Jesus - The Head
Fr. Thomas Hopko · September 10, 2010
Jesus is the Head of the Church and the Head of the Body which is the Church. Fr. Thomas reflects on this title for Christ in this new episode.
When we were reflecting on Jesus Christ our Lord as cornerstone and keystone of the building, of the structure, of the Temple, in which, within which dwells the sanctuary and the holy place, we quoted the line from Psalm 118 that is referred to, directly quoted, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and in the Book of Acts, and in the Letter of Peter in the New Testament. This line of the psalm says, “Have you not read,” it says in the New Testament, “these words?” And then you have the line of the psalm: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner (kephali gōnias, the head of the corner). This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
Sometimes in English, as we noted in this last reflection, the other reflection, is that sometimes that could be simply translated as “cornerstone,” but actually the “head of the corner,” the stone that the builders rejected is the head of the corner, that indicates that the head that holds the building together, the Temple together, is Christ himself.
We saw also that in the symbolics of the Scripture, the theological teaching: Christ is not only the cornerstone and the keystone, the stone of the upper arch that holds the whole roof together, but he’s even the Temple itself, and that we, in him, become living stones in that Temple to God. So that St. Paul would say each individual person is a living Temple the way Christ is, and then the individual persons together are living stones—you find this in Peter—that together constitute the Temple of God, or the household of God, the oikos. So you have the [terms] “house, temple, building, oikodomē”; you have also hieron, temple, and naos, holy place.
So Jesus is all those things, but we saw that he was the head of the corner, the head of the building, the one who holds the building together and keeps all of the other bricks and stones together in their proper order and place. What we want to do now is to go a step further here with this imagery of “head” or “headship,” because there are several different ways in which Jesus is referred to as “head” in the New Testamental Scriptures, and how, therefore, we have to understand his headship as relating to headship in humanity, in the human community, the human family, and then, of course, in that community of all communities, for Christians, the Church.
It’s easy to begin, very easy to begin a reflection on Jesus as Head, and this is probably what most people will think right away, when they think of Jesus as Head: they will think of him as the Head of the Church; that Jesus is the Head of the Church. And then the symbolism and the theological point will be elaborated by saying that he is the Head of the Body which is the Church. So I could just read to you, and we have to do it today; this is our task today: to remember that we Christians are members of Christ. We are members of his Body. But when we constitute that Body, he is the Head of it. No mere human being is the head of the ecclesial Body, the ecclesial community. The head is the man, Jesus, who is the incarnate Son of God, the Theanthropos the divine-and-human Person, the God-man.
No mere mortal is the head of the Church, and, by the way, Orthodox always use this in a kind of polemics against Roman Catholics. Very simplistic, but the Orthodox would say, “For the Catholics, the Pope is the head of the Church, but for us, Christ is the head of the Church.” Well, still, we Orthodox have heads of churches. We have heads of dioceses, heads of patriarchates; we have heads of parishes; we have heads of families; we have heads of monasteries. We even have heads of countries.
So there is a certain headship that is human, although we Orthodox would deny that there is a universal, human head of the Church, even, how can you say? kat’ oikonomion, in the economy of salvation, even historically, even humanly. So we would never say that the first among Orthodox bishops, who since the earliest time was the patriarchate of Constantinople, is the head of the Church. We’d never say the patriarch of Constantinople is the head of the Church. Christ is the head of the Church, and each particular diocese has a head which is its bishop.
So each bishop is the head of his ecclesial community, and then within that community are the communities that we call parishes, or local churches within dioceses in modern language, and in those settings, the pastor, the protopresbyter if there’s more than one presbyter, the presbyter is the head of that community. Then we have families in which the father is the head of the family, marriages in which the husband of the wife.
So there is headship in humanity, but what we want to see today is: how do we understand that headship? And we understand it, as we understand everything, by beginning with Jesus Christ himself. So we want to contemplate Jesus as Head, and how the different ways Jesus is Head, and then what we can learn from that, how we can understand that and apply it to headship in human community, particularly in the Church of Christ.
