"Head" (in Ephesians)

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Head (kephalē) most immediately refers anatomically to the top part of a person’s body. It can also refer to the top of just about anything else, such as a mountain or a wall (“headstone”; cf. Ps. 118:22, LXX, quoted in Matt. 21:42 and parallels). “Top” is probably as succinct a rendering of the meaning of kephalē as one might hope for. A related meaning of head is “source,” as in the word headwaters. In English, as in Greek, head also functions metaphorically, denoting “what is first, supreme, or extreme” (Schlier, 1965:673). Not surprisingly, in the Septuagint kephalē occasionally translates the Hebrew ro’š (head) in contexts where it refers to one who bears authority and responsibility (e.g., Judg. 10:18; 11:11; 2 Sam. 22:44; Isa. 7: 8-9). But this is not normally the case (Scholer: 42). Other Greek words, such as archōn, are used. We should expect the term as used in the NT to be shaped by biblical as well as conventional usage.

There is an ongoing and vigorous debate, fueled by the contemporary dif- ferences over relationships of men and women in home, church, and society, over whether the primary metaphorical meaning of head is “authority” (e.g., Fitzmyer; Grudem) or “source” (e.g., Bedale; Fee, 1987:502-5, with a vigorous critique of Grudem on 502, n. 42; Kroeger, 1987). The debate is not subsiding, partly because of the volatile intersection of biblical authority and social change. To quote R. T. France, “This, as they say, could run and run!” (44, n. 16). Since both sides can muster examples for their preferred reading, is it not likely that both metaphorical meanings would have suggested themselves to the readers of writings like Ephesians (so also, interestingly, e.g., Bedale; France: 38-41; Lincoln: 368-70)?

The metaphorical significance of head in Ephesians obviously encompasses both (for more extensive discussions and related literature, see also Barth, 1974:183-92; Best, 1998:193-6; Lincoln: 67-70, 368-70; Miletic: 67-87; Schlier, 1965:673-82). Whereas each of the following texts from Ephesians is discussed in the commentary, their relation to the motif of head is summarized here.

1. In Ephesians 1:21-22, God is said to have raised and exalted Christ over the whole cosmos, including all powers and authorities, literally giving him to be head over all. As this text illustrates, being head means being first, superior, preeminent, in authority, and in control (for fuller discussion, see 1:15-23, notes). Status, not source, is the primary meaning in this passage. Nowhere is this clearer than in the great christological hymn in Colossians 1:15-20, even if there both status and source inform the meaning of Christ being “head” (cf., e.g., E. D. Martin, 1993:59-77; Schweizer, 1982:55-88). Christ is the “firstborn (prōtotokos)” of both creation (Col. 1:15) and resur- rection or re-creation (1:18). He is “before (pro) all things” (1:17), “preeminent in everything (prōteuōn)” (1:18), the one in whom the fullness of God dwells (1:19; cf. 2:9); in short, Christ is the head of the body (1:18; cf. 2:10). Whereas the body is more clearly specified to be the church in 1:18, it is commonly recognized that body is derived from a tradition that metaphorically viewed the cosmos as a whole as a body. Both Colossians and Ephesians understand the headship of Christ to extend to the church (Col. 1:18; Eph. 4:15-16), but just as important, to the whole of the universe. We might add that, whereas Ephesians 1:10 does not use the term head so much as heading (1:10, notes), the reference to “all things” being gathered up (lit., “being brought under one heading”) in and through Christ clearly carries overtones of cosmic headship.

2. In Ephesians 4:15, Christ is said to be the head into which we are to grow, and from whom we derive what it takes to grow (4:1-16, notes). As head, Christ is both source and goal of the whole body—the church, both first and last. He is the perfect man (4:13), and in that sense at the top—the goal toward which the church is building (4:12). At the same time, Christ is the gift-giving supplier (4:7-11) of what the church needs to grow into Christ, of what the body needs to grow into the head. We are reminded that Colossians 1:15-20 similarly views Christ as one who “created all things” in the cosmos (1:16), the one who “holds all things together” (1:17; cf. Eph. 4:16). “Status” and “source” quite naturally converge as meanings for head. To speak of Christ as head is to speak of his priority in every sense.

