Difficult Passages: 1 Corinthians 11, part 2 of 3: What does it mean to say that man is the head of woman?

Apparently this didn’t publish earlier (I scheduled it improperly). Sorry if you had been expecting it earlier.

Last week, I discussed the entire issue of headcovering and what it means in the context of Rome during the first few centuries AD (CE). In the end, it was demonstrated that the issue of headcovering was Paul’s way of calling to Church to be different in its worship of God than the way the surrounding culture worshipped their pagan deities. The actual practice of covering or not is not normative. Further, I pointed out that, in the early Church, it seems that women did in fact prophesy and pray publicly, which may cause some interesting conflicts when put with that passage in 1 Timothy 2 (incidentally, I won’t cover that passage for a while because I have a student writing a paper on it, so you’ll have to wait until springtime at the earliest if you want that one covered).

1 Corinthians 11

However, Paul gives a further clarification for understanding this. He states that, beyond the cultural reason, such an action is appropriate because it paints a picture of the relationship between the man and woman, and ultimately between God the Father and Christ. Specifically, Paul says that “the head of woman is man and the head of Christ is God” This is a hotly contested issue, so let me lay out the different arguments.


According to this view, men are naturally to be in positions of authority over women, particularly in marital relationship, and that’s what Paul is saying. There are a number of problems with this view. First, the authority of man over woman issue is not a natural order, at least not in the sense of how we were created. Rather, it is the result of the initial fall of sin. Whether this was meant to continue to be normative after Christ or not (in whom there is no male nor female) is another issue. But there is another problem.

The parallel Paul draws is “the head of Christ is God.” Here’s the issue. To say that God is the head of Christ in the subordinationist sense (that is a natural order of authority) would be to imply that Christ was somehow lesser than God. It would indicate that Jesus was not the same as God and (possibly) some sort of created being. The name of this heresy is “subordinationism” and states, as the name implies, that Christ is inferior or subordinate to the Father. It would make the Father to be the one God and Christ to be some sort of other divine being. This calls into question our redemption and an entire host of other problems that I won’t get into at the moment. It is not a valid option for the Christian adhering to the orthodox faith.


Egalitarianism is the view that, in Christ, men and women are equal in all respects and have equal authority. The husband-wife relationship here is one of “mutual submission.” While this passage is not brought in as support for this view (they look elsewhere for that), it is one that might present a problem for this view. The most common interpretation of this passage according to this view is that, here, “head” means source. Now nothing is theologically objectionable about that interpretation on the surface. It would be saying that, as recorded in Genesis 2, the woman was taken from the source of man. This view may have the support fo verse 8, which really drives this home. With respect to God it would be casting this in the light of “procession.” The orthodox view of the relationship between the Father and Son is that the Son is “eternally begotten” of the Father. So, in this somewhat unusual, but by no means unwarranted, understanding of “head” it is saying that the Son is the one begotten from the Father, and not the reverse.

Well, yet again, there are some problems with this interpretation. First, this would be imposing language that Paul may not have had in mind at all, especially considering that it wasn’t until the 3rd or 4th century that this sort of language begins to appear in the Christian faith. Second, although “head” can mean “source” in the way that water comes from a head (such as a river flowing from a head), it has been demonstrated that the only evidence of this is with water, and then in the plural (i.e. head waters). This may not be entirely problematic (and is certainly still debated at New Testament conferences), but it leaves untouched the bigger issue. What relevance would such a reading have for this passage? Why would Paul invoke that to discuss head coverings? Maybe we need to look elsewhere.


The Complementarian view suggests that, while men and women are certainly equal in all respects, and can perform the same tasks most often, there are nevertheless certain situations where the tasks of men and women are different and each are better suited to their particular positions. This is clearly an advancement on the old hierarchical (or subordinationist) view of gender relations. In this particular passage, they would argue that while Christ and God the Father are certainly equal, each person nevertheless performs different functions. In fact, the New Testament is full of statements about Christ submitting himself to the authority of God the Father as an act of the will (he chose to do it, even though he wasn’t necessarily obliged to do so). For instance, Philippians 2 , talks about Christ humbling himself and becoming obedient, given as a model. If that is the case, it could likewise be that Paul is saying that women should choose to humble themselves (as Christ did to God) in order to paint a picture of the divine reality. That is certainly a good view to have, and if one is going to argue that this passage means you should be a complementarian, then that seems to be the best option for this passage, however it too has problems.

The other times the bible talks about the marriage relationship with Christ, including every instance it uses the word “head,” the one who gives the picture of Christ is the male, not the woman. This would be a very unusual turn of events to make the man into the God person in this sense (in fact it would have no precedence at all). Further, considering the surrounding passages seem to affirm the generally equal stance of all believers in the worship service, so long as they worship in an orderly fashion, it would be completely out of place to suggest some strict leadership roles in this place. It doesn’t mean there aren’t leadership roles, it just means that those roles do not seem to be Paul’s primary emphasis in the Corinthian letter. This is especially true in the second half of the chapter where Paul seems to want to demolish other barriers given by the various “roles” they believed society had given them (rich versus poor there). It would be counterproductive for him to, at this precise moment in the letter, suggest some other sort of authority. (And in chapter 12, he really doesn’t want to increase a sense of superiority among anyone).

Instead, a large part of 1 Corinthians seems to be focused on Christ and who he is and how the Church there can not only focus on Christ themselves, but help to point the culture around them toward Christ. As mentioned last week, one particular example was the refusal for men and women to “reverse” their covering (or uncovered) heads like the pagan worshippers did. The Church is supposed to be different. The same holds true here.

