Friday, January 6, 2023

How Is the Husband the “Head” of the Wife according to the Apostle Paul? Ephesians 5:15-33 [1]

Fresco described by Dr. Catherine Clark Kroeger in “Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of ‘Head,’” cover of Priscilla Papers 20:3 (Summer 2006).

Aída’s perspective

When we were first married, a friend of Bill’s parents from his conservative birth church phoned and demanded: “I want to speak to the head of the house!”

Bill, who answered the phone, snapped back: “To do that you will have to pray because Jesus is the head of our house!”

His friend responded, “Good answer!”

Our caller meant by “head,” who is the boss of the house because to many of us “head” signifies thoughts, decisions, authority, rule.

But, is this what the Apostle Paul meant by “head” almost 2000 years ago?

We have answers to this question right in Paul’s same letter of Ephesians. We don’t have to go far.

First, let’s look at Ephesians ch. 4, vv 15-16: but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (NRSV).

          What does this mean in its context?

Do not stay as an infant or child in the faith, being fooled by wrong teaching, but rather grow in love and truth “into him, who is the head, Christ, from whom all the body, being fitly framed and held together by every ligament which serves to give it support according to the proportionate activity of each individual part makes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Aída’s literal translation).

    What is all this about? “Head” is a metaphor. It is not literal. If it were literal, when Bill and I were married, a butcher would have showed up to slash off both our heads and put Bill’s head on me. Then we would both be dead!

          A metaphor is an implied comparison between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common so that one or more properties of the first are attributed to the second.

          So, what two things are being compared in Ephesians? Not the head representing the mind and thoughts, but the physical head as a source of life compared to Christ’s work in the church.

          What is the literal basis for this metaphor?

          In our head, we have the pituitary gland which affects the growth of bones. The ligaments give support to the bones. Remember that Luke the physician is there in Rome with Paul and may be confirming the accuracy of this extended image. So, when Paul is inspired to write that the husband is the head of his wife, he means that the husband should be a source of growth and life to his wife, in other words, a life-giving source.

          That is also true of Christ. Christ is a source of growth to the church (5:23). In ch. 4, Christ helps us grow by equipping us with apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers so that the saints are equipped for the work of ministry, so that we as a church can be mature spiritually and not childlike (4:11-13).

         Paul also defines head right in Ephesians 5:23 when he says Christ is “head of the church,” in other words, he adds: “Savior himself of the body.” Christ saves the body by giving us spiritual gifts and, of course, by dying for us so that we can be reconciled to God. As Paul writes in ch. 2: “but God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us  even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,  so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we may walk in them” (2:4-10 (NRSV). Christ’s spiritual gifts help the church grow and affirm us.

         Did the ancients ever see the head as the source of life? Remember the story of Athena, who was born out of Zeus’ head? Ancient Greeks frequently created statues where a head becomes the source of a fountain.[2] The ancient Greeks and Romans thought of the mind or nous as the source of reasonings. The ruler or the judge (in Greek archē) might make decisions. But, the inner life and decision-making was often symbolized by the heart, for example, “the eyes of the heart” help us to know (1:18).

          But for Greeks the head (kephalē) was the symbol of life.

          Decision-making in the home should be a mutual task. One person making decisions for all is a heavy cumbersome impossible task. How can I know what I decide is really the best for all?

        Steve Tracy in our book on Marriage at the Crossroads tells the tale of the mistake he made with his family, by thinking for them all and how he came to change his view to a sharing role of the husband and father in decision-making.

          Sometimes traditional marriages are actually based on an unspoken bargain. The man becomes the figurehead and leads while the wife appears to follow. But what may really be happening? The man gets the glory outside, while behind his back, the wife, who enlists the children, complains about his decisions. That’s what happened in both our parents’ marriages.  My mother and I would go on an errand, and she would complain all the time about my father. My father would say that all he wanted was to take walks with my mother. Bill’s parents’ marriage was similar.

