The Metaphorical Meanings of “Head” in Paul’s Letters: Part One

In Colossians 1:18, Paul writes:

[The Son] is the head (kephalē) of the church body of which he is the beginning (archē) the firstborn of the dead, so that he himself may be first in everything.

Paul’s main point in the passage where this verse comes from (Col. 1:15-18) is to show that Jesus is the creator, source, origin, and beginning of everything in the universe. This includes Jesus being the source and “author” of the Church. Paul used the word kephalē (head) in this context—the context of source and origin.[1]

In English the word “head” has many meanings. One metaphorical meaning of head is “leader” or “chief person”. In English the “head” of an organisation is the leader, the top person. In Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word kephalē (“head”) also has metaphorical meanings; however “leader” or “chief person” is usually not one of them.

Many Christians have assumed that the Greek word kephalē, in the New Testament, could mean “leader” or “chief person” as it does in Byzantine and Modern Greek.[2] [Note the screen shot near the bottom of this page.]

One compelling piece of evidence that kephalē did not usually mean “leader” in Koine Greek is that the LSJ, one of the most exhaustive lexicons of Ancient Greek, does not include any definition of kephalē that approximates “leader” or “authority”.  [The entire LSJ entry on kephalē  is here.]

Another bit of compelling evidence is found in the Septuagint, the circa second–first century BC translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. When the Hebrew word for “head” (rosh) meant a literal head, the translators invariably translated rosh into kephalē. However in Hebrew, like in English, “head” can also mean a leader or ruler. In the instances where rosh meant a leader, in most cases, the translators did not use the word kephalē in their translation, instead they typically used the Greek word archōn, which does mean ruler or leader. It seems that most of the translators of the Septuagint knew that kephalē does not usually mean leader, ruler, or authority.[3] (I say “most translators” because not all those involved with translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into Koine Greek were equal to the task. More on this here.)

Unfortunately, many Christians have simply presumed that “head” means “authority” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23, and many churches continue to teach this interpretation.

Leadership or Loving Care in Marriage?

Paul is the only Bible writer to say that the kephalē (“head”) of the woman is the man. He says this twice: once in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and once in Ephesians 5:23.

1 Corinthians 11:3 is not about the marriage relationship. Most English translations use the word “man” and “woman”, rather than “husband” and “wife”, to reflect this understanding.[4] Nor is 1 Corinthians 11:3 about some sort of chain of command.[5] The use of kephalē in this verse has the meaning of “source” or “origin”, a fact which several early church writers attest to.[6] [More about 1 Corinthians 11:3 here.]

This leaves one verse. Ephesians 5:23 is about marriage. It amazes me that the Church has developed a strong and pervasive doctrine of “male headship” primarily based on this one Bible verse. (Note that nowhere in scripture does it teach that the man is the “head” of the house or family.[7])

In Ephesians 5:23a Paul writes:

For the husband is the kephalē of the wife as Christ is the kephalē of the church, his body . . .

In the passage where this verse occurs (Eph 5:21-33), Paul does not tell husbands to be leaders, or to be in authority; rather, Paul urges husbands to sacrificially love and care for their wives. Love and care, and even nurture, is the context of Ephesians 5:25-33, not leadership. Husbands are to love and care for their wives as Jesus loves and cares for the church. It seems that just as Christ is the sustainer and source (kephalē) of nurture for the church, the husbands Paul was writing to were to be the sustainer and source (kephalē) of nurture for his wife. [My article on Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33 here.]

Authority or Association in Ephesians 5?

The concept of kephalē carries the connotations of kinship, association, and connection. A head is nothing without a body, and vice versa. Moreover, the head and body have an affinity and are part of the same unit (cf. Col. 2:19). By way of illustration, Suzanne McCarthy points out that we can say that man is the master of a dog, but we cannot say that man is the head of a dog. Man is not of the same genus or species as dogs. To say that man is the head of a dog is just plain wrong because man and dogs are different. Husband and wife, however, are not only of the same species but they are essentially equal. This affinity and equality means that the husband can be the kephalē of the wife in the Greek metaphorical sense of the wordThis sense of the word would have been understood by Paul’s Greco-Roman audience in Ephesus.

