas Philo was Jewish and could potentially borrow from Hebrew idioms, Plutarch was not. In The Life of Pelopidas, we can examine how Plutarch used the head-body metaphor.
…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. [..] Callicratidas was “one man”; but as general, he comprised in himself the strength and power of all, so that he was not “one man,” when such numbers perished with him.
Here Plutarch uses the metaphor to show that the head is an integral part of the whole: all rise and fall together. Of course a general has authority by definition. There is no need for a metaphor to show that. The purpose of the metaphor is to show the unity of the part (the general) with the whole (the fighting men) and how the actions (leadership) of the part impact the whole.
Plutarch makes use of simile “troops are like the hands”, “cavalry like the feet”, “general like the head”, and so forth to indicate roles, rather than direct idiom to leadership or authority. Indeed, he uses a simile to compare the line of men-at-arms to the chest and breastplate, which are not even parts of a literal body! The men-in-arms are like armor, because they protect the whole, even as the general is like the head because he watches the battle and speaks commands. Indeed, in all likelihood the meaning of ‘head’ here is just that: the literal head, just as he refers to the literal functions of the hands, feet, chest, and breastplate as a figure-of-speech for the tasks performed in an army.
The overall head-body metaphor refers to unity. Without the functioning of each part, the whole is destroyed.
In the Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Ignatius writes in Chapter 11:
Flee, therefore, those evil offshoots [of Satan], which produce death-bearing fruit, whereof if any one tastes, he instantly dies. For these men are not the planting of the Father. For if they were, they would appear as branches of the cross, and their fruit would be incorruptible. By it He calls you through His passion, as being His members. The head, therefore, cannot be born by itself, without its members; God, who is [the Saviour] Himself, having promised their union.
Here we get to an even more explicit use of the head-body metaphor as unity. Ignatius states that the head (Christ) and its true members (Christians) are in union with God.
The First Epistle of Clement, attributed to Clement of Rome, makes use of the head-body metaphor:
Let us consider those who serve under our generals, with what order, obedience, and submissiveness they perform the things which are commanded them. All are not prefects, nor commanders of a thousand, nor of a hundred, nor of fifty, nor the like, but each one in his own rank performs the things commanded by the king and the generals. The great cannot subsist without the small, nor the small without the great. There is a kind of mixture in all things, and thence arises mutual advantage. Let us take our body for an example. The head is nothing without the feet, and the feet are nothing without the head; yea, the very smallest members of our body are necessary and useful to the whole body. But all work harmoniously together, and are under one common rule for the preservation of the whole body. Let our whole body, then, be preserved in Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect unto the strong.
Here Clement explicitly notes that from the greatest (the king and generals) all the way down to the lowest soldier, all must work harmoniously as one body. Without the feet, the head is nothing. Without the head, the feet are nothing. All must work together in common rule to preserve the whole. Everyone should submit to others according to their own gifts for the purpose of unity, without conflict.
“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” — Proverbs 3:27 (NIV)
Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. — Romans 13:7 (NIV)
It is interesting that Clement explicitly states that everyone has a gift bestowed upon him, from the strongest to the weakest.
In the Bible, Paul uses the head-body metaphor to indicate unity. Paul, writing to both Ephesus and Colossae, says the same thing:
“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” — Ephesians 4:15-16
“They 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.” — Colossians 2:19
Here Paul speaks specifically of the ligaments and sinews in the the head-body metaphor, to show that every part of the body is grows together as a whole, self-supporting. The specific focus is how Christ and the members of the church are interconnected, working together as a whole. If the body loses connection to the head, the body dies. As with other Greek writers, Paul refers to the head—in this case Jesus Christ—as the preeminent portion of the body. The emphasis is on unity of the church with Christ.
Paul also speaks to both churches of the fullness (pleroma) of the head of Christ with respect to the body of the church.
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. — Ephesians 1:22-23
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. — Colossians 2:9-10
First, Paul uses the head-foot metaphor alongside the head-body metaphor. The head-feet metaphor emphasizes extreme positions. Jesus Christ is in the highest position above all others, in both heavenly and earthly realms, friend or enemy. So too is he the face of Christianity and the reason for its superiority among all other contenders.
Second, Paul says that the church is Christ’s body and that Christ is the head of his own body. This would make no sense if kephale meant authority. But it makes perfect sense with respect to unity. All Christians are united with Christ in one body, with Christ—the preeminent one—as its focus.
Third, just as the fullness of God lives in Christ, so too does the fullness live within us in unity. The KJV describes this as being complete. Christ, who is in union with God, is also in complete union with the church.
 It is important to note that in the Hebrew passages mentioned, the Hebrew word ‘head’ (rosh) does possibly include the idiomatic meaning of leader. The fact that Hebrew ‘head’ can be a leader does not mean that the Greek ‘head’ does. What is important is that even when the language can mean ‘leader’, the head-tail metaphor emphasizes position and importance.
 In the next verse, Paul asks “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules?” Notice how submission to Christ is contrasted with submission to the world.