(1 Cor. 11:3) Does the Bible teach that men have authority over women?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3). Some Christian theologians hold that Paul’s use of the word “head” (kephalē) implies that men (or perhaps husbands) have authority over women (or perhaps wives). Is this the case?

RESPONSE: Let’s look at this passage in depth:

“I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man…”

The expression “every man” must refer to every Christian man. After all, in verse 4, Paul writes, “Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head.” Clearly, Paul is referring to men in Christian fellowship—not all men on Earth.

“And the man is the head of a woman…”

In Greek, the term andros can be translated as “man” or “husband.” Likewise, the term gyne can be rendered “woman” or “wife.” Which does Paul have in mind?

Those who support the view that Paul is referring to husbands and wives make a couple of observations. First, while Christ is the head of “every man” (plural), the man is the head of “a woman” (singular). This seems to point toward an individual married couple. Second, Paul later refers to the creation of Adam and Eve (vv.8-9), who were the first married couple.[1] This is why the NRSV translates this as “the husband is the head of the wife.”

This view has serious problems, however. After all, Paul goes on to speak about men and women—not husbands and wives—throughout the rest of the chapter. Even the NRSV translates the rest of this section as “man” and “woman.” Furthermore, what about unmarried women? Are they allowed to pray and prophesy with their heads uncovered?[2]

What does Paul mean by “head” (kephalē)?

“Head” (kephalē) is used 10 times in this section. It can either be translated as “source” or “authority.”[3] Much like our English word “head,” this term can either refer to the “head of a corporation” (i.e. authority) or the “head of a river” (i.e. source). To make matters more complicated, Paul refers to both the “source” of men and women (vv. 8-9, 12), as well as the “authority” of men and women (v.10) in this passage. Which meaning does Paul have in mind?

Theologian Wayne Grudem favors the view that “head” (kephalē) refers to authority. In his famous study of the 2,336 uses of “head” (kephalē) in extant Greek literature, Grudem claims that every use of the term “head” (kephalē) refers to “authority,” not “source.”[4]

However, this study has been criticized for multiple reasons: First, the vast majority of uses refer to the literal head of a person—neither to the metaphorical meaning of “authority” nor “source.” Second, of the 49 that refer to “authority over,” 12 are from the NT (which are the usages under discussion). Third, the Septuagint usually translates the Hebrew word for “head” (rō’š) with kephalē. However, these Jewish translators “almost never did so when ‘ruler’ was intended, thus indicating that this metaphorical sense is an exceptional usage and not part of the ordinary range of meanings for the Greek word.”[5] The Septuagint only translates the Hebrew word rō’š as kephalē in 12 out of 180 when it refers to authority. Fourth, definitions of words don’t come from the number of times they are translated a certain way, but from the context in which they are used.

Scholars Gordon Fee,[6] Catherine Kroeger,[7] Alan Johnson,[8] Leon Morris,[9] and Cyril of Alexandria[10] argue that Paul is using the term “head” (kephalē) as referring to the “beginning” or “source” in this passage. They do so for several reasons:

First, contrary to Grudem’s assertion, the term “head” (kephalē) can be rendered “beginning” or “source.” Consider several examples from the existing literature:

  • Tiberius calls Augustus ‘your head and a father of the people’ (Dio Cassius Annals41).[11]
  • Ulpian declares that ‘every woman is both the head [beginning] and end of the family.’[12]
  • “Zeus is the kephalē, Zeus the middle, and from Zeus all things are completed” (Orphic frag. 168).[13]
  • Philo: “Of all the members of the clan here described Esau is the progenitor, the kephalē as it were of the whole creature [meaning the source of the whole clan]” (Philo, On Mating with the Preliminary Studies, 161).[14]
  • Artemidorus: “For the kephalē resembles parents in that it is the cause of one’s living” (Oneirocriticus, 1.35).[15]

Second, the context refers to the “source” of men and women. Paul writes, “Man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake” (1 Cor. 11:8-9). Later he writes, “As the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God” (1 Cor. 11:12).

Third, there is no reference to submission in 1 Corinthians 11, as we have in Ephesians 5. In our estimation, “head” refers to leadership authority in Ephesians 5, specifically because we see the word “subject” (NASB) or “submit” (NIV) in this context (hypotassomenoi).

 “And God is the head of Christ.”

If we understand “head” (kephalē) as referring to the “source,” what does it mean that “God is the source of Christ”? Does this mean that Jesus was created by God the Father? Not at all. We would understand this passage to refer to Jesus’ incarnation—not his status as the second person of the Trinity. Fee writes, “It refers to the incarnational work of Christ. God is the source of Christ, who through his redemption became the source of “every man.”[16]

Here we must disagree with Kroeger who argues that the concept of authority in the Trinity “does violence to the concept of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as equal in goodness, power and love.”[17] After all, Jesus was (willingly) subordinate to the Father in all things (Jn. 5:30; 6:38; 7:16, 28; 8:28, 42; 14:10, 24).

Conclusion

There are very good reasons for thinking Paul is referring to men and women (rather than husbands and wives) in this passage. However, if we understand Paul to be referring to “authority,” then this would imply that all men have authority over all women in the church. Such a reading is highly implausible. After all, women are said to “pray and prophesy” in this very passage! While we do affirm that husbands are servant leaders in their marriages, we simply do not believe that this passage teaches this. This would be a case of “right message, wrong passage.” For more on this topic, see our earlier article “Christianity and Women.”

[1] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 177.

[2] Morris, L. (1985). 1 Corinthians: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 7, p. 150). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 176.

[4] Wayne Grudem, “Does κεφαλή (“Head”) Mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority over’ in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples,” Trinity Journal 6 (1985), 38–59.

[5] Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 503). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[6] Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 503). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[7] Catherine Clark Kroeger, The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002),

[8] Johnson, A. F. (2004). 1 Corinthians (Vol. 7, p. 191). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[9] Morris, L. (1985). 1 Corinthians: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 7, p. 149). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[10] Cyril writes, “Thus we say that the kephalē of every man is Christ, because he was excellently made through him. And the kephalē of woman is man, because she was taken from his flesh. Likewise, the kephalē of Christ is God, because He is from Him according to nature.” Ad Arcadiam 1.1.5.5(2).63. He elsewhere connects Jesus’ “source” as referring to the incarnation, Ad Pulcheriam 2.3.268.

[11] Cited in Catherine Clark Kroeger, The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002),

[12] Cited in Catherine Clark Kroeger, The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002),

[13] Cited in Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 503). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[14] Cited in Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 503). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[15] Cited in Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 503). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[16] Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 505). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[17] Catherine Clark Kroeger, The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 659.