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What Paul Really Said About Women

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What Paul Really Said About Women


What did the apostle mean when he said 'the husband is head of the wife' and 'wives, be subject to your husbands'?

"The husband is head of the wife," Paul explained, "as Christ is head of the church." In English, the word "head" means literally the physical head of one's body and figuratively the leader of a body of people. The two meanings are intertwined

Not so in Greek, where two different and distinct words are translated "head." One of these is arche (pronounced ar-KAY). It means "head" in terms of leadership and point of origin. It was used to denote "beginning" in the sense of the first or point of inception (and we use this Greek word as a prefix in such words as archaeology, archetype, and archives, all relating to old or first things). Just as it was used to denote point of origin, so we use head that way in the word headwaters (of a river). Arche was also used to denote "first" in terms of importance and power (and we use it as a prefix in such words as archangel, archbishop, archenemy, archduke, and so on, all relating to the head of a group in terms of leadership). Forms of arche are used throughout the New Testament, including the writings of Paul, to designate the head or leader of a group of people. These forms are translated "magistrate," "chief," "prince," "ruler," "head," and so forth.

Now, in the Bible we find many puns, not as a form of humor so much as a form of wisdom, where a word was used that meant two things, both of which were true and were intended to be understood by the one word. For example, Jesus told a woman in Samaria that he would give her "living" water (John 7:10), and the word translated "living" also means "running." Another time Jesus "breathed" on his disciples and told them to "receive Holy Spirit" (John 20:22); in Greek (and also in Hebrew) the word for "spirit" also means "breath."

Therefore, if Paul had believed as Aristotle taught, that husbands should command their wives and rule over them, then Paul could have made a pun out of the word arche. He could have written that the husband is the arche (head) of the wife, and in that one sentence he would have meant that the husband is to rule over the wife and at the same time have reminded his readers how man (Adam) was the source of woman (Eve, who was formed of Adam's rib). Both senses of arche (ruler, and point of origin) would have been invoked.

However, Paul did not choose to use the word arche when he wrote of how the husband is head of his wife. He was well aware of that word, but he deliberately chose a different term.

Instead, Paul used the word kephale (pronounced kef-ah-LAY). This word does mean "head," the part of one's body. It was also used to mean "foremost" in terms of position (as a capstone over a door, or a cornerstone in a foundation). It was never used to mean "leader" or "boss" or "chief" or "ruler." Kephale is also a military term. It means "one who leads," but not in the sense of "director." Kephale did not denote "general," or "captain," or someone who orders the troops from a safe distance; quite the opposite. A kephale was one who went before the troops, the leader in the sense of being in the lead, the first one into battle.

Therefore, two words in Greek can both be translated into the one English word head. One word means "boss," the other means "physical head" (or, sometimes, "the first soldier into battle"). Unfortunately, an English-speaking person who reads that "the husband is head of his wife" will normally conclude that this means the husband is to rule over his wife. This is what Aristotle taught and what most Hellenized people thought. The husband is an arche to his wife, head of the household and ruler over all his family. Paul deliberately chose the other word. But people who depend on the English translation cannot know that.

Can one be certain that arche and kephale were so different from each other in meaning? Could kephale not sometimes mean "boss" or "ruler"? One way to be certain is to note how these two words were used in the Septuagint. The Old Testament, except for a few portions, was written in Hebrew. But by the age of Paul, few persons could read that language. Instead, they depended upon a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, which was called the Septuagint. Paul was familiar with this translation and quoted from it.

Now, in Hebrew, just as in English, one word means both "physical head" and "ruler." The word is rosh. If arche and kephale were more or less synonymous and could be used interchangeably, then when the seventy scholars who wrote the Septuagint came to the Hebrew word roth, they could have used either Greek word as they wished, or instead just used one of the two all the time. However, they were very careful to note how the word rosh was used, whether it meant "physical head" or "ruler of a group." Whenever rosh meant "physical head," they translated it kephale; or whenever rosh referred to the first soldier leading others into battle with him, they also translated it kephale. But when rosh meant "chief" or "ruler," they translated it arche or some form of that word. Every time, this distinction was carefully preserved.

Paul was certainly familiar with both words. He knew the language, he read and quoted from the Septuagint, and he used both words in his own writing. The difference between the two would have been obvious to him. Modern readers, however, may misunderstand Paul, assuming that the word for head that Paul used also carried the figurative meaning of "boss" or "ruler." Paul in fact took great care not to say that.

Understanding "Be Subject To"

In one translation of Ephesians 5:21-33, the words "be subject to" appear three times. Church members are to be subject to one another, and wives are to be subject to their husbands just as the Church is subject to Christ. Three kinds of relationships are defined by a key word that is usually translated "be subject to."

