Posted by: vicholdsforth | January 27, 2010

A Theology of Woman (Part 5: 1 Corinthians 11:3)

In our last installment, we did a contextual overview of 1 Corinthians, and 11:3-16 in particular, to give us some necessary background before settling in to study 11:3.  Complementarians read 1 Cor 11:3 as affirming a God-Christ-husband-wife hierarchy:  “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”  At first glance, this would seem to be the correct interpretation of this verse.

I like to think of Scripture as a jigsaw puzzle in some respects.  Sometimes we put a piece in, and we think we have it right.  Then later, as we have difficulty fitting in the surrounding pieces, we realize we didn’t get it right after all.  That piece has to come out, and we need to start again.  Evangelicals affirm that Scripture does not contradict Scripture.  So if we have arrived at an interpretation for a passage, then find that it contradicts another portion of Scripture, it’s back to the drawing board.

1 Cor 11:3 begins with the assertion “The head of every man is Christ.”  English-speaking readers understand “head” to be a metaphor for “authority.”  There are other metaphoric uses for “head” in English.  One is “a unifying commonality,” e.g., “subject headings;” the other is “source” or “origin,” as in “headwaters” or “fountainhead.”  Metaphors don’t always translate from language to language; but these two are used in Greek, as well as in English.  I contend that reading “head” to mean “authority” in 1 Cor 11:3 puts this verse at odds with numerous other passages of Scripture; understanding “head” to mean “source” resolves these difficulties and harmonizes better with the biblical texts as a whole.

Not everyone has submitted to Christ’s authority yet.  In the future, “every knee will bow,” (Rom 14:11, Phil 2:10).  In Matt 4:8-10, Satan offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world.”  Notice that Jesus’ reply was not, “Those aren’t yours to give.”  Instead, He resisted this temptation just as He did the others, an implicit acknowledgement of Satan’s authority in this world.  2 Cor 4:4 describes Satan as “god of this world (or age),” and Eph 6:11 clearly states that there remain “rulers…authorities…and powers” even after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  1 John 3 describes we humans as either “children of God” or “children of the devil.”   Heb 2:8 says, “at present we do not see everything subject to Him.”  Eph 1:10 & 1 Cor 15:24-25 also describe universal submission to Christ as a future event.

I submit that the Biblical context communicates repeatedly and consistently that “source” is the preferred meaning of the “head” metaphor.  The immediate context (1 Cor 11:8 & 12) continues to address origins, making the likelihood that Paul is using head as a metaphor for source or origin rather than authority very high.  It is also interesting to note the order in which the persons are presented:  man, woman, Christ.  If one were describing military rank, the sequence major, private, general would be an extremely unlikely and perplexing progression.  But if we read this verse as “the source of every man is Christ, the source of woman is man, the source of Christ is God,” we have a logically-sequenced list of events as they occurred here on earth:  first the man appeared, then the woman, then Christ.  Also, in the same letter (chapter 7), Paul has already laid out a lengthy and very balanced (indeed, identical) set of instructions for husbands and wives.  In a hierarchical arrangement, it is incomprehensible that the instructions for the subordinate would be the same as for the leader.  So it makes no sense that Paul would just a few paragraphs later establish a marital hierarchy, especially in light of 7:4-5.  This is the only place in the New Testament in which exousia, or authority, is discussed in the context of marriage, and it is conferred on both wife and husband alike.  Interdependency (11:11-12), not hierarchy, is what Paul has in view here, and is consistent with the overarching theme of this letter:  that love for others should drive our every decision, every action (chapter 13).

With respect to the larger context of the entire body of biblical texts, the source interpretation is positively affirmed by John 1:3, which tells us that the source of every man is Christ.  Moreover, it also removes the apparent contradiction to the numerous passages in the New Testament that affirm that Satan and his minions continue to wield authority over this world and some of its inhabitants, discussed above.

Finally, in order for  complementarians to use this verse to justify a pre-Fall subordination of woman, they must also construe it to mean that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father.  The council of Nicea dealt with this heresy in the fourth century.  Orthodox Christianity recognizes the co-equality of all three members of the Trinity, and the Son’s subordination as a temporary “crisis” that ends when redemption is complete.  Heb 5:8, for example, states that the Son had to “learn obedience” during the incarnation.  Similarly, Phil 2:8 says “as a man he humbled himself and became obedient.”  If the Son were eternally subordinated within the Trinity, these verses would make no sense.

Complementarians assert that concept of the equality of women is the result of the recent contamination of the church by the surrounding culture.  I suggest, instead, that we are just now beginning to realize that a piece of the puzzle that was inserted 19 centuries ago just doesn’t fit.



  1. And just what are Complementarians so afraid of, anyway? Will the fabric of society truly disintegrate, with women exercising their God-given gifts of leadership?

  2. Basically, yes. Complementarians assert that the women’s movement is what’s behind the skyrocketing divorce rate and profusion of sexual deviancy, because it has created dissatisfaction and confusion over what men’s and women’s God-ordained “roles” are.

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