Problem Passages: 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 (Part 1: Head)

This post is a part of the series comparing the teaching on various gender passages in the Bible.

1 Corinthians 11:3-16 says,

3 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. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies  with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who  prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own[c] head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

13 Judge for  yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

Summary of Disagreements:

Although there is a lot of disagreement about what the individual verses mean; the main arguments, that refer to gender, center around three points.

  1. What does head mean? And how does that affect women in worship? (Part 1)
  2. What is the principle that can be applied in our culture? Women may pray and prophesy, but should they cover their heads in those activities today? What kind of covering is required – spiritual or literal? (Part 2)
  3. How should verse 10 be translated? As authority on the woman’s head or a symbol of authority on the woman’s head? (Part 3)

This post will detail point #1, what does head mean?

Head is the English word for the Greek word Kephale

Because of the difference in defining the Greek word kephale, Complementarians and Egalitarians deduce an opposite conclusion from 1 Corinthians 11. The definition of head is foundational to understanding the arguments.

Complementarians interpret head as authority, and believe women should have some sort of covering to signify they are in their God-ordained place under a man’s head-authority.

Egalitarians believe head means origin, and interpret Paul’s  words as giving woman her own authority to decide how to follow cultural gender norms.

Complementarians on the meaning of Head

In general, Complementarians will interpret the metaphorical head to mean boss or someone in charge. Of course, there is much debate back and forth over the use of kephale in secular Greek. Does it mean leader or source? Wayne Grudem sums up the Comp belief in this quote:

…the authors and editors of all the English lexicons for ancient Greek now agree (1) that the meaning “leader, chief, person in authority” clearly exists for kefalhv, and (2) that the meaning “source” simply does not exist. (Grudem, Wayne. The Meaning of Head: An Evaluation of New Evidence. p 48.)

The two main reasons Comps define head as leader is…

  1. it is the traditional view of the church fathers;
  2. the Hebrew word for kephale, as used in the Old Testament Scriptures, can be defined as chief.

Because Paul uses the same metaphor, husband as head, in Ephesians 5, Comps will blend these two passages together. They transfer submission from the context in Ephesians 5 into this context, and say a submissive woman is under her husband’s head and needs his “covering” when she prays and prophesies.

Verse 3 delineates what Comps believe is a clear order of authority, or hierarchy. God is over Christ. Christ is over man (or husband). Man (husband) is over woman (wife).  Each level should display this foundational truth appropriately in their culture. They refer to this heirarchy as male headship. They are divided as to how far this male headship principle is applied: whether all women are under any man (and how old is a boy when he becomes a man?), or if only wives are under their husbands.

Because Comps believe this passage teaches that women should be under the head or authority of a man, Complementarian churches limit the ministry of women in a variety of ways, and to a different extent based on conviction. For instance, Beth Moore, a complementarian herself, rationalizes teaching men because she has the permission of her husband and pastor. She describes herself as under thier authority… or headship.

Although the practical application of headship varies in different circles, the principle is this: woman cannot act on her own decision in the church. She must minister with permission of men. The responsibility for her words and actions falls to the men over her. A woman outside of this umbrella of male headship is shameful and rebellious.

Egalitarians on the meaning of Head

Egals believe head (kephale) metaphorically means source or origin. They believe this definition is the common usage of kephale in the ancient Greek. Leon Morris explains further.

We [modern English speakers] use the term [head] often for a person in authority (cf. ‘Heads of State’), but this usage was unknown in antiquity (except for a few passages in LXX). LSJ notes usages of kephale for the whole person, for life, extremity, top (of wall or column), source, etc., but never for the leader of a group. S. Bedale reminds us that the functions of the central nervous system were not known to the ancients, who held that we think with the midriff, the phren. The head was thus not the controlling factor; we must seek its significance elsewhere.  ‘Head’ was used of the ‘source’ (as ‘head’ of a river)… Paul is saying that the woman derives her being from man, as man does from Christ and Christ from God. (Morris, Leon. The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 1 Corinthians. Inter-Varsity Press, England. p.149)

Egals believe that Paul himself details the definition of kephale in verses 8 and 12. Man is the original origin/head of woman, but now men come from women – implying that woman is head of man as well. Ultimately God is the origin/head of both men and women.

Egals do not believe Paul is detailing a hierarchy of authority in verse 3. A hierarchy in this context is troublesome.

