The Role of Women – 1 Corinthians 11:3

A few months back, I started a larger series on the role of women. I planned to look at the series in four sub-sections, addressing particular biblical passages under each section.

  1. The creation  – Genesis 1:26-28; Genesis 2:18-22; Genesis 3:16
  2. The new creation – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17; Galatians 3:27-29
  3. The church – 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Corinthians 14:33-35
  4. The home – 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:22-24

I had written 10 articles addressing the first three sections. The links are provided below:

Now, I suppose it is time to share my thoughts on two passages with regards to women and mainly their relationship with their husbands in the home. Two main passages include 1 Corinthians 11:3 and the well-known Ephesians 5:22-24. I’ll start with the 1 Corinthian’s passage.

This passage actually becomes part of the discussion when considering the roles of women in both the church and the home. But I have considered it within this section on ‘the home’ due to the word ‘head’ being found in our English translations. For this section, we shall quote the NIV, as it seems most helpful in dealing with the verse.

Now I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor 11:3)

Those in the complementarian camp see this as one of the main passages speaking about the ‘headship’ role of men. For example:

Before the Fall, God created mankind in His own image as male and female, fully equal in terms of personhood. But in terms of relationship among equals, God established a hierarchy of male leadership and female submission. As is the case within the Godhead, the hierarchy of the relationship does not imply inferiority or superiority. The woman is in no way inferior to the man because she subordinates herself to him than Christ is inferior to God the Father because He subordinates Himself to the Father. So the headship-subordination relationship of the man and woman is evidenced in the original creation order and in the greater order, the nature of the Godhead. (Alexander Strauch. Biblical Eldership, pp61-62)

You can see that many a complementarians have looked to ground their theology on women’s roles in the creation account before the Fall. But I have shown in my articles on Genesis 1 and 2 that such cannot be established. Rather, I believe a lot of it follows a misunderstanding of 1 Tim 2:11-14 and reading that back into the early chapters of Genesis. But let’s move on and deal with the passage at hand.

Defining the Word ‘Head’

Within 1 Cor 11:3, the word, which normally gets translated as head in our English Bibles, is the Greek word kephale. The problem with translating the Greek word, kephale, as head is that we then have to discern what is the specific meaning behind this word. There seem to be two main possibilities of meaning for head:

  • Authority over
  • Source or origin

The authors of Why Not Women?, Cunningham and Hamilton, make some interesting parallels between the old Hebrew and the old Greek. The Hebrew word for head is ro’sh. When ro’sh meant a physical head in a passage in the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek Septuagint translators chose the Greek word kephale as its translation about 95% of the time. But, when ro’sh meant ‘ruler’ or ‘leader’, the Septuagint normally used another word to translate the Hebrew into Greek. The Septuagint translators decided to use the word kephale for ‘ruler’ or ‘leader’ only about 5% of the time. Therefore, we see that the word kephale, or head, does not usually refer to ruler/authority/leader.

Both authors go on to state:

On the other hand, we find many, many times in ancient literature where head/kephale meant “source” or “origin.” This came from the ancients’ idea that semen, the source of life, was produced in the male brain, which is, of course, located in the head.’ (Why Not Women?, p163)

Consequently, we have two possible translation of 1 Cor 11:3:

  • ‘Now I want you to realise that the authority/leader of every man is Christ, and the authority/leader of a woman is the man, and the authority/leader of Christ is God.’
  • ‘Now I want you to realise that the source/origin of every man is Christ, and the source/origin of a woman is the man, and the source/origin of Christ is God.’

a. The Case for ‘Origins’

Interestingly enough, the word submission is never used in the greater context of 1 Cor 11:2-16. Also, the word authority arises only once in the context, in vs10 (I’ll pick up on head coverings with a future post down the road). Finally, it is also noteworthy that marriage is never mentioned in this passage. Therefore, it is highly possible we are reading into the text concepts that are not even there, especially noting the statistics just mentioned.

Also, consider that the fuller context of vs2-16 speaks of origins:

  • Vs7 – 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. (As a side note, Gordon Fee, in his book, Listening to the Spirit in the Text, remarks that the word glory never refers to subordination in Scripture.)
  • Vs8 – For man did not come from woman, but woman from man.
  • Vs9 – Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
  • Vs11 – In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.
  • Vs12 – For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

Do we see the consistent message of origins, or source, in the larger context? Paul even takes time to point out that, though woman finds her origins in man, so does man find his origins from woman (see vs12). And the message is summed up well with the words: ‘But everything comes from God.’ It’s quite clear that Paul is addressing origins and source rather than authority and rank.

b. The Ordering of Verse 3

Have you ever noticed the order and flow of vs3?

