Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Mystery of Submission - Ephesians 5 (part 6)

Continued from here.

A Look at the Head

Verse 23-24 reads, For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Paul is expanding his reasons on what “submission” looks like and why it is good. The common knee-jerk interpretation is that this verse teaches husbands are leaders of their wives. But a few observations are in order.

“Head” is a metaphor. And, sadly, it’s a dead metaphor today. What is a dead metaphor? It is a word that no longer conjures up an image. We assign meanings to it because we’ve heard it so often. If I said, “I’m hitting the road,” that dead metaphor would only mean, “I’m driving away.” But if the metaphor were alive, we would think up a picture of someone going out to pound the asphalt. [1]

Live metaphors create pictures for us. “The Lord is my rock,” is a live Biblical metaphor as we think of a rock and its qualities that are similar to God. So when we see that the husband is the “head” of the wife, we need to first think about the metaphorical picture before we jump to conclusions. The picture here would be of a head on a body. And if the head is removed from the body three things happen: the head dies and the body dies and the union dies. The picture shows us that the body needs the head and the head needs the body. They cannot exist if the two were not dependent on each other. This is living in the metaphor.

It is overwhelmingly agreed upon by theologians on every side of the debate that “head” in Greek does not carry the same meaning as “head” in English. If we cram our English meanings into the text, we will miss the point. In English, “head” most commonly connotes “authority” and that’s how we often use the word. When we think of “head of state,” we think of the one in charge of the country. Yet in English, we have another meaning for the metaphor “head.” My father-in-law once took a canoe expedition down from the headwaters of the Missouri river. Here we see a lesser used meaning of the metaphor “head” in English: headwaters. When we talk about the “head” of the waters, we aren’t talking about the “authority” of one part of the river over another. We talk about the “source” or “origin” or “beginning” or “first” of the river. Another use is when a situation has reversed, when something on top gets put on the bottom; we say it was “turned on its head.”

What if the Greek word for “head” also carried additional meanings we don’t use in English? Many scholars note that “authority” and “source” are actually rare interpretations of “head” in Greek literature. While there is still much research to be done, it is likely, “head” for Paul carries the meaning of “honor,” more than anything else. [2]

[1] I borrow this idea from an excellent discussion on live and dead metaphors in How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Mark L. Strauss.
[2] Look at 1 Corinthians 11 and see how intertwined honor is with the word “head.” For a survey of the last 30 years of scholarship on this, see “A Meta-Study of the Debate Over the Meaning of "Head" (Kephale) in Paul's Writings” by Alan Johnson in Pricilla Papers, Autumn 2006.


Gem said...

The husband is the kephale- head. The same word is used of Jesus as the "HEAD of the corner" AKA - CORNERSTONE and we "like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house" 1 Peter 2:5. Could the husband as "head" imply a similar responsibility for using his strength to come under and support the "building" of the marriage and family? It is a powerful position which requires the anointing of Christlike strength and character to be done well and can have devastating consequences to durability of the marriage if done poorly

Dale Fincher said...


While I appreciate that head is used as reference to the cornerstone of the Messiah, I am hesitant to import that meaning here.

Just because the husband is given the title of 'head,' in Eph 5, doesn't mean we are entitled to import other similarities that relate to Jesus alone. Words do not carry meanings by themselves, they must always be done in context of other words (I had a professor in seminary that abhorred "word studies" because it usually distorted the context rather than shedding light on it!).

I don't think the husband is the cornerstone of marriage. I don't see a justification for it. And Jesus does a lot more for the church than the husband does for marriage (Paul limits it to just one thing in Eph 5--submissive love). I would still want to reserve the cornerstone for Jesus alone (since the husband and wife are already part of the church). Jesus is THEIR cornerstone, period.

In addition, I would say both the man and the woman need "Christlike strength and character" to do a marriage well. Both uphold one another as well as the covenant between them.

At least that's my take on it.


Gem said...

I had a professor in seminary that abhorred "word studies" because it usually distorted the context rather than shedding light on it

That is interesting to me Dale. Which seminary? I am curious if this is a new trend? You are not the first seminary educated blogger of a younger generation than myself who seems suspicious of word studies. When I was in seminary in the 80's, we were instructed in word study (as well as other tools of hermeneutics).

You're right about cornerstone of course. The word cornerstone is "kephale of the corner" and only kephale is used of the husband. The cornerstone imagery just struck me as similar to the imagery I have heard of a wife's submission meaning to "come under and support" him. A strong cornerstone certainly "comes under and supports" a building, and marriage is compared to building a house in Proverbs "unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain"

Anyway..., I sure hope you don't throw out the "word study baby" with the bath water. Some very deep insights are available through word study. (that cornerstone one not among them- I have some word studies where one word from the Bible changed my life posted at Twould be a shame for someone with your degree of insight to be robbed of an extraordinarily powerful means God has of removing veils from scripture.

Gem said...

no one
can lay any foundation
other than the one already laid,
which is Jesus Christ.

If anyone builds on this foundation
using gold, silver, costly stones,
wood, hay or straw,
their work will be shown for what it is,
because the Day will bring it to light.
It will be revealed with fire,
and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.

If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward.
If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—
even though only as one escaping through the flames.
1 Cor 3:11-15

Dale Fincher said...

Gem, I attended Talbot School of Theology. My professor of hermeneutics was Walt Russell. I'm also a big fan of Gordon Fee.

Having a background in the arts and writing as well, I'm a huge fan of context. I do think word studies can be very helpful, however, as long as they are tested against the backdrop of context and how other words are used with it. Even in English, people will go to the dictionary and assign meanings to words divorced from the context in which they are found. So while dictionaries are invaluable resources, they are not the final word.

That's my take on word studies: they are not the final word.

When you get to the comments on part 15, you'll see Lin's comments about a word study on "respect". I'm still waiting for Lin to post up a further explanation on an otherwise alarming Greek word!!

Interesting explanation of husbands being the supporter the way wives are to be supporters. I don't know if either one can be shown explicitly to be the case in the passages on marriage. That, of course, does not preclude all the other passages written to humans about the need to support one another.

(aside: I'm always bugged when the marriage passages are used as precluders to the rest of scripture).

Gem said...

When you get to the comments on part 15, you'll see Lin's comments about a word study on "respect". I'm still waiting for Lin to post up a further explanation on an otherwise alarming Greek word!!

I noted that comment with interest. I too would like to hear Lin's take on that (she and I have discussed phobeo elsewhere a bit). Between the deep insight and analysis of your series of posts and Don Johnson's posting of the structure of Ephesians 5-6, I feel as though I am having birth pangs for some insights about phobeo. I will think some more and probably post on this discussion which I think you would find quite interesting, Dale: Ephesians 5-6 Pericope Structure

Dale Fincher said...

Johnson's post is intriguing... gotta let it sink in. Interesting reflection that the master is to follow the same principle as the servant.