  1. All people, regardless of gender, are “in” Christ and have Him as their head (Galatians 3:28); not just men. So, they believe Paul is not referring to a spiritual hierarchy. Men are not in charge of women spiritually. Women have Christ has their head as well as men.
  2. The order is also given in a jumbled way: man/ Christ, woman/ man, Christ/ God. If Paul was referring to leadership structure, it seems more likely he would have used an ascending (or descending) order:  woman/ man, man/Christ, Christ/ God.
  3. God is not Christ’s authority. Although He is the source of Christ by the conception of the Holy Spirit. To infer something different causes problems with the equality of the Trinity, and the full divinity of Jesus (Subordinationism).
  4. If head means origin, then there is no need to catagorize leadership. This list refers to a transfer of essence. The head fills the body with itself. The body is a reflection of its head, since it derived its being from it.
  5. Historical context must be taken into consideration.

Because Egalitarians do not believe kephale means authority, women are free to minister as the Holy Spirit gifts them. They are not bound to a man’s authority, but are free to decide for themselves how best to worship and serve God. Because Egals believe kephale means origin or source, they believe the same “stuff” that formed Adam, filled Eve. The two were made of the same; they were equal. In the same way, Christ as our head (or origin), fills His church with His Spirit. Men and women of the body of Christ are filled and empowered to serve from the same “stuff.”

In conclusion, how you define kephale is how you will define the role of men and women from a Biblical viewpoint. In the next part of 1 Corinthians 11, I will explore the differing ideas about head coverings.

Further Reading

Complementarian: Chapter 5 of Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, Edited by Wayne Grudem

Egalitarian: A video post where I explain the biblical context of head as origin or source.

3 thoughts on “Problem Passages: 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 (Part 1: Head)

  1. In further criticism of Morris, it might also be useful to see how Paul’s own near contemporaries were using the word head (‘kephale’).

    For instance, the Jewish historian Josephus, writing in about AD 75, states,
    “[52] The city Jerusalem is situated in the very middle; on which account some have, with sagacity enough, called that city the Navel of the country. [53] Nor indeed is Judea destitute of such delights as come from the sea, since its maritime places extend as far as Ptolemais: [54] it was parted into eleven portions, of which the royal city Jerusalem was the supreme, and presided over all the neighboring country, as the head does over the body. As to the other cities that were inferior to it, they presided over their several toparchies;” (Emphasis added)
    Or, in Greek,
    “[52] μεσαιτάτη δ᾽ αὐτῆς πόλις τὰ Ἱεροσόλυμα κεῖται, παρ᾽ ὃ καί τινες οὐκ ἀσκόπως ὀμφαλὸν τὸ ἄστυ τῆς χώρας ἐκάλεσαν. [53] ἀφῄρηται δ᾽ οὐδὲ τῶν ἐκ θαλάσσης τερπνῶν ἡ Ἰουδαία τοῖς παραλίοις κατατείνουσα μέχρι Πτολεμαΐδος. [54] μερίζεται δ᾽ εἰς ἕνδεκα κληρουχίας, ὧν ἄρχει μὲν βασίλειον τὰ Ἱεροσόλυμα προανίσχουσα τῆς περιοίκου πάσης ὥσπερ ἡ κεφαλὴ σώματος: αἱ λοιπαὶ δὲ μετ᾽ αὐτὴν διῄρηνται τὰς τοπαρχίας.”
    – Jospehus, De bello Judaico, Bk.3, Ch3, Sec.5

    In other words, we have here a near Jewish contemporary of Paul, who makes an analogy between the (1) status of Jerusalem in relation to the surrounding cities, and (2) the status of the head in relation to the body – namely:
    (1) As the city of Jerusalem is supreme (or chief, ruler – ἄρχει), and presides over (or is eminent above, both in terms of its geography but more importantly in terms of its political status – προανίσχουσα), and just like, in turn, those cities that were inferior to Jerusalem (which Jerusalem was chief over) also presided over their several toparchies, so also:
    (2) The head (ἡ κεφαλὴ) has this same relationship to the body (σώματος).
    Which must mean that, for Josephus, the head presides over, or has eminence above, the body. This is in terms of its being supreme (chief or ruler).