A Different Perspective

Instead, I’d like to propose a different perspective, one that could easily fit into either the complementarian or egalitarian camp, but which is neither with respect to this passage. John Chrysostom, a late fourth century Greek preacher and theologian, and Theodoret, an early fifth century bishop and theologian, both have interesting takes on this passage, ones that have been ignored for too long in this debate. Considering that both were native (or near native) Greek speakers and that both lived, relative to us, near to the time and culture of Paul’s writing, we should listen to what they say.

John Chrysostom states: Jesus, therefore, must be of the same essence as God: for, since the man is the head of the woman, and since the head is of the same essence as the body, and God is the head of the Son, it follows the Son is of the same essence as the Father.

Later Theodoret concurs and elaborates: The woman is of the essence of the man, and not made by the man; so, too, the Son is not made by the Father, but of the essence of the Father.

Admittedly, it seems their primary concern was to avoid some sort of subordinationist heresy (see above), but it should be noted that they both seem read it initially to be that the “head” is the “essence” of the body. If you think about it, that makes perfect sense. When you recall someone whom you know very well, do you recall their body or their head (more specifically, their face)? Paul seems to be using the term “head” in part because that is what is at issue, but is also making a greater theological claim. The point of all worship, as indicated in the passage, is to point toward Christ. In their worship, then, they should give a reminder, or point toward Christ, who should be their essence. Let’s try that in the passage: “the {essence} of every man is Christ, and the {essence} of the woman is man, and the head {essence} of Christ is God.”

First, if this is talking about the marital relationship, the saying that the essence of man is (to be) Christ fits in extremely well with everything Paul has ever said about the marriage relationship (with man acting as Christ and the woman acting as the Church). Second there is the issue of what the uncovered head of a woman meant in pagan worship. If you didn’t catch it last week, let me be explicit now: when a woman in the pagan temple uncovered her head to act as a prophetess or priestess, he religious role was primarily to act as a temple prostitute. The uncovering of the head was meant to sexually excite the men. If, however, she is to act as the essence of her husband (as that word “man” usually means in such a context), that is to point towards her husband, then it is saying she should be dressed not provocatively, but should instead be sure to remind men that she is married (or if single that she might one day be married). In other words, the worship time is not meant to be a “meat market” sort of thing. When the church comes together it is neither a dating service (as some single groups can feel at times), nor should it in any way promote immoral thoughts or even the opening twinges of adultery. In our culture, then, the best way to understand this might be for married couples to worship together if it is a mixed company. Not because the women have done anything wrong, but because of the dangerous potential it has to make men stumble (again not through the fault of the woman). Men who glance around should be reminded that these are married women (when they are) and be reminded to turn their focus back to God and Christ. If you don’t think there are sexual undertones that Paul is cautioning against in 1 Corinthians, you’re in for a surprise if you read the rest of 1 Corinthians. Apparently it was a problem for that church.

By shifting the head coverings away from the Pagan style, and then relating it to Christ, Paul is saying a few very important and profound things:

1) In Christ we did not see another prophet, nor one of the many pretenders to be the Messiah who were apparently somewhat common in Jesus’ day. Nor did we see simply a rabbi, or even a merely a good man. Instead, we saw God himself, walking amongst us.

2) Our worship is likewise of a different sort than the worship around us. It isn’t sexual, it isn’t shameful, and it doesn’t disrespect either man or woman. Instead, it is a focus upon Christ and Christ alone (or at least it is supposed to be). Our worship is different in both practice and focus.

3) We should not exploit our freedom at the expense of others around us. This means that, in order to help everyone keep their focus on Christ, men and women should dress modestly. This is not because there is something wrong with women, but because, in this respect at least, men tend to be, on the whole anyway, the “weaker brothers” and so should have a certain measure of deference given them. Simply put, if your clothes are distracting, or call attention to yourself, you’re doing it wrong. All attention should always be on Christ and sometimes we all need help with that.

That’s how I’d look at it anyway.

Well, I failed to make this short. Oh well. What do you think? Next week I’ll try to be more concise as I deal with the second half of 1 Corinthians 11.

  5 comments for “Difficult Passages: 1 Corinthians 11, part 2 of 3: What does it mean to say that man is the head of woman?

  1. September 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    There is a lecture by N.T. Wright in which he also talks about how to interpret 1 Conrinthians, it is quite interesting. You can find it here (Section 4): http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Women_Service_Church.htm

    • September 18, 2012 at 7:18 am

      I generally like NT Wright, but I just can’t seem agree that head means source. There is just no attestation to a singular head meaning source in any of the contemporary Greek (extra-biblical included) that anyone has found. I do find it interesting that this older view that I presented has been largely ignored by both camps in analyzing this passage.

  2. September 17, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    You raise some very interesting points, and show the way to what may well be a very good understanding of this difficult passage, Trey. Now I will have to go back and study this passage closely in the light of what you have raised.

    It certainly is a sad, and slightly odd, thing that we seem so unable to grasp the concept of “equal but different”. Not only here with respect to men and women, but in almost every area of life and ministry. Why are preachers rated higher than those with the gift of administration, or of helping?

    Anyway, thanks, and keep up the thought-provoking work!

  3. September 23, 2012 at 12:50 am

    I would just like to say that I believe this passage goes very differently from what is typically taught. I believe that Jesus Christ is the image and glory of God, not man. I believe that Paul is using Jesus Christ as a correlation as to why women should not be veiled because a faction of men had written him who wanted women to be veiled while praying and prophesying. If you would like to see more on this interpretation you can visit my website at http://www.womanthegloryofman.com (Click on Scripture Studies and then the 1 Corinthians 11: 3-16 icon.)

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