This entry is part 89 of 101 in the series: Tough texts
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
1 Corinthians 11:3 – ‘Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.’
Ephesians 5:23 ‘The husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church.’
Much discussion has taken place over the meaning of kephale (‘head’) in this context.
The first of these texts has been much discussed in the debate about the Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS).
Bruce Ware states:
In this chapter where Paul is about to deal with the importance of women acknowledging the headship of men in the community of faith by wearing head coverings, he prefaces his remarks by describing authority and submission that exist in the eternal Godhead.
(Quoted by Routley, Jonathan J. Eternal Submission: A Biblical and Theological Examination (p. 56).)
Kevin Giles, on the other hand, denies that ‘headship’ has anything to do with authority, and, in case, we should be cautious before drawing parallels between human and divine relationships. Moreover (according to Giles) this passage does not set out a hierarchical structure, but rather three pairs of relationships, in each of which one member is the ‘head’ of another member.
Robert Letham agrees with Giles that this is a hard text to interpret, and for that reason should not be viewed as decisive in the debate about ESS.
Fred Sanders (who also regards this as a bona fide hard passage) thinks that it is primarily about the incarnation.
1. Kephale as ‘source’
The traditional understanding has been that ‘head of’ means, or at least implies, ‘has authority over’. The revisionist approach, favoured by many egalitarians, is that it does not even imply the notion of ‘authority’. The most favoured alternative is ‘source’.
Although dating back to Cyril of Alexandria, the idea that kephale means ‘source’, rather than ‘chief’, came to prominence in an article by Stephen Bedale published in 1954. It was taken up by F.F. Bruce and C.K. Barrett in their respective commentaries on 1 Corinthians. It is also adopted in Hard Sayings of the Bible.
Kephale as ‘source’ would be an allusion to Gen 2, where Eve is created from Adam’s side. In some analogous way, according to this interpretation, Christ is the ‘source’ of the church, and God the ‘source’ of Christ. This view goes back as far as Cyril of Alexandria, and finds support from 1 Cor 11:8, where it is said that the woman was created from the man.
Fee argues for the translation of ‘head’ (kephale) as ‘source’, rather than ‘one in authority’. Among other things, he notes that the immediate context (‘man did not come from woman, but woman from man’, v8; ‘the woman came from men’, v12), which does seem to favour the idea of ‘source’.
Christians for Biblical Equality state: ‘The Bible teaches that husbands and wives are heirs together of the grace of life and that they are bound together in a relationship of mutual submission and responsibility (1 Cor. 7:3–5; Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:1–7; Gen. 21:12). The husband’s function as “head” (kephalē) is to be understood as self-giving love and service within this relationship of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 3:19; I Pet. 3:7).’
To argue that kephalē means head/authority over in 1 Cor 11:3 is implausible. Paul immediately goes on to say that as long as a woman has her head covered she can lead the church in prayer and prophecy. Why subordinate woman to man and then immediately say that women can lead in church? It makes no sense. The well-established metaphorical meaning of “source,” in the sense of “source of life,” does make sense of this introductory comment. Paul is saying Christ is the kephalē of all humankind—as the co-creator; man (Adam) is the kephalē of the woman (Eve) in her creation, a point Paul makes in 1 Cor 11:8 and 12, and God [the Father], is the kephalē of Christ (the Son), in his eternal generation or incarnation. This interpretation of verse 3 avoids reading it to be teaching the error of subordinationism, the hierarchical ordering of the divine persons…Here it should be carefully noted that in this text Paul does not speak of a fourfold hierarchy, Father-Son-man-woman, but of three paired relationships in which in each instance one party is the kephalē. Christ is mentioned first and last.
That kephalē does not mean “head over/authority over” in verse 3 is confirmed by what Paul says in verse 10. The Köstenbergers argue that verse 10 speaks of the authority the man has over the woman. It does not. In the New Testament the Greek word exousia (authority) is used 103 times, and nine times in 1 Corinthians. In every instance it alludes to the authority one possesses. This text speaks of the authority women have in the new creation. It is rightly translated, “The women ought to have authority over (her) own head.” Paul could not have said this if he believed women were set under the authority of men as the creation ideal.
