What does “headship” mean in Paul? By Lucy Peppiatt

From Lucy Peppiatt’s blog where you can read the rest of her article:

When I wrote Women and Worship I was still undecided about exactly what I thought Paul meant by kephale or ‘head’ in 1 Cor 11:3, so I left it a bit open, explaining what I was sure it didn’t mean (with thanks to Chrysostom), and tentatively suggesting a few ideas.

Since then, I’ve often gone back to this idea, not particularly reading a lot more, but just thinking and looking again at the Scriptures, and talking things over with my lovely husband, who is as interested in this topic as I am and willing to talk at any time of the day or night! He was already talking to me about the importance of Ephesians and then I came across Katharine Bushnell, who tackles this issue, and when I read her insights I found that she said something which just pushed my thinking a last notch, and I finally feel more ready to have a stab at what I think Paul meant.

In this post, I’ll look at Paul’s use of ‘head’ in Ephesians, and then in the next one, see what light this might shed on his use of the same term in 1 Corinthians, and how studying Ephesians in more detail has now shaped my thinking for 1 Cor.

I won’t go through all the possible meanings of kephale. You can easily look those up. What I’m more interested in is, out of all the possible meanings, what Paul means by using this term in relation to Christ and the church and husband and wife in Ephesians and then whether we can draw any parallels with his use of the same term in relation to God/Christ, Christ/man, or Christ/husband and man/woman or husband/wife, and in 1 Corinthians.

Here are my conclusions in brief regarding the Ephesians use, and then I’ll tell you how I got there…

When Paul describes a Christian husband as the ‘head’ of his wife, in the same way that Christ is the ‘head’ of the church, I think he is attempting a number of things.

  1. In a culture where wives were often regarded as both chattels and easily expendable, he wishes to redefine a husband’s understanding of his responsibilities towards his wife in the following way: a Christian husband is fully committed for life, sexually faithful, monogamous, self-sacrificial, and endlessly loving.
  2. In a culture where women and girls were largely uneducated or invested in in any way, and where men would have held all the power and education, he wishes to give Christian husbands the task of building up their wives into spiritual maturity, nourishing and nurturing them as ones who are equal heirs of the riches of grace poured out on them by Christ.
  3. The best concept to use when attempting to find an idea that applies both to Christ and the church and to husbands and wives (which I think is also transferable to the God/Christ and Christ/husband pairings) is the idea of the ‘cornerstone’ or ‘foundation’ upon which a structure is built up, and through which all things hold together.

It is not really possible to ignore the connotations of ‘lordship’ or ‘preeminence’ associated with the term kephale. I’m sure this is what lies behind the assumption that Paul expected Christian husbands to exercise some kind of ‘authority’ over their wives. However, just because a term may mean something, it doesn’t mean that it has to in a certain context, especially if another possible definition of the word will do better. Moreover, the overtones of ‘lordship’ and ‘preeminence’ do not, of necessity, connote ‘authority’. I would suggest that the weight of the evidence from the rest of Paul’s thinking is that he had no such connotation in mind in relation to husbands and wives. Why do I think that?

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About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.