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The head of the woman is man? How to understand headship in 1 Corinthians 11:3

This post is excerpted from Paul D. Gardner’s 1 Corinthians in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament and the accompanying 1 Corinthians, A Video Study: 36 Lessons on History, Meaning, and Application.


1 Corinthians 11:3 says, “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”

What Paul writes in these verses has generated enormous discussion.

In part, the debate is engendered simply by the complexity of an argument that is, to say the least, abbreviated for those of us who cannot be sure what exactly Paul wished to affirm or what behavior, if any, he wished to correct. Mostly, however, the volumes of writing about these verses have arisen because of the often-heated debate in the modern church about the role of women in worship.

At the outset, it is clear that Paul’s assumption in verse five is that women do take part in some parts of worship, at least in prayer and prophesying. In that verse, he writes: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.” Thus, it is important to keep in mind that he speaks about what this may look like in the congregation rather than whether it should happen.

As Paul speaks of whether women should pray and prophesy with or without head coverings, he also says something about the relationship of men and women, or of husbands and wives, during worship. Throughout this difficult section and regardless of the view one takes concerning Paul’s approach to the role of women in worship, it is highly unlikely that the section can properly be used to justify as much gender-related theology as some have wanted to argue for.

This verse raises two difficult questions of interpretation:

  1. Should the word “man” (ἀνήρ) be translated as “husband” and “woman” (γυνή) as “wife”?
  2. What does the word usually translated “head” (κεφαλή) mean in this context?

Let’s explore each of these questions, as well as their implications for interpreting this verse.

“Man and Woman” or “Husband and Wife”?

There can be little doubt that the first instance of “man” refers to all men or at least to all Christian men: “the head of every man is Christ.” The same is likely true in the following verse: “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.”

But what about the second instance of man in verse 3: “the head of the woman is man”? Here, Paul could be referring to men and women generally, as some translations say, or to husbands and wives—“the husband is the head of his wife, as other translations say.

Usually the context helps us decide, yet here there is little help. For example, Richard B. Hays says of this verse, “In the absence of any indicators to the contrary . . . it is preferable to understand Paul’s directives here as applying to everyone in the community, married or unmarried: women should have covered heads in worship; men should not.”

But others suggest that there is some indication in the text that husbands and wives are in view. For example, when these two words—ἀνήρ and γυνή—come together in Greek, as they do here, they often refer to husband and wife. Here are a few examples:

  • 1 Corinthians 7:2–3: “But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.”
  • Ephesians 5:23: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”
  • Titus 1:6: “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe[a] and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.”

Also, since Paul appeals a few verses later to the creation story of Genesis, it is noted that reference is to the first married couple.

In light of this, the view adopted here is that Paul probably had married women and their husbands in mind, not men and women more generally, though this does not negate the fact that Paul also makes general comments in this passage about all men and women.

The Meaning of “Head”

The meaning of the word “head” has traditionally been understood to involve a certain degree of authority or hierarchy when it is used metaphorically, as in 1 Corinthians 11:3. (Compare to the following verse, where it is instead used literally: “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.”)

All lexicons support this metaphorical understanding of the word. Thus “head” is used to denote a “being of high status” or of “superior rank” (BDAG), and so it is taken to connote some form of authoritative relationship.

“Source” instead of “Head”?

Recently, the meaning of “source” (for κεφαλή) has attracted great attention even though it is not acknowledged as a possible meaning in the major lexicons. An apparent exception to this appears in LSJ where “head” is said to have a literal meaning with physical objects in a reference to the “source” or “head” of a river. However, this dictionary definition offers no example of this being picked up in metaphorical usage. Rather, in this usage “head” is another application of the occasional and rather rare literal meaning of “end point” or “extremity” of an object.

The main reason the suggested meaning of “source” (for κεφαλή) has come to prominence in some modern writings is that it provides a way in which to avoid any connotation of “authority over” or hierarchy such as is normally assumed in this and other New Testament uses of the word. In theory, “source” can be as neutral as saying that one thing comes from another without regard for ideas of authority or control issuing from it.

In a modern world where authority structures, especially in matters of gender, are highly suspect, if such a meaning can be substantiated then part of the perceived problem of Paul’s male chauvinism would disappear.

The original suggestion for this meaning of “source” seems to have begun with an article by Stephen Bedale, who has since been followed by many who draw rather different conclusions from his work than he did! While much of what is argued in his short article has come in for strong and convincing criticism, here is what Bedale himself actually concluded on 1 Corinthians 11:3:

“That is to say, the male is κεφαλή [head] in the sense of ἀρχή [beginning] relatively (sic) to the female; and, in St Paul’s view, the female in consequence is ‘subordinate.’ . . . But this principle of subordination which he finds in human relationships rests upon the order of creation, and includes the ‘sonship’ of the Christ himself . . . while the word κεφαλή . . . unquestionably carries with it the idea of ‘authority’, such authority in social relationships derives from a relative priority (causal rather than merely temporal) in the order of being.”

Whether or not one accepts the argument about the word’s meaning, at no time did Bedale imply that his interpretation removed the metaphorical connotation of “authority over.” Given how prominent his article has become in some circles, it is strange how rarely his actual exegesis of 11:3 is recounted.

Wayne Grudem on the meaning of “Head”

However, the case for viewing “source” as a possible meaning for “head” has been undermined in recent years. An initial article by Wayne Grudem in 1985 examined 2,336 uses of the word “head” in Greek literature and concludes that it never means “source.”