Blomberg (NIVAC) argues that:
If “head” is taken merely as “source,” it would require interpreting “the head of Christ is God” as a reference to the incarnation, in order to avoid the ancient Arian heresy of claiming that God created Christ. But nothing else in the passage deals with Jesus coming to earth from heaven, while Paul’s theological arguments in both verses 8–9 and 10–11 explicitly appeal to the way God fashioned things at the time of creation.
Claire Smith notes that
if we were to substitute ‘source’ for ‘head’ in verse 3, it just does not make theological sense. It would then say, “But I want you to realize that the source of every man is Christ, and the source of the woman is man, and the source of Christ is God”. And if we understand ‘source’ to mean a similar thing in each of the three phrases, we end up with a Christ who was created rather than eternally begotten of the Father, and every man being made from Christ the same way that woman was made from man—that is, taken out of him (v. 8). (God’s Good Design)
Richard Hays (Interpreter’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians):
‘Some interpreters have attempted to explain away the hierarchical implications of v. 3 by arguing that kephalē means “source” rather than “ruler.” This is a possible meaning of the word, and it fits nicely with v. 8, in which Paul alludes to the Genesis story that describes the creation of woman out of man; however, in view of the whole shape of the argument, the patriarchal implications of v. 3 are undeniable. Even if Paul is thinking here primarily of man as the source of woman rather than authority over woman, this still serves as the warrant for a claim about his ontological preeminence over her, as vv. 7–9 show.’
(It should be noted, however, that Hays does not fully accept Paul’s argument, suggesting that Paul’s patriarchalism is open to challenge.)
Soards, though favouring this interpretation, agrees that ‘the interpretative debate is not settled’. Thiselton, in fact, writing on 1 Corinthians, states that this interpretation is finding less favour in recent scholarship. As the following citations will show, Giles’ claim that this is the opinion of ‘the overwhelming majority of contemporary commentators and theologians’ (What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women) is not true.
2. Kephale as implying ‘leadership’
Kephale as ‘person with authority over’ would mean that there is a unique authority of the husband in respect of his wife, of Christ in respect of his church, and of God in respect of Christ.
Fee (Discovering Biblical Equality) concedes that in Hebrew usage the metaphorical use of ‘head’ usually referred to a leader or chieftain. (This is in contrast to Greek usage, where this usage is much less common).
Piper and Grudem (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood): ‘Verse 23 is the ground, or argument, for verse 22; thus it begins with the word for. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife. . . .” When the headship of the husband is given as the ground for the submission of the wife, the most natural understanding is that headship signifies some kind of leadership.’
Grudem offers the following points:
(a) An examination of over 2,000 instances of kephale in ancient Greek literature shows that it is never used other than in reference to a person with governing authority.
(b) It seems very unlikely that the reference of Christ as ‘head’ of his church is lacking any idea of authority.
(c) In a swathe of references from the Old Testament (LXX) and New Testament clearly indicate that the one who is called ‘head’ is a person in authority:
- David as king of Israel is called the “head” of the people he conquered (2 Samuel [LXX 2 Kings] 22:44): “You kept me as the head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me”; similarly, Psalm 18 (LXX 17):43
- The leaders of the tribes of Israel are called “heads” of the tribes (1 Kings [LXX 3 Kings] 8:1, Alexandrinus text): “Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes” (similar statements in the second-century AD Greek translation of Aquila, Deuteronomy 5:23; 29:9 (English verse 10); 1 Kings [LXX 3 Kings] 8:1)
- Jephthah becomes the “head” of the people of Gilead (Judges 11:11: “the people made him head and leader over them”; also stated in 10:18; 11:8, 9)
- Pekah the son of Remaliah is the “head” of Samaria (Isaiah 7:9: “The head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah”)
- The father is the “head” of the family (Hermas, Similitudes 7.3; the man is called “the head of the house”)
- The husband is the “head” of the wife (Ephesians 5:23: “The husband is head of the wife even as Christ is head of the church”)
- Christ is the “head” of the church (Colossians 1:18: “He is the head of the body, the church”; also in Ephesians 5:23)
- Christ is the “head” of all things (Ephesians 1:22: “He put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church”)
- God the Father is the “head” of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3: “the head of Christ is God”)
(d) It makes no sense to say that ‘the husband is the source of the wife’ (Eph 5:23).