    So what is important to note here, is that for Josephus the reason that the head has eminence over the body, and thus is considered chief or ruler over the body, is not necessarily because of any supposed anthropological understanding that the head ‘thinks’ or ‘makes decisions’ (or is somehow associated with these activities). It seems quite independent of this. In fact, it is for the simple reason the the head sits higher than the rest of the body. It is elevated in terms of its position, and so for that reason it can act as a metaphor for being elevated in status. The higher the position, the higher the status, as it were.
    So Jerusalem, being geographically higher than its surrounding environs is a symbol of its status as being the politically ‘higher’ city among its environs. It acts as chief or supreme amongst the cities in the region, and this is nicely exemplified in its being geographically elevated also.
    But likewise those cities which are inferior (in political status) to Jerusalem also exercise a status of being supreme or chief amongst their several toparchies – and here, whether or not they are geographically higher.

    So, to directly interact with the quotation from Morris:
    Morris states,
    “S. Bedale reminds us that the functions of the central nervous system were not known to the ancients, who held that we think with the midriff, the phren. The head was thus not the controlling factor; we must seek its significance elsewhere.”

    The problem here is that Morris (and/or Bedale) is not being clear in who he/they mean(s) by ‘ancients’. Certainly, it may be argued that some in the ancient word, did not consider the head to be in any way connected with thought. This thesis may be able to be sustained with, for example, the Homeric poems.
    But, clearly, Morris is wrong if we consider the quotation from Plato (Timaeus 44d-45a) cited in a previous reply above. People in the ancient world did believe that the head is associated with thought. Plato being one of them, who maintained that the rational soul was in the head. Not because of any (and philosophically erroneous I might add) modern brain-mind identity theory, but rather because the head is spherical. So not all the ancients can be categorised as Morris suggests.

    The problem here, is that Morris seems to be stuck in considering that the only way someone could maintain that the head can act as an authority over the body, is because the head is considered to be what we use to ‘think’ and so give direction to the body. But people in the ancient world did not maintain this – so alleges Morris.
    But, it is entirely possible to build a metaphor of the head being an authority over the body without any commitment to ‘where’ thinking takes place, or what bodily organ (if any!) is associated with thinking. Josephus is doing just this in the passage above. It is because of its being physically higher than the rest of the body, that the head has eminence over the rest of the body. To be elevated over another is to be more authoritative – a chief, or ruler. That is why kings were bowed down to in times past (and even today!). Morris elsewhere states that, “It is not easy to see what the head-body relationship would mean to someone who held that we think with the diaphragm, not the brain.” (“Leadership and Authority”, in The Bible and Women’s Ministry: An Australian Dialogue Acorn Press, 1990, p.23). Contrary to Morris, it is very easy to see what the head-body relationship is, independently of what one considers to be the organ one thinks with (again – if any).


  2. Morris, following Bedale, states that, “S. Bedale reminds us that the functions of the central nervous system were not known to the ancients, who held that we think with the midriff, the phren. The head was thus not the controlling factor; we must seek its significance elsewhere.”

    Whilst this view was certainly held by some ancients, it was not held by all. One need only read Plato to see this. In his dialogue Timaeus he states:

    “First, then, the gods, imitating the spherical shape of the universe, enclosed the two divine courses in a spherical body, that, namely, which we now term the head, being the most divine part of us and the lord of all that is in us: to this the gods, when they put together the body, gave all the other members to be servants, considering that it partook of every sort of motion. In order then that it might not tumble about among the high and deep places of the earth, but might be able to get over the one and out of the other, they provided the body to be its vehicle and means of locomotion; which consequently had length and was furnished with four limbs extended and flexible; these God contrived to be instruments of locomotion with which it might take hold and find support, and so be able to pass through all places, carrying on high the dwelling-place of the most sacred and divine part of us.” (Timaeus 44d-45a)

    Clearly then, for Plato at least, the head – which contains the rational soul – is the lord of the rest of our body, which is servant to the head.
    I do not know what else Morris, or Bedale, suggest, not having read the article(s) in question – but it is simply wrong to suggest that no one in the ancient world considered the ‘head’ as the place where thought happens, and as the place that gives direction and sovereignty to the rest of the body.
    When such an important and influential philosopher as Plato clearly teaches such, one would expect that this, at least, should be seriously taken into account as one reconstructs a picture of anthropology in the ancient world.


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