This article received various responses, including a direct response by Richard Cervin in a later issue of the same journal. His examination of Grudem’s examples and his own lead him to conclude: “What does Paul mean by his use of the word head in his letters? He does not mean “authority over,” as the traditionalists assert, nor does he mean “source” as the egalitarians assert. I think he is merely employing a head-body metaphor and that his point is preeminence.” In his major commentary, Gordon Fee also takes issue with Grudem’s analysis, stating that “Paul’s understanding of the metaphor . . . and almost certainly the only one the Corinthians would have grasped, is ‘head’ as ‘source,’ especially ‘source of life.’”

In a second article, Grudem responds to Cervin at considerable length and to all of these in his second article where, following Cotterell and Turner, he also strongly critiques Fee’s argument for “source,” essentially asking whether there is any evidence for what Fee asserts!

A third article by Grudem in 2001 interacts at length with Catherine Kroeger and, more briefly, with Andrew Perriman, who, following Cervin, also proposes the meaning of “most prominent, foremost, uppermost, preeminent.” Perriman’s conclusion that the word (κεφαλή) neither means “chief” nor “ruler” nor “source” has more recently been defended by David Garland, who suggests Perriman “has the best of the arguments.” In his brief article Perriman further criticized the understanding of “head” as “source,” but also argued that the word does not mean “chief” or connote “authority.” Arguing strongly that the main issue in the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 has to do with “honor” and “dishonor,” he asserts that “what mars the headship relationship . . . is dishonor, not disobedience: so the woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered ‘dishonors her head.’” He states that the word “head” denotes:

  1. the physical top or extremity of an object,
  2. that which is first (extreme);
  3. what is prominent or outstanding;
  4. that which is determinative or representative by virtue of its prominence.

Thus, he sees the main content of the word in this context to reflect a representative headship: “The behavior of the woman reflects upon the man who as her head is representative of her, the prominent partner in the relationship, or that woman’s status and value is summed up in the man.”

In response, Grudem pointed to a number of problems with this view. He notes specifically three points:

  1. that no lexicons have supported this meaning;
  2. that the idea of prominence does not fit the context of 11:3; and
  3. that in literary examples where prominence may be in evidence it is “derived from ruling authority or power that is possessed by (for example) the king of a nation or the head of a tribe, or from Christ’s position as the head of the church.”

“Head” denotes authority

We take the view that “head” does denote authority over. This seems to be fully justified on the basis of the available evidence from other Greek literature as all the lexicons and, recently, Grudem have demonstrated.

However, this does not mean that there are not other nuances attached to the word, such as that of preeminence.

Having said that, one of the main problems for believing that Paul used the word “head” to denote preeminence here in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is contextual. Paul’s problem right through this epistle has been with people who think of themselves as above others, who “boast” and flaunt themselves as “puffed up” through their “knowledge.” These are people who believe they are “strong” and who seek to influence others and laud it over them by their insistence on their rights, while taking no cognizance of what is happening spiritually in the lives of other brothers and sisters.

This remains part of the problem Paul addresses here. To refer thus to relationships in which his first idea is to stress the preeminence of men in relation to women, or of God to Christ, seems precisely to go against the tenor of his argument.

The issue to be dealt with is this: given that the husband is “head” of his wife (and so has some authority), how should this be reflected in worship when all come together and all are involved in worship? In fact, Christ shows us in his relationship to the Father how “authority” structures can function in a godly, love-based fulfillment of roles of leadership and authority and roles of voluntary submission.

It is one of the strange parts of the debate we have outlined that in the end it is surely hard to accept an equality of status in the community (which Paul affirms throughout) with the idea of preeminence if that is what Paul affirms here for the husband!

On the other hand, it is not hard to conceive of a person voluntarily submitting to another or having authority over another without questioning equality of community status. Many obvious examples from common life spring to mind. One to be considered in church life is the call for a congregation to obey their spiritual leaders or elders (Heb 13:17; cf. 1 Pet 5:1–4). Such submission is voluntary, and the position of leadership is a role to which some of God’s people are called. Yet no one brought up in the Christian tradition would ever question whether leader and flock have the same status as members of God’s community and before God. Of course they do!

Authority does not mean superiority

It should further be noted that one of the problems with some arguments is the “slippage” of ideas. First, it is assumed by many that to allow that “authority” is involved in a relationship must mean that one person is “inferior.” Garland insists that taking the word to mean preeminent “does not connote inferiority.” We would add, but neither does taking the word to mean “authority” connote inferiority. Christ in his relationship to the Father is the example!

One further comment must suffice. It is doubtful whether it is even possible to conceive of a “representative” relationship between people that does not connote some understanding of “authority.” Surely this is especially true in this context.

The status of Christ

It is notable that the threefold statement (man, Christ, wife, husband, Christ, God) does not reveal a descending or ascending hierarchy. But this is not to say there is no hierarchy present. Paul is introducing the subject of how husbands and wives and then, more broadly, men and women should worship, given their created and social relationships to each other. Thus, as we look at the Greek word order, we see Paul laying the groundwork by talking of the head of “man” first and then the head of “woman” before concluding with the head of Christ. This third statement reminds the reader, as Roy E. Ciampa and Brian Rosner put it in their commentary, “that the hierarchy in which the man and woman find themselves continues all the way up to God the Father.”

With all the emphasis on status and rights established by gifts from God, Christ himself has provided Paul with the example. If people should ask about their rights or insist upon flaunting their status and being “puffed up” in relation to others, Christ provides the ultimate example to them. He who is the covenant Lord has revealed more clearly than anyone in history how headship and voluntary submission work without any diminishment of status.

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