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Talking Heads 1: Cornerstone

The Cornerstone…

When I wrote Women and Worship I was still undecided about exactly what I thought Paul meant by kephale or ‘head’ in 1 Cor 11:3, so I left it a bit open, explaining what I was sure it didn’t mean (with thanks to Chrysostom), and tentatively suggesting a few ideas.

Since then, I’ve often gone back to this idea, not particularly reading a lot more, but just thinking and looking again at the Scriptures, and talking things over with my lovely husband, who is as interested in this topic as I am and willing to talk at any time of the day or night! He was already talking to me about the importance of Ephesians and then I came across Katharine Bushnell, who tackles this issue, and when I read her insights I found that she said something which just pushed my thinking a last notch, and I finally feel more ready to have a stab at what I think Paul meant.

In this post, I’ll look at Paul’s use of ‘head’ in Ephesians, and then in the next one, see what light this might shed on his use of the same term in 1 Corinthians, and how studying Ephesians in more detail has now shaped my thinking for 1 Cor.

I won’t go through all the possible meanings of kephale. You can easily look those up. What I’m more interested in is, out of all the possible meanings, what Paul means by using this term in relation to Christ and the church and husband and wife in Ephesians and then whether we can draw any parallels with his use of the same term in relation to God/Christ, Christ/man, or Christ/husband and man/woman or husband/wife, and in 1 Corinthians.

Here are my conclusions in brief regarding the Ephesians use, and then I’ll tell you how I got there…

When Paul describes a Christian husband as the ‘head’ of his wife, in the same way that Christ is the ‘head’ of the church, I think he is attempting a number of things.

  1. In a culture where wives were often regarded as both chattels and easily expendable, he wishes to redefine a husband’s understanding of his responsibilities towards his wife in the following way: a Christian husband is fully committed for life, sexually faithful, monogamous, self-sacrificial, and endlessly loving.
  2. In a culture where women and girls were largely uneducated or invested in in any way, and where men would have held all the power and education, he wishes to give Christian husbands the task of building up their wives into spiritual maturity, nourishing and nurturing them as ones who are equal heirs of the riches of grace poured out on them by Christ.
  3. The best concept to use when attempting to find an idea that applies both to Christ and the church and to husbands and wives (which I think is also transferable to the God/Christ and Christ/husband pairings) is the idea of the ‘cornerstone’ or ‘foundation’ upon which a structure is built up, and through which all things hold together.

It is not really possible to ignore the connotations of ‘lordship’ or ‘preeminence’ associated with the term kephale. I’m sure this is what lies behind the assumption that Paul expected Christian husbands to exercise some kind of ‘authority’ over their wives. However, just because a term may mean something, it doesn’t mean that it has to in a certain context, especially if another possible definition of the word will do better. Moreover, the overtones of ‘lordship’ and ‘preeminence’ do not, of necessity, connote ‘authority’. I would suggest that the weight of the evidence from the rest of Paul’s thinking is that he had no such connotation in mind in relation to husbands and wives. Why do I think that?

Starting with Christology

Rather than beginning with an array of definitions, let’s begin by looking at what ‘head’ means in relation to Christ.

When Jesus is described as the ‘head’ in the Gospels, it is in the context of the ‘head stone’ or the head stone of the ‘corner’, referring to a quotation from Ps 118:22. (See Matt 21:42; Lk 20:17; Mark 12:10) ‘The stone which the builders had rejected has become the head stone of the corner.’ This then, should be a key concept.


A headstone or cornerstone, is usually of immense size and holds a whole building together. It acts as a foundation, and one upon which all the other stones will be set. All the other stones in the building are set in reference to this one stone, and thus it determines the position of the entire structure.

Now let’s skip to Ephesians where Paul employs this concept in relation to Christ and the church to see what he does with it there, because what we find is a pretty direct application of ‘head’ in this sense.

Christ as the ‘head’ of the church is the one in whom all things hold together, and through whom all the saints are being built up and raised up to become a holy temple and dwelling place for God. To have Christ as our ‘head’ is the route to the bestowal and sharing of his glory and his boundless riches and power that become our inheritance in him. He alone is the foundation and in him and through the Spirit, the structure is built. (See Eph 1:10; 2:19-22; 4:15)

[There is some question about Paul’s use of a term anakephalaiomai in Eph 1:10 as to whether the root of this word is kephale (head) or kephalaion meaning more like ‘the sum of all things’, but it seems to me that both meanings are pertinent here in terms of how Paul views Christ’s role and position. In other words, I’m not sure it makes that much difference. If we go with the ‘summing up of all things’ in whom all things come together in harmony and unity, this also works nicely with the idea of cornerstone.]

Christ is the organizing centre, he knits the whole structure together, he ensures all the parts work in harmony and unity, and through being connected to him, the church is raised up to share in his glory and to reign with him—here is the church, founded upon him, indissolubly united with him, and seated with him in the heavenly realms.

There is no doubt from Ephesians that in Paul’s mind submission to Christ is the route to the pouring out of love, grace, riches, power, and untold blessing from God. Moreover, crucially, the mystery that has been revealed to him is that God is not just God of the Jews, but also of the Gentiles and that they have an equal and unqualified share in the riches of his grace. (Eph 3:1-6) In Christ, we become one. Having Christ as the ‘head’ in whom we are the body breaks down all the dividing walls of hostility causing all peoples to become ‘one new man’ in him, who then grow up in him to maturity.

