The sermon topic was marriage, with the text being Ephesians 5:21-33. The sermon notes inserted in the bulletin showed where the sermon was headed and I toyed with the idea of suggesting we leave before the sermon started. I’m glad we stayed.
It’s not that the sermon correctly presented the passage. The exegesis started off on the wrong foot and never adjusted for the fundamental error. The reason I’m glad I stayed is it gave me a full view of the danger of starting off with a wrong understanding and how everything after that gets further and further from God’s truth.
The problem began with a fundamental misreading of one of the opening verses:
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.)
Without any explanation the pastor said that “head” means “leader,” an assertion he expected the congregation to assume was correct. As he went on it became clear that this false assumption about the meaning of the word “head” was heading us all in the wrong direction.
A Metaphorical Head
In English the word “head” can symbolize leadership, of course, as in “Head of the committee.” It can also refer to intelligence, as in “She has a good head on her shoulders.” Another way to use it is in the sense of origin, as in “Headwaters of a river.” Most people know that in order to determine whether “head” is used literally for the body part atop your shoulders or in one of its many figurative ways the reader must look at the context in which the word is used.
In the New Testament Greek of Ephesians 5 the word translated “head” is kephalé. Whether ancient Greek speakers would have used kephalé as a metaphor for thought, origin or leader – or some other figure of speech entirely – depends on ancient Greeks, not on how we use the word “head” in modern English.
In Koine Greek, the Greek of the New Testament, the word kephalē (head) also has metaphorical meanings; however “leader” or “chief person” is usually not one of them.
The concept of kephalē carries the connotations of kinship, association, and connection. A head is nothing without a body, and vice versa. Moreover, the head and body have an affinity and are part of the same unit. (The Metaphorical Meanings of “Head” in Paul’s Letters: Part One.)
Every language has its own metaphors and idioms, and it turns out “leader” is not a correct reading of the word kephalē in Ephesians 5. To see the word “leader” whenever reading the word “head” in an English language New Testament – as the preacher did in the sermon I heard – is not just a misunderstanding. It is a rewriting of the sacred text of Scripture.
Keep in mind too that a correct understanding of “head” in Ephesians 5 isn’t a matter of two people reading the Bible’s words and having a different take on how they apply to people. This is about knowing what the Bible’s words are in the first place. Failing to understand those words leads to failing to understand God’s word itself.
If one wrongly reads “head” as “leader,” the rest of the passage is then misread as a leader-follower set of instructions. If one instead correctly reads “head” as pertaining to being joined inseparably with the body, the passage has a completely different meaning.
So what is the meaning of Ephesians 5 if “head” means joined together? It is about the wife and husband being joined inseparably, just as Jesus is joined to the church, and just as a head is to the body. The understanding is supported by the fact that the church truly is the body of Christ.
Paul the Radical Preacher
In a radical departure from the Greco-Roman culture of the time Paul told husbands to love their wives because they are joined inseparably one with the other, just as Christ is joined inseparably with and loves the church.
This concept of men and women being inseparably joined in marriage goes back to the time of Creation:
The man said, “This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2:23-24.)
Paul used this concept from the roots of Jewish faith, thought and culture to tell the Ephesians that their way of doing things – the predominantly Greek and Roman cultural understanding of husbands being masters who ruled their wives as chattel – was wrong. Husbands were not to rule over their wives as Greek culture and Roman law said they should.
Paul’s instructions instead told them their ideas of marriage were completely wrong. Husbands were to look on their wives the way they looked on themselves, as inseparable parts of themselves, and they were to love and care for their wives the way they love and care for themselves. This radical notion is not only traceable to Genesis but also to the relationship Jesus has with his people under the New Covenant, as Paul made explicit in this same passage:
After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church … . (Ephesians 5:29.)
If you read “head” as “leader” in verse 23, then verse 29 seems oddly out of context except perhaps as leaders are responsible for feeding and caring for subordinates. But there would be no need to mention being joined together (and no need to mention love, for that matter) in the earlier verses; leaders have been responsible for their subordinate long before Christianity came along.
But since “head” means joined together inseparably, the verse fits the context quite well. Husbands were told not to look on their wives as chattel, but as persons to love. Husbands are joined to wives just as Jesus and the church are joined, and since Jesus loves his church then husbands are to love their wives. It was completely radical to people in a place like ancient Ephesus, and continues to sound radical in some modern cultures and subcultures as well.
But it’s the way Christians are to live.
Husbands as leaders? That is less than God’s calling for marriage. Wives and husbands joined in the same love known by Jesus and the church? This is marriage that is truly biblical.