“Headship” in 1 Corinthians: A Source of Misunderstanding

“Headship” in 1 Corinthians: A Source of Misunderstanding January 19, 2023

Studying Headship
How carefully are we consuming the Word of God? Photo by Aaron Burden, Unsplash / Wikimedia

The concept of “biblical headship,” or the idea that a man should have ultimate authority over his wife and/or women in the church, is primarily based on interpretations of four key New Testament passages (Icons of Christ, William G. Witt, 121). The one I will deal with in this post is 1 Corinthians 11. Verse 3 of this chapter reads as follows:

“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and the head of Christ is God.”

At first blush, this passage might clearly seem supportive of the notion of “headship”; however, this understanding depends more on how we as English speakers typically interpret the word “head” rather an understanding of the Greek word that Paul uses for head here, kephalē, and his intended meaning. In fact, many modern Biblical scholars argue that “head” in this instance does not connote “authority over” but rather the concept of “source” (128-9).

In fact, “head” carries similar nuances of meaning in English. The word can imply authority over: for example, a headmaster. Yet, in other English words, “head” can also connote “source,” with no concept of authority at all: for example, fountainhead or headwaters.

So what did Paul mean?

In probing this question, I rely primarily on the text Icons of Christ, by Anglican theologian William G. Witt, in which he helpfully synthesizes the views of various Biblical scholars who dispute the complementarian interpretation of kephalē as “authority over”.

I’ll end with some thoughts on why the issue of headship matters so much for the church.

“Authority Over” or “Source”

In advocating “source” as a better understanding of kephalē, Witt makes the following points:

  • The interpretation of kephalē as “authority over” is based on a cherry-picking of Greek lexicons. Witt specifically calls out complementarian Wayne Grudem, who argues for this meaning based on six Greek lexicons, while Philip Payne provides nineteen Greek lexicons where “authority” is not listed as a meaning for kephalē. (128)
  • The metaphorical use of kephalē in ancient texts does not always refer to those who exercise authority over others but rather implies “progenitor” or “ancestor.” (129)
  • While Grudem draws on military and political examples to support his view of kephalē as “authority over,” his analysis may be invalid, since Paul’s use of kephalē involves not a sovereign who rules over many but a gendered relationship between a single man and a single woman. (128-9)
  • Apart from the word “head,” nothing else in the passages themselves indicates Paul’s concern with hierarchical relationships between men and women. (129)
  • If Paul had been advocating man’s authority over woman, there are Greek terms he could have used such as exousia (authority) or archon (ruler) – but he did not. (129)
  • When kephalē is understood as “source,” the passage makes theological sense – and is more consistent with the passages that follow: “But I want you to understand that Christ is the source of every man, and the husband is the source of his wife, and the source of Christ is God.” (1 Cor. 11:3)

This final point bears some further explanation.

While Grudem argues that 1 Cor. 11:3 outlines a relational hierarchy, Witt cites Payne and Gordon Fee in countering that what the passage really conveys is the order of salvation history: Christ is the source of all that is created (John 1:3), including Adam, the first man; the man is the source of the woman’s being, as described in the story of Adam and Eve; and God the Father is the source of the incarnate Christ (131).

The interpretation of kephalē as “source” here is further supported in the passages that follow (7-13), which – although transitioning to a literal meaning of “head” – actually reiterate that man is the source of woman:

“A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” (1 Cor. 7-13)

7-13: “Headship” Rears its Head Again

While verses 7-13 are consistent with a rendering of kephalē as “source,” in verse 3, complementarian scholars have nevertheless inferred from these latter passages additional support for their views:

  • Verses 7-9 are considered evidence of a gender hierarchy: “…he [man] is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”
  • Verse 10: In the English Standard Version of the Bible, which was arguably influenced by a complementarian agenda, verse 10 (“It is for this reason that a woman ought have authority over her own head”) is wrongly translated as, “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.” The ESV translation thus invites the reader to draw the incorrect conclusion that the authority on a woman’s head is that of her husband’s – and not her own. (132)

In response to these arguments, Witt once again draws on the views of several Biblical scholars to craft a compelling refutation:

  • Verses 7-9: Witt notes that how we interpret these verses pivots on how we view the creations of man and woman in Genesis 2. Fee argues that Paul here is not supporting the subordination of woman to man based on Genesis but rather reflecting on the idea, emphasized in Genesis, that man is not complete without woman. Witt quotes Fee: “She is thus man’s glory because she ‘came from man’ and was created ‘for him.’ She is not thereby subordinate to him, but necessary for him. She exists to his honor as the one who having come from man is the companion suitable for him, so that he might be complete.” (131).
  • Verse 10: According to Witt, Fee asserts that the grammatical construction of this verse (“subject, the verb echein [‘has/have’] with exousia as the object following by the preposition epi”) is only known to occur in Greek as meaning a subject (woman) having “authority” over the object of the preposition (head). The ESV rendering of this verse is technically inaccurate. (132)
    • Interestingly, Witt further notes that verse 10 must refer to a woman’s authority over her own head, because the verse that immediately follows it states: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman…and all things are from God.” (v. 11-13) If Paul had been emphasizing male authority in verse 10, he would instead have written, “Nevertheless, in the Lord man is not independent of woman”! The interdependence of men and women – not the subjugation of one to the other – is actually Paul’s point here, and verses 11-13 are the lynchpin of his argument. (133-5)