Now I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor 11:3)

While some believe that vs3 is laying out a hierarchical structure of authority, it is interesting to consider that, if this was Paul’s intention, would he not have chosen a different way to order things? Look at the actual order in vs3:

Every Man/Christ >> Woman/Man >> Christ/God

Knowing the orderly thinking of Paul, it seems that if he were trying to address authority or rank as understood in the complementarian view, he probably would have structured the verse as follows:

God >> Christ >> Men >> Women

c. Shifting From Universal To Specific

We saw in 1 Tim 2:9-15 how Paul shifts from speaking about women (plural) to woman (singular). There is a similar shift in 1 Cor 11:3 as well – from the universal in part A to the specific in part B of the verse. What I mean is this:

  • Vs3, part A – ‘Now I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ…’
  • Vs3, part B – ‘the head of the woman is man…’ (literally, ‘the head of the woman is the man)
  • Vs3, part C – ‘the head of Christ is God.’

Now we have to ask: What specific man and woman is Paul referring to in part B of vs3? We can probably all guess where this is going. Paul was most likely referring to the man in the beginning, that is Adam, and the woman in the beginning, that is Eve. This is where my suggested translation of kephale comes in. Paul is talking about origins and source.

What Paul is saying is summarised here: The origin and source of every man is Christ, the origin and source of the woman is the man, and the origin and source of Christ is God.

Therefore, the source of the woman is the man, Adam being the source of Eve. Paul was reminding the Corinthians that woman came from man and was, thus, equal to man. Why is this the conclusion? Well, this is what I discussed back in the two parts on Genesis 2:18-22 (part 1; part 2). Paul used the Genesis account to show how men and women have shared origins and are, thus, on equal ground.

And, of course, Christ is the source of every man. Not only that, but God is the source of Christ. Yes, Christ has always existed as the eternal Word. However, in the sense of His incarnation in space and time, the ‘Word became flesh’ and, with such, God was His origin and source (see John 1:1; Luke 1:35).

Therefore, when we note the greater context of the early chapters of Genesis and Paul’s new creation theology, it is highly unlikely that he is teaching about the authority of men over women in the one statement of 1 Cor 11:3. Realising that kephale can be regularly translated as source/origin and that such a translation makes a whole lot of sense within the whole context of 1 Cor 11:2-16, especially vs11-12, I believe Paul is not addressing authority and ‘headship’. Such is foreign to this passage.

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7 thoughts on “The Role of Women – 1 Corinthians 11:3

  1. You said if Paul was a complementarian, he probably would’ve structured the wording thus: “God >> Christ >> Men >> Women”
    With your understanding of the text, wouldn’t Paul have structured it: Woman (came from) Man (came from) Christ (came from) God? Something like “Now I want you to know that the head of every woman is man, and the head of man is Christ, and the head of Christ is God.”

  2. Don –

    Thanks for the comment. I’m pretty sure Paul didn’t have any idea what a complementarian or egalitarian was. 😉

    It’s possible Paul could have chosen the wording you suggest, or even another wording. I just don’t think vs3 is really conclusive evidence that Paul is trying to teach some kind of hierarchical structure with the wording used (plus the other points considered in the article).

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. It seemed like you were using the ordering to support your position. I agree that the order isn’t conclusive either way. Have you heard of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood? They can support complementarianism much better than I.
    An example: https://www.cbmw.org/Online-Books/Biblical-Foundations-for-Manhood-and-Womanhood/The-Meaning-of-Kephale-Head
    Ultimately, I think it requires a lot of exegetical acrobatics to conclude that men and women can have the same roles, either in the home or in the local church.
    Thanks for the reply. I do enjoy reading your work, even when I disagree.

  4. Don –

    I was aware of the group, but don’t visit their site much. There is also the Center for Biblical Equality.

    Ultimately, I think it requires a lot of exegetical acrobatics to conclude that men and women can have the same roles, either in the home or in the local church.

    Yes, and I think there is much misunderstanding and misapplication of the ‘usual suspect’ passages that we think teach the intrinsic ‘male headship’ role. 🙂 As I can tell through my study of Scripture, there is nothing in creation or in the new creation that calls for an intrinsic male headship. Now, practically, there are situations where men are leading above and beyond the woman. In my home, my wife defers to me as the lead. But this is not intrinsic to my maleness, at least as I understand Genesis 1-2 and the new covenant/new creation teaching of Scripture. And so I wonder why Priscilla was normally mentioned before her husband, Aquila, in Scripture? I think you personally know some Priscilla-Aquilla couples in your life.

    I can only ask that people read all of my articles to see how I answer the ‘usual suspect’ passages brought up by complementarians. Or I will make the full PDF document available when I finish the series if you would want to download that. You must remember, I was a complementarian all my Christian life until about the last year and a half. So I had to go through some rearranging of my own theology.

  5. I went and looked over your other posts. You have spent a lot of time (correctly) pointing out that men and women are equal in standing before God. That was the pre-fall state, as you noted in your Genesis articles, and that’s what the NT advocates, as noted especially in your Galatians 3 post. What I haven’t seen addressed is the idea of different roles outside of 1 Cor and 1 Tim. I haven’t read all of the comments, so maybe it’s there. But where, for example, in Genesis do you see that man and woman have the same role, the same responsibilities? Is it just happenstance that God called to Adam after the fall and addressed him. Having different roles is not contrary to the new creation. Angels have a specific role. The persons of the Trinity have unique roles.

