1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is filled with difficulties, and perhaps the most important one is its teaching that a man is the “head” of the woman (or, better translated, as in the ESV, the husband is the “head” of the wife).
(1Co 11:3 ESV) 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
Important to understanding this passage is Ephesians 5 —
(Eph 5:23-33 ESV) 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.
24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
This familiar passage is often studied and taught in our Sunday School classes, most often when marriage is being studied. In fact, I have observed that those teaching this scripture in the context of how to have a good, Christian marriage often interpret it differently from those who are teaching regarding the role of women in the church. Certainly, we must understand it the same way in both contexts.
Before interpreting the passage, we must first come to an understanding of the meaning of “head” in 5:23. In First Century Greek, what might “head” — kephalē in the Greek — mean when used figuratively of a person?
Now, in the literature on the role of women, the scholars love to debate whether kephalē means “ruler” or “leader” or “source.” Some argue that “head” just obviously means ruler. Others says the kephalē never means ruler in First Century Greek.
After some years of consideration, I’ve concluded that neither meaning is sufficiently well established that either side can insist on that meaning just from the choice of the word. There are other possibilities in the lexicons. Nor is it even essential that the meaning of a metaphor be found in a dictionary, as Paul is quite capable of creating a new metaphor to suit his purposes.
The Septuagint argument
The Septuagint is a translation of the Old Testament into Greek issued in parts from the mid-third century BC to the mid-first century BC or so. Paul typically quotes the Old Testament from the Septuagint, so he was clearly very familiar with its wording.
The Hebrew word ro’sh means both the head of a person and a ruler or leader — as is true of “head” in English. If kephalē had the same double meaning in Greek, you’d think the translators of the Septuagint would have chosen kephalē as the customary translation of ro’sh.
There are 16 places where the Hebrew ro’sh is translated kephalē and means something like “ruler” or “leader.”
(Deu 28:13) The LORD will make you the head, not the tail. If you pay attention to the commands of the LORD your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom.
(Deu 28:44) He will lend to you, but you will not lend to him. He will be the head, but you will be the tail.
(Jdg 10:18) The leaders of the people of Gilead said to each other, “Whoever will launch the attack against the Ammonites will be the head of all those living in Gilead.”
(Jdg 11:8-11) The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.” 9 Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me–will I really be your head?” 10 The elders of Gilead replied, “The LORD is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” 11 So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the LORD in Mizpah.
(2Sa 22:44) “You have delivered me from the attacks of my people; you have preserved me as the head of nations. People I did not know are subject to me,
(Psa 18:43) You have delivered me from the attacks of the people; you have made me the head of nations; people I did not know are subject to me.
(Psa 110:6) He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.
(Isa 7:8) for the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is only Rezin. Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people. 9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son. If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.’ “
(Isa 9:14) So the LORD will cut off from Israel both head and tail, both palm branch and reed in a single day; 15 the elders and prominent men are the head, the prophets who teach lies are the tail.
(Lam 1:5) Her foes have become her masters;
her enemies are at ease.
The LORD has brought her grief
because of her many sins.
Her children have gone into exile,
captive before the foe.
However, there are a total of about 180 places in the Septuagint where ro’sh means something like ruler or leader. (Berkeley and Alvera Mickelson, “What Does Kephalē Mean in the New Testament?” Women, Authority & the Bible, 97-117, cited by Osburn, Women in the Church, at 164 ff.) Of these 180 uses, only 16 use kephalē . The rest are generally translated with archon or the like, words that mean “ruler” or “leader” but not a person’s head.
The four uses of kephalē in Deut and Isaiah therefore don’t really change the conclusion, because the translators could hardly have used archon and preserved the contrasting metaphors of “head” and “tail.” Hence, 164 out of 176 uses (about 93%) fail to use kephalē to mean ruler or leader. Plainly, at the time the Septuagint was translated, the translators did not consider kephalē to obviously and naturally mean boss or ruler. The meaning was certainly possible but not idiomatic — that is, the reader would only take “head” to mean “ruler” if the context made the metaphor clear. The meaning could not presumed.
On the other hand, it was certainly possible — just not conventional or typical — for kephalē to mean ruler or leader, and Paul would have surely been aware of that usage.
The use of kephalē as “ruler” or “leader” in other sources
It has now been shown beyond reasonable argument that kephalē is used to mean “ruler” or “leader” in many non-Biblical Greek sources, particularly the Patristics. It is further convincingly argued that kephalē often means “beginning” but virtually never means “source.” The arguments and evidence have been gathered by Wayne Grudem in two articles published here and here.
But then, Paul was free to coin any metaphor that suits his purposes. But for “head” to mean “source,” the context would have to make that meaning clear. This is not the sort of usage where dictionaries rule.
Of course, “beginning” and “source” can be virtual synonyms in some contexts, and Grudem concedes that the meaning “source” is possible in a context where “beginning” can mean “source.” But if “beginning” doesn’t fit, “source” is not to be assumed.
Hence, while we can’t treat “ruler” or “leader” as foreign to kephalē, we must also consider the possible meaning of “beginning.”
Hence, we seem to see a shifting of the usage of kephalē, where it was not routinely used to mean ruler or leader before the New Testament, but that metaphor became much more common afterwards, with the New Testament being written during a transitional period. Indeed, Grudem shows that pre-First Century lexicons do not include “ruler” or “leader” as possible meaning of kephalē, whereas lexicons based on the Patristics do.
Application to the New Testament
Manifestly, context matters. Kephalē did not have one unique metaphorical meaning in the First Century. One cannot presume the meaning of “ruler” but neither can the meaning be excluded as impossible. Moreover, we don’t simply plug in meanings out of a dictionary and pick the one that fits our preferred outcome best.
Consider the line from the psalm: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Go to a dictionary and try to fit the various meanings of “pasture” into the poem to see what “pasture” means in that sentence. Strong’s Dictionary says,
a home; fig. a pasture:–habitation, house, pasture, pleasant place
But that hardly tells you the psalmist is saying. That’s not the ultimate thought. Manifestly, you won’t fully retrieve the author’s intent by this means. Figurative language just isn’t that mechanical. Context rules. Always. Regarding of the dictionary and regardless of whether someone has use the word metaphorically the same way before.