We’ve seen that God made Adam and Eve distinct but equal, and that the Genesis 3:16 reference to man being over woman was part of sin’s curse, a curse we’ve been partially (and eventually will be fully) freed from thanks to Christ. This does nothing to support an interpretation of superiority. As written in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Without her he is not man in the generic fulness [sic] of that turn. Priority of creation indicates headship, but not, as theologians have so uniformly affirmed, superiority. Dependence indicates difference of function, not inferiority.”
Men and women are distinct but equal. Does that mean, then, there’s no submission requirement for Christian women? Or does it simply mean they’re created equal but still remain positioned differently according to gender?
The Head of the Household
This leads us to one of Paul’s teachings found in Ephesians 5. This chapter has long been used to communicate that wives (and therefore women) are positionally beneath their husbands (and therefore men), as God has placed man as the “head of the household”. Let’s look at what Paul actually wrote in Ephesians 5:22-24 (NASB):
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is also the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.
Man, if that doesn’t sound like positional authority, I don’t know what does. However, there’s a strong argument for a bit of rethinking this term “head”.
When we hear “head”, we think in terms of hierarchy. The “head” of a company is its CEO, the person in charge. The “head” of state is its president, monarch, or other highest authority. The “head” is, very simply, the sovereign ruler. However, we must recognize this headship for the idiomatic expression it is. There are other kinds of “head” in our language that we’ve adopted over the years.
The “head” on a mug of beer is the frothy bit at the top. The “head” of an arrow is the piercing end that makes it lethal. The “head” of a river is its source, its origin, where its waters come from. The “head” of a drum marks the ends (both of them) of the instrument.
As we can see, each of these examples reveals something about position (top, point, source, end), but nothing about authority or influence.
The head of a beer sits there looking pretty, unmoving, until it dissipates. The head of an arrow has some say in its use, but only if the tail — where it derives its power and guidance — flies true. The head of a river determines the starting point, but gravity, terrain, and other environmental factors take over from there. The head of a drum does absolutely nothing until someone hits it, and then it only makes a bunch of noise.
Frankly, looking at each of these other “heads”, I see many men I’ve known (and been). That’ll preach, but it’s not the point I’m making. The issue is that the head of something is positional, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything about sovereignty. It may communicate something about function, but not about command.
The general Jewish philosophy at the time of Paul’s writing was that the heart, not the head, commanded intellectual leadership over the body. The head held certain responsibilities — it was the source of life, a seat of the soul — but it wasn’t the sovereign ruler of the body. It merely provided another (admittedly crucial) function. Symbolically, the head (kephalē) represented a point of origin, a source like in a river. This marks a position certainly, but it’s a position more as a landmark than as authoritarian governance.
In this origin-oriented headship, the church comes from Christ and Eve (and her daughters) comes from Adam (and his sons). This is about delegation of responsibility, of function, not our modern notions of hierarchy.
Not Off the Hook
So should wives submit to their husbands? Well, yes. Paul’s words are still clear on this: “Wives be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” My wife’s not off the hook; she’s to submit herself to me as an extension of her submission of obedience to Christ. I am the “head” and her positional responsibility involves this voluntary submission to the head.
But before you assume this is more misogyny, let’s look at the rest of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which the misogynists try to ignore. Husbands aren’t off the hook either.
Whereas my wife submits her will to me in respect, I’m to submit my very life to her, as Christ did for the Church (v. 25); I’m responsible for empowering her walk like Christ did (vv. 26-27); and I’m responsible for cherishing and nourishing her in love (vv. 28-29).
In short, she’s only supposed to treat me like Jesus, but I’m supposed to be like Jesus, worthy of such treatment. Talk about a burden of responsibility!
We submit to each other, and if it’s to be even remotely one-sided, it is I who should submit more to her.
This mutual submission and demand for special treatment by husbands is mirrored in another set of verses often misused to subject women beyond the biblical mandate and give men license to abdicate responsibility.
In 1 Peter 3, the apostle tells women to submit to their husbands, even to the point of and to letting their godliness be a testimony to a wayward husband by being more spiritually mature than him.
But we men have no right to mistreat her — we’re supposed to be understanding and delicate with her (which gave rise to the misquotation “women are the weaker sex”).
Then, just in case we might misinterpret his statement, Peter says we should honor her as an equal, a co-heir in the kingdom. Just to drive the point home, he adds a warning that our prayers can be hindered if we drop the ball on this whole honor/equality thing.
Once again, we see the Word depicting two genders that are equal yet distinct. In marriage, I serve as the head of my wife, and she submits to me, but I also submit to her. We both have different roles to play in this body, and both are vital.
The idea I see portrayed in Scripture is that if ever I put myself above her — be it out of selfishness or entitlement or ignorance — then I have utterly failed in my responsibility as the head of the household. This mentality isn’t leadership by modern ideas; it’s servanthood. It’s slavery.
Which is, by the way, God’s idea of leadership.
So, yes, I’m the leader of my home. I’m the head. But I’m not sovereign. There is only one Sovereign in my home, and I’m just as far from not being Him as my wife.
Originally posted 2016-08-15 08:00:04.