Headship can often become a divisive issue in marriage discussions—especially in religious circles. Various “infallible” headship interpretations and accompanying dialogue could fill a library. Our experience is that people will endlessly argue the original Greek and Hebrew, lexicons, grammar roots, verb tenses, hermeneutical and eschatological anthropomorphisms, and endless jots and tittles until Jesus Christ returns.
Our preference is to invest our time and energy focusing on God’s original co-leadership marriage principles. We are not theologians. But for decades, we’ve studied different headship interpretations. Our understanding is that proponents of the male rulership and traditional-hierarchical-complementarian marriage views interpret headship as meaning that the husband is the head who has authority over the wife. Egalitarian marriage view proponents believe headship means “source”—as in headwaters.
It is often assumed that the word “kephale” translated as “head” in this passage means leader, boss, or authority. However, while there are numerous references to titles for leaders in the New Testament, none is ever designated using the word “kephale”. The word “head” used in this manner appears exclusively in the relation of Christ to the church paralleled in that of a husband to a wife. In each of those references, the function of Christ’s headship to the church is servant-provider rather than authority or leadership.
As you can see, the scholarly debate about headship can get pretty “heady.”
But before sin entered the picture, there was no designated hierarchy, headship, or female subordination, and the man was not declared the leader or spiritual cover.
Headship is never mentioned until thousands of years after God’s original marriage design. In Eden, the husband and wife enjoyed mutual equality intrinsically and functionally. The husband and wife co-led together—naked and not ashamed—as they celebrated the miracle and mystery of two becoming one.
This makes us wonder: if headship is a foundational component in the husband/wife relationship, doesn’t it make sense that Jesus would have made it a key point—an absolute—when He talked about marriage? But Jesus never mentioned headship. In fact, when Jesus talked about marriage, He returned to the one-flesh togetherness principles of Eden Matthew 19:4-6.
Nevertheless, we understand that many men and women consider headship a major marriage focus. When this is the case, we encourage the husband to act as the head as the Ephesians passage describes. The husband is to love his wife ‘as Christ also loved the church.’ How did Christ love the church? He ‘gave Himself up for her,’ ‘nourish[ing] and cherish[ing]’ her (see Ephesian 5:25-29). As head, Christ died for the church; likewise, a husband as head is to give himself up for—nourish, cherish, love, serve, and be willing to die for—his bride. For the record, we have no problem with husbands living out headship in those ways.
Our experience is that walking out headship differs from couple to couple. Most religious leaders (including male rulership and traditional-hierarchical-complementarian marriage-view proponents) believe that headship means the husband has functional authority—and unless something is immoral or illegal—the right to have the final say in making decisions.
It’s like the husband possesses a gender trump card. Essentially there is a functional hierarchy with the husband first and the wife second.
Personally, we have concerns with interpretations in which head means the husband has final say and, if necessary, is able to impose his decision on his spouse. Impose is defined as “insist on something, make people agree or comply.” Nowhere in Scripture does it say a husband has the position or the authority to force his wife to submit to him.
Throughout church history, the “Christ as head of the church” metaphor has been misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misapplied.
As we look to Jesus as our model for headship, do we see Jesus ever having final say in making decisions? Does Jesus ever pull out a trump card and impose His will or make people comply? For example, does Jesus ever impose His desire for a person to avoid sin, repent, pray, serve at church, tithe, or live in certain ways? For that reason, we do not agree with marriage views where the husband has final say in making decisions or, figuratively speaking, has a male gender trump card.
Reread the Ephesians text. We believe the heart of headship includes an invitation to step into the Larger Story where God is the main character and to not live in the smaller story where functionally the husband is the main character.
Biblical headship includes a husband denying himself, dying to selfishness, and placing his spouse’s needs and feelings above his own. Remember, these commands to husbands in that season of history were over-the-top countercultural. At that time, life was all about men, and women were treated as property.
In addition, we find most male rulership and traditional-hierarchical-complementarian marriage proponents believe that as part of his headship role the husband is also the wife’s spiritual cover. Practically, this means a wife goes through her husband in the decision-making process because, as head, he is the spiritual leader in the marriage.
We do not believe this lines up with Scripture. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and [human]kind, the man Christ Jesus” 1 Timothy 2:5.
Our humble opinion is that men and women—husbands and wives—are to go directly to Jesus Christ. They are not to first go through any person—spouse, saint, or religious leader.
As we survey our culture and the current marriage landscape, we sense God inviting men and women (husbands and wives) not to focus on who has authority or to debate the precise meaning of head, but rather to focus on walking in humility—loving, serving, and together advancing God’s kingdom.
For scholarly commentary, see Kephale and Male Headship in Paul’s Letters by Margaret Mowczko.
Graphic credit: Kate Hickman