Words of a Fether

I am the way, the truth, and the life;
no one comes to the Father except through me. ~Jesus

site banner

Head Over Heels

This common English idiom usually refers either to literal tumbling or metaphorically to a feeling of elation. But suppose I used it in this context:

I’m head over heels about this new hat and the matching shoes! ;-) (head==>hat, heels==>shoes)
That’s an example of a play on words, a pun, and the apostle Paul made extensive use of them. One of them is seen in his introduction to answering a question about head coverings (1 Cor. 11:3ff). But there’s another that is less commonly noticed: Eph. 1:21–23. The bold words below highlight the metaphor Paul is using:
up over every sovereignty and authority and power and mastery and every name named not only in this age but also in the impending one, and he under-set everything under his feet, and gave him as head over all to the congregation which is his body, the completion of the one completing all in all
Now the narrative leading up to it has been all about the power of God in raising Jesus from the dead, which led to Jesus being placed “over and above” all authority and power and being given the most honorable name. But between that and the beginning of the next passage about sin, we see a curious statement about completion or filling. How does this fit with the preceding statements about authority?

Paul’s head/feet/body metaphor is the key. We have seen in other studies that Paul used head/body to illustrate unity of substance and that the head is the source of the body (Eph. 4:15–16, Col. 2:19); the context in both cases is clearly about unity and not hierarchy. And when we combine this with the mention of “completeness” in this passage, there is strong contextual support for seeing this particular case as one of unity. Some may claim that all the “ands” in the passage denote one continuous topic, but these “ands” continue afterward on the matter of sin as well. There are many, many instances in scripture where the original language goes on and on yet the English translation is broken up, not only for the benefit of English readers, but also because the topic has shifted. Of course the lines are not always clear, but we cannot rule out a break between 1:21 and 1:22 on grammatical grounds.

If, as I believe is sound practice, we interpret words by context and not vice versa, we cannot arbitrarily choose the “over” and “under” meanings of the words with huper and hupo (from which we get our prefixes “hyper” and “hypo”). Grammatically, their meanings depend upon the words around them. The semantic range for huper:

with genitive case = on behalf of, for the sake of, concerning, in place of with accusative case = over, above, more than, beyond
The semantic range for hupo:
with genitive case = by, through with accusative case = under, below
* Source: Daniel B. Wallace, New Testament Greek Syntax

So if the prepositions go with nouns in the accusative case we choose from the up/down meanings, and if in the genitive case we choose from the others. Now let’s translate vs. 21 and 22 according to those rules:

21 – up in the place of every sovereignty… 22 – and he under-set everything below his feet, and gave him as head above all to the congregation 23 – which is his body
So there’s little doubt that above/below is the idea here, but if this denotes hierarchy then we have a problem with the body “completing” everything. The solution: Metaphors be with you! :-D

Does my “head over heels” pun really mean that the head rules over the feet, even though the grammar and semantic range of the words seems to say so? Of course not. We recognize this expression as a figure of speech that is much more than the sum of its parts. The head may even be literally “over” the feet, but is rule implied? Not at all. So in the end we rely most of all on the context, and in this case (as with the more popular “women” passages) there is enough ambiguity to keep us from being dogmatic about our interpretation, whatever that may be. But again we have this “completeness” component in the immediate context, and we can’t just ignore it because of the preceding verses or even the grammar.

But notice that passage on sin following this one: it talks about our being dead to sin, and it seems rather abrupt following right after the “power passage”— unless we see the connection between the Source of Life for the ekklesia and the “deadness” we now have in relationship to sin. For this reason I believe the real “break” is not between 1:23 and 2:1, but between 1:21 and 1:22. It is the power of God which raised Jesus from the dead that also brought us life as well; that is the flow of Paul’s discussion. As I’ve written elsewhere, this entire letter is about relationships that changed in Christ. But by putting a chapter break where it is, the flow of thought is dissected and the parts disconnected.

So the meanings we ascribe to vs. 22 and 23 depend on two primary variables: how we understand the flow of Paul’s thought, and whether we see his expression as a metaphor for authority or for unity. All things considered, I think the best interpretation is that Jesus rules over the world as God, but unites with His Body and gives it life.

Why go through this exercise? Because some, in desperation, will take this one instance of “head over” to read back into other ambiguous passages in order to claim that “head” can mean “boss”, which somehow gives them the right to impose it wherever they want. My purpose here was to show the very thin ice upon which such desperation skates. This is the strongest passage they’ve got in the NT, and no support at all in secular literature. And before anyone quotes Grudem to me, read the series here that pulls up that weed by its roots. Such methods are sloppy and careless at best.

But of course the biggest question is the one I’ve asked in several posts lately: why would any believer want so badly to cling to the lowest place of servitude in the Body, and why would they also try to keep others from joining them there? Not even by the longest stretch of the imagination can anyone think God would tell half the Body not to serve as an “under-rower”. It stands in direct opposition to the most fundamental principles of the faith regarding humility and love, and exposes hierarchy for what it is: ambition to a high office of authority and rule over other believers. But I have to say— I’d never have been as motivated to dig deep into scripture without these people continually scavenging for new and better ways to mangle it.

Posted 2010-06-18 under community, Jesus, roles, control, male supremacism