As I said already, usually when Christians hear the words of Jesus as Head, we think of Jesus as the Head of the Church. So let’s just begin there and look at the texts, primarily in St. Paul, I think even exclusively in St. Paul, which insist on Jesus as the Head of the Body which is the Church. If we just go through the Pauline writings in the order in which they’re printed in the Bible, you could begin with Romans, where you have in the twelfth chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul writing:
I appeal to you, therefore, brethren (brothers and sisters), by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
So we are first being begged to offer our bodies to God through Christ. Now, we remember that in the Corinthian letter—we already meditated [on] this—our bodies become one with the Body of Christ. Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are the place in which God dwells, where the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit dwell, making us the shrines or the sanctuaries of God. So we also see that that is the teaching of the Apostle Paul. But we see also that being, constituting the Body of Christ, he is our Head.
And we can just begin by just remembering: what is a head without a body? And what is a body without a head? Well, St. John Chrysostom, commenting [on] the writings of St. Paul, has already told us very clearly: A head without a body is a skull. It’s a lifeless human dead head. And a body without a head is a corpse, just a corpse. And St. John Chrysostom, when he would get really fired up in his sermons, his homilies, at the bad behavior of Christians, he would say, “We call ourselves the Body of Christ, but in fact we’re a corpse, because we’ve decapitated our Head. We’ve cut ourselves off from our Head. We’re not in communion with our Head.”
And then he even went so far as to say, “And we call ourselves the Bride of Christ, but we have been unfaithful to our Bridegroom, to our Husband, and therefore we’re just an adulterous, sinful Bride. We’re a whore.” He said, “Instead of being Christ’s Body, we’re a corpse. Instead of being Christ’s Bride, we’re a whore; we’re an adulterous woman, that’s how John Chrysostom speaks. I don’t know if we’d dare to speak that way today.
But all of the imagery of our relationship with Christ have this reciprocity: what is a vine without branches? What is a building without a foundation or a cornerstone or a keystone? What is a temple without a foundation? What is a flock without a shepherd, a vineyard without a branch? As St. Augustine said, “The whole Christ is the head and the body—caput et corpus.”
And Gregory of Nyssa and St. John Chrysostom go further and they say not only is the whole Christ the head and the body, but the whole Christ is the vine and the branches, the pastor and the flock. It’s the bridegroom and the bride, in unity. It’s the people of God, headed by that quintessential Person, the Messiah, who is the incarnate Son of God, the human being who is also divine, who makes us what we are as human beings. There’s this union together all the time. What is an army without a general? and so on.
If we started just thinking of these texts, just reading them, just hearing them today, we can begin with Romans, where I already read, that we have to offer our bodies together with the Body of Christ as a living offering to God himself together with our Head. And then he continues: “For as in one body, we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one Body in Christ”—that’s what we offer: our body together in Christ to God—“and we are individually members, one of another.” Then he continues: “...having gifts that differ according to the grace that’s given to each one of us. Let us use these graces: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if serving, in our serving; if teaching, in his teaching. He who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in his liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
But here the operative sentence we want to hear is: “For as in one body we have many members, and all members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, individually members of it.” Now, in the Corinthian letter, he will say very specifically that when we are members of the Body of Christ, the Head of this Body is Jesus Christ himself; that Jesus is the Head of the Body. So if we read the Corinthian letter, this is what we find: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” It’s interesting. He doesn’t say, “so it is with the Church”; he says, “so it is with Christ.” And earlier, in this very same letter, he will say that those who unite themselves with Christ become with him one body, that we become members of Christ. We are the Body, because we’re members of Christ.
So here he says—I’ll read it again: “For just as the body is one and has many members, all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For the body does not consist of one member, but of many.” And then he goes on, which I will not read, speaking about this in great detail. I would ask you to read it yourself. It’s I Corinthians 12, where he goes on and says the foot is not the whole body, the hand is not the whole body, the eye is not the whole body, the ear is not the whole body, and no part of the body could say to another part of the body, “I have no need of you.”
There’s a wonderful book by Fr. Anthony Coniaris called [The Eye Cannot Say to the Hand:] I Have No Need of You. It’s about the Church as a Body with many members, constituting the one Christ, in communion with the Head. And so, if we’re in communion with the Head, we’re a living Body; if we’re not, we’re a dead Body, we’re a corpse. But as my professor of dogmatics used to point out, Jesus Christ as the Head of the Church which is his Body is himself a member of the Body, because the head is a member of the body. My head is a member of my body. It’s not something separate from my body. It’s an element in my body. So my professor used to say Christ himself is a member of the Church, himself. He’s the member who is the Head, the Head of the Church.