This phrase in English may bring to mind images from children's fairy tales of medieval settings, with kings and their subjects. "Be subject to" may sound like a command to bow before the ruler, who sits on his throne dressed in ermine and holding a jeweled gold scepter. And one might then assume that Paul was telling wives that they are to obey their husbands as a subject would obey the king.

Now, if the word translated "head" meant "boss," then husbands are to rule their wives; and the word translated "be subject to" would naturally mean "to obey." But since kephale does not mean "ruler" or convey any sense of leadership (aside from meaning "the first into battle"), then perhaps the word Paul used that is translated "be subject to" does not convey a sense of obedience. In fact, the use of that word in verse 21 ("be subject to one another") clearly demonstrates that it does not mean obedience, for it would be as impossible for a group of people to be obedient to each other as it would be for a group to follow each other.

New Roles for Husbands and Wives

Now, in Greek there is a word that means "to obey." It can be translated "be subject to," but it carries the idea of dutiful obedience. It is hupakouo (pronounced hoop-ah-KOO-o), a word that a parent might use regarding a child or master might use regarding a slave. Paul knew this word: in fact, he used it a few sentences later in reference to children (Eph. 6:1). But while Greek philosophers would place wives under the tutelage of their husbands, and while the custodianship of a Jewish girl was passed at the time of her marriage directly from her father to her husband, Paul had no thought of wives being like children to their husbands, so he did not use this word. It is not the word that is translated "be subject to."

Moreover, in Greek there is another word that means "be subject to" and "obey." It is peitharcheo (peith-ar-KAY-o), one of the words built upon arche, "ruler." This word is found only three times in the New Testament, twice in Acts (5:29 and 27:21) and once in Titus (3:1). There, and in other writings outside the New Testament, it describes obedience to someone who is in authority. When Peter and the other apostles were arrested for disobeying their Judean rulers who had ordered them not to teach in the name of Jesus, they used peitharcheo in their courageous response: "We must obey God rather than men." But Paul had no thought of husbands governing their wives.

When referring to wives, Paul used a form of yet a different Greek word, hupotasso (hoop-o-TASS-o). It is not a word one would normally use regarding children or slaves. In its active form, hupotasso might be used of a conqueror concerning the vanquished. It means "to subject to," "to subordinate." But Paul did not use hupotasso in its active form to describe any person. He used it only to tell what God does. He did not tell husbands to "hupotasso" their wives. Instead, Paul used this word in addressing wives only in its imperative, middle voice form (compare Col. 3:18). By writing it in the imperative mood, he was instructing wives. He was not describing them (as Aristotle did when he claimed that "the male is by nature fitter to command than the female"). Instead of describing them, he was appealing to them. And in writing the word in the middle voice form, he was emphasizing the voluntary nature of being "subject to."

It is difficult for English-speaking persons to grasp the subtle yet important distinction between middle and passive voice in Greek verbs just by reading a definition, and yet we think in ways that the Greek verb forms express. For example, a person may teach--an active verb. And, one may be taught--a passive verb. But a person may also teach himself or herself by careful listening, discovering, reasoning, learning. In that sense, the person is both subject and object of the action. That is what the Greek middle voice expresses, a voluntary action by the subject of the verb upon the subject of the verb.

Now, it would be possible in Greek to tell a person to subject someone else (although Paul never did so); and it would be possible to describe someone as being subject to another. But one cannot tell another to be subjected, any more than one can tell someone to be learned. However, Paul used hupotasso in the middle voice. This way, he was requesting that wives voluntarily, willingly, actively be subject to their husbands. This is the form hupotassomai (hoop-o-TASS-o-my). Since it is asking for something that is voluntary in nature, "be subject to" is an awkward translation at best. Hupotassomai means something like "give allegiance to," "tend to the needs of," "be supportive of," or "be responsive to." Perhaps the best meaning of hupotassomai is found in a German translation of that word, sich unterstellen, "to place oneself at the disposition of."

There is, in addition, another meaning to hupotassomai. It also served as a military term, referring to taking a position in a phalanx of soldiers. In this sense, there is no reference to any idea of rank or status--it was an equal sharing of the task for which the soldiers were ordered. If a soldier failed to join the others, or held back during an advance, a captain might use a form of the verb hupotassomai to order him to return to the line, join his fellows, be supportive of them, fulfill his part of the assignment.

In that sense, Paul could tell all the members of the Church to be subject to (hupotassomai) one another, and he could also tell wives to be subject to their husbands. For hupotassomai is not a ranking of persons as ruler and ruled. It is a concise appeal for the Church to have its members live out their call to be "the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor. 12:27), to be willing to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). What is true of the Church, Paul added, is to be true of a marriage.

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