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Honor: Kephale and Authority Part 2

October 3, 2011

In Kephale and Authority Part 1 I promised that I would do something useful with the results of the expanded study of κεφαλη therein. In quick review, I decided that κεφαλη (kephale, head) used metaphorically of a person didn’t mean much of anything clear. Instead, there were probably multiple independent ways to use the word and the single one that fit best was not “authority over” but “representative”. Even that isn’t a great fit, though, because (I believe) the word just isn’t very precise. To be the head of something (separate from being the head and tail, having things come back on your head or, possible, being the head of something else which is described as a body) indicates some sort of primacy. Beyond that I doubt a solid case can be made outside of specific examples where more detail is provided.

This whole project stemmed from my acquaintance with Wayne Grudem’s article “Does κεφαλη (“head”) mean ‘source’ or ‘authority over’ in Greek literature?” Grudem, who has published a number of works on gender roles, unsurprisingly concluded that “head” meant “authority over” and applied that understanding to various verses (1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:23) in which the husband is described as being head of the wife. I intend to treat these verses in more detail as part of my women in the Bible series but I will deal with how our understanding of kephale influences those verses here.

Obviously, if Grudem is correct, then “the husband is the head of the wife” is the sort of thing you can display on an org chart. If I’m correct, though, any number of possibilities remain open. One of them, of course, is that org chart, but it also might indicate a reality of the ancient world (the husband was the visible face of the family) or any one of a series of alternate ways of understanding primacy. We’d have to read the passage and understand what was meant via context. “Authority over” can end up flattening a great deal of this complexity down. The advantage of this is that it gives us a clear answer. The disadvantage of a simple answer is that it is not true to reality. Either “authority over” isn’t a clear answer at all (“authority” becomes its own interpretative problem) or it’s a bad answer.

The first issue is that authority is always interpreted through culture. In democratic Western societies authorities are bound by law: in despotisms they aren’t. When a modern Westerner hears that someone is an authority, their understanding of that authority will be filtered through their understanding of all legitimate authority in a way that will not be true for someone living under a despotic regime. Similarly, the way an Egyptian Christian in the first century would interpret the idea that he was in authority over his wife would be different than the way a Roman Christian would hear that same idea (note: that same idea that isn’t a correct understanding of kephale anyway). This would be a matter of culture: a Roman pater familias held the power of life and death over his family and that would probably be assumed to be part of familial authority in a way that it never would be in Egypt (a much better place to be a woman in the ancient world). If we treated “authority over” as an answer we would miss the fact that it is an answer only within a defining context.

The second issue is that simple organizational chart models of hierarchy fail to reflect the complex relationships that appear in the Bible. Take, for example, David. Early in David’s adult life David had been anointed king but Saul still held the reigns of power. David repeatedly refused to kill Saul because Saul was the anointed king. In fact, in an instance early in 1 Samuel 24 David’s men make an argument to David that Saul’s vulnerability is the fulfillment of a divine promise to David and yet David still insists that Saul is “the Lord’s anointed” and will not kill him, repeating the phrase three times in the chapter. The only thing Saul has been anointed for is kingship – David is simultaneously recognizing and not recognizing Saul’s kingship as he flees from Saul, continues to regard himself as the next king, and yet refuses to kill Saul.

Later, when David takes the throne, David has a similarly complicated relationship with the prophet Nathan. When Nathan confronts David about his actions with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12) Nathan does not simply say, “God knows what you did and it’s bad.” Instead, he tells a story to David that causes David to become incensed at the character in the story that represents himself. Then Nathan declares, “You are the man!” David is Nathan’s king, Nathan is a prophet. Who holds power over whom is not straightforward as this complicated confrontation suggests.

Household politics are no less complicated. A father is head of his house and yet sometimes his sons correctly contradict him. One of the best demonstrations of this is the rape of Dinah by Shechem in Genesis 34. Simeon and Levi offer Shechem a deal which will allow him to marry Dinah. He agrees, and Jacob doesn’t object. Simeon and Levi then betray and kill Shechem. Jacob is displeased because he believes that he will be blamed for Simeon and Levi’s actions and attacked by his neighbors. Simeon and Levi counter with an appeal to honor: “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” The story vindicates them as Jacob is never attacked. One simple explanation for this is that “head” is about honor. Honor may be accompanied by real status but it is a description of honor. Now, this may be incorrect, but look at how it ties the story together: Simeon and Levi are bound to honor Jacob. If Jacob does not defend his daughter, Jacob’s honor is damaged. Simeon and Levi are then allowed to disobey Jacob for the sake of Jacob’s own honor, which is, not incidentally, Simeon and Levi’s own family honor.