St. Paul goes through this very in detail, spelling out his imagery here, about how each organ, each member, each part, each hand, each foot, each eye, each ear, all go together. And he says from head to foot, but the head, the head is Christ himself. So he says, “You are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it.” And then he says some are apostles, some prophets, some teachers, [workers of] miracles, healers, helpers, administrators, tongues-speakers—all have these various gifts, but together they make up this one Body.
In the Corinthian letters and in the Roman letter, where St. Paul speaks about the Church as the Body of Christ, nowhere does he actually in those letters specifically state in so many words that Christ is the Head of this Body. This is implied, but he doesn’t say it in so many words. But in the other letters—Ephesian letter, Colossian letter—he does say it in so many words. He says, in the Ephesian letter, for example, in the fourth chapter, he says this: “The gifts”—these various gifts that he spoke about in his other letters—
are given that some should be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, so to equip the saints for the work of the ministry for building up the Body of Christ, until we attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature personhood (manhood), to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
Then he says, “Speaking the truth in love”—that’s the name of my other podcast series. “Speaking the truth in love (or doing the truth in love), we are to grow up in every way unto him who is the”—and now you’ve got the word!—“the Head.” “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way to him who is the Head, into Christ.” So there it is. He’s called the Head, the Head of the Body, the Church. “From whom the whole Body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.” So he says very clearly there that Christ is the Head of the Body.
In the Colossian letter, he will also say it very specifically. In the Letter to the Colossians—I will read now from the first chapter—he says this about Christ:
He is the icon of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities, all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Now you have the sentence:
He is the head of the body, the Church.
“He is the head of the body, hē ekklēsia (the Church).
He is the beginning (the source), the firstborn from the dead, that in him he might be preeminent in all things. For in him, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And through him, to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the Cross.
So you have it very, very clearly, very clearly, that he is the Head of the Body. He is the Head of the Body. Now, in the same Colossian letter, you have the Apostle writing these words; in the second chapter, he says this. He said:
For in him (for in Christ) the whole fullness of deity (the plēroma theotis, the whole fullness of godhead, the fullness of divinity) dwells sōmatikos (bodily). And you, being the body, have come to fullness of life in him…
And then it says:
...who is the head.
Here it does not say the head of the Church, or the head of the body. It says, “who is the head of all rule and authority.” So now we’re moving away, simply from Christ as the Head of the Church, to Christ as the Head over all rule and all authority in creation. In this same second chapter, you have this same point being made again, about Christ being the Head. This is what it says further on down, in the same second chapter. It says this:
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement or worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the head from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
So it says here that we have to hold fast “to the head from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together in its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” So we have the very, very clear teaching that the community of faith, the final covenant community in the Messiah, is headed by the Messiah himself, the God-man, Jesus Christ, and the members of that community actually constitute Christ’s own Body.
We are God’s people; we are Christ’s Bride. We are the vineyard of God, he is the vine. We are the Temple of God; he is the keystone, the cornerstone, the head of the corner, and the foundation, with the prophets and apostles, he being the chief cornerstone. That we are the flock and he is the shepherd. He is the teacher; we are the disciples. He is the cultivator; we are his field. He is the archētekton, the builder; we are his building. These are the images that you find throughout the New Testament, but also we are his Body and he is the Head, and together we constitute the whole Christ, Head and Body.
But we have already seen, here in Colossians, a moving beyond simply “the head of the Church.” He says, “the head of all rule and principality and power,” so the claim is that Jesus, who is the Head of the Church, is in fact the Head over everything. And that will be said very, very specifically in the first chapter of the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians. In the Letter to the Ephesians, you have what I think, in my opinion, is probably the most mind-blowing definition of the Church that you can find in Holy Scripture. Probably the other very explosive, very powerful definition is in the Timothy letter, I Timothy 3:15, where it says that the Church is the oikos of God, the house of God, the household of God, and it is the pillar and the bulwark of the truth, the pillar and the foundation of the truth itself. But in the Ephesian letter, in the very first chapter, the end of that first chapter…
And I think that the Letter to the Ephesians is the most ecclesiological of all of St. Paul’s epistles; in other words, it tells us more about the mystery of the Church, the mystery of Christ and the Church, the mystery of the Holy Trinity, where the Church as the community of human beings, have access to God through Christ, the Head of the Church, through the Holy Spirit who dwells within the Church, making the Church one, holy, catholic (full and complete), and apostolic—that means bearing the very same mission of Jesus Christ himself, the Apostle sent by God, and the apostles that Jesus himself has consecrated, appointed, ordained, and sent to carry out the mission that he himself has in the world.