          When I was in high school or college, I told my mom that I had enough. I didn’t want to hear her complaints about my father anymore. She was furious!  I had broken the years-long unwritten marriage contract: “You lead, I complain!”

          (Nevertheless, they persevered in their marriage long enough to celebrate 60 years of marriage!)

          Recently, Bill and I participated in a panel with two other couples at a national conference. We were the egalitarian couple. One other couple represented the model traditional marriage. The third couple was supposed to be the moderates. To our surprise, the wife in the nationally known famous traditional couple spent much of her time complaining about her husband. For instance, how he bought a truck into which she could hardly step up.

She said that when they meet the Lord and the Lord complains about this wasted money, she would say, “It was all his decision and it’s his fault!

          Sounds a little like Adam and Eve after the fall in reverse. This time, the wife would say: “It’s the husband you gave me! It’s his fault!”

          What Paul is asking of husbands is much more than to be figureheads. Help your wife grow as a Christian. Bill will explain more of that in the second half of our blog. Though, I would like to give you a few examples.

          After I finished college, I worked as a community organizer among Latin Americans in Plainfield, New Jersey. While I did that, Bill began studying at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. He would return to New Jersey weekends and tell me about his studies of Bible and theology. They sounded so exciting and worthwhile! And I wondered aloud, could I too learn more about Christ? Bill immediately said, “Sure!”

          I asked, “Do women go to seminary?” Of course, “yes,” he told me. Later I found out there was only one female part-time student in the school—a nurse! But that was enough precedent for Bill. Moreover, I didn’t have any money for school and he also found a scholarship for me.

          When that campus was closed, we transferred our studies to Princeton Theological Seminary. Their only two-year degree was in Christian education. But, I wanted to learn koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, in order to delve deeper into the word. I asked my faculty advisor, May I do that? But in a Christian education program, she said, there was no room for Greek.

          I was devastated and shared this with Bill, who at that time was my fiancé. He said, “Don’t be concerned! I’ll teach you Greek.” Therefore, once a week we would meet and he would teach me one lesson from the Greek textbook. During the week, I would do the homework and memorize the vocabulary. I finished the year, and the next fall I took an entrance test, passed it, and entered the first level of interpreting the New Testament.  For over forty years I have taught the New Testament in Greek and now I am a Senior Professor of New Testament. It was Bill who started me on this route and encouraged me all along.

          Bill helped me grow and develop as a spiritual partner.

          So, when the Apostle Paul asks wives to respect their husbands and become part of that church-wide mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), he’s simply asking them to be thankful for everything their husbands are doing for them.

          Did you know that Ephesians 5:22 in the earliest Greek New Testament manuscripts has no verb? It says simply: “the wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.”

          The wives--what? What are we supposed to do? We can’t tell until we look back to verse 21 to get the answer: “being submissive to one another in fear/respect of Christ.” And that verse is the end of a long sentence beginning in 5:17. The gist of it is:

Understand the Lord’s will, don’t become fools, don’t get drunk with wine or intoxicating substances because then you cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit. Rather encourage one another, be thankful always, be cooperative with one another.

          The heart of submission is cooperation with others to do God’s will.

          What is God’s will? That we imitate him and “live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1-2 NRSV). One way to live a life of love is to submit to other Christians, while they submit to you. Mutual submission is two ruling authorities bowing to each other because they both bow to a greater authority: Christ.

          Paul writes, for example, that the spirits of prophets should be subject to one another in 1 Corinthians 14. They listen to each other when they prophesy, they do not monopolize the whole time, they learn and encourage each other and evaluate each other’s messages (vv. 29-33). They cooperate with each other so that all can exercise their roles. They do this to themselves; they are not forced to submit.

          That’s what I try to do in our marriage: to cooperate in love, listen, learn, encourage, evaluate, to become a supportive presence in actions and words because of respect for Christ. Our marriage is by no means perfect. Even after fifty years of marriage, we still are not always fully in agreement. (By the way, did you notice that Paul uses the future in v. 31: “the two will become one flesh.” Before God we may be one, but not yet in reality.) That takes time and is a process that is always ongoing.    

