Buried Talents: 1 Corinthians 11, “The head of the woman is the man”

The first part of 1 Corinthians 11, dealing with veils, hair length, and such, is a puzzlement. No, “puzzlement” is not strong enough. This chapter is a consternation. Commentator after commentator throws up his hands in frustration at trying to reach a clear sense of Paul’s meaning. Our respect for inspiration and the brilliant Paul is too great to even imagine that Paul was unclear to his readers in Corinth, but today the chapter is indeed very challenging-and it is challenging to those who take any position on the women’s issues. It is not made hard by my view of things. It is just hard.

(1 Cor. 11:2-16) I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.

Now 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.

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head-it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the 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. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.

In the Lord, however, 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.

Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.

If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice-nor do the churches of God.

What is a “head”?

For our purposes, the most important portions of this passage are those dealing directly with the relationship of men and women. Paul begins by pointing out that God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, and man is the head of woman. This statement is puzzling, in that nowhere else do we see the Bible refer to Christ as the head of man as opposed to woman. Certainly, if by “head” Paul means “Lord,” then Christ is the head of both men and women. A woman does not need a man to serve as mediator between her and Christ!

“Source”

As mentioned earlier with respect to Ephesians 5, the Greeks did not use kephale or “head” in quite the same way as 21st Century Americans. While kephale occasionally took the meaning “ruler,” this was not the normal or usual sense. Indeed, it appears that there was no well-established idiomatic usage of “head.” In modern English, we use “head” so often to mean ruler or leader that we forget that we are using a metaphor. The Greeks also used the word metaphorically, but the metaphor was not nearly so standardized. The meaning must therefore always be taken from the context.

Moreover, as much as we’d like to do so, we can’t turn over to Ephesians to determine the meaning of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11, because this chapter was written many years before Ephesians was written — and to different people. The Corinthian church members could not turn to Ephesians to interpret Paul’s meaning, and so we must resist the temptation to do so.

Nor is there any reason to impose on the Paul a rule that he use a metaphor the same way each time he uses it. After all, Jesus sometimes used “leaven” to refer to good and sometimes to refer to evil. They are speaking figuratively, not in code.

One use of “head” found in then contemporary Greek literature is “source,” much as we speak of a river’s “headwaters” today. The sense of “source” certainly can fit the verses themselves. The commentators hotly debate this, and it is true that “source” was not a common metaphor in First Century Greek. But there are precedents for “source.” Indeed, the nature of metaphors is that there doesn’t have to be a precedent. We all freely coin metaphors all the time. The only test is whether the context made the meaning of the metaphor clear to the original readers.

The Bible speaks of God “begetting” Christ (John 3:16; Acts 13:33; Col. 1:15).[1] Christ is pictured in the New Testament as the immediate Creator (Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2), and hence as the source of Adam. And Eve was made from Adam’s rib.

Verses 8-9 also build an argument based on the source of woman.

For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.

The use of “head” as “source” is reinforced by verses 11-12:

In the Lord, however, 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.

Clearly, this passage extends the thought in verses 3, 8, and 9 in terms of the source or origin of man and woman. Plainly, Paul’s argument hinges on the notion of man as the source of woman (in Eden) and woman as the source of man (in childbirth).

“Ruler”

There is also limited support in First Century Greek literature for “head” to be used of a ruler. While there is clear support for “head” to mean source in 1 Corinthians 11, is there language in 1 Corinthians 11 referring to the head as a ruler? (obviously, other than the word “head” itself — we can’t argue in circles!)

Verse 9 states that woman was created “for man,” while man was not created for woman. But we have already studied the Creation accounts. Clearly, the reference to woman being created for man recalls that Eve was created as Adam’s complement.

But God did not give Adam rule over Eve until He cursed the Creation. Therefore, Eve’s being created “for” Adam — before the curse — cannot be interpreted as making Adam her ruler or as making men rule women. It means, rather, that Eve (and any wife) is to make up what is lacking in her husband, since it is not good for man to be alone. Moreover, as man’s complement and helper, a wife must not bring shame to her husband.