But getting to this Ephesian letter and contemplating now the issue of headship, let’s read here what the Apostle writes. And it’s probably also, I have hunch that this is the longest continuous sentence in Holy Scripture. There’s like one paragraph practically, that is just one sentence. There are so many commas and subdivisions and parenthetical expressions in this one sentence. So I’m going to read the whole thing. And this is what it says. I’m beginning in Ephesians 1:15. This is what is says:
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all of the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come, and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church (for the sake of the Church) which is his body (sōma), the fullness (plēroma, plēthis, the fullness) of him who fills all in all.
Do you realize that that was just one sentence? That whole 15-23 is one sentence. I think it’s the longest sentence in the Bible. I never could find a longer one. But it says it all. It puts it all together there. But how does it end? It says that because Christ suffered, died, was raised, enthroned, glorified, he was made the Head over all rule and authority and power and dominion. And in the Colossian letter, St. Paul will put it this way: the head of all rule and authority. It’s exactly the same words, exactly the same expression. There’s no doubt about it that Ephesians and Colossians are by the hand of the same author, most likely a direct disciple of Paul. Some people think it might be Apollos who wrote it; other think it might be Timothy. I don’t know, but in any case it’s St. Paul’s teaching, it’s St. Paul’s doctrine. These are letters according [to] and from St. Paul.
But then it ends: “above every name that is named, not only in this age, but that which is in the age to come.” So forever and ever and ever. And then it says, “and has put all things under his feet.” And you remember, I think, from other reflections, how the most-quoted passage of the Old Testament is the first line of Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I put all things under your feet, all your enemies under your feet.’ ” So if all of your enemies and even all things are under your feet, then you are the head over all things.
And then he will say it specifically, using these very exact words. He says, “he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head.” And it says in Greek: “the head hyper panta—over all things.” And then it says, “tē ekklēsia,” in the dative case: “for the Church, for the sake of the Church, on behalf of the Church, which is his sōma, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Isn’t that a wonderful expression: “the fullness of him who fills an in all”? That’s Christ’s Body.
But here, let’s note: it is not the teaching that Christ is the Head of the Church. It’s the teaching that Christ is the head over all things: “hyper panta.” You see? Super omnia; over all things, everything, in the whole of creation, whatever it is, Christ is the Head over it.
Sometimes some scholars and commentators like to say that the term “kephali” or “kephalos, head,” actually it means the origin or the source of something, like that from which something comes, like the headship, like the head of a river, like the source and so on. There may be truth to that particular interpretation, because the head of anything is giving its reality to the rest of whatever it is, but here it doesn’t say that Jesus is the head of all things as its source, and we’ll see that in Scripture Jesus is called the archē, the source of everything, that he is before all things. But the point here is different; the point here is that he is over all things—hyper, over panta, everything.
So he’s the Head over everything. That’s exactly what it says: the Head over, not the head from which everything comes, but the Head which is over everything. And it might be worthwhile just to hear this whole thing in Greek, because it sounds just so beautiful. It says this. I’m reading from [verse] 22:
kai panta hypetaxen hypo tous podas aftou—all things subjected under his feet—kai afton edōken—and he gave him (God gave him) to be—kephalēn hyper panta—head over all things—tē ekklēsia—to the Church (for the Church)—hētis estin to sōma aftou—which is his body—to plērōma tou ta panta en pasin plēroumenou—the fullness of all things in all things filling (the fullness filling all things in all things).