Many Greek philosophers and writers, such as Plutarch, taught that husbands are the leaders and rulers of their wives. In contrast, no Bible author, including Paul, asserts that the husband is to be the leader, ruler, or authority of the wife.[8] Rather than using any of the many Greek words which mean ruler, leader or authority[9], Paul used the word kephalē to highlight the connectedness of husband and wife.[10]

Paul wanted husbands to be connected and allied with their wives. Likewise, Paul instructed wives to be cooperative, supportive and loyal (i.e. submissive) to their own husbands.[11] Paul wrote that husbands and wives should be joined, united, one flesh. Unity, affinity, fidelity, and equality are the ideals in Christian marriage. These qualities were absent in many marriages in Greco-Roman society, so Paul found it necessary to write about the godly ideals of marriage in his letters.

Supremacy or Source in Creation?

Many Christians argue that men (and husbands) have primacy or supremacy over women (and wives) because the first man was the kephalē, the source or beginning, of the first woman (cf. 1 Cor. 11:3).[12] However, it is important to remember that the first man was entirely passive when the first woman was made. In fact, the first man was in a deep sleep and probably had no inkling that God was removing a part out of him and forming the first woman from it.

We give Jesus the honour and the praise for being the creator, sustainer, and source of the universe. Man, however, cannot take any credit, or claim extra privileges, for the creation of the woman or for being first. The first woman, as well as the first man, was created and made by God, through Jesus. God is our ultimate source (1 Cor. 11:12). Moreover, both man and woman were made in God’s image and both were made to rule over God’s creation.

The Genesis 2 record does not reveal any hint of male privilege, primacy, or authority by virtue of man being created first (despite what some assert to the contrary.) Nevertheless, the man was created first and this fact needed to be explained to newly-converted Gentile Christians, many of whom may have held to pagan myths about the creation of various men and women and gods. A faulty doctrine of the origins of mankind has the potential to lead to other faulty beliefs, practices and behaviours.[13] [My article on The Complementarian Concept of the Created Order here.]

Patriarchy or Mutuality in Marriage?

Many Christians erroneously believe that the word kephalē conveys the meaning of authority, and they interpret Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 to mean that husbands have authority over their wives. Some elaborate on their interpretation and understanding of kephalē even further and claim that husbands and fathers are the spiritual authorities in the home, and that wives and mothers do not have spiritual authority of their own. Paul never hints at such a doctrine. The only time the word for authority (exousia) is used in the New Testament in the context of marriage is in 1 Corinthians 7:4 where it says, “The wife does not have authority (or freedom) of her own body but her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority (or freedom) of his own body but his wife.” In the following verse Paul adds, “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time . . .”  I take 1 Corinthians 7:4 to mean that a married man or woman cannot choose to become celibate without their partner’s permission (as some Corinthian Christians appeared to be doing), or have sex with whoever they want, as their spouse has the exclusive right (exousia) of a sexual relationship with his or her own spouse. (More on 1 Cor. 7:4 here.)

1 Corinthians 7:4-5 shows that, rather than the husband being the authority or decision maker, Paul expected husbands and wives to make decisions by mutual consent. The notion that the husband is to be the arbiter and make the final decision, or have the final say on a matter, is contrived and simply has no biblical basis.

I do not understood why complementarians believe that in marriage, where there are only two people, husband and wife, there needs to be a leader. Larger organisations need leaders to function effectively, but a couple—where the husband and wife are equally capable—does not need one person to always be the leader and the other person to always be the follower. Moreover, it seems ineffective and unnecessary to burden the husband with the primary responsibilities of family life when he has a capable wife with whom he can jointly share leadership and responsibilities.

Conclusion

“Headship” is a term that does not appear in the Bible, yet the understanding of “male headship” (i.e. male authority) has been part of the Church’s dogma for centuries. This is because many have interpreted scripture while being influenced by the prevailing patriarchal culture. God has tolerated patriarchy in the past, and he continues to tolerate it, but true equality and mutuality are the biblical ideals that Kingdom people should be aiming for and aspiring to. “Male headship” and male primacy does not reflect the gospel message of freedom and equality for all people.

Instead of teaching the concept of “male headship”, as many have understood it, Paul and other New Testament authors sowed the seed ideas for a casteless Christianity where all people, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status, are considered as equal; and no person, simply on the basis of ethnicity, gender or wealth, is either privileged or discriminated against (Gal. 3:28). Tragically, the Church has been blinkered by the culture of patriarchy and male privilege, and have been appallingly slow to realise the gospel ideal of true equality. It is time for the Church to take off their blinkers and take another look at what Jesus, Paul, and others taught about men and women and marriage in the New Testament.