          That is our goal, to become truly united. I, for my part, strive to appreciate Bill, be thankful, respect him privately and publicly, because he strives to help me grow spiritually. Of course, I must do the same for him, to love him and help him grow spiritually.

Bill puts in his 2 cents

As Aída and I translated this passage together and assessed each of the beautiful Greek words Paul was inspired to employ to build this passage and, then, when Aída read me her interpretation of what she realized Paul was saying here, I was struck once again with this thought: It all makes perfect sense!

It didn’t always make sense to me – or, as I realize, to some thinking folks in the church into which I was born. This hyper-conservative church was living under its own brand of remnant theology. This is the way I characterized it as a youth: “After the fall, God set aside a small number of Baptist Churches, only two of which were in New Jersey!” Our church was down in the plains, and we related only to one other church up in the mountains. (If we didn’t, none of our young would have been able to find a spouse, if there wasn’t one in our church, since nearly all others in Christendom were a pack of heretics. That is what we were taught.)

With an outlook like this, people in my birth church were used to fragmenting our thoughts. I heard many sermons and teachings on this passage in Ephesians and all of them atomized it. I don’t ever remember any preacher working with the rest of the book to see what was actually the context around what Paul was saying, as Aída has just done.

Instead, preachers would center in on Ephesians 5 as if it were a set of commandments that dropped from heaven right into their pulpits and they’d hammer away at them in a vacuum. The message each one planted in all of our brains was very clear: Eve sinned and misled Adam and that’s not going to happen in our church! So, the commandment was women submit, men rule, that’s God’s will, end of story. Serve us up some lunch, ladies!

But you know, we looked at Ephesians 5:25-33 from every angle and I couldn’t then and I still can’t now find these words in these verses: “Loving your wife is bossing her around!”

Apparently, the women in my birth church thought so, too, because, while they made a show of submitting to their husbands in public, these women ruled the church. They taught every Sunday School class I was in until I entered junior high when a well-meaning, but way out of shape man warned us boys not to worship at the temple of muscles – apparently a rule he took to heart. Since he had a very beautiful daughter, all the older boys treated him with great respect. We younger boys had to fend for ourselves, as far as our opinions were concerned.

One thing I noticed was that, despite what was being taught about what this church thought Paul meant, the women told their husbands how to vote in their deacons’ meetings. Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying: “The man is the head; the woman is the neck that turns the head?” Well, these necks, under whose tutelage I was reared, turned with an iron resolve. Most of them were very sweet, but some frustrated church women I’ve met along the way have been absolutely terrifying.

Since my home church women had already trained all the boys, we held an iron-clad opinion of their wisdom. I realized that any pastor who fell afoul of one of the key women of the church on Sunday was out on Monday. As it was, three families appeared to run the church and those patriarchal families were actually, in reality, matriarchal. After all, fundamentalist women in the late 1940s-early 1950s, who had worked like Rosie the Riveter, while the men went to war, were very strong, and now suddenly they were not supposed to work outside the home. But they were used to working. So, they transferred their work to the church. And they worked just as hard as they ever did. They just weren’t given adequate credit for it.

For me, everything changed in my perspective after my dad was hurt in an accident at work that busted him up and put him in the hospital for months as God along with the doctors rebuilt his hand, legs, ribs, and everything else broken. My folks were a young couple paying off a mortgage, devastated by a series of stillborns and miscarriages, and my wonderful sister’s accidental death two years earlier at the age of 11, and being stuck with the arduous task of trying to keep alive their only surviving child: a sickly 8-year-old me at the time (not being the robust, firewood-chopping senior of today). This accident of my dad was a catastrophic finale to a series of familial heartbreaks.