(e) Modern Greek lexicons agree that kephale means ‘person in authority over’, and not ‘source’.
Schreiner, in his discussion of 1 Cor 11:3, agrees that
in some instances, the word kephalē may mean ‘source’ (e.g. Eph. 4:15; Col. 2:19), but in other instances in Paul the word ‘authority’ fits the context better (cf. Eph. 1:22; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:10). The most important evidence here is the parallel in Ephesians 5:23 where Paul also discusses the relationship of men and women, though in this instance the focus is on husbands and wives. Wives are called upon to submit to their husbands since husbands are head (Eph. 5:22–23). The word ‘head’ here clearly designates authority, for contextually the notion of authority fits with the call for wives to submit. Furthermore, husbands are not the physical source of their wives, for, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 11:11–12, all men come from women. Nor are husbands the spiritual source of their wives, since that honour goes to Jesus Christ.
Of significance in the context of the present letter is Eph 1:22 – ‘God put all things under Christ’s feet, and gave him to the church as head over all things.’ See also Col 2:10. The idea of authority here seems inescapable. Fee, however, thinks that kephale has three different nuances in this pair of letters: ‘(a) Christ’s relationship with the church (Eph 4:15–16; 5:23; Col 1:18; 2:19), (b) Christ’s relationship to “the powers” (Eph 1:22; Col 2:10) and (c) a householder’s relationship to his wife (Eph 5:23).’ Fee thinks, accordingly, that we should not necessarily import the meaning of one text (say, Eph 1:22) into another text (such as the present one).
Mounce: ‘kephalē is also used figuratively to mean a higher position of authority. Jesus is the head over every power and authority in the universe (Eph 1:22; Col 2:10). Moreover, Jesus is the head of the church, which is his body (Eph 1:22; 4:15; Col 1:18; 2:19). Paul speaks of the husband as the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph 5:23). In 1 Cor. 11:3–15 Paul shifts back and forth from a figurative to a literal use of kephalē. Figuratively, God is the head of Christ, who is the head of man, who is the head of his wife (v. 3; also vv. 4b, 5b).’ (Complete Expository Dictionary of Old Testament and New Testament Words)
‘Some notion of authority or leadership appears to be present in 1 Corinthians 11 when Paul speaks of God in his relationship to Christ, Christ in his relationship to humanity and man in relationship to woman (1 Cor 11:3).’ (DBI)
Blomberg agrees that the word kephale, used metaphorically, can mean either ‘source’ or ‘authority’. Paul seems to use the first meaning in Eph 4:15, but the second meaning in Eph 1:22:
But even here [in 1 Cor 11:3] Paul sends mixed signals, supplying an argument from the origin of men and women in verses 8–9, 12 but speaking explicitly of authority (Gk. exousia) in verse 10. The other passage in which Paul calls a man “head” over a woman refers as well to wives’ subordination to their husbands (Eph. 5:22–24), so “authority” seems somewhat more likely here too.
According to NBC, ‘head’ unequivocally means ‘master’, and never had the meaning of ‘source’ (as some have claimed) in biblical Greek. Grudem, similarly, rejects this argument on the basis of an analysis of usage in ancient Greek literature. It would seem from Eph 1:22 that headship does indeed imply some kind of ‘authority over’. But this must not be over-stated. The NT never uses the word ‘authority’ to describe a husband’s role, nor the word ‘obedience’ to describe the wife’s. Moreover, the word ‘subordination’ is inappropriate, given its implication of inferiority, rank, and discipline.