It’s just so wonderful. You can’t even put that in [a] prosaic way, it’s so poetic. But that’s where you get the teaching that the Church is catholic, by the way, because katholon means filled, complete, total, nothing lacking. And the word “catholic,” by the way, is a qualitative adjective, not a quantitative. When we call the Church catholic—St. Ignatius was the first to do it, in the very first decade of the second century; he’s the one who coined the term “katholikē ekklēsia, the catholic Church”—it’s “katholon”; it’s “according to the whole.” It doesn’t mean universal or geographically expanded. It means that everything that can possibly exist is brought into perfect unity and harmony in the one holy Church of Christ which is his very Body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
What we’re seeing here is that Jesus is not only the Head of the Church, he’s the Head over everything: over every rule and authority and over everything that possibly exists in the whole of creation. There’s another text, though, that we want to think about here, when we consider Jesus as the Head, and not only the Head of the Church which is his Body, but the Head over everything. And that is a text in the [First] Letter to the Corinthians, the eleventh chapter, where the Apostle is teaching that the man is the head of the woman. You have that teaching clearly in the New Testament. It’s in [the first] Corinthian letter by St. Paul, it’s in the Ephesian letter (Deutero-Pauline, as they say), it’s in the Timothy letter: that the head of a woman in marriage and the head of a family is supposed to be the man.
In the Ephesian letter, that’s even read in the Orthodox churches at weddings. Some people don’t like it. In fact, some modern, post-modern people don’t want us to read this when they get married in church. And I think the priest has to simply tell them, “If you’re going to get married in church, this is what you’re going to hear, and if you don’t want to hear it, you’d better go get married somewhere else, because this is what Christians hear when they get married in Christ.” And what the Christians hear, where you have the issue of headship, is very clear, and that this is what it says. It begins:
Be subject, one to another, out of reverence for Christ.
So the subjection is mutual. The husband to the wife, and the wife to the husband. There’s a mutual subjection, a mutual submission. That’s incredibly important. But then it continues:
Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his Body, and is himself its Savior.
What it is saying is this: we can understand the Church by understanding the married couple, and we can understand the marriage by understanding Christ and the Church. The same way that Christ is the Head of the Church, so the husband is supposed to be the head of the wife. And St. Paul actually says this:
For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the Head of the Church, which is his Body, and his himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having sanctified her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
So husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself, for no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his Body. For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother, be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one. This is a great mystery, and I am speaking that it refers to Christ and the Church. However, let each one of you love his wife as his very self, and let the wife see that she respects and holds in awe (in fear) her own husband.
What this is saying is that the family—Chrysostom calls it, in Homily 20 on Ephesians, the mikra ekklēsia, the small church; he comments on this in Colossians also—that you have the same kind of structure, the same kind of order, that there is a kind of a headship, but the head of the family is Christ himself. The head of the man is Christ himself. But then the man exercises the headship within the family, but it is not a headship of tyranny or domination or subjugation or chauvinism. It’s the headship of love, the same as Christ’s headship of the Church.
And the same way that Christ as Head of the Church gives everything he has and invigorates the whole Body and cannot even be the Head without the Body—neither can the body be the body without the head, otherwise it’s a corpse—but it’s the same thing with man and woman: there has to be this total union, this communion, this unity, the one-flesh reality. That exists by a mutual subjugation, a mutual submission. And then Christ actually submitted himself to the Church, because he died for the Church. And that’s why St. Paul says in Ephesians, that the husband has to be the head of the wife, like, just as, Christ is the Head of the Church, which is his Body. And he gave himself for her. He was crucified for her.
I always tell people who want to be married as Christians and get married in the Christian sacramental service in the Christian Church that: “Husband, if you’re marry this woman, you’ve got to be ready to be crucified for her. You’ve got to love her even unto death. You’ve got to subject yourself to her, no matter how bad she is.” Chrysostom says, “No man had a more horrible wife than Christ’s wife, and Christ’s wife is us, sinners. You know: unfaithful, adulterous, but he loves us to the end.” So a man is supposed to love his wife like Christ loves us, and that means any man should be ready to be crucified, to suffer, to die, submit to every absolute degradation for the sake of his wife, with whom he is one body and one flesh.
When we’re speaking about headship, it’s the headship as Christ portrays it, as Christ actualizes and realizes it, as Christ accomplishes it. And it’s not headship like the pagans, like the Gentiles. Jesus says this in the synoptic Gospels. He said, “I come to serve. I come to be a slave, not to lord it over you like the pagans do.” And here’s the great Christian teaching: The Lord does not lord it over us. He becomes our slave. He becomes our servant. He dies for us, in order that we can become one flesh and one body with him as our Head.
