Jesus as Head of the Church

Lately I’ve been writing about the husband-wife relationship, setting the background for what it means for a man to be the “head” of his wife. An important factor to consider before discussing the specifics of a husband as head of his wife is what Paul meant when he said Jesus was the head of the church.

That’s what I want to look at today.

Let’s start with Ephesians 4. Paul is emphasizing the need for Christian unity[1] and maturity by reminding us that there is one body of Christ, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all. This holds true in spite of the fact that we have various gifts and functions within this body. Let’s pick it up in verse 11.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Eph. 4:11-16)

The only thing Paul states about Christ as head in Ephesians 4 is that our growth comes from him. We retain the responsibility to grow up, becoming mature in every way, but it is the head that ultimately is the source of that growth. The body’s ability to build itself up in love, coming as a result of each part doing its job, stems directly from its life source, the head. In context, the work of the head is to provide everything needed for growth, not to exercise authority the body.

A similar idea surfaces in Colossians 2. Paul warns the church in Colossae not to be led astray by their friends who have gone off the rails. What’s interesting is how Paul describes the process.

Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. (Col. 2:18-19)

When Paul discusses those who have veered from the truth he stresses that they have separated themselves from the head, the “true source of fullness.”[2] This is a very dangerous path to tread, considering that the church derives its life from Christ, its head.[3] Once again, in the context of Christ as head and church as body, headship is described not as authority, but as the source of growth.

Of course Jesus is our authority; I’m not saying he isn’t. But that is not the point here. The point in this passage is that Jesus, as our head, is our source of life and therefore, above all else, we must guard our lifeblood connection to him. For if we lose that intimacy we will stray from the truth of the gospel. To assume that Paul used “head” to indicate the control center for the body in these passages “involves a very forced interpretation of Col. 2:19 and Eph. 4:15 where Christ is spoken of as the ‘source of’ the body’s development and growth.”[4]

Through the surprisingly counterintuitive head-body analogy we learn something foundational about Christ’s relationship to the church, distinct from his Lordship. We are introduced to the idea that as our head “Jesus is the spiritual life-giving source that fills the church, and the church forms an organic union with him.”[5]

When we think about it, we should have known this all along since Jesus emphasized this connection when he walked those dusty paths of Palestine. But Jesus utilized a very different allegory to describe this oh-so-important lifeline that must be maintained between our lives and his.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:5-6)

As Christians, Jesus maintained, it is essential that we stay attached to our source of life: Jesus the vine. As Christians, Paul maintained, it is essential that we stay attached to our source of life: Jesus the head.

I believe the fundamental concept behind headship is source, in its many and varied forms: originating source; source of identity, growth and life; provider, nourisher and supplier.[6] And the fundamental idea conveyed by the head-body analogy is unity.

Even Chrysostom, one of those early church fathers modern biblical scholars love to quote, understood the head-body analogy to stress source and unity. Not that he didn’t also believe the logical outcome of that relationship was authority and submission.

Of course he did.

But pay attention to the bottom line, if you can, where Chrys talks about the reason for all that. In his sermon on Ephesians 1:22 he writes:

“Which is his body.”In order that when you hear of the Head, you may not conceive the notion of supremacy only, but also of consolidation, and that you may behold Him not as supreme Ruler only, but as Head of a body. “The fullness of Him that filleth all in all” he says….[7]

Chrysostom argues that Jesus is described as our head so that we would understand our essential union with him. The point of the head-body analogy is to explain that we’re supposed to experience “consolidation” – unity – with Christ. It’s to open our eyes to the fact that Jesus is more than our supreme Ruler – he is also the head to our body, the source of our fullness, the one who fills all in all.

Chrysostom says that’s why Paul used the analogy. We don’t need the visual picture of a unified being, with body and head connected to one another, to understand Jesus’ authority.

We have Lord and King for that.

Yet we must also conceive of our relationship to Christ as an organic union of a head to its body, and consider how quickly and how grossly death follows when the two are separated. We are to take the image of the severed branch to the next level, to the abhorrent vision of a severed body, its lifeblood flowing out where it ought to be connected to its head.

Imagine that for a moment.

That is the point of the head-body imagery.

In another place Chrysostom writes:

Then after saying, “The husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is of the Church,” he further adds, “and He is the Saviour of the body.” For indeed the head is the saving health of the body.”[8]

What is the head? The saving health of the body.

Chrys’s logic goes like this: since the saving health of the physical body is the head, and Jesus is our “saving health” – our salvation – it only makes sense to think of Jesus as our head.

What about the Bible passages where Jesus is identified as our head, but his supremacy is also stressed?

Let’s look at one of those, the famous hymn to Christ in the first chapter of Colossians.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15-20, ESV)

What does this passage teach us about Jesus as head?

All things were created by him, through him, and for him: Jesus is the creative source of all things.