Headship: Not Paul’s Idea

The interdependence of men and women is underscored in the parallelism between verses 8-9 and 11-12, as outlined by Fee and Kenneth Bailey. Witt writes: “Man was not created because of [dia] the woman. However, man is born through [dia] the woman. Verses 11-12 repeat the terminology of 8-9 to show that the temporal authority of man in creation as the ‘source’ of woman is balanced by the order of nature (natural birth) in which woman is the source of all men. Paul’s juxtaposition here thus undermines any notion of subordination based on temporal order.” (135). In fact, as I wrote about in my post on gender roles, what Paul is effectively doing here is emphasizing gender mutuality by equalizing men and women in terms of both role and ontology. Witt quotes Payne, who calls Paul the first person to impute theological importance to the idea that women, through childbirth, become – like Adam – the source of human life, which ultimately derives from Christ (134).

Paul, Witt concludes, is not advocating a complementarian subordination of women but “reinterpreting creation” – and arguably leveling it – “through a Christocentric lens.” (134)

Paul caps his appeal to gender mutuality with “everything comes from God” in the latter half of verse 12, using a Greek word for “everything” (panta) that likely means “all people” in context. In this way, Paul upholds in these passages the equality of women and men rather than qualifying the woman as subordinate to man. (135)

“Headship” and the Trinity

Witt ends his discussion by contravening the idea, popularized by Grudem and advocated by some complementarians, of Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS), which holds that Jesus is ontologically equal to the Father but functionally subordinate – and not merely subordinate to the Father as the incarnate Christ, but eternally subordinate. I discuss these arguments in more detail in my post The Trinity and Gender Relationships. The tie-in to 1 Corinthians 11 is that ESS’ claim of a hierarchy within the Trinity supposedly reflects an immutable gender hierarchy, and advocates of ESS see verse 3 as evidence of these relational hierarchies: “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and the head of Christ is God.”

Aside from misunderstanding the use of “head” in 11:3, Witt criticizes ESS on the grounds of potential heresy (142-143). Moreover, he criticizes Grudem and likeminded complementarians for not being able imagine relations between more than one person as based on anything other than authority. In fact, referencing Augustine, Witt argues that the relationship between the persons of the Trinity has historically been understood as one based on equality and mutual love, not authority or hierarchy! (143) Witt concludes by questioning if the cleavages exposed in the ESS debate are ultimately rooted in more basic theological differences:

“It seems not to have occurred to Grudem that mutuality and equality based on love would not only be just as adequate a matter of differentiating between persons, but a superior one. This would seem to indicate that there is a more fundamental difference between complementarians and egalitarians than basic disagreements in exegesis. At stake seems to be a fundamental difference of understanding of how persons relate to one another, a difference rooted in divergent understandings of the triune God, the incarnation, and human beings. In the end, the disagreement may well lie in different theologies of soteriology and grace.” (143)

To be fair, not all complementarians are aligned with Grudem on subordination in the Trinity, which I’ve discussed here. Complementarians would also attempt to argue that they do believe in the equality of men and women; yet, the equality they claim isn’t genuine, as it’s controverted by an equivalent support for inequality in the roles that men and women serve. I attempt to further explain the false dualism of this approach in conversation with a reader who challenged me to clarify why gender equality is ultimately incompatible with complementarianism.

All People Together Under God

So why does this matter for the church?

In the recent podcast Disentangling Church & Culture, Rev. Dr. Kendrick Curry explains why it matters for the Church that Christ has invalidated hierarchies of people, be they of race or gender:

“If we are to be new creatures in Christ, then doesn’t salvation itself depend upon us living out a correct story? Think about Jesus. Do we wish to be made whole? Salvation doesn’t create levels and races and classes; it’s a grand leveler and clarifier for all on planet Earth…and when we see the Lord face to face, we are going to have to answer for all the deeds done in our body [the Church]….”

When the Church works against the salvation leveling of Christ by reading into the Bible notions of “headship” that don’t exist, we create a “pecking order” under the pretense of holiness. We work against Christ in failing to share the correct story with the world, God’s story and our story, and we will in some way be called to account for this failure. Even if the Church doesn’t explicitly advocate “headship”, promoting it implicitly, or even passively accepting it, is being complicit in it. In a similar way to racism, “headship” is no ideological trifle that Christians can casually dismiss in their midst with a “live and let live” attitude, like eating food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8). To the contrary, “headship” does real damage and has real victims.

Perhaps the biggest issue at stake is justice. As we remember Martin Luther King this week, I find inspiring one of his famous lines in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”


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