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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Kephalé, the English Word "Head," and a Tradition of Misreading the Bible

Recently I posted a short sermon I gave for part of a Men's Day observance in a Baptist Church.  I have long had mixed feelings about Men's Day.  It is not one of those days that fits into the centuries-old church calendar that observes days for the saints and an annual cycle of seasons that brings attention to the anticipation, the birth, the life, the passion, the resurrection, and the reign of Jesus Christ.  It is, however, part of another liturgical calendar that evolved over decades to address certain aspects of church life.  There is a Women's Day, and there is a Men's Day, and in some churches these are big annual events.

These days have significance in a number of ways.  Women's Day has its origin in a 1906 proposal by Nannie Helen Burroughs, who suggested a day when women in National Baptist Churches could lead in educating and motivating the churches for Foreign Missions.  It's purpose then includes promotion of missionary work, fund-raising for missions, and elevation of women to the opportunity to lead, speak out, and exercise gifts in the church.  It was of a piece with the rise of Women's Clubs organized for community betterment, including the kind of work done by Ida B. Wells-Barnett in the anti-lynching campaign and the founding of black educational and social institutions.

Men's Day does not have the same specific historical origins, but seems to have grown up in many ways as a complementary observance to address the need for men to take up their part in the work of the church, to serve, to teach, and to lead.  It is not uncommon for it to include a theme around the "missing" men in the life of the churches that seem often to be populated primarily by women.  So Women's Day is on one hand an effort to elevate the place of women in institutions that display a tradition of patriarchy, and Men's Day is on the other hand an effort to draw in and encourage more male discipleship.

Having grown up Baptist, whether among white or black Baptists, I have worshiped and served in institutions steeped in patriarchal tradition.  In my early adult years, I realized the failure of such churches to listen to the message of Pentecost and the momentum of the New Testament writings toward full equality of men and women in families, in church leadership, and in relation to God.  And still today, that tradition weighs heavy in the churches with which I associate. 

I'm not saying there has been no change.  I commune now in a church which has women in all levels of leadership, including ordained ministers and deacons, as well as various offices and roles of influence.  It is not surprising at all to have a woman preach, pray, or lead worship in any way.  Even so, the rhetoric of hierarchy and male leadership still crops up at times, and it remains assumed by many in the community of faith.  Moreover, our church is on the more progressive end of a continuum; we have not had a woman as senior pastor, but women's calling and capacity for leadership is not a question.  On the other hand, many churches with which we cooperate and associate, probably a very large majority of them, continue to exclude women from official recognition in church leadership, such as preaching, serving as a deacon, or receiving ordination.

So I always approach Men's Day and Women's Day with a level of trepidation, knowing how they easily become a platform to recite and reinstate patriarchal structures as if they are the absolute command of God for human flourishing.  The assumed primacy of the male in family, church, and society remains a powerful idea.  I am always thankful, as I was on the night that I preached about the sin of seeking to control the world and the people in it, when the observance does not morph into a rally for boosting the patriarchy.

There is an important agenda in black churches when it comes to encouraging men to rise into their gifts and callings.  The events around the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Travon Martin, to name only a few, symbolize the difficulties black men face in trying to make their way in U.S. society.  The deeply imbedded prejudices and fears which assume to know that black men are up to no good stand in the way of education, jobs, economic stability, and empowerment.  We ought to be encouraging black men to defy the social pressures and assumptions that would try to keep them marginalized.  That's why I believe in the agenda of Men's Day.

Womanist thought seeks to expand our notions of gender politics and community responsibility to avoid pitting some people against others.  As Marcia Riggs has demonstrated, the heritage of the Black Women's Clubs is not elevation of women at men's expense, not elevation of the middle class at the poor's expense.  It's core was the motto, "Lifting As We Climb."  Womanism shares that spirit of believing that the it is not possible for some in the community to achieve what is good for them if they do so by holding down or putting down others.  It must be a general community uplift, a devotion to the common good.  To use biblical language, it is a commitment to having "no one in need among us."

Men's and women's achievement and advancement go hand in hand.  In this way, the church seeks to fulfill the message of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians, when he told them that their baptism gave them a new birth into a new world and a new life.  They were changed beings, no longer defined by the biases of culture from which they had come.  It was a new culture of equality:
As many of you who have been dipped in the dye of Christ have also gotten dressed up in Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, not male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (my translation).
Those so-called natural divisions which would divide us are not any longer relevant.  There is a new kind of freedom for living according to the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives freely to whomever the Holy Spirit wills.

The pentecostal faith of the church acknowledges that the first bearers of the gospel of the resurrected Lord were women who went to his tomb on Sunday and discovered he was risen.  Mary Magdalene, one of his companions in life was the one who first met him in the resurrection.  Jesus' followers remembered how he did not care about the disreputable behavior of talking with a divorced and cohabitating Samaritan woman, outcast by her community.  They remembered that he praised Mary of Bethany for her devotion to learning that traditionally was a role assigned to men only.  And Peter preached from the Prophet Joel's words which said that both men and women would prophesy, that is they would preach and deliver a word of God.  Remnants of the early church in the New Testament writings indicate the leadership of women like Lydia, Phoebe, and Chloe.

Not all New Testament texts are so easily wrenched from patriarchal thinking.  Among the ones that is commonly used to justify patriarchy is 1 Corinthians 11.  It contains a formulaic set of parallel statements that seem at first to be a claim on behalf of hierarchy in patriarchal form.  That is because of the word "head" in English, translated from the Greek kephalé.