3. Before going on to the last of the Ephesian “head” texts, it is impor- tant to draw attention to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. There is no need here to enter the ongoing debate about hair, veiling, or what it means for a woman prophet to wear an “authority” on her head (see, e.g., Fee, 1987:491-530; Grenz: 108-17; Murphy-O’Connor: 104-109; Schüssler Fiorenza, 1983: 226-230). It is relevant to notice the way the word head is used metaphorically to depict a chain of authority or origin—or more likely, both: God⟶Christ⟶man⟶woman (1 Cor. 11:3). Some notion of the order of creation seems to be operative in the attempt to regulate life in Corinth. On the other hand, in 11:11-12, Paul appears to offer an alternative way of under- standing the implied relationship between men and women by stating that “in the Lord” men and women have a mutuality of origin. The tension in the argument is palpable. Paul either intends to trump a notion of social order based on a certain understanding of creation with the new order in Christ, or he is struggling to remain true both to his inherited sense of the “order of cre- ation” and to the “order of the new creation.” Interpreters continue to debate this passage vigorously (for sample of the interpretive scope, see, e.g., Swartley, 1983:166-74). In the argument the word head appears to carry some metaphorical freight that we can no longer track with complete confidence. However, it is clear that Paul has no intention whatsoever of curtailing the authority of women to exercise the gift Paul saw as the highest gift the Spirit bestows on the church (1 Cor. 14:1; 11:5).

4. In Ephesians 5:23 the motif of head is used to draw an analogy between the relationship of husband and wife and that of Christ and the church: a husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, himself Savior of the body (5:23). The metaphorical force of head is here at least initially more one of “status” and “authority” than of “source” (so also France: 40; Lincoln: 368; contra Miletic: 103; Patzia, 1990:268). Notice that head is placed in direct relationship to the subordination of wives to their husbands as to the Lord (5:22). Notice also that Christ is identified as Savior of the body, the church. While we see in 2:15 that creation is very much a part of salvation (2:15, notes), the emphatic himself in 5:23 appears to highlight his status as liberator. Last, we should note that, whereas men are to love their wives as they do themselves, wives are to fear their husbands (5:33). On the surface, at least, the text appears to support patriarchy, the superior position of husbands over wives.

However, a number of factors play havoc with any easy inference that husbands are at the top in marriage relationships:

1. Christology in Ephesians focuses on the status of Christ as cosmic Lord and the expression of his lordship in re-creating humanity: the Lord is the Savior; the boss is the liberator. The meaning and content of Christ’s headship is peacemaking, re-creation, and self-offering for the benefit of a restored humanity. The head is our peace (2:14).
2. Christ’s headship finds its fullest expression in Christ’s giving up his life for the sake of the life of humanity (2:11-22, notes). This is explicitly echoed in 5:2 and in 5:25.
3. The writer of Ephesians introduces the Household Code with a summons to mutual subordination, empowered for such servitude by the Spirit. In effect, the sons and daughters of God are to recognize each other as heads (5:21; for this and other points above, see fuller discussion at 5:21—6:9, notes).

At the present time, headship is a highly charged issue (in addition to authors listed above, see survey of interpretive poles in Swartley, 1983:256-69). It divides traditionalists and complementarians from egalitarians. These divisions run between conservative and critical traditions of interpretation, and within evangelical interpretive circles (cf., e.g., Fee; France; Grudem; Grenz and Kjesbo; Kroeger; Patzia; and Scholer). The arguments typically center on the status to be given to cultural setting and its effect on what is normative, and on the lexical question as to whether head means chiefly “source” or “authority” (see above; for summary discussions of the issues and participants within the evangelical context, see, e.g., Grenz; Scholer).

These issues will not be dealt with in a life-giving way by finding a lexical loophole or by placing cultural-contextual parentheses around the text. The approach taken in this commentary has been to take seriously both the lexical and cultural-contextual questions. In my view, head does contain overtones of superiority and authority. The context in which the writer of Ephesians was writing was indeed one in which patriarchy was taken as a given. It is thus all the more important to ask what kind of a head Christ is and what effect such headship might have on entrenched structures of unequal power and authority.

The contention argued in the commentary is that the Christ who is offered to those in superior social positions—whatever those might be in any given time and place!—is one whose headship fundamentally undermines privilege and status. Yes, Christ is the cosmic emperor, the head of the universe. But when we look closely, the emperor’s new clothes are those of a slave. It is, after all, at the name of “Jesus”—the humble and poor man from Galilee— that “every knee shall bow” (Phil. 2:11). The slave will, however, have a hold on husbands, fathers, and bosses—or anyone else, regardless of gender, who in our day wields power and authority—only if he is also head. To miss seeing that Christ, present throughout Ephesians, is to misread the Household Code as a summons to one-sided subordination rather than to permanent revolution—the revolution of the gathering up of all things under one “heading”—Christ.

Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld