Implementing the Bible’s statements on male headship in marriage has proven to be a great challenge to Christian people over the centuries. There is no question that the concept has been warped, distorted and abused to the advantage of males. We know that evil has warped everything within God’s creation and every aspect of His revelation of Himself and truth to humanity. So the distortions of this idea should not cause us to jettison it. The perversion of the truth, rather than causing the easy pendulum swing reaction, should cause us to carefully study, examine, and test it in order to discern truth from error.
The statements about the husband’s headship in marriage are present throughout Scripture in words addressed to fallen people in a fallen world. It must be possible to rightly implement them in a way that marginalizes no one. As people of the Scripture we feel the responsibility to reckon with these statements and come to an understanding of what God desires in our homes.
The term and concept of male headship comes from verses like this one in Ephesians 5:22-24.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Our essential task is to understand verses like these and their implications in 21st century American Culture.
UNDERSTAND HOW THE WORD "HEAD" WAS USED IN SCRIPTURE
It is best to separate ourselves from what the idea of male headship has evolved into and try to begin with the basic meaning of the word “head” as it appears in verses like the one above. Altogether the word “head” appears 77 times in the New Testament. In the overwhelming majority of these verses it refers to the physical head as a part of the human body.
This plain-literal usage seems straight-forward enough. But before moving on to the metaphors that involve the word head, we must pause over this plain-literal usage momentarily. It is essential to remember how the original speakers and hearers viewed the head in terms of its role in the human body. They did not understand the head and the brain as we do today, as the seat of all thought and emotion. For example they thought of the emotions as emanating from the midriff. This understanding is reflected in the words of the Bible. And from outside the sphere of the writers of Scripture, Aristotle thought the heart, not the brain, was the location of intelligence and thought. People of the day would have seen the head as that part of the body that hosted certain physical senses and verbal powers. They knew well that if the head was severed life was lost. So our understanding of the brain as being the source of all movement and function of the body was unknown to them.
It is to readers with this mindset that the term “head” is used metaphorically in the New Testament. The most well-known instance of this is when Christ is referred to as the “head” of the Church. The community of believers are represented in this imagery by the rest of the body. To align this with their understanding of the human body they would have understood first and foremost that Christ was essential to the experience of spiritual life. If the body was severed from Him, spiritual life was lost. They would also have seen Christ as providing the hearing and seeing of things Divine. They would have understood His words as a revelation of those things. So in naming Christ as the head, there is the unmistakable idea that He is the source of spiritual life and godly direction. He is to the Church the authoritative voice.
Another metaphorical usage in the New Testament of the word head is found in the term “head of the corner” (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11: 1 Peter 2:7, all of which refer to Isaiah 28:16). The picture in these passages is of a stone set in a place in such a way that determines the orientation and location of the rest of the stones in the building. Thus it determines the orientation of the building itself. So here the idea of head is that from which comes the appropriate ordering of the rest. There is again the inherent idea of a source of direction and order.
At another point head is used metaphorically to describe Christ’s relationship to other authority figures. He is said to be the head of all principality and power.
…and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. — Colossians 2:10
This is a way of saying that these powers exist only by his word or permission. He is the source of their authority.
A metaphorical usage outside of Scripture is insightful and harmonizes with these. The word “head” is used to refer to the source of a river, what we would call “its headwaters.” So the word in that case has the same general idea—that which provides the beginning to something that then grows as it progresses along on its course.
And so if we look at all these usages the common theme is that a “head” is the source by which a certain reality is shaped. That reality may be an act of the body, a building, a ministry of a church, or a political regime on the earth. In any of these cases the “head” is that by which something is initiated and that by which it gains its shape. Headship can be initially defined then as a source of influence, placed so as to shape some visible reality.