That’s how we understand the headship of the man over the woman in marriage and the father in a family. And in the same Ephesian [letter], the Apostle will write, “I bow my knees before the one God and Father, from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth gets its name.” And that’s very, very important, because we don’t call God “Father” because of our human fathers; we call our human fathers “Father” because of God. In the RSV, that would say—it’s [Ephesians] 3:14:
For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom (it says in the RSV) every family in heaven and on earth is named.
But it actually says in Greek, “every patria, every fatherhood.”
Here in the Orthodox Christian tradition, every human community has to have a father. The Church has a father: the bishops, the priests are the fathers. The nation should have a father. Orthodox countries would consider their king, their emperor as the batushka, the father. Monasteries have fathers and mothers. We are all brothers and sisters; the younger ones are all our children. The apostles will say, “Treat every older man as your father, every older woman as your mother, every peer-person as your brother and sister, every younger one as your son or daughter.” This is the structure of humanity from the Christian perspective. It’s familial, and if it’s familial, then it has to have a structure similar to that given to that… similar, but actually patterning, imaging, the very structure of the Godhead himself.
Probably one of the most amazing sentences in the Scripture on the issue of headship would be found in the eleventh chapter of the first Corinthian letter, where the Apostle says this:
I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
So the claim is that God the Father is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of the man, in the family and in the Church; and then the man functions to portray and to actualize this headship over the community beginning with his spouse, his wife, and his children, who call him, “Abba, Father.” And when it says in Scripture, “Call no man ‘father’ on the earth because one is your Father, even God,” well, sure, God is the Father, but human fathers are to actualize the fatherhood of God, in the headship of the way that the Father is the head of Christ.
Let’s think a little bit about the teaching that the head of Christ is God. It says it [in] so many words here: “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” According to Orthodox theology, interpreting the Holy Scriptures, God the Father is not greater than the Son of God in the divinity. He’s greater in the order of relationship, because the Son is begotten of the Father, but the teaching of the Holy Trinity [from] the Council of Nicaea, is that the Son of God is homoousio tō Patri, of one essence with the Father. We say that at every baptism. We say that at every Liturgy. We say that at every compline service in the Orthodox Church. It’s the Nicene Creed: “Light from Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things (or through whom all things, everything) was created (everything came to be).” That’s about Jesus.
So here’s the paradox—and Orthodoxy is paradoxy—the paradox is: the Father is the head of the Son, but they’re equal; they’re identical, even. Not only even identical, they’re one in their divinity. They have exactly the same divinity. And God the Father does not lord it over his Son. But notice that the teaching is that God the Father is the head of Christ as his divine Son, not just as a human being. And here, when Jesus says in St. John’s Gospel, “The Father is greater than I,” St. Basil the Great, commenting on this, he says, “When people say this refers only to Christ’s humanity, that’s not true,” because if Jesus were a mere man and says, “The Father is greater than I,” you can say, “No kidding? Really? Is God really greater than you, a creature?” But Christ is not a creature. Arius was condemned by all the holy Fathers and Ecumenical Councils for teaching that Jesus Christ was a mere ktisma, a creature. He’s not; he’s the huios tou Theou monogenēs, only-begotten Son of the Father, begotten of the Father before all ages. God is literally his Father, so he’s equal and identical and perfectly one with [God the] Father in his divinity.
Nevertheless, the head is still the Father, not the Son. The archē, the source, the principium of the divinity is still the Father. And still the Father is over the Son. The Son is not only from the Father, but the Father is over the Son. The Son receives everything from the Father. The Son obeys the Father. The Son speaks the Father’s words. He does the Father’s works. He accomplishes the Father’s will. This is the teaching of Holy Scripture.
Nevertheless, in this relationship of the obedience of the Son to the Father, it’s between two equals, two Gods, as it were, two who are divine with the same divinity. Translating this to humanity, it would be exactly the same thing. When it says that the head of the woman is her husband, the head of Christ is God, well, the head of Christ is God, but the head of the man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man. Now, does that mean that the man can just tyrannize and dominate and lord it over his woman? or that men [in] general can lord it over and dominate and tyrannize women, in a male-chauvinistic way? Absolutely not! That’s horrendous. That comes from corruption. That comes from sin.