I remember my mother, crying on the porch of church friends who wouldn’t open the door more than a slit to us, while she told them she didn’t know where her and my next meal was coming from. I think they figured we must be sinning, and they didn’t want to catch this annihilating disease of disasters. I think they slipped some macaroni left over from dinner out the door. It was good. I was small and hungry.

My mother was a child of the Depression and a true survivor, so she went out and got a job at a large department store in a city next to our borough which supplemented the church care baskets that came on Thanksgiving and Christmas (and eventually the desultory checks that were stuffed into my dad’s pocket as he limped around the church building, a Trustee in leadership no longer).

My Mom continued to teach in the Sunday School, but we were definitely under a cloud. My home church had no theodicy, that is, no theological understanding of the four biblical reasons for suffering we see in the Bible and which, as a result, we explore in our book Joy through the Night: Biblical Resources on Suffering. Sure, punishment for sin is a biblical reason for suffering, but living in a fallen world where everybody suffers is a much more far-reaching one, because disaster strikes the good and the bad. Mudslides make no distinctions. Everyone dies.

In short, my parents broke the rules. My mom did not submit and stay home and starve. And my dad did not hobble out of the hospital in his full body cast and fumble around trying to paint on houses, particularly in the aftermath when, knitted back together again, he was undergoing long-term therapy to get his hand (put back together strangely) eventually to be able to hold the brush and to get his legs able to move and support him again. Few, if any, seemed to notice God’s miracle that my father eventually painted with that hand and climbed ladders with those broken legs after his therapy helped him become mobile again. My parents were heroic.

In my view, all the church seemed to see was our family as a bunch of pariahs, losing a child and undergoing a work disaster, since a ladder rung snapped and my dad plummeted three stories down, smashing on a macadam driveway. Apparently, the church expected angels to catch him mid-air and waft him down safely to the ground, if he was really the good man he appeared to be.

Our home, in the church’s opinion, was a shambles. My dad was distressed and very depressed in the hospital when he learned from my mom that she had gone back to work. My mom was out of control! The department store, which later became part of the Macy’s chain, made her a junior executive and she won numerous Ambassador Awards for her high sales volume and her popularity with customers who would turn down other salespeople (including men), patiently waiting on the display sofas for their turn to come up and be served by her.

But, despite all her success, she was always paid less than the men, since the same inequitable, patriarchal attitude ruled the secular world as well as it did the church.

I saw this as a travesty. My 8-year-old brain recoiled at it and I complained, “Mom, you’re working harder than anybody – why are you paid less?” My mom, who didn’t question the status quo, replied, “Well, the men are the bread winners, and they need to earn more.” I remember pleading back, “But, Mom, you’re the bread winner in our house.” That’s when I began to become an egalitarian. I was on the road to ruin.

My church also considered our situation a travesty. From its point of view, everything was awry in our house.

The church was taking its cues from Bill Gothard, a patriarchal unmarried man who gave an authoritative voice on how to run a family, later into eclipse for his reputed weird behavior with his young female volunteers.

And, for us, when my dad finally was able to work again, with me now old enough to help him paint, my mom refused to quit her job – even when store work transferred to a location far away on a highway. It was a clear violation of the teaching in Ephesians 5:25-33 on the way a wife should behave and a household should run.

But was it?

Was it really a violation of what Paul was actually telling husbands and wives to do? No.

Ephesians 5:25 reads literally: “Husbands, love your wives.” Now, how does Paul tell us husbands to do that? Is it by bossing our wives around and confining them to the house, whether they want to be there or not?

No. According to the rest of that verse, it’s for us to act the way that Christ acted in his love for the Church. So, how did Christ act? Literally, the rest of verse 25 on through verses 26 and 27 tells us Christ “delivered himself up in behalf of her, so that he might sanctify her, having cleansed with washing of the water in the spoken word, so that he himself might present the Church glorious, not having a spot or wrinkle or any such thing that she may be holy without blemish.”

