Ephesians 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.

I’m currently reading Jim and Sarah Sumner’s Just How Married Do You Want to Be. It is without a doubt the best book on marriage that I’ve come across. For this post, I’m going to relate their understanding of the apostle Paul’s head-body metaphor.

For some reason the word head carries a loaded meaning when people read the Bible. Normally head means “the thing on your shoulders.” But when people come to the Bible they hear “authority” or “source.” The word is used around 80 times in the New Testament, and, as far as I can tell, it always means “the thing on your shoulders.” It’s true that it is used metaphorically several times, but in those cases the complement is the body, clearly showing that even when used metaphorically head means “the thing on your shoulders.” There is one possible exception to this understanding – Colossians 2:10 says, “Christ is the head of all rule and authority.” The ESV Study Bible states that this clearly means “authority over.” However, given that the word always means “the thing on your shoulders” everywhere else, isn’t it better to assume Paul is referring to a metaphysical relationship we simply aren’t aware of? [7/10/12 I’ve thought a little more about the Colossians passage. It does seem unlikely that Christ is the head and the rulers and authorities are his body. Therefore, on second thought the ESV Study Bible is probably right. However, this is still the only passage in the NT that uses head to mean authority over, and the rest of the post holds as the head/body metaphor is used with husband and wife.]

As Christ is the head and the church is the body, likewise the husband is the head and the wife is the body. This explains why divorce is seen as such a serious thing in the Bible. To use Sumner’s words “it is a decapitation.” It also explains why Christians oppose gay marriage. If marriage is the joining of two people as one flesh, with the male as the head and the female as the body, you get weird distortions in the relationship if the flesh is two heads without a body or two bodies without a head.

What exactly is the marriage relationship then? In the case of a husband and wife, it means that they are joined together into one flesh in some real manner. The husband is the head of this one flesh and the wife is the body. The husband is to sacrifice himself for his wife and love her. And the wife is to submit to and respect her husband. Typically when people talk about this passage they only mention that the wife is to submit. And they often take “sacrifice himself” to mean protect her in case of physical attack (which will probably never happen anyway). In truth, the husband is to daily lay down his life for his wife, not seeking to fulfill his own desires but doing what will benefit his wife. And he is to love her. Not just be pleasant to her, but love her.

This brings me to the title of this post. With the above understanding, the idea of the man being the head of the house is just wacky. Picture a head perched on top of a roof. Or picture a head with several bodies, the wife and kids, dangling from it. Neither is a pleasant image.