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Here in Australia, we’ve been discussing the connection between “male headship” and domestic violence. This discussion has been spearheaded by journalist Julia Baird. There have been articles and blog posts on websites, plus reports, panel discussions and interviews on television. My favourite part of this discussion so far has been last night’s episode on ABC’s The Drum (episode 125/2017).  (The video can be viewed on Facebook here.)

During this episode, Kara Hartley (Anglican Archdeacon of Women in the Sydney Diocese) described what is to her a “beautiful picture” of male headship and wifely submission. Her words seem to indicate that she believes husbands have a greater responsibility for the care and protection of their wives than wives have towards their husbands, and that submission is only required from wives. But is this really the case? Is there a better picture that more fully conveys New Testament principles for men and women who are in Christ?

Wives also care and protect

The Bible gives us many examples of women and wives who cared for and protected others, including their husbands. Some wives even risked their lives for the sake of their husbands.

~ To save Abraham’s life, Sarah hid the fact that she was his wife and pretended to be his sister. She continued the ruse and even became a “wife” of a foreign king, twice, for Abraham’s sake! (Gen. 12:10-20: 20:1-18).

~ Zipporah quick action saved her husband Moses when God wanted to kill him. In fact, the Bible records that six women rescued or protected Moses at various times in his life (Exod. 4:24-26).

~ Michal protected her husband David when her lunatic father Saul was intent on killing him (1 Sam. 19:11ff).

~ Abigail protected the welfare of her entire household, including her husband, by taking matters into her own hands and making peace with an incensed David and four hundred men ready for revenge (2 Sam. 25:2ff).

There are many Bible stories that show that women protected and courageously helped others. They cared for and protected men and women, even cities and nations. Gender was not an issue.

Surely, we all have a responsibility for the welfare of others, especially those in our own families, according to needs and our abilities to meet those needs. The Bible simply never states that husbands, or men in general, have a greater responsibility for the care and protection of wives and women. Nevertheless, this is how many people have understood Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5:22-33.

“Head” as “source” in Ephesians 5

In Ephesians 5:22-33, I read that husbands are urged to give up the privileged status and authority (which society offered many men in the first-century world) in how they relate to their wives. Instead of asserting their authority, they are asked to follow Jesus’ example and give themselves up for their wives and love them sacrificially.[1]

The word “head,” which occurs in Ephesians 5:23, has been traditionally interpreted as meaning “leader” or “authority.” Is leadership a valid context for Paul’s statement, “the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church, his body . . .”?

Many wives were dependent on their husbands for their livelihood and well-being in the ancient world. It could be that Paul used the Greek word for “head” in this context. Biblical scholar Cynthia Westfall writes, “The meaning of head as the source of life is consistent with the culture’s understanding of husband as the wife’s patron . . .”[2] Similarly, Christ is the source of life of the church, his body.

Westfall continues, “. . . but [head] is not a stock metaphor for authority in Greek.”[3] The word for “head” in ancient Greek (kephalē) does not have exactly the same range of meanings as the English word for “head.” Kephalē rarely, if ever, meant “authority” or “leader” in texts originally written in Greek before or during the first century.

“Head” as part of a “head-body” metaphor in Ephesians 5

Another way of understanding “head” in Ephesians 5 is to recognise that it is part of a head-body metaphor signifying unity.[4] Unity between husband and wife, between head and body, is a theme in Ephesians 5 (Eph. 5:28-31).[5] The wife submits (acquiesces and cooperates) to promote this unity, and the husband gives himself up and loves his wife sacrificially to promote this unity.

Women, generally speaking, had less autonomy than men in those days, and their contribution sounds rather passive, but this doesn’t mean that wives need to be passive in promoting unity in their marriages today. Furthermore, there are enough biblical examples that serve as precedents and demonstrate that no one, wives included, should submit to, or cooperate with, foolish or dangerous behaviour.

Importantly though, submission isn’t just for wives. The Ephesians’ passage about husbands and wives is prefaced with a call for mutual submission (Eph. 5:21). And Christ-like, sacrificial love isn’t just for husbands. Chapter five of Ephesians opens with a general exhortation for all Christians to follow Jesus’ example and to love like Jesus loved. A submissive attitude and loving behaviour, where each person prefers and honours the other, should be character traits of all Christians, regardless of gender or marital status.

Submission Today

In western societies, such as in Australia—where both women and men have access to education and have similar employment opportunities—many women are no longer dependent on men for their livelihood in the same way ancient women were. A husband is no longer a wife’s only or primary source of support. Moreover, education, employment and increased freedoms have enabled women to participate more fully in society and contribute more to their families. But unity remains the goal for married couples.

Where husband and wife are both competent people, the paradigm that the husband is always the one with authority, and the wife is always the one who is submissive, simply isn’t effective. Instead, all of us, according to our gifts, abilities, resources and situation, rather than according to our sex, are to serve and care for each other. This mutual service and interdependence is the New Testament ideal and is a more beautiful picture of relationships in Christ (1 Cor. 11:11-12).

On yesterday’s The Drum, Philip Freier, the Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia, gave this off the cuff remark concerning male headship:

I don’t find that there is an essential reading of the Bible that teaches me that I must believe in the headship of men. I read the Bible and I see that it talks more about the mutuality of people and their love towards each other. And that God created men and women equally, and both men and women are created in the image and likeness of God. And that men and women can have equal participation in the leadership of the church.

When I read the Bible, I see the same things.


[1] This sounds like “submission” language, though words for “submission’ are not used in instructions to husbands here.

[2] Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 165.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The metaphor of “source” is not mutually exclusive to the head-body metaphor. Both may apply in Ephesians 5.

[5] A man who loves his wife as himself, as per Ephesians 5:28, treats his wife as his equal partner (cf. Matt. 7:12; Luke 6:31). Equality is conducive to true unity.

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