Verse 10 states, in the NIV, that a woman is to have a “sign of authority on her head.” But “sign of” is absent in the Greek and has been added by the translators. The KJV is more literal in translating that the woman must have “power on” her head. As noted by Mark C. Black, assistant professor of the New Testament at David Lipscomb University,

Another possible reading would translate “the woman has to exercise control (exousia) over her head,” and therefore does not directly refer to the head-covering at all. Because of the creation principles (8-9) and because of the angels (10), she must behave correctly with regard to her head (which of course means wearing the covering).

“1 Cor. 11:2-16-A Re-investigation,” pages 208-210, published in Osburn, editor, Essays on Women, page 210, footnote 79.

Thus, the reference to “authority” in verse 10 is the woman’s exercise of authority, not the man’s. Since the woman is never referred to as a head but is referred to as exercising authority, “head” does not mean one with authority in this passage.

More traditionally, “authority” has been interpreted as the veil itself, the idea being that the veil is symbolic of the husband’s authority over the wife or the authority of a woman to be in public while veiled. However, the suggestion that “authority” is the woman’s own authority makes the best sense because it is consistent with the fundamental notion that Christians have freedom coupled with responsibility not to use their freedom to harm others. This thought is the essence of much of Paul’s teachings.

Moreover, there are serious difficulties with interpreting “head” as ruler. Jesus, at least while on earth, was subordinate to His Father’s will. Men are subordinate to Christ. And so, one might argue, the meaning is that women must be subordinate to men. But Paul says that God “is” the head of Christ, long after Jesus announced, “All authority has been given to me on heaven and on earth” due to His resurrection (Matt. 28:18). Thus, the relationship between God and Christ at the time 1 Corinthians was written was one where God had yielded “all authority.” Paul is not speaking of what Christ’s relationship with God was before His glorification.[4] Therefore, we cannot impose especially on women the example of Christ while on earth as a servant learning obedience. Indeed, as we’ve already seen, Christ’s example of service and obedience is particularly applied to husbands in Ephesians 5.

Thus, both men and women, husbands and wives must follow Christ’s example of sacrificial living, and the comparison of men and women to God and Christ no more justifies male domination over women than Paul’s command in Ephesians that husbands follow Christ’s example justifies wives dominating their husbands. Both passages make the same point-we must submit to one another just as Jesus gave Himself up for the church.

Moreover, the headship of men no more means that women are inferior to men or may be dominated by men than the headship of God means that Christ is inferior to or dominated by God. In fact, it would seem to plainly teach that the relationship of men and women is much like the relationship of God and Christ. They have different roles. They take on different responsibilities. But they are equal. And they are One!

(John 10:30) “I and the Father are one.”

(John 17:20-21) “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

In John 17 we see Jesus praying that all Christians be one in the same way that He and God are one. It would be remarkable indeed if Jesus intended that husbands and wives be less united than Christians in general! Whatever Paul meant with regard to the headship of God and the headship of men, it must be considered in light of the relationship of the resurrected Christ and God the Father. This relationship is so close that we refer to them as God in One Person. Moreover, we refer to them as equals and as being of the same essence. This is the Bible’s pattern for the relationship of husbands and wives.

Some commentators argue that because the relationship of men and women is like the relationship of God and Christ, women can be subordinate and equal simultaneously. Jesus was obedient to God while on earth, and this arguably demonstrates that Jesus could be equal with God while being subordinate to God. But Philippians 2:6-11, which we’ve previously studied, teaches that Jesus had to give up equality in order to be obedient (verses 6-8)! God and Christ are equal-now, but not while Jesus was on earth, as the author of Hebrews says, “learning obedience” (Heb. 5:8). But in 1 Corinthians 11, written when Jesus had already been glorified and His equality with God had been re-established, Paul was explicitly referring to the relationship that God has with Christ after the resurrection and glorification of Christ.

But the difficulty of interpreting “head” as ruler goes much deeper. First, if man is the ruler of woman, then this is the first time in the entire Bible that this doctrine appears. In Genesis 3:16, wives are cursed with the domination of their husbands, but women are not subjected to men in general. And if men are to rule women, just what is the extent and nature of this kind of headship? Does it apply to the workplace? Home? Church? Friendships? And just what service may men command from women? To what extent must your daughters submit to whatever man they should happen across?

