Sunday, March 16, 2014

What Did Paul Mean When He Wrote "The Head of a Wife is Her Husband"?

We all use metaphors to abbreviate communication, or to make it more interesting or meaningful.  For example, if my friend asks me if I am going to the meeting this afternoon, and I respond, "no, I'm going to save my bullets for the game tonight", he'll know right away that I'm going to miss the afternoon meeting so I can save my energy for more exertion later.  My answer has nothing to do with storing up ammunition for the game.  That's a metaphor: we say or write something, but use it to refer to something else.

Metaphors are common in languages other than our own, and they have a long history around the world.  Biblical writing is sometimes metaphoric.  How Biblical metaphors are interpreted makes a LOT of difference in the meaning of the passage.

Here, for example, is 1 Corinthians 11:3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.  How are we to interpret the word "head" in this passage?

Clearly, Paul (author of this letter to the Corinthian church) is not talking about a literal head with hair, a mouth, ears, eyes, nose and teeth.  That makes no sense.  Therefore, he must be using the word head as a metaphor.  So, what is the metaphoric meaning of "head" in this case?

Meanings of words and metaphors change over time. Before we assume that today's use of "head" as a metaphor is correct, we need to understand what Paul meant with his metaphor, and what his original audience would have understood him to be communicating to them. More on this in a minute.

In 21st century English usage, the obvious interpretation of Paul's metaphor is "leader."  We use it all the time.  For example, if I write,  "Sue is the head of the purchasing department" it is clear to us that Sue is the leader of that department.

That is our understanding today, and it is easy to project our understanding of that metaphor onto Paul's words.  I know I have.  It is easy to assume that he meant something like this: ".....the leader of every man is Christ, the leader of a wife is her husband, and the leader of Christ is God."  And from that interpretation of "head" as "leader," we might chart our interpretation in a hierarchy something like this:

God is leader over
Christ, who is leader over
Man, who is leader over

But there is an interesting problem with at least the first half of this interpretation:  it is heresy!

Arius, an Egyptian Christian leader and theologian of the 4th century, had been teaching that Christ was subservient to God; a teaching that the Council of Nicea deemed heretical in AD 325.  Since then, the Church has taught that the three persons of the Trinity are co-equal, and that any other teaching is dangerously wrong.

If the hierarchical interpretation of "the leader of Christ is God" is probably not what Paul intended, then what about the rest of the passage?  Note that the same Greek word, "kephale", is used throughout this verse.

Here's where understanding what the metaphor meant to Paul and the original readers in the church at Corinth will help.  We can't ask them, so anything we come up with will be informed speculation at best.  Nevertheless, there are clues.

Some commentators (examples appended below) write that a common understanding of the metaphoric usage of the word "head" to 1st century Greeks was "source".  Actually, we still use that meaning today; for example, the headwaters of the Sacramento River are the source of that river.

Perhaps what Paul was telling the Corinthians -- and us today -- is this: ....the source of every man is Christ, and the source of woman is man, and the source of Christ is the Godhead.  (Suggested by Phillip B Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ).  That perspective might make our chart look like this now:

The Godhead is the source of 
Christ, who is the source of
Man, who is the source of 
(God took Eve from Adam's side)

If that is a more accurate interpretation of Paul's metaphor, it opens the door to a different view of the order of men and women in the Kingdom than perhaps most of us have understood.  

Maybe Paul wasn't commenting at all on who should lead in a marriage.

Thanks to Rich Schmidt for showing us this for the first time.

See, for examples:

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