In my second year of university, I went to a huge Christian youth conference in the states. I had a room mate who was from a fundamentalist Christian family. One night we got talking about relationships and she told me, “of course, the man is the head of the household.” I was shocked that such a regressive idea could be held by an educated person. It really was a completely foreign idea to me. I had been raised in the church and had never heard a sermon about the “headship” of men. This was not part of my faith.
“That’s crazy,” I said, “no one needs to be ‘the head’ in a marriage. Marriage is a partnership.” My room mate insisted, saying that someone had to be “the boss” and make the decisions. I thought of my mom and dad and how they always made decisions together. I thought of how my mom had a “good head on her shoulders” and how my dad, clearly, always, valued her perspective and her ideas. “Well, wouldn’t two heads be better than one?!” I said. My room mate would have none of it.
That was the last time I really had to think about “headship” until I started working with Christian women impacted by abuse. Then I found that women were coming to me saying that their church leadership and their husbands were insisting that men were “the head of the house.” I thought I better look closely at the Bible and try to understand what was being said in the few places were this is mentioned. Many theologians have tackled this issue. This is just a brief summary of what I found.
In Ephesians 5:22 for example, it reads, For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour…”
This text draws a parallel between the “headship” of a husband, in relationship with his wife, and the relationship between Christ and the Church. Often this concept of headship is used to argue superiority and controlling authority over women. The assumption is made that “head” means “boss”. However, the Greek word for “head” is kephale, a word that is also used to describe the life source of a river. In scripture Christ models relationships which are life giving and empowering to the Church. Christ loved selflessly and this is the type of love relationship this passage teaches for marriage partners.
The reality for women, in ancient times, was that they were quite powerless. They lived an entirely patriarchal reality. If we interpret kephale as “life source”, men in ancient times were being encouraged to empower their wives to be built up in love and to be the people God intended them to be.
As Catherine Clark-Kroegar, a highly respected theologian wrote, “How illuminating to conceive of the husband as empowering the wife to build herself up in love so that she may grow into the person that God meant her to be.”