Kephale

This is the fourth in a series that started here.

Most of us can easily agree that we are all called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  But the cause for dispute comes from reading Paul’s specific instruction to wives to do so in the manner that the church submits to Christ as its head (Eph 5:23-24).  What does it mean that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church?  To understand Paul’s instruction, we must start with what it means that Christ is the head of the church.

The Greek word that is translated ‘head’ in Ephesians 5 is ‘kephale.’  So what does kephale mean?  In order to really grasp its meaning, we must investigate what the word meant during Paul’s time.  What did it mean in Roman times?  How was it used at that time?  The artifacts that have been found from that era include documents such as business letters and artwork such as statuary and frescos.  These artifacts most frequently refer and depict kephale to mean ‘beginning’ and ‘source.’ *

The head of Bistrice River, i.e. where the river begins

The head of Bistrice River, i.e. where the river begins

This definition is a little difficult for us to grasp because as English speakers, it is uncommon for us to think of ‘head’ as the beginning of something.  However, there is an idiomatic use for it in our language.  When we say the ‘head of the river’, we mean the source of the river.  This is how the ancients used it as well.

During the New Testament time and culture, kephale was used as metaphor to mean the ‘origin and source’ of something.  Therefore, it follows that Paul would use the term with this lexical meaning.  In this passage, he means that Christ is the source/origin of the church. Out of the source comes life and growth. In the same way, the husband ought to be the agent to empower his wife to grow in the gifts that God has given her and empower her to use them as much as she can for His glory.  This definition fits with the way Jesus described himself when he was among the disciples.  He never insisted on top-down authority.  He said that he came as a servant and to serve, not as master who would lord his authority over them.

Paul refers to the husband in this way because husbands were the ones holding the positions of power.  Remember, the husband was the pater familias; he had the power over his wife’s life and death.  There was already a top-down authority in that culture and in that time, so there was no reason for Paul to reiterate to wives to submit as usual.  That would be redundant.

The instruction for wives to submit as the church submits to Christ was new because, by law, wives had to submit to their husbands, but more often than not, they did not submit graciously, lovingly or happily.  Paul’s instruction is not as much a matter of what to do as much as in what manner**. And the manner ought to be “as the church” joyfully “submits to Christ”.  This is the point — this is how wives are to “be filled with the Spirit” toward their husbands.  Rather than grumbling or manipulating in the midst of submission, yield joyfully.

Furthermore, by using this metaphor, he was inferring that husbands are to treat their wives differently than what the culture dictated.  As her kephale, he was to empower her to grow and flourish instead of shutting her down and relegating her to the back of the house.  This was revolutionary for their time — and continues to be important for ours.

*Kroeger, Catherine Clark.  “Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of ‘Head’,” Priscilla Papers, Vol. 20, No. 3.  Summer 2006.

** Gundry, Patricia.  Woman Be Free. Grand Rapids:  Suitcase Books, 1988.

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