Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Show Stoppers – Kephale: Benevolent Monarchy or Mutual Dependency in Paul’s Head/Body Metaphors.

The third show stopper in the gender relations debate is not so much a verse or passage but a concept. In six places in the New Testament epistles[1], Paul employs a head/body metaphor to discuss relationships. The key element in these head/body verses and passages is the Greek word “kephale” which is literally translated as the English word “head”. That word is defined and interpreted in virtually opposite ways by the two sides of the debate and therefore creates a show stopper to any further discussion. So, we now turn our attention to kephale and its definition and usage in Pauline metaphor.

Before we look at the usage of kephale in the bible (and in Greek in general), we need to spend a little time looking at the word “head” in English. “Head” has many definitions in English. A quick review on dictionary.com showed 85 usages including noun, adjectival, and verb forms, and idioms. The definitions range from the anatomical head of an animal to the bathroom on a ship. In summary, “head” is a very versatile word in English.

One such usage is to designate a leader or authority. Phrases such as “head of state”, “head of the company”, and even “head of the household” convey this meaning[2]. Another usage designates the source or origin of something. That is the meaning when we say things like “the head of the river” or form compound words like “headwaters”. It is these two definitions which are most in view when discussing kephale. In fact, the ongoing debate between these definitions is at the forefront of discussion of the difficult text of 1 Corinthians 11. Fortunately, that is not one of our head/body metaphors, so we need not get into that maelstrom[3].

Within the metaphorical passages, the debate is not so much between “leader” and “source”, but between “leader” and “???”. Complementarians are steadfast in their assertion that kephale means leader whenever it is used in the New Testament to describe relations between people. Egalitarians, on the other hand, claim that kephale never, ever, even has the definition of “leader” in Greek. Both sides have their favorite lexicon which they say proves their point. I would like to suggest that, when it comes to the head/body metaphors, the focus on whether or not kephale means “leader” is completely misplaced.

What is lost in the whole debate is that the literary device being employed is a metaphor. So, what is a metaphor? How is it used? What do we need to know about metaphors to understand Paul’s intent?

A metaphor is a figure of speech concisely expressed by an implied analogy between two objects or ideas, conveyed by the use of a word instead of another.

…metaphor is in two parts: the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the subject to which attributes are ascribed. The vehicle is the subject whose attributes are borrowed.

A metaphor is more forceful (active) than an analogy, because metaphor asserts two things are the same.[4] (Emphasis mine.)

In the head/body metaphors in the bible, the tenors – Christ, Church, husband, wife, fellow Christians – are ascribed the attributes of the vehicles – the anatomical head and body. Therefore, in this usage, the definition of kephale/”head” in human relations is irrelevant! What is important is how the anatomical head and body relate to each other. Paul is saying that Christ/Church, Husband/Wife, and Christian to Christian relationships should follow the pattern of the anatomical body. Put simply – people should relate like the body relates. It is irrelevant how human relations generally operate because the relationship whose attributes are borrowed in the metaphor is the anatomical one. So, the only thing that is necessary to resolve the debate is to determine if the anatomical head is in authority over the anatomical body, or conversely, if head and body operate in some form of symbiosis.

Now, I could do a whole lot of research into Greek and Roman philosophy and ancient medical and psychological thought regarding anatomical relationships, but, fortunately, I don’t have to do that. Paul tells us within these passages exactly how he views the relationship between head and body.

But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing [gifts] to each one individually just as He wills. For even as the body is one and {yet} has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, "Because I am not a hand, I am not {a part} of the body," it is not for this reason any the less {a part} of the body. And if the ear says, "Because I am not an eye, I am not {a part} of the body," it is not for this reason any the less {a part} of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; or again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those {members} of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need {of it.} But God has {so} composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that {member} which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but {that} the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if {one} member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:11-27 NASB)

In Paul’s general use of the body metaphor (of which the head is a part), it is clear that all parts are equal, and even more important, that the head has no superior position and certainly no authority over any other part of the body. Relations in the church, even those between the body and its head, contain “no division”, sharing equally in both “suffer[ing]” and “honor”. Paul gets more specific when Christ is directly called “head”.

{There is} one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says, "WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN." (Now this {expression,} "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.) And He gave some {as} apostles, and some {as} prophets, and some {as} evangelists, and some {as} pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all {aspects} into Him who is the head, {even} Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:4-16 NASB [5])

Again, the body proper, which includes Jesus and us, grows in a mutually beneficial manner. There is no authority of any part over the other, including the head. All work in a equal way to create the unity that is the Body of Christ.