    In Galatians 3, Paul points out the equal standing of Jews/Gentiles, men/women, slaves/masters. This list can’t mean that all of these people have the same roles. In at least three places, Paul tells slaves to submit to their masters (Eph 6, Col 3, 1 Tim 6). They are on equal ground, but Paul upholds their distinct role as slaves in relation to their masters. He says to obtain your freedom if possible, but he doesn’t urge them to rebel on account of their equality.

    Maybe you’re going to address these issues in future posts. These are just my thoughts that I haven’t seen you address thus far.

  6. Don –

    You said: But where, for example, in Genesis do you see that man and woman have the same role, the same responsibilities?

    The same question must be asked by complementarians: Where in Genesis does God tell them they have ‘different roles’? I do not see it. Now, of course I don’t deny that men and women have differing roles because of how they were created. I cannot give birth to a child. I cannot feed a child by breast. I am poor at mothering. But this has nothing to do with intrinsic roles with regards to leadership, or the ever-used word of ‘headship’. I don’t see anywhere where this points to who is ‘over’ the other.

    You said: Is it just happenstance that God called to Adam after the fall and addressed him.

    No. God called to the one who heard Him first and, if we kind of read between the lines, it seems that Adam was the one not faithful to communicate the command of God to Eve. Eve could have avoided a lot if Adam had been faithful. But you still have to show where in the text we are told that, because God first spoke to Adam, this means he is the ‘head’ and ‘lead’ over Eve. I look hard in the text and don’t see it. And, interestingly enough, they were both given the same ruling command in Gen 1:26-28, right? They both were given the same responsibility from the beginning, no?

    You said: Having different roles is not contrary to the new creation. Angels have a specific role. The persons of the Trinity have unique roles.

    Oh yes. Each has differing roles (not just humans). No doubt. No one denies that. But there is nothing inherent to the male gender that says, ‘Because I am male, I am in lead over woman.’ So we allow for each to carry their own function – as also in the Trinity. But there is nothing inherent to leadership within the ontological nature of the Godhead. Nothing inherent that makes one less than the other. They have decided their roles together, and in humility, which is similar in my family as I shared above. But they didn’t have to write a contract due to their relational foundation. My wife and I didn’t have to sign a contract due to our relational foundation. We just walk out our giftings and graces within our specific family unit.

    Here is what we must recognise. There is something in woman that reflects the image of God that man cannot in any way do. We must marvel at the reality that our wives, and all women, image God in a way that only they can. So, in that sense, one could argue that woman is above man because there are intrinsic ways in which she can image God in ways you and I cannot. Amazing that this is absolutely true. The same is true vice versa. But neither of these says who is inherently in charge. No woman can say, ‘Because I can do this and man cannot do this, therefore I am above and head over man.’ That’s silly. And I don’t believe that man can say it either.

    You said: In Galatians 3, Paul points out the equal standing of Jews/Gentiles, men/women, slaves/masters. This list can’t mean that all of these people have the same roles.

    No one argues that we all have same roles. Each role is determined by the grace and gifting of God. Not by gender, not by social status, not by economic status, etc. My role as shepherd and teacher within my congregation does not have anything to do with the fact that I am of the male gender. It has all to do with the gifting and calling of God, yeah? I hope no one puts on their resume that they should be a pastor of a church because 1) they are male or 2) they are not female. It has to do with gifting and calling to fulfill a role. Not gender, not racial status, not gender status.

    You said: In at least three places, Paul tells slaves to submit to their masters (Eph 6, Col 3, 1 Tim 6). They are on equal ground, but Paul upholds their distinct role as slaves in relation to their masters. He says to obtain your freedom if possible, but he doesn’t urge them to rebel on account of their equality.

    I would find it real hard to put too much emphasis on the whole master-slave status as a great example. In some of these social institutions in Paul’s day, he was giving counsel on how to be a faithful Christ-follower in the midst of their own social setting and understanding of these institutions. But Paul didn’t lay out a command for all time that this is how it should be and that we should keep the master-slave institution. I’m pretty glad that, though Paul did not try and abolish slavery, we were, in the providence of God, moved to see such abolished within the last 150 years. That institution remained in his day. It no longer does now. Can we learn something with our understanding of men-women?

    I do probably have another 4 articles or so to post: one on Eph 5, one summarising some women in Scripture, one on women as elders, one on head coverings. I can bank on you being uncomfortable with some of my conclusions. 🙂 And, in the end, I also won’t address all your questions, no doubt. I’m not that good or well-studied enough.

    Thanks for the interaction.

  7. Scott,
    Thanks for the reply. I’m eagerly awaiting your Eph 5 article. I’m sure neither of us will answer all of each other’s questions. God help us.

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