.“For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church,
He Himself being the Savior of the body.” (Ephesians 5:23).
“The husband is the head of the wife.” That is a sentence that can evoke strong reactions, especially today. What does it mean that the husband is the head of the wife? How one interprets this verse and other related verses can have significant impact on ones ideas about marriage.
Within Christianity, there are two main views about the meaning of “the husband is the head of the wife”. They are complementarianism and egalitarianism. Complementarians and egalitarians interpret Ephesians 5:23 (and a number of other verses) in different ways. These interpretations lead to different ideas and practices about leadership roles and gender in the home and church.
For example, complementarians generally believe that as head of his wife, a husband has God given authority to lead in their relationship. They also believe that the wife is called to a unique submission that is given as a response to that leadership.(Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1-2) When it comes to the church, the ideas of authority and leadership are seen as seated in biblically qualified men when it comes to roles like pastors and elders. (1 Timothy 2:12, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9) Egalitarians see things differently. They generally believe that there is no biblical need to make a distinction between men and women regarding leadership in the family or church. A verse common in their reasoning is Galatians 3:28.
One thing complementarians and egalitarians do have in common is that the meaning of the word head is significant for their viewpoints. If the husband is the head of the wife, we can see how ones understanding of the meaning of the word head would be paramount in explaining the role of husbands.
Literal meaning of head/kephale
The word that is translated “head” comes from the Greek word kephale (kef-al-ay’). Kephale is found in the New Testament Scriptures about seventy-five times depending on your translation. An interesting thing about kephale is that it has both a literal and metaphorical meaning. Thankfully no one contests the literal meaning which is simply “anatomical head”. The literal meaning is by far the primary usage. For instance, fifty-six out of seventy-five occurrences refer to an anatomical head (either human or animal) in the NASB. That the literal meaning is by far the primary usage is key to remember. We will talk about why near the end of this article.
Metaphorical meaning debate
“the husband is the head (kephale) of the wife”
Complementarians and egalitarians do hold opposing views about the metaphorical meaning of kephale. It sits at the heart of the disagreement between them. Generally speaking, complementarians would say that kephale has the metaphorical meaning of “authority over”, “ruler”, “leader”, or “chief”. Seeing that Ephesians 5:23 says “the husband is the head (kephale) of the wife”, the context of this verse together with other relevant verses is believed to show that husbands have God given authority to lead in marriage. This has also been the longstanding, common understanding within the church.
Since the seventies and eighties, egalitarians have promulgated a different metaphorical meaning. They espouse the view that kephale has the meaning “source” without the concepts of authority or leadership attached to it. There are also other suggestions that have been put forth like “prominence” and “preeminence”. I should add that there is a head/body metaphor picture that is not denied by these different positions.
Kephale’s significance in not limited to the marriage relationship
The significance of the meaning of head/kephale is not limited to marriage. As we can see in Ephesians 5:23 it also relates to Christ and the church. Christ is “the head of the church”. He is also “the head over all rule and authority;” (Colossians 2:10)
But this matter gets even bigger. Consider 1 Corinthians 11:3.
“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:3)
God is said to be the head of Christ. How much our understanding of kephale matters! Ones understanding of God is affected by ones understanding of what kephale means because God and Christ are both said to be the “head”. Ones understanding of the dynamic between Christ and the church is also affected. And of course, the marriage relationship, the primary human relationship for many, is affected as well. It is no small matter.
Proper understanding of the word of God is essential to our walk, and we should work hard to accurately handle the word of truth. It would be a distortion of God’s word to say that head/kephale sets up authority in the husband if it does not mean that. It would also be a distortion of the Scriptures to deny that authority and say that the husband is the source of the wife if that is incorrect. This issue may not be essential to salvation; but as we have seen, it does matter a lot. Two opposing ideas cannot both be true and both cannot be God’s will for marriage.
My position on kephale
I believe good, straightforward, biblical hermeneutics, where one practices exegesis (digging out the original meaning of the text), leads to seeing authority in the headship of husbands and seeing unique submission in wives. I understand kephale to hold the metaphorical meaning of authority as many in the church have for centuries. I also see a simple head/body metaphor that sometimes involves the idea of growth as part of its usage.
I arrived at this view many years ago simply by reading the Bible. Early in my walk as a Christian, I came across sections in the New Testament like Ephesians 5:21 – 33, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1-2. I also saw other places that spoke of Jesus metaphorically as head. (1Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 1:19b-23, Ephesians 4:14-16, Colossians 1:15-18, Colossians 2:9-10, Colossians 2:18-19.)
Though my understanding of these things was in its infancy, I saw plainly that my husband was my head and that headship included a God given authority that I was to submit to. And though I was not taught about submission growing up and held feminist ideas at that time, I did not see submission to my husband as negotiable. Instead, being convicted, I endeavored to learn more and live in obedience to God’s word.
As I learned more, I found “my view” in books, old and new commentaries, and biblical Greek dictionaries. During my studies, I also learned about the egalitarian view. Desiring always to give opposing views a fair hearing out of a love of the truth, I dove into that material as well. I also read articles from different viewpoints that analyzed the meaning of kephale both biblically and through the examination of ancient, non-biblical Greek sources.
As I continued my studies off and on through the years, I kept the prayer that God would reveal truth and error. I have more interest in God’s truth than I do in holding on to any particular idea. Every time I studied, I ended up growing in my conviction that God’s word teaches that authority is present in my husband’s headship. It is no exaggeration to say that this has had a big impact on my life. Such is the power of one inspired word in the Scriptures (and the accompanying contexts).