All things hold together in him: Jesus is the sustaining source of all things.

He is the beginning, the firstborn of all creation, the firstborn from the dead: Jesus is the beginning source of all things.

All things are reconciled to God through him: Jesus is the source of reconciliation of all things.

And because of all this, Jesus is preeminent: Jesus is the ruling source over all things.

Philip B. Payne argues that Paul has defined head here: “Christ is the source of the church, the one who gave it life and sustains its life.”[9] Ben Witherington explains why the idea of authority comes into play when we’re talking about Jesus as source: “Ideas of both authority and origin come together in this use of the word [head] because the origin of something was thought to be determinative for what came forth or followed from it.”[10]

Cynthia Long Westfall clarifies further: “We find that kephalē [head] often occurs in contexts of authority and preeminence because the function of being the source of identity and life can be the basis of authority or preeminence in the culture.”[11]

In other words, in a culture based on defined roles of give and take a specific relationship arose between someone who received tangible benefits (like food, housing or other monetary provision) and the person who provided those benefits. Since the individual on the receiving end could not reciprocate in like manner (that is why they were on the receiving end in the first place), they were expected to reciprocate with highly prized intangibles like public honor and respect. It was unthinkable that you would demonstrate any sort of public disrespect toward the source of the benefits you enjoyed.

Scholars call this a patron-client culture. When we talk about the head-body relationship it worked like this: The head (source) had the duty of providing everything necessary to sustain the body’s life; the recipient of this benefit (the body) had the duty of demonstrating loyalty and honor to its source. The head had “authority” in the sense that the body owed it a proper respect.

Interestingly, however, in those contexts where Jesus’ authority as head is mentioned it is never over believers. In every instance this authority is over other entities for the sake of the church.

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph. 1:22)

Yes, all things have been placed under Jesus’ feet and yes, Jesus is ruler over everything. Yet when Jesus’ headship has to do with being “over” something, it is not described as being over the church but as over the cosmos,[12] to the benefit of the church.[13] Since Jesus reigns over all, he possesses the power to empower the church,[14] filling it with his own fullness in every way.

Paul makes a similar point in Colossians 2.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Col. 2:9-10, ESV)

Jesus is the head of all rule and authority, which could mean either that he is the source of these powers[15] or the authority over them. But the result for us is clear: Jesus, in whom the fullness of deity dwells, has filled us with himself. He is the source and sustainer of our spiritual life, our fullness, our connection to God himself.

In the ancient mind source and unity were the fundamental ideas behind the head-body metaphor, but loyalty and respect were considered a logical outgrowth. The power and authority the head possessed in the outside realm made it possible for it to provide everything the body needed. Yes, the head was powerful. But its power was exerted against outside forces on behalf of the body.

So back to where we started: the question of what Paul meant when he spoke of man as woman’s head. If the main thought is source but a secondary one is honor, how do we know what Paul intended? How do we discern his emphasis, his purpose?

To answer that we must look at where Paul took the head-body idea in those familiar yet confusing passages, 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5, compared to other thinkers of his time.

What we learn may surprise us all.

Coming soon.

[1] Michelle Lee-Barnewall, Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 114.

[2] Ben Witherington III, Letters to Philemon, Colossians, and the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 163.

[3] Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 95.

[4] Stephen Bedale, “The Meaning of kephalē in the Pauline Epistles,”     212.

[5] Westfall, 85-86.

[6] Though Clinton E. Arnold also emphasizes Jesus’ leadership of the church as head, he points out that this verse teaches that Christ is “the one who nourishes and supplies all that the body needs for its growth. Christ is not simply the originator of the church (i.e. the ‘source’ of the church absolutely). He is actively involved in stimulating and directing the ministry of the church as well as providing the church all that it needs to develop and reach maturity.” In Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 270. Many – perhaps most – complementarian scholars, though still arguing for “authority” as the best understanding of “head,” acknowledge that “source” is a fundamental idea in many of the headship passages.

[7] Chrysostom, Homily 3 on Ephesians, as quoted in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 151.

[8] Chrysostom, Homily 20 on Ephesians, ibid.

[9] Philip B. Payne, “Response,” in Women, Authority and the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelsen (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986), 129.

[10] Witherington, 135.

[11] Westfall, 81.

[12] Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians (Word, 1990), 67.

[13] Witherington, 245.

[14] Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 116.

[15] Based on Paul’s description of headship in Col. 1:15-17 and this verse’s close proximity to that passaged, Westfall, 81-82, argues that “the point of Colossians 2:10 is that Christ is the source of the believer’s fullness in the same way that he is the head (source and sustainer) of every ruler and authority. This meaning is made clearer because Paul has already emphatically made this point in Colossians 1:15-17, which explicitly includes the powers in 2:10.” Westfall goes on to cite Col. 1:15-17, where Jesus as head is the creative source of everything including thrones, dominions, rulers and authorities.

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