But there still is a taxē, an order. There’s an order of reality. And the order can be between those who are of the very same nature and are absolutely one in value and worth and being. And so we say the same thing about humanity that we say about divinity: as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, so all human beings are one humanity, exactly, identically the same. Men and women have the same humanity. They’re of the same worth, the same value. But as they relate to each other, then the one who functions in the headship, imaging Christ himself in the Church, and God the Father in the Holy Trinity, is the man; it’s not the woman. But in this very same eleventh chapter, if you read further down, if you read not only verse three, but read verse eleven, it says (I Corinthians 11:11-12):
Nevertheless, in the Lord, woman is not (it says in the RSV) independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman was made from man, so man is now born from woman, and all things are from God.
In Greek it would say, “chōris”: “In the Lord (en Kyriō), the woman is not chōris (apart from) the man, nor is the man chōris (apart from) the woman, for as the woman was made originally from the man”—that’s the Genesis story—“so now man is born of woman, and in all things (everything) is from God.” So there’s [an] absolute identity of nature, equality, value, worth, between men and women. When it comes to sanctity and holiness, there’s no difference at all between men and women, but when it comes to how they interrelate, man as man, woman as woman, and not simply as human beings, but precisely in their gender-specific reality…
And that’s why, in Orthodox Christianity, when gender-specificity is violate or even not understood—people don’t know what it is to be a man, what it is to be a woman, how men and women are to interrelate—then we claim, Orthodox Christians claim, ancient Christianity claims: that’s from sin. That’s not from God; that’s from sin. That’s not the way God made it to be. There’s an order that God wants, but that order does not involve any degradation, humiliation, or anything else. It’s a henosis agapēs, as St. Ignatius will say in the second century. It’s a union of love, of faith, of reality, and as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God and one Godhead and one divine nature, so all men and women and children on earth are one humanity, with one and identical, same human nature.
When they relate to each other, in marriage and family, or in a monastery, or in a church community, or even in society, this order of relationship that we believe God has ordered, all things being from God, has to be honored and has to be kept. In one sense, everyone is equal, identical, and totally one, and no one can lord it over anyone else, even over those of a different nature. Human beings shouldn’t lord it over angels or over animals or over plants or over horses. Horses are horses; orchids are orchids; pigeons are pigeons; and Michael and Gabriel are angels. They’re different; they’re distinct in their nature, and there isn’t any lording of one [over] the other in any kind of pagan way, or any kind of power way. The union is the union of love, and the lordship and the headship is exercised through love and service. That is the Christian teaching.
There’s a headship of love and service. There’s a headship of origin and governance. But there’s no tyranny. There’s no subjugation. There’s no enslavement. And there’s certainly no abuse. I don’t know, beating or controlling or owning like property or anything like that. Absolutely not! In fact, in the Christian view, although the Christian view defends that people on earth, until the Lord’s coming, can have their property and the other people shouldn’t steal it; they can have their possessions, and people shouldn’t steal them; that’s a sin against stealing; but it also teaches that these things don’t really belong to us. We’re stewards of them. My house, my field, my cow, my car, my computer, my own body, my own mind, my own self, and certainly my wife and my children: I don’t own them; they don’t belong to me. They belong to God. They, in fact, belong to Christ who purchased them by his Blood in the Redemption.
But as we interact, I, as [the] husband of my wife, the father of my family, the pastor of my community, my church, there is that function of headship that is to image, pattern, and actualize and realize in human form what exists within the Holy Trinity itself, the pattern of relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and certainly patterning the relationship between Christ and the Church. Now, Christ and the Church, the headship is dual, because Christ is the Head of the Church, not only as God but as man. Never forget that Christ is a real man. He’s a real human being. And the Head of the Church is the man, Jesus, the one mediator between God and man, which we still have to reflect on in our next reflection.
But headship does not mean tyranny. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, he always used to say, communities without headship, without order, and even, [in] some sense, without hierarchy… Although that’s not a biblical term. That’s a modern term, medieval, but it’s not really a Christian term, “hierarchy.” I can’t stand when our bishops are called “hierarchs.” That’s really not a… It begins already early, but very rare, actually. And we usually translate “archierea,” as “hierarch,” but “archierea” is literally translated as “high priest,” not as “hierarch.”