The difficulty is this: While many fine and studious Christians have concluded that men are the heads of women — meaning rulers of women — these same Christians cannot agree what this means in practice or in theory. By interpreting “head” as ruler, these commentators impose a doctrine with boundaries that cannot be found in the pages of scripture. It is as though God has told us just enough of His will for us to know that there is a rule, without knowing what the rule is! Each hierarchalist commentator seems to reach different conclusions as to where to draw the lines. Some frankly admit that they don’t know where the lines are but insist that there be lines limiting a woman’s role somewhere. Finding these lines thus becomes an exercise in human bias rather than biblical exegesis.

Some would limit the impact of this headship to just the explicit passages dealing with men and women: women can’t be elders, can’t speak in the assembly, can’t teach, can’t usurp authority — but this approach begs the question. What is the male authority that cannot be usurped? Can women teach teenage boys? What if the boys have been baptized? We simply have no guidance without a unifying principle. I mean, do we seriously believe that these passages are arbitrary rules without any underlying foundation?

Others would find these to be but examples of a larger principle — the universal principle of male leadership. But they are unable to agree or prove from the Bible just what this principle is. And thus such persons find themselves construing the command of male dominion over women to suit their personal prejudices but with very little in the way of biblical support for the particulars and boundaries of their doctrine.

The 21st Century notion of a biblical principle of “male leadership” is often pronounced by hierarchalists, but the verses they rely on fail to support a leadership principle. Thus, Genesis 3:16 declares that husbands rule their wives, not that they just lead them. 1 Peter 3:6 urges women to emulate Sarah by calling their non-Christian husbands “master” or “lord,” much stronger words than “leader.” The Greek language studies regarding translating “head” support “ruler,” as a possible but not necessary meaning — but not “leader.” Thus, finding “leadership” in contrast to “rule” in the New Testament is a 21st Century bias not found in scripture.

Conclusions regarding “head” as “source” or “ruler.” Thus, we find-

(1) that there is support both in contemporary Greek and in the context of chapter 11 for “head” to mean source;

(2) that “source” is suggested by Ephesians 4:15-16, where Christ as “head” is pictured as the source of growth or nourishment of the church, as “body.”

(3) that while “head” conventionally means “ruler” in today’s English, this was not true in First Century Greek unless compelled by the context;

(4) that there is nothing in 1 Corinthians 11 outside the word “head” that suggests that men are to rule women;

(5) that imposing the meaning of ruler on “head” leads to serious theological difficulties, such as (a) making men and women, husbands and wives less united than Christians in general, who are commanded to submit to one another, to be united, to be of one mind, and to consider others as more important than self; and (b) creating a doctrine that has undefined boundaries (for example, does it apply in the workplace? on a date?); and

(6) that we cannot bail out of the difficulties of calling husbands rulers by recharacterizing their role with the euphemism “leader.”

This is quite enough reason to conclude that the correct reading of “head” in verse 3 is source. The meaning is clearly not ruler.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Buried Talents: 1 Corinthians 11, “The head of the woman is the man”

  1. Jay Guin says:

    I have another post on 1 Cor 11 coming.

  2. Alan says:

    This is quite enough reason to conclude that the correct reading of “head” in verse 3 is source. The meaning is clearly not ruler.

    Paul commanded women to wear a head covering because man is the head of woman. And Paul calls the head covering a “sign of authority.” So, woman requires a sign of authority on her head because man is the head of woman.

    So once again, as in Eph 5, the term “head” is associated with the woman being under authority. The passage is not at all complicated, except to those who feel the need to avoid the plain meaning.

    It seems that at some point, people would realize that the anti-authority position just requires too many complicated explanations of too many plain scriptures.

  3. Nick Gill says:

    The opposition to Alan’s position can quote Jay as well:

    “While many fine and studious Christians have concluded that men are the heads of women — meaning rulers of women — these same Christians cannot agree what this means in practice or in theory.”

    Alan, if the “authority” position is so simple, why do you not practice it in its fullness and simplicity? Show us how your reading of these authority passages is clear and simple compared to the other versions of the hierarchical understanding.

