The Scriptures regularly use the metaphor of a body to speak about human social life. The church is the body of Christ, with many members (1 Corinthians 12). Marriage is a “one flesh” union — that is, one whole body that is made up of a head and a body (Ephesians 5:22–30). Indeed, we can consider the whole household in bodily terms, with the husband as the head and the wife and children as the various distinct members.
At times, discussions of headship and bodyship are reduced to the question of authority and submission. And while authority and submission do flow from and fit within the metaphor of the body, deeper reflection on the relationship between the head and the body enables us to see more acutely how authority and submission are practically lived out. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll focus largely on a household, though the principles are relevant for any type of social body: church, school, business, or political body.
Begin with the obvious. The head and body are profoundly interdependent. You can’t have one without the other. No one wants a bodiless head or a headless body. As God himself said in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Thus, from the outset, our goal is to recognize how deeply woven together our understanding of headship and bodyship must be. Head and body are complementary; they fit each other.
Additionally, the whole body has a purpose, a mission. In Genesis 1, the mission of the initial household is to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The body as a whole does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of God’s mission in the world.
With these two truths in mind, let us reflect on the function of the head in relation to the body. We can summarize the head’s role under two headings, one largely internal and the other largely external. First, the head (the husband in this case) orders or structures the whole body for its purpose through presence, words, and actions, and empowers the members of the body to fulfill their calling. Second, the head maintains the body’s boundaries, represents the body to other bodies, and is responsible for the well-being of the body as a whole.
The head is thus responsible for organizing and structuring the body for its purpose. The head orients the body and directs the body. The head must therefore know what the body’s purpose is, and keep that purpose in mind as he seeks to empower the rest of the members for their particular purposes.
More Than Words
Crucially, the head doesn’t do this organizing work merely by words (as important as words are). We mustn’t think of the head as someone who barks orders. Instead, the head’s words and actions emerge from the head’s presence with the body. The head orients and orders the body the way that the earth orients and orders the moon. Here then is an image: like a planet with its moon, a husband guides his home through his gravity. If he does so faithfully, the moon orbits properly. If he is unfaithful, the moon wanders into disorder.
“Like a planet with its moon, a husband guides his home through his gravity.”
Or we might use a musical image. The head sets the tone; he lays down the beat. He establishes the rhythm. It may be a steady beat that makes beautiful music; it may be a melody line that enables glorious harmony. Or it may be off-beat and out of tune and result in nothing but noise. But one way or the other, the head establishes the rhythm and melody.
Or a final image. The head works like the body’s immune system. An immune system doesn’t merely fight off infection; it regulates the body’s functions, maintains the body’s boundaries, and defends the body from attack by recognizing and deploying appropriate measures.
A faithful head’s influence is present even when he’s absent. When Dad is at work, and Mom is disciplining the kids, his presence stands behind hers and empowers her action.
On the other hand, an unfaithful head can be present in body and absent in spirit. He may be in the room, but his passivity makes him light and weightless, and thus his wife and kids do what is right in their own eyes. His abdication and lack of initiative leave a gap that causes much misery. Or, conversely, perhaps his domestic tyranny oppresses and drowns out all other music.
Such images help us to contextualize the head’s authority in his household. While it may include issuing commands when appropriate (as when a father tells his child to do something), the bigger picture involves skillfully and competently taking initiative to marshal the body’s resources for its purpose and gladly sacrificing for the sake of the body and its mission. Such is faithful headship.
Turn then to the notion of bodyship. Like headship, the body’s role can be summarized in terms of internal and external dimensions. First, the body receives the initiating presence, words, and actions of the head and makes them fruitful by providing feedback, input, and counsel to the head. Second, the body glorifies and fructifies the head’s efforts by keeping in step with the head, carrying out the head’s will, and extending and amplifying the whole body’s influence in the world.
Receiver and Glorifier
This is a fundamental truth: the body receives in order to give more. It does not just receive and return. It receives and glorifies. It receives and beautifies. It receives and amplifies. And, in considering marriage as a one-flesh union, the most obvious way that the body (the wife) does this glorification is in procreation itself. A husband is the gardener, and his wife is the garden. He sows his seed; she receives it and bears fruit (in the form of children).
We can consider a number of images to help express her role in relation to his. He is the breadwinner; she is the breadmaker. He is the sun; she is the moon, who reflects and extends the sun’s light where the sun is not. He forms; she fills. He sets the melody; she brings the harmony. He empowers her; and she uses that power to enlarge the domain of their household.
Crucially, the body provides input and influence on the head, for good or for ill. Adam listened to the voice of his wife, and they fell into grave evil. Nabal did not listen to the voice of his wife, and he fell into grave evil. A husband is the head, and he can lead his family into ruin (like Adam) or into glory (like Jesus). A wife is the body, and she can influence the head for misery (like Eve) or for good (like the woman in Proverbs 31).
The book of Proverbs provides a fruitful way to consider what it means to faithfully live as men and women. The book itself is counsel from a father to a son, a king to a prince. The prince has two quests: he is to seek wisdom, and he is to seek an excellent wife. And throughout the book, the choice is before him: listen to Lady Wisdom or to Lady Folly. Hearken to the Excellent Wife or to the Adulterous Woman.
“She is no doormat. She is the glory and the glorifier. She takes what is good and makes it better.”
The prince is the head; he will order and structure and guide and direct his kingdom. But he is not autonomous; he will be influenced for good or ill. So in his quest, after hearkening to the voice of Lady Wisdom for 30 chapters, the Excellent Wife walks down the aisle in Proverbs 31.
She is no doormat. She is the glory and the glorifier. She takes what is good and makes it better. While she is called to follow the direction and leadership of her husband, her wisdom and action are essential to the fruitful household. Her glad-hearted submission, eager help, and wise counsel are all employed for the sake of the household and God’s mission.
Thus, we end where we began. In his wisdom, God has designed us to fit together, to complement one another, in order to accomplish his purposes. Husbands, as faithful heads, guide, order, and direct the household. Wives, as faithful bodies, amplify, glorify, and extend the household in the world. And both do so eagerly, sacrificially, and with great joy for the glory of God.