“Why did God make man the head of the household?”

That question stared up at me from the study one of the men in our small group had written. We were discussing a chapter from C.S. Lewis’ classic, Mere Christianity, but also looking at Ephesians 5.

Lewis echoes a popular sentiment (especially in his day) that in decision making, a couple should talk things over but if they cannot decide, the man should cast the deciding vote, since you can’t have a “majority vote” in a group of only two people.

I’m a huge Lewis fan. I was an English major at  Wheaton College, for heaven’s sake, where Lewis is highly venerated. I’ve read most of his books. He’s smart and scholarly, but not infallible. Further, he was writing in 1943, in Britain, to a mostly white middle class audience, where women’s sphere of influence was mostly the home. He had no frame of reference for a woman as a leader, only a woman as bossy housewife. He also wrote as a bachelor! He wrote that man should be the boss because no one would really want a woman bossing her husband around.

And therein lies the heart of the problem. To assume that “head” in Ephesians 5 and elsewhere means “boss” is an erroneous assumption. In English, head literally means the round body part on top of your neck. And the Greek word in Ephesians 5 means that same thing: a part of the body. It does not mean authority or boss. it does not mean chief person or leader or authority. It certainly doesn’t mean bossy or nagging.

In other words: you keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The Koine Greek noun kephalē  means head, but if we look at its other uses in the Bible, we see that it means the head of a body. A man and wife are like a head and a body–they need each other and help each other function, they work best in unity. The same Greek word is used in 1 Corinthians 12, where again Paul writes of a human body as a metaphor for unity within the body of Christ. But this word has often been misunderstood. It does not mean what we think it means when we hear it in English.

The word kephalē  does not mean boss or even “chief person,” as scholar Marg Mowczko writes: “In Koine Greek, the Greek of the New Testament, the word kephalē (head) also has metaphorical meanings; however “leader” or “chief person” is usually not one of them….The concept of kephalē carries the connotations of kinship, association and connection.  A head is nothing without a body, and vice versa.  Moreover, the head and body have an affinity and are part of the same unit.” (From the New Life blog article The Metaphorical Meanings of Head in Paul’s Letters, read the whole excellent article here.)

The word could also mean source or “fountainhead”—like the head of a river. Woman was created out of man, just as the church was created out of Christ’s sacrifice. Christ’s headship is one of sacrifice, not casting deciding votes. Christ is the source of nurture and love for the church, and man is a source of nurture and love for his wife.

The use of “head” in Ephesians reminds us of the unity of creation, where we were created in the image of God, male and female. Just as there is no hierarchy in creation, there is none in Christian marriage. Mutual submission means we lead our families together, each using our gifts (like different parts of the body).

Ephesians 5 is a call to restore the oneness that we were created in. It provides a general statement: submit to one another, then offers specific instructions to both men and women. Wives are to submit (by definition something they do by choice, not by their husband’s compulsion) and husbands are to love, give themselves up for, and care for their wives.

Choosing to submit and choosing to give oneself up for another are quite similar—in fact, it would be hard to distinguish the two in practice. Wives give themselves up for their husbands when they submit; husbands submit when they give themselves up for their wives. So how, in the instructions to love, give himself up for, and care for his wife as he would his own body (again a statement of unity and equality) do we find the instructions that the man gets the deciding vote in a disagreement? We don’t.

Many, including my friends, would say you need to have someone to break the tie. I suggested that God would break the tie, if you continued to seek God’s wisdom, asking to be led by the Spirit to unity. In a way, giving the man the deciding vote keeps God small, and prevents the man from actually having to do what Ephesians 5:21 says: submit to one another. If you know you’ve got the deciding vote, you aren’t really submitting.

If you trust that God is able to lead and give you the right direction, why does one person need to be the tie-breaker? Is it impossible for God to lead both a man and a woman to peace about a decision? Why the man? Can men hear God better than women? Is God incapable of speaking directly to both husband and wife?

So in small group, when it was my turn to answer the question, “why did God make man the head of the household?” I looked up and said, “God didn’t.”

This raised a bit of a ruckus, even from the wives in the group, who firmly believe that is what the Bible teaches.

But the text doesn’t say “head of the household.” It says, “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.”

The text does say, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) How can you submit to one another when one person is the “head of the household” meaning the boss or authority?

Photo from Lightstock.com

Photo from Lightstock.com

My friends argued that head of the wife in the text “implies” head of the household. Really? If you claim to take the Bible literally, but then say that “household” is implied by the word “wife” –it seems to me that you are not taking the Bible literally. The word wife does not mean household. The text does not say household.

Other verses about Christian households tell children to obey. Whom are they instructed to obey? If husbands are the head of the household, and children are members of it, it seems that we’d read something like “Children, obey your father.”

But we don’t. The text says, “Children, obey your parents, and honor your father and mother.” (Ephesians 6:1-3)

Other passages of Scripture concur: honor your father and mother. (Exodus 20:12)

Certainly these instructions to children seem to point toward a partnership or shared authority of the parents. The text does not say to honor and obey only the father, but both parents.

My friends shared stories of times where the women had let their husbands decide, even if they disagreed—and it had turned out for the best. They said they were glad to surrender that choice. I agree that sometimes, we do that. Because Ephesians 5:21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” So if my husband and I are submitting to one another, it means sometimes he’ll decide, but sometimes I will.

It’s not that I don’t want to submit. As a Christian, I am called to put others first, to be unselfish–to submit. But the Bible calls both of us to submit, not just the wife. In fact, we submit not only in marriage but in the church–and again, it’s not just the women, but all of us, one to another. And submission is not something someone can coerce. By definition, submission is something a person chooses to do.

This passage calls us to keep on seeking God, believing that he will lead us to unity. Because that is what Ephesians 5 is all about: unity, not authority. Verse 21 hinges the section before it (about unity in the church) to the section following it (about unity in the family). The whole chapter is about unity and connection, not authority. It’s about oneness, mutual submission and sacrifice, not who casts the deciding vote.

Read more on this from biblical scholars or check out Beyond Sex Roles by Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, professor emeritus at Wheaton.

What does mutual submission look like in your relationships? Is the man the head of the household?