Kephale deserves attention and careful study – Dig in!
While this matter of head/kephale is not at all the only important thing about passages like Ephesians 5:21-33, it deserves attention and study. Hopefully you have had a chance to study it or have received excellent teaching on it.
What have you been taught at church or elsewhere about this aspect of marriage? Have you examined those teachings by the Scriptures? We need to be aware because some pastors/teachers may mishandle the Scriptures. Others may decide this is too hot a topic for this day and age and avoid it all together. Others still may think since it is “not essential for salvation”, they really don’t need to talk about it and risk stirring the waters.
But it is important. As mentioned above, special relationships and even our understanding of God is affected by our understanding of kephale. Living God’s word correctly may be in play too. If you are married, the relevance is personal. What does it mean that your husband is your head? Do you see God given authority in him and respond to it with godly submission or is he in some way your source? Perhaps you already know if you fit more into the complementarian camp, the egalitarian camp, or some combination of both. (For example, some believe in the leadership of husbands in the home but believe women can hold leadership roles over the whole body of the church. Even within the same camp there can be shades of differences in beliefs.) I hope that whatever you believe you have prayed about it and tested what you believe by the Scriptures.
If you feel you would benefit by looking at it more closely, dig in! Study! Look up the metaphorical verses for head/kephale and read them in context. By extension, study the verses about marriage. That would include verses about submission. The meaning of “the husband is the head of the wife” does not rely solely on one word in one or two verses. Look at the whole picture. It is not helpful to focus so much on the meaning of one word that you lose sight of the full teaching on marriage in the Bible. If you do take up this work, if applicable and if it makes sense, I recommend talking to your husband, your head, about your studies.
Want to Dig Deeper? – Utilize the kephale Study Burst below
Normally, I would say good, straightforward interpretation work is sufficient to study certain words, verses, or concepts of the Scriptures; but you might benefit by or desire to do more work when it comes to kephale because there is controversy over its meaning and understanding it correctly is so important. A deeper study can help you grow in your walk and help you further test things you read or hear about this topic.
A helpful thing to do when looking into a word in the Scriptures is to check Hebrew or Greek Dictionaries. There are also lexicons and commentaries. Be careful to learn who the author(s) is and beware of bias.
You can also take your research to books or the internet. There is a lot available to look at. More than you need probably. The metaphorical meaning of kephale has received a lot of attention since the seventies and eighties. Much work has already been done by researchers. For your convenience, I have put together a Study Burst for kephale. See Study Burst: Kephale (Head) to jump into the deep end of this study. I’ve included articles from both complementarian and egalitarian positions so that you can contrast them and test them by the Scriptures. Read carefully and honestly. Check their work as much as possible and see if their points are valid.
In your studies, be on the lookout for an often repeated error about the primary meaning of kephale
If you do start learning more about kephale, please remember something from the top of this article. There is an argument used by some egalitarians that I have seen too often. It is said that the primary meaning of kephale is “source”. I’m not sure why they say it, but it is not true. As stated above, the primary meaning of kephale is “anatomical head” according to usage in the Bible, usage in non-biblical texts, and entries in lexicons and Greek dictionaries. Not making this clear could lead undue credence to the egalitarian position.
It is quite an argument in favor of egalitarianism to say that the primary meaning is “source” and leave it at that. It is quite another thing to say that the main meaning of kephale is “anatomical head”, and that it is the less common metaphorical usage that is in play in verses like Ephesians 5:23, the meaning of which has been debated in recent decades. The debate over the metaphorical meaning of kephale may or may not be mentioned, but that is understandable as they may not be addressing it.
Also, be aware of the following if you see the often cited reference, the Liddell-Scott lexicon, used to define kephale as “source”
Additionally, in your studies, you may see a particular reference sited in support of “source” as the meaning for kephale . It is from part of the entry for kephale in the Liddell-Scott lexicon. The entry lists anatomical head in the main category and lists “source” (in the plural) as a fourth meaning under a secondary category: “of things, extremity”. Egalitarian arguments for “source” are oftentimes largely dependent on this entry.
If you see the Liddell-Scott cited, it is important to know that support from the Liddell-Scott is not as solid as may be presented by egaliarian authors. You may read about some of the reasons why by visiting Study Burst: Kephale (Head). To begin, please see the section about the Liddell-Scott under Lexicons. It will direct you to articles written by Dr. Wayne Grudem. The articles are listed in the Study Burst under “Advocates for authority or similar meaning”.
One article in particular, “The meaning of κεφαλή (“head”): An evaluation of new evidence, real and alleged”, contains information about a letter to Dr. Grudem from Mr. Peter Glare the then editor of the Liddell-Scott back in 1997. In the letter, Mr. Glare affirms “authority” for kephale (agreeing with Dr. Grudem). He also dismisses “source” and adds “…it was at least unwise of Liddell and Scott to mention the word.” This is noteworthy and weighty. Please take time to read the letter and other information in the Study Burst to assess the integrity of any argument for “source” that relies on the Liddell-Scott lexicon.
Stay in the Word
Remember, always come back to the Bible. Extra research is good, but the work and words of men are not God’s word. In the first and final analysis, it is His word and the Holy Spirit that convict and illuminate. Study, yes, but pray and stay in the living and active word. (Hebrews 4:12) What is there is His will. I have long believed that being a good, godly wife, living it out as God commands, is greatly connected to knowing right doctrine. Knowing His word makes it possible with His help. Let us seek to know and obey God’s word to His glory. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
Link to the Study Burst mentioned above
Study Burst: Kephale (Head)
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