Now, this should not surprise us. We all know this to be true. In the anatomical context, neither head nor body can survive alone. Each supplies what the other needs and each works on behalf of the other for the growth of the whole. It is this symbiotic, anatomical paradigm that Paul is invoking and that must be superimposed over the human relationships that the metaphor addresses. No authority exists. In fact, hierarchy is not even remotely in view. It has no relevance in the anatomy of the human body.

I admit this is hard for many people to swallow. They can’t wrap their head around a context where Jesus isn’t in authority. But Paul specifically uses the anatomical body to demonstrate that in certain contexts, Jesus is an equal partner, just like your head and body are equal partners in the growth of the whole person. This Christ/Church arrangement is such a context.

It is no mistake that the other metaphor employed when the Christ/Church relationship is in view is marriage. In Ephesians 5, Paul quite explicitly extends the head/body metaphor to husbands and wives. Now, that doesn’t make the husband a Christ figure in the wife’s eyes. No one can fill that role but Christ himself. Never-the-less, husbands need to show the kind of sacrificial love that Christ shows the church. In turn, wives need to show the kind of humble submission and respect toward their husbands that everyone within the body is to show to one another and that we all are to show to Christ. This is how Christ and the church interact, and their “marriage” is the model for the rest of us. There is no hierarchy involved; to assume hierarchy exists is to either naively miss or purposely reject Paul’s pointed and purposeful use of the head/body metaphor.


1. The six verses/passages that have head/body metaphors: Ephesians 1:22-23, 4:4-16, 5:22-33, 1 Corinthians 12:4-27, Colossians 1:18-24, 2:7-19. In 1 Corinthians 12, head and body are spoken of in general terms of how they relate and in turn show how we should relate to each other. In the remaining passages, Specific people represent the head (Christ, husband) and body (the Church, wife).

2. Interestingly, the similarly constructed “head of the class” does not convey any authority or leadership, but instead indicates “prominence” or “honor”. In several places in the bible where Old Testament prophecy is quoted regarding Jesus being the “head” or “chief” cornerstone of the Church, the Greek and English share this meaning.

3. This is not to suggest that the “leader” vs. “source” issue doesn’t also need resolving. For interested readers, Susanna Krizo provides an appendix in her book “When Dogmas Die” with numerous quotes from early church fathers where they use kephale as “source” or “origin”. These are, of course, many of the same theologians and church leaders who promoted the authority and superiority of males. Hypocrisy knows no time boundaries.

4. Excerpted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphor.

5. This is repeated in abbreviated form in Colossians 2:19


  1. 谢谢您 Birgit

    (and thank you Google Translate)

  2. Hi Gengwell,

    Well written post. One question i feel you haven't commented on.

    If Jesus as the head has no authority in this sense that you have spoken about, why does Paul put the husband as the head of the wife? Or to put it another way, if the anatomical head represents no authority, why make the husabnd the head in correlation to Christ and the Church? Why not leave the husband as a body part the same as the wife. Is there any reason why you believe Paul would make this switch?


  3. I like the way you brought out that "In the anatomical context, neither head nor body can survive alone. Each supplies what the other needs and each works on behalf of the other for the growth of the whole. It is this symbiotic, anatomical paradigm that Paul is invoking and that must be superimposed over the human relationships that the metaphor addresses. No authority exists. In fact, hierarchy is not even remotely in view. It has no relevance in the anatomy of the human body."

    It is really a wonderful metaphor, since neither the head nor the body survive alone - sever them and the "marriage" dies. Using other body parts in metaphor wouldn't have been nearly so effective in showing the true intimacy of marriage. Say for instance he had used an eye and an ear...

  4. Mark - Paul uses the head/body metaphor forChrist and the church and then extends the metaphor to marriage. It isn't that married male humans are no longer part of the body when the body of Christ is being spoken of, it is that they are the Christ/head component when marriage is being spoken of. The opposite question could also be asked. If Christ is the head of His Body, the church, why does Paul put a member of that body in the position of head in 1 Corinthians 12:21?

    Of course, that isn't really the issue. The issue is whether or not the anatomical head has authority over the anatomical body, regardless of who is in which anatomical position. Paul could have extended the metaphor to other relationships where women would be the head part and it still would indicate mutually supportive relationship.