In English, the "head" man is the one in charge.  We have "Department Heads" and "head linesmen" and most prominently, "heads of state."  In English history, the beheading of Charles I was a public symbol of removing the monarchical authority from over the people.  So the English word "head" connotes hierarchy and authority.  There is a concept of "headship" in English that tampers with our cultural biases when we read verse 3.
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ (NRSV).
Greek is not the same.  Certainly Greek culture has its own symbols of hierarchy and a heritage of patriarchy.  Yet the language does not rely on the image of the head to portray hierarchy and authority.  There are many meanings, both literal and figurative, for the word kephalé.  It can mean the anatomical head on a human or other animal.  It can mean a part of a plant that in certain ways is similar to the head on an animal.  It can mean the top piece, or crowning piece of something (not to be confused with the English crown as a symbol of rulership).  It can often mean the headwaters of a stream, and by analogy the source of something. 

Lexicons of ancient Greek language give many possible meanings for the word kephalé, but there seem to be no instances which indicate that Greeks used it to mean the boss, the ruler, the one in charge.  I am thankful for the summary of various sources assembled by Laurie Fasullo of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as she made the case that it is inappropriate to insert "headship" as authority into a reading of Pauline texts and other New Testament texts.  I will not try to duplicate all of her interesting and excellent work. 

If 1 Corinthians 11:3 should not be read to indicate that there is a grand hierarchy in which women or wives are ontologically subordinate and men in authority, then how should we read it.  Fasullo and others convincingly argue that talking about heads here is best understood as emphasizing the unity of the two elements being named.  Christ is clearly not eternally and ontologically subordinate to God.  So some other relationship is being indicated here.  If Paul is speaking in his rabbinic voice, then he may be pointing us back to the Genesis story of the woman's creation from a rib of the man, and thus saying that the man is the source of the woman, and thereby we see that they are made of one substance and inseparably linked.  In the same way, humanity is linked to Christ, who is the true human, the Second and True Adam, and thus the source of the man.  Christ, the beloved, is eternally begotten of the lover, the Father, and is inseparably linked and coequal, fully God.  To say head here is to use the word in its sense of being the source and therefore the same.

Wayne Grudem is the primary scholar in defense of the notion of "head" as "headship."  Scholars who disagree with him have offered a pretty strong critique of the arguments he published in the 1980s.  So in 2001 he published an updated argument to take on various newer scholarly works with which he disagreed.  He attempted to import the popular U.S. evangelical notion of hierarchy equivocally called equality through a conception of "complementarity."  Complementarity is the evangelical/fundamentalist word for equality of status combined with differentiation of roles, with those superordinate and subordinate roles ontologically and essentially mapped onto gender.

Grudem accused his opponents of claiming their sources make arguments that are not actually present, or what one would call an "argument from silence."  Lacking any direct claim, they claim too much for his interpretation.  Yet he does the same, claiming that the misreading by Catherine Kroeger of Chrysostom's comments on 1 Corinthians 11:3 failed to recognize that Grudem's position was required to make sense of them.  Yet Grudem ends up contradicting Chrysostom, not agreeing with him.  He claims the subordination of Jesus Christ as an essential status, taken on voluntarily, and yet by implication from eternity to eternity.  This is exactly what Chrysostom is battling, so it makes no sense that he would have agreed with Grudem's subordinationist theology of the Trinity, even though Grudem believes that it is obvious and entailed in his words.

It seems, therefore, that the traditionalist view, bolstered by its champion Grudem, continues to rely on this equivocal use of the term equality to deny the very coequality of the persons of the Trinity as as way to justify an eternal inequality called equality in the subordination of women to men.

Did Jesus subordinate himself, take the form of a servant, and become like us?  Yes.  And Jesus has been highly exalted.  The subordination of one person of the Trinity to another is shared among all three persons.  This is the nature of the perfect communication of all things between the persons, coeternally existing in coequality, supreme communicability, complete consubstantiality, perfect configurability, and unsurpassable mutual intimacy. 

Can women reasonably respond to Christian faith through similar voluntary subordination?  Could a marriage reasonably allow one person to exercise most or all leadership?  Yes to both of these.  Many blessed unions have appeared in cultural conditions of patriarchy.  Yet the Letter to the Corinthians cannot be used to demand that this is the inherent ontology of God's creation of humanity.  Thus, a marriage can also reasonably allow partners to find their path of mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21) and offer themselves to one another as servants, bucking the cultural expectations so that both live into the image of Christ.  Nothing in this text says a man should claim his right to be in charge. 

What that means is that contrary to their claim to read the plain sense of the text, using a grammatico-historical method of interpretation to find the one meaning of the text, evangelicals are using an allegorical method of interpretation.  This is exactly what I heard recently.  Taking the English use of the word "head" in its symbolism as authority and ruler, the interpreter began to discuss the various features of the head and their significance for leading and being in charge.  In similar manner, the other parts of the body which are not the head were held up in contrast (feet, tail, etc.) to indicate what a person in charge was not supposed to be.  It is an abuse of allegory to do what allegory often does--reinforce cultural assumptions. 

A colleague of mine, Curtis Freeman, has written a scholarly article on 1 Corinthians 11:3, criticizing Grudem's readings of the theologians of the early centuries of the church.  I look forward to reading that when it is published soon, and I will plan to share a link to it or summary of it when it becomes available.

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