There are few passages in Paul’s letters more debated than those in which he uses the term for “head.” As in these:

1Cor. 11:3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

Eph. 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.

Alongside these, however, is the expression of “submission.” Many tie these terms – head, submission – together to create the construct called “complementarianism,” which has to do then with authority over and thus with hierarchy as well. The argument in this debate is about whether or not the husband and the man has authority over the wife or the women in the church. There is rarely the discussion of how they two complement one another without this issue of authority raising its hand for some attention.

William Witt, in Icons of Christ, sketches an egalitarian and revolutionary subordination view of these terms. Then he responds to questions asked by complementarians, which I will leave for you to read.

Witt relies on and anchors his discussion in Michael Gorman’s well-known approach to Paul’s theology of the Christian life: with cruciformity. By this is meant that the life of Christ maps onto the Christian’s life: obedience, love, grace, self-giving, voluntary self-humbling, paradoxical power and wisdom. The model for the life is Christ’s life, which means Philippians 2:6-11

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Witt does not ask this question but it is behind what he writes: If this is the paradigm for the Christian life what does marriage look like? What does the relationship of men and women in a church look like?

If this is the paradigm for the Christian life what does marriage look like? What does the relationship of men and women in a church look like?

I add this one: If this is the paradigm, why is there is so much talk about authority, about leadership, and about guiding? Isn’t the essence of the paradigm the giving of one’s life for the good of the other and not having authority over the other?

After detailing briefly five views (patriarchal, radical, love patriarchy, revolutionary subordination, egalitarian), Witt turns to the last two.

He begins with household codes, sketches the very authoritarian and hierarchical view of Aristotle and then turns to the household regulations in Paul’s letters. His sole emphasis is Ephesians 5 and there are differences with Colossians 3 that should shift some of his emphasis and points. Not a big deal, but something worth considering.

The key point for Witt is that Paul subverts the Aristotelian viewpoint. I think Witt here is mostly right. Paul addresses the subordinates first, not the superordinates. When addressing the males/husbands/superordinates, Paul challenges them not to act like their customary ways. Their power is diminished here. The gospel in each case subverts the former way of life and the paradigm for each person is the paradigm of Christ. Gorman’s got it right. That matters, and the callout above must be given fuller attention.

The revolutionary subordination view (yes, he uses John Howard Yoder here), as stated above, counters the customary way of life, emphasizes mutual reciprocity, the commands are not gender in general but husbands and wives and households, the order is all modified by the paradigm of Christ, and there is a trajectory toward equality (Witherington, Hays). The parallel with slavery is not handled on an even-handed basis by the complementarians, he observes.

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Egalitarian view. There are insertions in the ESV that are not in the Greek text, and he pushes hard the Eph 5:21 to Eph 5:22 transition: the wife’s so-called “submission” is an instance only of mutual submission, not something distinct to the wife or to women. What is said of the wife and the husband is also said of all the Christians if one compares language from Eph 5:18 through 5:33. Love of all, love of husband; submission of all, submission of wife.

The paradigm for submission is Christ and Christ’s action is not authority over here but salvation of. His model is then one of self-sacrificing love for the good of the others. Leadership is not mentioned.

On Headship, which seems never to gain consensus, Witt observes rightly that for complementarians this means authority over (Grudem, Piper). But notice this: in the Septuagint when the term rosh means leader or authority, it is translated with archon and not kephale. For Paul, “head” and “origin” are close in meaning (Col 1:18) and Eph 1:22 and 4:15 move in the direction of life-giving, source, and nourishment. In Eph 5:23 Christ is head in the sense that he is Savior, which fits with life-giving. And the passage does not focus on authority over or leading but on loving and self-sacrificing and giving and nourishing. Using terms like authority and leadership is to add what is not in the text.

Remember this: to read anything from Paul about anything about the Christian life, we must turn to the paradigm of Christ himself.