This concept of Christ as ‘head’ can be found elsewhere in Paul’s letters, but let’s stick with Ephesians for now as that is where he draws the parallel with Christian husbands.

How does this relate to Christian husbands and wives?

It is rather fascinating to me that Eph 5:21-33 has been the focus of so much attention to endorse the idea that a wife should ‘submit’ to the ‘authority’ of her husband, and then taken further to mean that he should be the ultimate authority on all things. I do not see that in the text.

Paul first calls all Christians to submit or to be subject to one another, out of fear or reverence for Christ. (v.21) He then goes on to address married women, enjoining them to be ‘to their husbands are they are to the Lord’. (v.22) The context is clearly submission as he goes on to spell out. The idea of telling a first century wife to submit to her husband strikes me as similar to telling a modern day teenager to use a smartphone. I’m not sure that first century wives would really have contemplated any other option, so here there is nothing new. The innovation here is the community of faith where all submit to one another (bearing in mind that the community would also have been made up of slaves and masters) and the parallel that he draws between Christ’s relation to the church, and the husband’s relation to the wife. Interestingly, the one function in relation to Christ that he chooses to emphasize is not ‘authority’ but ‘salvation’. He is the Saviour of the body. (v.23) I will come to this in relation to husbands.

What he describes in these verses is that if the wives that he is addressing have a God-fearing, Christian husband who has submitted himself to Christ, and therefore understands that the Christian life is one of submission to ‘one another’ (which presumably includes his wife), then the wife also submits herself to him. The new thing for his hearers here would be the idea that a husband would be in submission to Christ and others.

In terms of Paul’s own context then, it would seem that the wife’s role has not really been redefined in any radical sense. What has been redrawn is the husband’s role and identity, and this most certainly in a radical way.

How does Paul see the responsibility of the husband?

I would suggest that what Paul spells out here in vv.25-33 in relation to the husband as ‘head’ is predicated on the concept of ‘head’ as cornerstone that runs through the whole of this letter.

First, the Christian husband is called into a startlingly new way of relating to his wife, which involves laying down his own life for her sake, in order to contribute to her sanctification and maturity in Christ. In a world where there was radical inequality between men and women, and an accepted norm of treating women as one’s property, this sounds extremely unusual.

Second, Paul describes a role for the Christian husband as one who nourishes, nurtures, and cherishes, but I think, specifically with a view to empowering and bringing to maturity. In other words, I don’t think that his view of the man’s role was infantilizing or patronizing, but precisely the opposite.

The reason that I think this is first because this is the role he has been focusing on in relation to Christ and the church—the pouring out of abundant love and the riches of his grace to elevate and raise up the church to its God-given status.

Second, the verbs that he uses for the husband have this meaning. The first word that he uses is ektrepho meaning ‘to nourish’ and ‘nurture’, but also ‘to bring to maturity’, ‘to rear’, ‘to raise’, and ‘to train up’. This is important. In a world of disempowered women and wives, the husband’s role is to raise and train them up.

The second word he uses, thalpo has similar, but very much more tender overtones. It is nourish and cherish in the sense of keeping someone warm, or warming them up. It’s a beautiful concept. It becomes even more beautiful when you realize that it’s the word that Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians to remind the church that Paul and his fellow ministers were gentle among them, like a nursing mother ‘cherishing’ (thalpo) her children.

I don’t think this is a description of a husband whose primary role is to have ‘authority’ over his wife.

A marriage of equals

I have become very sure that Paul was radically redefining the role of the man in a Christian marriage in order to restore dignity, status, and protection to the woman in a harsh and unequal world. I would suggest that this rests on the mystery that was revealed to him regarding the Jews and the Gentiles, which in Galatians he also applies also to male and female, and slave and free.

Enormously significantly he cites from Genesis 2:24 in Ephesians 5, a verse that Jesus also cites in Matthew 19:4-6 when questioned over the treatment of wives.

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

So what he’s saying to the men is a) it’s not all on yours and your family’s terms and b) you can’t just dump her. This was what God had intended all along, but men had re-written the rules of marriage to suit their selfish ends. Jesus, and then Paul, were both calling the church back to God’s original plan.

Husbands are called into a ‘one flesh’ union with their wives where they must love their wives as they love their own bodies. Christian men have wives that are members with them of one body in which Christ is the ‘head’ of all. In a context where authority, ownership, hierarchy, and a severe imbalance of power is the norm, Paul is redefining the role of the Christian husband in relation to his wife, and enjoining him to take seriously the responsibility that he has to nurture, cherish, protect, and empower her in the faith. A Christian marriage was intended to be a position for women of ultimate security and dignity.

If the husband is the ‘head’ in an analogous sense to Christ as the head, he is the one who lays down his life in order to raise his wife up. He behaves to her as Christ behaves to her as the one who confers love, loyalty, dignity, status, honour, and power; he is the lifter of her head.

A woman, finding herself married to a Christian man in one of Paul’s churches, like a Gentile, or a slave, should have had the disorientating experience of being treated as an equal. Not only this, but unlike many of the pagan husbands around them, she would find that her husband had committed himself to be faithful, binding himself to her for life, loving her as he loves his own body, recognising her gifts and potential as a co-heir of the grace of life, and working to see all of that fulfilled in an analogous fashion to the manner in which we are nurtured and empowered by Christ, who above all, is our Saviour.

In the next post, I’ll look at this term in 1 Corinthians and discuss what we might understand by any connotations of ‘lordship’ and ‘pre-eminence’, and how that might relate to men and women.

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