    Why are you surprised that clearing away thousands of years of rubble brought on by the effects of the curse, and rebuilding from the foundation up, might require some complicated work? Rubble is inherently plain and simple; truth is complex.

    As for “head” meaning “under authority,” Jay has placed the ball squarely in your court. “Sign of” JUST ISN’T IN THE TEXT. Head MUST mean the same thing between Jesus and the Father as it does between man and woman. THAT is the plain meaning of Paul in 1 Cor 11, the answering of which you’ve evaded.

    “All authority in heaven and on earth” means all authority, just like “one another” means “one another.”

    Why do you accuse us of twisting the plain meaning of texts?

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Carla,

    Thanks for joining the discussion.

    The Hebrew word for "helpmate" is 'ezer and doesn't indicate subordination of any sort. In fact, it's most often used of God's relationship with Israel, God being the 'ezer. This is explained at an earlier post: http://oneinjesus.info/2008/04/16/buried-talents-

    You are right that humankind fell when Adam sinned. Paul places the blame on Adam in Rom 5 as well. God gave the command to Adam, not Eve, because Eve wasn't yet created.

    The Fall began with Eve but was completed in Adam — resulting in the entire race being cursed, not just women or just men.

    I don't see the argument that Eve was answerable to Adam rather than God, as God spoke directly to Eve as well —

    (Gen 3:13) Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."

    I agree that Adam sinned in listening to Eve rather than God. But that hardly shows that Adam had the rule over Eve. It only shows that God had the rule over Adam and Eve does not. Adam and Eve could have been peers and Adam still would have sinned.

    Re 1 Cor 11, see my earlier post at — http://oneinjesus.info/2008/05/24/buried-talents-

    Finally, notice that part of the curse, in Gen 3:16, was God giving Adam the rule over Eve. Plainly, he didn't have rule over her before then. The curse was a change in their relationship.

  5. Carla says:

    In his article, Jay stated:

    But God did not give Adam rule over Eve until He cursed the Creation. Therefore, Eve’s being created “for” Adam — before the curse — cannot be interpreted as making Adam her ruler or as making men rule women. It means, rather, that Eve (and any wife) is to make up what is lacking in her husband, since it is not good for man to be alone. Moreover, as man’s complement and helper, a wife must not bring shame to her husband.

    However, I believe that a careful reading of the 2nd creation account in Genesis will show that Adam was intended from the beginning to be in authority over Eve. First of all, in Genesis 2:18, God says that he will “make Adam a helpmate.” A helpmate is someone created to help, right? I don’t know the Hebrew word, and that might help here, but in most cases, one who helps helps one who has greater authority.

    Secondly, what happened right after Eve ate the forbidden fruit? Nothing! What happened after Adam ate the fruit? God came looking for HIM! What did Adam do? He blamed Eve, but God did not accept that excuse. He punished the serpent, he punished Eve, and then he punished Adam, saying “Because you listenede to the voice of your wife and ate from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat…” (Gen 3) you will have to work hard for the rest of your life.

    I guess I see two important points here. First, humankind fell when Adam sinned, not when Eve did. Perhaps if Eve had been the only one to eat the fruit, the entirety of creation would not have fallen. Who knows? Why does that matter? Eve was answerable to Adam directly. God didn’t ask her what had happened. He asked Adam, because, I think, Adam was answerable directly to God. St. Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 11 about the head of woman being man and the head of man being Christ is shown in the story of creation.

    The second point, and perhaps the more important one, is that God told Adam the consequence he would have to bear because he listened to the voice of his wife. Presumably, the problem here isn’t that Adam was listening to Eve, but that he obeyed her rather than obeying God. The order of authority was skewed. That means that, even before the Fall, it was clear that Adam’s role in relation to Eve was one of authority over her.

    Am I missing anything in this syllogism?

  6. John Fewkes says:

    “Others would find these to be but examples of a larger principle — the universal principle of male leadership. But they are unable to agree or prove from the Bible just what this principle is. And thus such persons find themselves construing the command of male dominion over women to suit their personal prejudices but with very little in the way of biblical support for the particulars and boundaries of their doctrine.”

    For any who would care to trace a reasoned, cogent discussion of this concept, F LaGard Smith’s “Male Spiritual Leadership” would be a good place to start.

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