Now, guys, this is not about buying her cold cream and cosmetics and dolling her up with a new hairdo. This is about self-sacrifice on her behalf and bathing her in upbuilding words that help her become the fully realized, holy and sinless person that God intended her to be. How is that done? Through love.

Love means finding out what gifts God has given one’s wife and a husband sacrificing his ego and even his advancing in his career if necessary to make certain every gift God has given his wife may be used to the fullest extent to help her live a holy life without a spot of sin, serving God in whatever her gifting points her to do, so that she may one day hear the “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21), which is the reward toward which every Christian should be striving.

How do we love our wives? If we’re not clear about what love is, Paul tells the Corinthians in 1st Corinthians 13, so we can review it there.

If every Christian husband did this for their wives, we could shake the world for God. In fact, every Christian man should extend this courteous behavior to every Christian woman, since Paul advises Timothy he should treat older women in the church as mothers and younger women as sisters in all purity or chastity (1 Tim. 5:2). Normal men want to honor their mothers and protect their sisters and help these beloved family women flourish. That’s how we should be treating the blessed women in our churches. I used to say that one of the greatest ploys of the evil one is to keep 60% of the church from using its full gifts. Recently, a wonderful Christian Kenyan woman informed me, “Oh no, in Africa it is 80% women that comprise the church.” In China, many if not most of the house churches have been pastored by women. I think these kinds of statistics may be true for much of our faith around the world. Lately, I’ve been told that a group of conservatively trained graduates from some of our U.S. seminaries are returning to China and causing trouble by telling the women who have been pastoring for years to step down rather than helping them refine the gifts that God obviously supplied them to plant and pastor these churches. If we want to see a violation of Ephesians 5:25-33, I would think this is it: stop the women pastoring and then stick some man who is not gifted to do it in her place the next Sunday, and see what happens... What are they thinking? My advice? Gentlemen, read the passage again – and this time pay attention to it!

For myself, when I kneel before the Lord to report how I used my life, I would much rather say, “Lord, I did everything I could do as a husband, pastor, and a professor to help my wife and other godly women use the gifts you gave them to the fullest. In fact, Lord, we even edited a book called Christian Egalitarian Leadership: Empowering the Whole Church according to the Scriptures, with women and men of many nationalities encouraging each other to use their gifts equally to grow Your church. I hope You’re pleased, Lord.” I would much rather report that then, “Lord, I made sure 60%-80% of your church never went into leadership or exercised any directing gifts, and when I couldn’t help it, because I couldn’t find any man able to do better and I had to let women lead, well, Lord, I made sure these women didn’t get any credit for their work!”

These days, there is a push in the church to do a “plain reading” of Scripture. Well, this is it for Ephesians 5:25-33. How do we love our wives? We sacrifice our lives and ambitions in the gentleness of upbuilding words so that our wives can reach the holiness and spiritual beauty that comes when everything God has equipped them to do can be realized without a ceiling put on them. Together, then we can work in partnership to help God reconcile the world to Godself. That’s the end – that is the goal – of our story.


Aída and Bill

[1] An earlier version of this blog was preached as a sermon at Pilgrim Church in Beverly, MA., Nov. 27, 2022. The only difference between “wife” and “woman”  or “husband” or “man” in Greek is a modifying word such as “their own men” or “their own women” which introduces a discussion (Eph 5:22, 33; 1 Cor 7:2). Such a modifying word is missing from the discussion in 1 Cor. 11. In 1 Cor. 11, whatever Paul signifies as “head,” it does not limit women from praying or prophesying (1 Cor 11:5). For a further discussion of the meaning of “head” from several points of view, see Marriage at the Crossroads: Couples in Conversation About Discipleship, Gender Roles, Decision Making and Intimacy, edited by Aída Besançon Spencer, William David Spencer, Steven R. Tracy, and Celestia G. Tracy and also Christian Egalitarian Leadership: Empowering the Whole Church according to the Scriptures, edited by Aída Besançon Spencer and William David Spencer.

[2] Cover, Priscilla Papers 20:3 (2006)