I am well aware that in approaching this subject, I am opening the proverbial “can of worms”. Few seemingly simple words have been used so viciously to abuse and suppress the very people that they were intended to empower and protect! And we will get to that; but first, a few interesting observations.
For those who get bent-out-of-shape about words that in nearly every European language except English have “gender” as a part of their grammatical form: I find it amusing that kephale, the only Greek word translated “head”, happens to be a feminine noun! Since grammatical “gender” is completely independent of actual fact, this observation is just as irrelevant to correct translation as is the masculine grammatical form of anthropos – usually rendered “man” (the species), but just as accurately “person” or “human”. I only mention it by way of illustration, and with this reminder: don’t get hung up on grammatical gender! To do so only displays linguistic ignorance.
To those who consider the concept of “head” to denote the top of a hierarchy: there is a related word for that, kephalaios, “principal or chief”, but it never occurs in the New Testament. Lexically, the idea of “head honcho” is completely absent from the extensive uses of kephale.
These include (L/S) the physical head of a person or animal, a way of counting people, philosophically the “noblest” part of a person, life (as in risking – see Lk.21:8, Ac.27:34), a term used in imprecations or oaths (as in Mt.5:36, Ac.18:6); of inanimate things: the inflorescence of a plant, the top or brim of a vessel, the capital of a column, the source of a river; of statuary: a bust; and metaphorically: crown, completion, consummation, sum, or total.
Of the 76 appearances of the word in the New Testament, 47 have merely anatomical reference. Most of these are in the gospels or the Revelation. Other than those, Ac.18:18 and 21:24 refer to the Jewish custom of shaving one’s head in connection with a vow, and in Paul’s insightful description of the functions of the parts of a body, he mentions the head in I Cor.12:21.
There are two other clusters of the use of kephale. In Mt.21:42, Mk.12:10, Lk.20:17, and Ac.4:11, reference is made to Ps.118:22, regarding “the stone that the builders rejected” having been made “the head of the corner” (KJV). Peter quotes the same passage (I Pet.2:6,7) and adds the comment from Is.28:16. In doing so, he agrees with Paul’s statement in I Cor.3:11 where he speaks of Jesus as the “foundation,” but these are completely different from the former group. Clearly, the KJV translators did not understand the construction of the Roman arch, which was ubiquitous in the first century, and consequently, they totally missed the wry humor in the statement. The writers/speakers are calling attention to the utter cluelessness of those who considered themselves the “builders”, pointing out that they did not even know what the carefully but oddly shaped keystone of an arch is for! It bears no resemblance to a cornerstone – a ceremonial, decorative (but useless) component slipped into place at the dedication of a building – or even if it were a part of the foundation. The keystone, uniquely shaped for a perfect fit, is integral to the integrity of the entire structure! Without it, the whole building – arch or dome – would collapse! The point is that only Jesus is capable of holding the “building of God” (whether one applies that term to the church or to the entire universe) intact. These same translators likewise erred in the rendering of the alternate word, akrogoniaios. Used only twice, it refers also to the top of the arch: The prefix akro– is from the word “high” (think “acropolis”). It has no reference to their choice of “chief” (Eph.2:20, I Pet.2:6). There is no such thing as a “chief” cornerstone.
Finally, and arguably the most important, are the references, all in Paul’s epistles, to Jesus himself as the “head”: not only of the church, which is represented as his Body (Eph.4:15, Col.1:18), but of “all things” (Eph.1:22), even of “all principality and power” (Col.2:10) – spiritual forces of all kinds! Although the word is not repeated there, the statement in Col.1:15-17 succinctly summarizes the realization that from the beginning of creation (perhaps even before that!) it is only in Jesus that “everything holds together” – precisely the function of a keystone (Col.2:19). He is the only way the Body can work together as intended. The reverse is also true: one may observe that while a Body is unable to function without its head – it simply dies – neither can a Head accomplish much unless it has a Body with which it can interact with its surroundings!
It is this glorious truth of Jesus as the Head of the Body that must be the context for any responsible interpretation of the remaining passages (I Cor. 11:1-10 and Eph.5:32-33). Reinforced (or perhaps established) by Jesus’ prayer in Jn.17, especially v.22, a New Testament understanding of the function of the “head” is, like so many other aspects of life, radically different from any patterns that exist outside Jesus’ Kingdom. Whether the “list” is the I Cor. “God – Christ – husband – wife” or the Ephesians “Christ – church – husband – wife”, it does not describe a hierarchy as has been represented by the arrogant and oppressive “chain of command” teaching that has been prominent in some circles off and on for at least the last 50 years, but an equation!
Perhaps some of you learned as a school-child the expression of relationships in a math or science problem that looked like this: “a:b::c:d”, representing that the pair “a” and “b” are related to each other in the same way as “c” is to “d”. That is exactly what Paul is trying to say here. And all the components of both lists are encompassed in Jesus’ prayer to the Father “that they may (continually) be one, just as we are one”!
In such a context, being designated as a “head” is not an assignment of status, but of responsibility! In his prayer, Jesus detailed the provision, protection, and empowerment that he had afforded to his followers while he was with them. Similar patterns of nurture and protection are noted in the Ephesians passage. Both are in the context of total self-giving love, and are to be emulated, in his present Body, by any who are designated “head”, in any capacity. Remember also that in the Corinthian letter, we are reminded that both men and women have been entrusted with heretofore unheard-of responsibility and privilege (Please see fuller discussion in chapter 13 of Citizens of the Kingdom). Whether on a physical or spiritual level, the “head” is responsible for the protection and the welfare, as well as the direction and enabling of the activity of the rest of the Body.
If you are tempted to react – either gleefully or resentfully – to the idea of a husband as a “head”, take a deep breath, get out your New Testament, and review the characteristics of Jesus’ relationship to his Father, and to the Church, his beloved Bride! Because here, as in everything else concerning the Kingdom, it’s all about Jesus! Make no mistake: Jesus was not a doormat – and neither was he a tyrant! He expects neither of his people! And where there is no husband to serve as enabler and protector, that role is assigned to the church (I Tim.5) as well as to whatever family is available. This would not have been an uncommon situation in a context of intense persecution.
After detailing the superiority of Jesus over all the ideas and beings, hypothetical or actual, to which the Colossian brethren had been introduced, Paul bluntly diagnosed their problem as “not holding on to the Head.” “It’s only from him that all the Body, supplied through its joints and ligaments, and knit together, keeps growing with the growth that comes from God.” (Col.2:19).
“The growth that comes from God”, for all of his people, is neither more nor less than the building together and functioning together of all of the members of the Body of Christ, learning, under the supremely loving and competent direction of its Head, to reflect all that he is, to a world so desperately in need of his loving touch.