When people suck out verses 22-24 from Ephesians 5:21-33, they tend to concentrate on the “head” part. In isolation, we apply our American idiom of head to the passage and see things like “CEO” or “head of state” which both imply ruling. When you look at those verses with the full passage, it looks less like that and far more like Paul is using pretty oblique language to say what he’s saying. He says the relationship between husbands and wives is like the relationship between Christ and the Church and both are like the relationship between the head… and the body. Let’s look at the text again.
Ephesians 5:21-33 (NIV)
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.
23 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.
24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,
27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—
30 for we are members of his body.
31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”
32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
The first thing that jumps out at me here is that Paul talks far more about how the wife is like the husband’s own body and all the things that he is supposed to do to care for her, his body, than it does about how the husband is like the wife’s own head. In fact, Paul spends three verses talking directly to wives and seven speaking directly to husbands. Most of the commentaries I’ve read seem to argue about the meaning of “head,” which is used twice here, and whether or not it means “authority” or “source.” Paul isn’t using “head” here as a secondary metaphor for authority or for source. Paul isn’t comparing a husband to a head which symbolizes authority. Otherwise verses 25-30 would have to be comparing the wife to a body as a symbol for submission, which I’ve never heard anyone claim. He’s comparing a marriage to an actual head (the husband) that is an integral part of an equally necessary body (the wife). Paul says specifically in verses Eph. 5:23&29&32 that this comparison between man & wife and Christ & the church somehow relates to how a head & body operate.
What the holy hand grenades does that mean? When I think of my own head and body, I tend to think of them as rather inextricably connected. I’d prefer to keep my body in good working order, thank you. My heart, lungs, bladder, spine, legs? Yes, I’d like those to all remain properly functional. That would be nice. At the same time, my head seems equally necessary to my body. I need it for food stuffs and vision and speech and hearing. Rather important too.
How about thought? That’s pretty important and comes from the head, right? Isn’t Paul implying that husbands should be doing the thinky bits? Well… not really. While we now know that thinking comes from the brain, the anatomy information at the time was based on Aristotle who thought that the heart, not the head, controlled the mind. Paul adheres to this idea in several places like the ones below.
Rom. 1:21 …but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…
Rom. 2:15 …the law written in their hearts…
Rom. 10:9&10 …it is with your heart you believe…
I Cor. 2:9 …no heart has conceived God’s plans…
I Cor. 7:37 …he who has decided in his own hear…
Eph. 1:18 …may the eyes of your heart be enlightened to know…
Nowhere does he associate the mind with the head. So, he’s not talking about the husbands being the decision-makers either. All of this implies a profound unity since you can’t lop off the body without killing the head, and you can’t lop off the head without killing the body. That’s all grand when talking about a human body, but how does that work with Christ and the church? Surely Christ can survive without us (not so much in reverse though), right? Why would Paul use the body metaphor for Christ and the church? To answer this question, we need to look around and see if he uses body-related imagery in relation to Christ and the church anywhere else and see if it was more obvious what he was talking about there. Turns out, he does!
I Corinthians 12:15-27
15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.
16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.
17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?
18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
19 If they were all one part, where would the body be?
20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”
22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,
23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty,
24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,
25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
Did you catch that? We are Christ’s body. We are his hands and feet. We are one with and in Christ. While the subheadings in your Bible usually tag the Ephesians passage as being about submission in marriage, they almost always tag this section in I Corinthians as being about unity even though it shares very similar language.
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function,
5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith;
7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach;
8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
I couldn’t even figure out what to highlight on this passage without ending up highlighting the entire thing. First, verses 4 and 5 reiterate again that we form one body in Christ just like each component of our personal body combines to form one being. Same thought as the head & body idea in Ephesians 5. Second, verse 3 specifically speaks against hierarchical thinking. Then verses 6-8 go through multiple giftings that God blesses members of the body with – prophesy, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, showing mercy – and tells each member to do these things as grace is given to us.
Paul gives no indication that these giftings are given on any sort of gender or marital role basis. Nothing about wives can’t teach their husbands or women can’t lead or men shouldn’t encourage women or husbands can’t serve their wives. (Don’t get all excited; I’m sure some of those specifics will come up when I finally get around to writing about Timothy). The overriding impression from this passage is unity of the body of Christ with Christ, and language follows the same body-metaphor language as the Ephesians 5 passage.
And now, a really long one. Sorry.
8 See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.
9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
10 and you have come to fullness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.
11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ;
12 and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
13 And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,
14 having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
15 He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.
16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath.
17 These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,
19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
This passage seems even stronger than the last one. Here Paul says in verse 10 that we have come to fullness of life in Him with the strong implication that since He is the head of all rule and authority, we are joint heirs in this since we are part of him. Verse 11 makes us the heirs of his circumcision. Verse 12 buries us in baptism and raises us from the dead because we are one with Christ and He was raised from the dead. Verse 13 reiterates points out a second time that we are alive and forgiven because we are one with Christ, and He lives. Then verse 19 wraps up that we are Christ’s body and what happens when that bond between head and body begins to dissolve.
Again, this entire passage is a picture of our unity with Christ. Does Christ rule the church? Of course. But is that the aspect of the church’s relationship with Christ that Paul is trying to get across here through use of the head/body metaphor? It would seem not. One last point for now, and that is that this idea is reflected even in communion:
I Corinthians 10:16,17
16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?
17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
We are one body with Christ, and this is reflected in both of the sacraments we do in church today: baptism in Colossians 2:12 and communion in I Corinthians 10:16&17. When we see head/body language in relation to Christ and the church, what we are supposed to be reminded of and think of is oneness to the point where we are joined together as a unified whole. How does that work? Doesn’t that seem kind of mysterious? Oddly, going back to the Ephesians 5 passage, Paul even refers to exactly the same thing in Ephesians 5:32. What could he be talking about? Conveniently, he tells us elsewhere exactly what that mystery of Christ and the church is, and that will be the subject of the next post.