Mutual Marriage: Heading in a different direction (Ephesians 5)
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
Metaphors are such wonderful tools of language. They give beauty and depth to any topic. They challenge us. They demand attention, thought and interpretation. The Shakespeare quote above requires some unpacking. What does he mean that the world is a stage? How are we players? To interpret Shakespeare’s lines above, we must take a closer look at the theme of the play, the scene in which it is spoken, the character that speaks it and the characters that hear it. English Literature 101. Otherwise, we risk a serious misunderstanding. I believe that is exactly what has happened with Paul’s teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33. I’ll be spending a few weeks in this passage, but in this post I’ll focus on his famous metaphor regarding husbands and wives found in verse 23:
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.Ephesians 5:23 (NIV)
In English, the word “head” can be used in a number of ways. You can refer to the head of a corporation, which would generally mean the CEO. You can refer to the headwaters or fountainhead of a river, which would mean the source of the river. Interestingly enough, the Greek word used by Paul, “kephale”, has the same characteristics. Wayne Grudem, a prominent hierarchist, did a famous study on over 2,000 ancient instances of the word. Many have critiqued his study but it certainly shows that in ancient Greek, kephale occasionally means “authority”, occasionally it means “source”, but the vast majority of the time it simply means the physical head. The important question, however, is not what the word can mean but how does Paul use the word, especially in this context?
When looking at Paul’s usage of this metaphor both here in Ephesians and in 1 Corinthians 11, I believe both the “authority” and “source” definitions are problematic. They don’t carry through consistently, especially in 1 Corinthians 11 in respect to the relationship between Christ and God the Father. The fact is, nowhere in scripture is a husband explicitly instructed to lead or rule his wife. The one place in scripture where that instruction is given, it is given by the pagan King Xerxes! I’d like to propose that Paul’s metaphor is instead intended to be symbolic of the physical relationship between the head and the body.
What I mean is that while a body can exist without various limbs, a body cannot exist without a head nor can a head exist without a body. And while the body and head are intimately connected, the head is the prominent representation of the body to society, especially in modest cultures like the ancient near east. Someone might argue that the head is “dominant” since the mind is in the head, but that is modern knowledge that would not have been understood in Paul’s day. Ancient cultures believed the conscious mind was seated in the heart, not the head.
The English word closest to what I am describing could be “figurehead”, although that word has negative connotations that I do not intend. I simply mean the center of attention. In a patriarchal society like Paul’s, the husband was the symbolic representative of the entire family, regardless of the actual dynamics of the household. In the same way the Father is the symbolic representative of the godhead despite the fact that the Son and the Spirit are equally God.* This was the case to an even greater degree in Paul’s day, because trinitarian theology was not yet completely fleshed out.
This understanding of “head” corresponds directly with Paul’s usage of the same head/body metaphor in Ephesians 4 where the focus is not on source or authority but on unity/oneness, which is the overall theme of the entire letter to the Ephesians. Here in chapter 5, I contend Paul is emphasizing the inseparability of husband and wife in a mutually dependent relationship. Central to this is verse 21, where mutuality is explicitly commanded. While the wife is told to submit, the husband is told to sacrifice himself for his wife. In my opinion that is two ways of describing the same thing, like using the “six of one, half a dozen of the other” idiom. In the same way, verse 33 says a husband must love his wife and a wife must respect her husband, but would anyone argue that the opposite is not also true? Can one really exist without the other?
This raises another question: If Paul did not intend to enshrine hierarchy between husbands and wives, why did he choose to use the language of submission and obedience here, especially when he includes children and slaves? I’ll address that question in my next post.
* I believe this idea is key to understanding the head covering discussion in 1 Corinthians 11 as well, especially considering the honor/shame aspects of ancient near eastern culture. From this perspective, God is the head of Christ without subordinating Christ in terms of authority or creation. That discussion, however, is outside the scope of this post.