Fitzmyer, after a survey of the evidence, concludes that ‘a Hellenistic Jewish writer such as Paul of Tarsus could well have intended that Kephale in 1 Cor 11. 3 be understood as ‘head’ in the sense of authority or supremacy over someone else.’
3. Kephale as ‘pre-eminent’ or ‘foremost’
Thiselton’s translation of v3: ‘However, I want you to understand that while Christ is preeminent [or head? or source?] for man, man is foremost [or head? source?] in relation to woman, and God is preeminent [or head? source?] in relation to Christ.’
Thiselton (Shorter Commentary) says that although ‘source’ was a popular rendering during the last quarter of the 20th century, the weight of research is now against it. ‘Head might be nearer, but this has unfortunate associations with domination and mastery in the modern world that fail to fit Paul’s precise meaning.’ Thiselton favours the idea of ‘foremost’, or ‘pre-eminent’.
Ciampa and Rosner suggest that the current debate has tended to move beyond disagreement over whether the word in question means ‘source’ or ‘authority over’.
Those rejecting those two possibilities have tended to a more nuanced understanding of “head” as meaning “prominent,” “preeminent,” or “foremost.”
Even if by “head” Paul means “more prominent/preeminent partner” or (less likely) “one through whom the other exists,” his language and the flow of the argument seem to reflect an assumed hierarchy through which glory and shame flow upward from those with lower status to those above them. In this context the word almost certainly refers to one with authority over the other.
We may note, at this point, the conclusion of David Horrell (cited by Ciampa and Rosner):
Paul’s specific and contextual concerns clearly motivate the whole passage: he uses the word [“head”] precisely because his concern is with the way in which the [head] must be attired in worship. He follows the assertion of woman’s secondary place in the order of creation (vs. 8f.) not with a command for her to be subordinate, but with an insistence that her correct attire is a sign of her [authority] to pray and prophesy. Paul’s purpose seems to be the establishment of “proper” distinction between men and women rather than with male superiority or authority. The practical issue of attire is uppermost in his mind. (Translation of Gk. words in [brackets])
Derek and Dianna Tidball (The Message of Women) agree that the metaphor neither means ‘source’ nor emphasises ‘authority’. Instead, it suggests ‘prominence’ and implies ‘the dual notion of leadership and provision’.
Verlyn D. Verbrugge comments (EBC, 2nd ed.):
‘The nuance to the word “head” (kephalē) is difficult to interpret, since it can denote prominence, leadership, or source (the same ambiguity holds in English when we talk about the head/top of a mountain, the head/leader of a company, or the head/source of a river). In most cases in the Greek language where kephalē does not mean a particular body part, the word carries the nuance of prominence; rarely does it denote source.’
‘Thus the text seems to mean that just as Christ as the Son acknowledges the preeminence of the Father to himself (certainly as to his human nature and even in the ontological analogy of Father-Son) and men acknowledge the preeminence of Christ over them, so women acknowledge the preeminence of men in the male-female relationship (or at least the husband-wife relationship) in that culture (note that the NRSV here translates anēr and gynē here as “husband” and “wife,” respectively). But prominence in a relationship does not mean submission or subordination; certainly it does not carry that meaning in the relationship between the Father and the Son, and it should not mean that between men and women in the church.’
This is the view favoured, by a small margin, by Thiselton.
4. Kephale as ‘responsibility’
Stott (Issues facing Christians today, 4th ed., p343f) prefers ‘responsibility’: responsibility to love sacrificially, and responsibility to care selflessly. ‘The husband’s headship of his wife…is a liberating mix of care and responsibility rather than control and authority. This distinction is of far-reaching importance. It takes our vision of the husband’s role away from questions of domination and decision-making into the sphere of service and nurture.’
In addition to the usual commentaries and other references works, the following have been consulted:
J. Fitzmyer, ‘Another look at Kephale in 1 Corinthians 11:3’. New Test. Stud. vol. 35,1989, pp. 503-511
W. Grudem, ‘Does Kephale (“Head”), Mean “Source” or “Authority” in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples’, Trinity Journal 6 (1985) 38-59.