I’ve begun reading into the topic of women and men in ministry. I noticed immediately that the concept of “head” stands out in the debate between egalitarian and complementarian interpretations. As a metaphor, the concepts and specific applications intended by Paul can be elusive. For help, I turned to an expert on the subject, my colleague, Dr. Michelle Lee-Barnewall. Below are her explanations of four questions as part of beginning to explore the meaning of “headship.”


What was the meaning of "head" in the head-body metaphor used by the Stoics and others in the 1st century world of the New Testament?

In antiquity, the head-body metaphor was a common way to explain relationships within a whole.   Given the organic nature of the body as being a single organism comprised of a variety of parts, it is easy to see why it lent itself to this type of illustration.  Within this context, there was not a single way to use the metaphor, but rather it could be used in various ways depending on the author’s purpose. So, for example, the parts that came in pairs, such as the hands, were often used to illustrate the need for cooperation, or one part might be singled out, such as the belly to show that a part whose actions were not readily apparent still served an important function.

The head had a unique role as the part that stood at the top of the body.  It was seen as the ruling part, worthy of greater prestige and privilege than the rest of the body.   Its position as the topmost part directly related to its duties.  For example, Philo said that since the acropolis was the city’s highest point, it was the most fitting place for the city’s center and fortress.  Similarly the head as the highest part of the body was its ruler because it was the citadel of our mind and senses.  However, what is absolutely critical for understanding Paul, and what I will address in one of your later questions, is to see the unique way in which he redefined the head’s duties in line with the gospel. 

By the way, since my own research has focused more on the political literature,[1] I want to add that our dean, Clint Arnold, has written a significant article on how the medical literature provides similar conclusions in seeing the head as leader and source of provision for the body.[2] All in all, it seems that this type of understanding of the head-body relationship was commonly held in antiquity and grew quite naturally out of people’s understanding of the head’s placement and how the body functioned. 


How does Paul's usage of "head" in the head-body metaphor compare to extrabiblical usage?

I think he uses it in very similar ways, although with a twist.  First, Paul’s use of the body metaphor in general has similar presuppositions with many extrabiblical uses, for example, that the body is a unity and there is a diversity of parts.  Thus, the body is an organic unity so that what happens in one part of the body affects the whole, and the body parts can be identified as having specific functions.  Within this context, Paul’s use of the metaphor in Eph. 5 to say that the body, or the wife, should submit to the husband fits with the general understanding of the head as being the “leader” of the body.  However, as I mentioned above, the key is to consider how Paul drew unique conclusions from the metaphor to describe life in a gospel context.


What do you think Paul means by the metaphor of a husband as "head" in relation to a wife in Ephesians 5? How does this compare to Jesus’ "headship"?

Various proposals have included “authority,” “leader,” “source/origin,” “source of provision,” and “preeminent.”  I personally don’t think that “source” in terms of “origin” fits, given the scarcity of extrabiblical evidence for this type of usage, although “source of provision” could fit given the evidence in the medical literature.  “Authority” and “leadership” would certainly be something that I think people would have connected with Paul’s use of the image.  “Preeminent” would also fit, although the idea of preeminence must be grounded in something.  The “head” would be preeminent because it is the leader or authority.  It cannot simply have a symbolic preeminence or position.  In other words, there is a reason why the head is preeminent.

One of the most interesting aspects of the “head” imagery is that as the leader and source of provision, the head carried certain expectations.  As the position of leadership, it was expected that the body would sacrifice itself for the head since if the head died, the body would no longer have a leader and so would itself perish.  Ancient writers talked about how it was important for emperors, generals, etc. to be protected so that the entire body (nation, army, etc.) could survive.  Paul, while maintaining the leadership of the head, reverses these particular expectations.  The head is not to be protected by the body, but rather to sacrifice itself for the body.  As Jesus sacrificed himself for the church, so are husbands to do for their wives.  It’s critical to realize that to a person in the first century, this would be an incomprehensible idea since it would basically be asking the body to commit suicide.  But in the context of the gospel that says that a person gains their life by losing it, or proclaims that a savior who dies on a cross is the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18-25), headship is not about asserting one’s power or demanding privilege, but rather giving up one’s life to give life to another.  Also what is usually not emphasized in discussions of Ephesians is the connection between headship and unity.  It is the sacrificial act of the headship that is connected with the “one flesh” unity in Eph. 5:31/Gen. 2:24.  The husband’s sacrifice is essential to this unity.  To see Eph. 5 as asserting the dominance of the husband over the wife is to miss the specific gospel application of headship.


Can one definition of "head" as a metaphor be accurate for all the cases in the New Testament, or must we nuance the meaning of the metaphor for an analogical meaning among the different relationships (as in 1 Cor 11:3)?

In the context of the head-body metaphor, “head” could have a variety of applications or uses, but these would be based upon its position and function in the human body. As the topmost part of the body, it has a position of preeminence based on its leadership and is the source of provision (as contrasted with the lowly foot, for example, which is located at the bottom of the body. You can see the foot lamenting its humble position in the body in 1 Cor. 12:14).  When someone was called the “head” in this respect, people would immediately think about this image, although any writer might choose to emphasize a particular aspect.  So, yes, the way we understand the specific function of the metaphor in any passage depends on the context, although all would seem to be based on the same general understanding of what it means to be the “head.” Thus, for example, if a passage emphasizes the “preeminence” of the head, we must also understand that the substance of that preeminence is based on the larger understanding of what it means to be the head.




[1] “Turning kephale on Its Head: The Rhetoric of Reversal in Eph. 5:21-33,” in Christian Origins and Classical Culture: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament. Vol. 1 of The New Testament in Its Hellenistic Context, eds. Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts (Leiden: Brill, 2013): 599-614.

[2] Arnold, Clint. “Jesus Christ: ‘Head’ of the Church (Colossians and Ephesians),” in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, eds. Joel B. Green and Max Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994): 346-66.