I can think of fewer scriptures that have caused more problems for Christianity than these. When I was dating in high school, I remember having a conversation with my girlfriend's mother. She was interested in what I believed as a Latter-day Saint (this being my first and only foray into the world of dating those not of my faith). We talked, and I was shocked to find out that the big hurdle to her believing what I believed was not Joseph Smith, it was not the Word of Wisdom, it was not believing that the Book of Mormon was the word of God.
It was believing that the Bible was.
More specifically, she had heard these verses when younger and could not believe in any group that would denigrate and subjugate women in such a fashion. Nor was she the only person I heard this from. Throughout my mission and thereafter it came up fairly regularly: how can the Bible be true if it says such a rotten, scurrilous thing about the roles of men and women?
I did my best to answer honestly and truthfully, but could tell that my answers never really satisfied the questioner. She (usually, for obvious reasons, the person bringing this up was a woman) would usually go away content that I didn't think she was anything but equal in the eyes of God... but still.
I was finally forced to face this issue not only head-on, but in depth when I became engaged to my wife: a self-labeled feminist.
Now, to be clear, I am not talking about someone who is out burning bras and screaming about everything. Just a person who had a deep conviction about the equality of man and woman, and a deep concern about both this scripture and (since we were soon to be married) about what her role would be in a marriage that was guided by such a scripture.
At first, I pulled out the easy answer: the one that I had been using (albeit unsuccessfully) throughout my life: Doctrine and Covenants 121:37-41. This is the section which says (in effect) that any person who seeks to rule over another on a "just because I say so" platform will automatically have his power revoked by God Himself.
This went over more or less as it always had: badly. And, talking to my smart, able, and passionate wife, I came to understand the root reason of why so many equally smart, able, and passionate women (and also some men) had such disdain for this scripture: they felt insulted by it. After all, the man is called out as "the head." And in our culture, being "the head" of something means "being in charge." This is rooted in the Old English term "heafod," which meant (among other things) the chief person, or ruler.
But Old English was not the original language that Paul was writing in when he wrote to the Ephesians. Further, the following verses point to a different meaning entirely than that which is commonly (mis)understood about these verses:
But that still leaves open a problem: there is no such man: only Christ Himself possessed all the attributes necessary to properly, righteously, and rightfully rule over others. And so we seem back where we are started: with woman relegated to a submissive position in a relationship, subject to an imperfect man who will "rule" over her in a way that is necessarily flawed - for so all men are flawed, being not Christ.
29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:
But then verse 29 came to me again as we talked:
And with that thought, another scripture came to mind, one written by the same author:
11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:11).
And another scripture, this time in Genesis 2:24:
24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
Looking at these scriptures in conjunction, it is easy to see that the Lord has returned to this theme over and over through the ages: man and woman, one flesh. And at that point it dawned on me. I turned to my fiancee and said (essentially) "So what if I'm the head? What does that leave you to be? Just the heart that shows the way when the reasoning is clouded, just the hands that are capable of doing the work, just the legs that can walk the path of the Lord for us."
I believe that when the Lord was speaking (through Paul) of man as "head," he did not mean it in a tribal, Old English way. He meant it in a way that recognizes two things:
1) Man and woman are different. They are equal in the eyes of God in the sense that they have equal value, but they are different. A twelve million dollar diamond and a twelve million dollar ruby are equal in value, but they have distinct characteristics that make them valuable in different ways. And years of social research have backed up this fact: men and women are different, each gender having (as a general rule) strong and weak points, as well as different facets of strength which the other may have in lesser measure.
2) They cannot exist well apart. I have yet to see a head that could get along without a body, or a body without a head. Thus, man and woman become "one flesh," with certain distinct characteristics they bring to each other, to a family, and to the Lord. They become interdependent, and cannot - should not - be apart. For, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6).
In the end, then, is man "the head" in the body that man and woman become when joined by the power and authority of God? Certainly. But I have never seen a head that could get very far without the permission and cooperation of the rest of the body, just as I have never seen a hand or foot do its job properly without the cooperation of the head. Man and woman, together, should function as one. This leaves no room for doubt that they are, once again, equal in value before the Lord. They each bring different attributes to a marriage or to a family unit, with those attributes complimenting each other in such a way as to bring to pass the best possible outcomes.
A humorous (though mostly true) example: in our home, if it were solely up to my wife, the kids would probably be either a) taken to the ER every time they said something hurt or they had a boo-boo, or b) covered head to toe in bubble wrap to make boo-boos impossible. On the other hand, if it were solely up to me, I would probably be telling my children to "shake it off" after being hit by a car, or tell them "it's probably nothing - just go to bed and it'll feel better in the morning" after they come out of their rooms with their eyes bleeding.
Neither of these is a good outcome. Too extreme, too impractical, but hard-wired into us. And so when a boo-boo comes, we compromise, and we generally end up somewhere in the middle: in a place we can both live with, and which generally results in a child who is both being taken care of and learning how to deal with boo-boos appropriately.
In this example, I am definitely "the head": cold and calculating, trying to show my child how to survive in a world that has far too much pain in it. And my wife is definitely the heart: trying to comfort with compassion, no matter the cost.
Neither works well without the other. Just as grace and works come together and intertwine to allow for salvation (see, e.g. James 2:17, Ephesians 2:5, 8 ), so the "head" of man and the "body" of woman come together and intertwine to create one complete person.
Ultimately, it matters not which part of the complete person each one is, because they are joined of God, and they will stand together before Him in the hereafter, for together they will lead and guide each other. Together, as man and wife, I and my sweetheart will go forward, she at times leading me, I at times leading her, but always linked, always holding hands, always striving to move forward with the other, to that ultimate goal: that of further Oneness with God, as we enter - together - into His rest.