When we collapse complicated relationships into simplistic power structures we do a disservice to the text where relationships are not simple, just as they are in reality itself. (Of course, one could treat “authority over” as a complicated explanation rather than a simple answer. I just haven’t seen that done.) However, outside exegesis there is another danger to collapsing these complicated relationships into hierarchical flowcharts: it promotes collapsing our own complicated relationships into the same two-dimensional flowcharts.

Take the focus of this whole exegetical debate, marriage. If a major question in your marriage is “who has authority” my first question for you is, “Why is this even coming up?” If this has great utility then something is probably badly wrong – a husband is beating his wife and claiming authority or a wife is spending the family into poverty and claiming that the husband has no say because he lacks authority. Both of these hypothetical examples aren’t really authority problems, though. Both are gross violations (the first extremely so) of the marriage relationship. Authority would help only in the sense that it might force someone to act properly when they don’t want to (and there’s no reason the authority couldn’t come from outside the marriage – the man in the first example should be arrested but there’s no need for his wife to perform the arrest). I would hope that we would all see authority as a temporary stopgap measure.

Now, of course, most people don’t engage in quite this level of silliness when it comes to marriage, in part because marriages are not primarily a set of rules of behavior. You might get a new job and immediately have a relationship, defined on an org chart, with everyone in the new company. Odds are good that’s not how you first related to your spouse and that if someone handed you an org chart you would interpret that chart through the lens of the living relationship you already possess. This is probably why marriages frequently survive crazy teaching – people with strong relationships ignore the crazy or interpret it until it’s sane. However, there’s at least one other relationship that we frequently like to reduce to authority and which is much more amenable to this process: church governance.

I’ve written elsewhere about authority in a church context and the questions that are frequently not asked about the nature and limits of authority. Here, though, I’d like to explore a helpful way to deal with church authority. Rather than considering church authority primarily in the context of rule, what if we thought about it as primacy? One of the main currencies of primacy is honor. It’s not too hard to imagine approaching a pastor under the mentality that you are part of the church and that the pastor is the public face of that church and that if the pastor is dishonored, so, in some way, are you. Of course, this is somewhat different if the pastor has actually done something awful – then the pastor dishonors the church and removing him is the closest you can do to restoring it. This strikes a careful balance between blind obedience and a lack of respect. It’s not, perhaps, a line that Americans are used to. We don’t tend to have a lot of respect for people unless they can employ coercive means against us to get it. But the nice thing about honor is that it can be expanded further out as well.

Imagine speaking to a monk from outside your own tradition (easy enough for us Protestants – imagine speaking to a monk). This is someone who may know an awful lot about a close walk with God. They may be someone who has wonderful advice for you, born of years of prayer and meditation on the Scriptures and the human heart. They’ll probably say some things that don’t agree with your doctrine as well. But you could honor them. You could give their opinions weight because of who they are even if the counterweight of other decisions eventually overrode them. You could give honor without authority.

This is, I suspect, a lot of what we see in the Bible. When someone says, “I am of the clan of Judah,” they aren’t just saying, “Yeah, I live in Judah-land.” They are saying, “I am a descendent of that great man Judah.” Judah may be dead and buried (look, for a minute, at Achan’s ancestors listed in Joshua 7:18, several of whom are probably dead) but this doesn’t matter. Judah’s role isn’t to issue orders, it’s to represent the clan. It’s honor and primacy, not authority.

Frankly, very few healthy relationships are best expressed as command authority. Expert authority, perhaps, but that’s because expert authority is authoritative because it works best for everyone. Other things, things like love and respect, are a much better foundation for any non-exploitative relationship (and I hope you aren’t trying to have exploitative relationships!) than rule. Reducing complex relationships to hierarchy and charts might provide neat answers but not accurate or healthy ones.

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