In any case, the point we want to make here is that if you try to have a community without a head, you will have anarchy. But if you have a head that just dominates without a real conciliarity and a real community, then you have tyranny. So Christians are supposed to be opposed both to tyranny and to anarchy. We want order and not chaos. So we believe there has to be an ordered society, churches, families, monasteries, institutions, nations, countries, where you would have both order and community. And community without leadership, without headship, just degenerates into anarchy and massive confusion and so on. It’s like what we have today.
But then when you have a leadership that is just dominant and tyrannous and despotic, then you just have tyranny. You don’t have freedom. You don’t have conciliarity. You don’t really have love. You can’t have unity. You can only have subjugation. This is extremely important. When we discuss the Church and the episcopal assembly and what the bishop is supposed to be and what the man and woman are supposed to be and what a family is supposed to be, even what a country’s supposed to be, this is crucial. This is crucial. And for Christians, we cannot betray this at all. It’s a narrow path.
What we want to see today, in our reflection today, is that there is headship. There is headship. Christ is our Head. He is the Head over all things. He is the Head over all rule and authority, and he is certainly the Head of the Church, even in his humanity. And even in his humanity, he’s made the Head over all things, when he is crucified, raised, glorified, and enthroned, in his human flesh and blood, in his body, on the right hand of the throne of God the Father, being forever a God-man, a man now. It’s the man, Jesus. One of the Holy Trinity is human. And in God’s perspective, he was human forever, so to speak, because the Incarnation takes place in time, and God is beyond time.
In any case, the point for today is the Head is Christ. The Head of everything is Christ. The Head over all humanity is Christ. The Head over all rule and authority, even in the angelic realm, is Christ. The Christ is the [to] kephali hyper panta, the Head over everything. And Christ Jesus was made the Head over everything through what he suffered. He wins the right to be the ruler and the governor of the living and the dead because of what he suffered. And then the claim is, the Christian claim is, that humanity should image this, pattern this, actualize this in all of our relationships. Our churches should be this way, our dioceses, our parishes, our monasteries, our homes, our families, our institutions, and even our nations, to the measure that we can incarnate that in human reality.
So this headship of Christ is shared with us as well. It’s given to us in the various activities in our life. And probably every human being on earth, including young people and women and everybody else, [has] a certain function of headship in certain conditions in their life. For example, the mother is certainly a head in a family. Chrysostom called her the “[devterēs] kephali, the second head.” An abbess in a monastery is the head of that community.
When I serve liturgical services in the monastery here where I serve, before the service, I get the blessing of the abbess, and I kiss her hand. And I ask her what she wants me to do: Are we going to have Great Vespers, daily vespers? Are we going to have compline? Is there going to be litia? Does she want me to do this; does she want me to do that? She’s the one who governs; she’s the head of the community. We pray for her as the head. When we mention her in the litany, I bow to her. Now, she kisses my hand because I’m the priest in the church; she gets my blessing, I get her blessing. And I have a certain headship, and she has a certain headship. But headship is there.
But that headship must always actualize and exemplify the headship of Christ who alone is the Head. The definite article again: “the.” Christ is the Son of God, and in him we all, men and women, become sons of God. Christ is the Teacher, the Prophet, the King, the High Priest, but in him we become prophets and kings and priests. And here, for today, very important, Christ is the Head, the Head over everything. And we become heads over everything in and with him. And by the Holy Spirit, we exercise his headship in all of our human affairs in one way or in another, in different conditions, in different settings, and even with a certain gender-specific role, under certain conditions, like the headship of a man, the father in a family, or the ordained presbyter or bishop in a church.
But it’s got to be the headship according to Christ who is the Head, and not a headship according to this world, and certainly not a pagan headship, a despotic headship, a barbarian headship. Even a democratic, political headship by election and deposition and whatever: no. It’s an organic, ontological headship that is rooted in the very nature of things, and it comes from the Holy Trinity itself. For the head of Christ is God. The head of human beings is Christ, all human beings, and certainly the head of the Church is Christ, and he is the head, as St. Paul said, hyper panta, over all things.
Christ, for Christians, is, always and forever, in every way, the Head.