Kephalē and "Male Headship" in Paul's Letters


Endnotes

[1] Other verses which show that Jesus is the beginning, origin, source, and instigator of creation include John 1:3, 10 and Hebrews 1:2.

[2] Our knowledge of Hellenistic Greek, which includes Koine Greek, has improved dramatically with the discovery of large numbers of ancient papyri in the late 1800s and early-mid 1900s. (And more continue to be discovered and studied.) These papyri have helped us to better understand the meanings and uses of many ancient Greek words, including the word kephalē.

[3] Though rosh (“head”) is used 180 times as meaning a “chief” of a tribe or class in the Hebrew Old Testament, whenever this usage is translated in the Septuagint (LXX) the Greek word is archōn or archēgos (“ruler”) and not kephalē, with eight exceptions. Since the LXX translators have typically translated rosh, when it means as “chief” or “ruler”, with a word other than kephalē, and secular Greek usage lacked this meaning of “chief”, it is likely that Paul’s use of kephalē carries a meaning other than “chief” or “ruler.” Andrew Perriman identifies eleven cases in the Septuagint where rosh, at first glance, may appear to mean “ruler” and is translated into kephalē. Michael Kruse summarises Perriman’s findings here and here.

Gordon D. Fee writes,

Indeed the metaphorical meaning of kephalē (“head”) to mean “chief” or “person of the highest rank” is rare in Greek literature—so much so that even though the Hebrew word rosh often carried this sense, the Greek translators of the LXX, who ordinarily use kephalē to translated rosh, almost never did so when ”ruler” was intended . . . . Paul’s understanding of the metaphor, therefore, and almost certainly the one the Corinthians would have grasped, is “head” as “source,” especially “source of life.
Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans, 1987) 502-503.

[4] The Greek word anēr means “man” or “husband”. Context determines whether anēr should be translated as “man” or “husband”. Most English Bible translations (the ESV being a notable exception) use the word “man” in 1 Corinthians 11 because this passage is not speaking about marriage, but about appropriate behaviour in worship. Most English translations use the word “husband” in Ephesians 5:22ff because Paul is speaking about marriage here.

[5] 1 Corinthians 11:3 means:

But I want you to realize that the head [i.e. origin or source] of every man is Christ, and the head [origin or source] of the woman is man, and the head [origin or source] of Christ [or Jesus’ Messiah-ship] is God [or the triune Godhead].

Kenneth Bailey comments on 11:3 and writes,

“The origin of every man is Christ” (i.e. Christ is the agent of God in creation. In 1 Corinthians 8.6 Paul affirms that Jesus Christ is the one “through whom are all things.”)
“The origin of woman is man” (i.e. , Genesis 2:21-23). Woman [ishah] is “taken out of man [ish].”
“The origin of Christ is God” (i.e., the Christ is “the Messiah” and the origin of the Messiah is God). In the language of later centuries, “The Son proceeds from the Father.” Christ comes from God. . . .
Bailey, Through Mediterranean Eyes, 302.

[6] Several prominent early church theologians attest to “source/beginning/origin” as Paul’s main meaning of kephalē in 1 Corinthians 11:3.

Athanasius (296-373) Bishop of Alexandria, stated in “Anathema 26” of De Synodis:

For the Son is the Head, namely the beginning [or, source] of all: and God is the Head, namely the beginning [or, source] of Christ . . .

John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407) is adamant that “head” doesn’t mean “leader” in 1 Corinthians 11:3. He says that if we take “head” with the sense of governing, the passage won’t make sense and it will lead to false ideas about Jesus Christ, which is his primary concern. (Homily 26 on First Corinthians)

Cyril (376-444), Archbishop of Alexandria, in De Recta Fide ad Pulcheriam et Eudociam wrote:

Therefore of our race he [Adam] became first head, which is source, and was of the earth and earthy. Since Christ was named the second Adam, he has been placed as head, which is source, of those who through Him have been formed anew unto Him unto immor­tality through sanctification in the Spirit. Therefore he himself our source, which is head, has appeared as a human being. Yet he, though God by nature, has himself a generating head, the heavenly Father, and he himself, though God according to his nature, yet being the Word, was begotten of him. Because head means source, he establishes the truth for those who are wavering in their mind that man is the head of woman, for she was taken out of him. Therefore as God according to his nature, the one Christ and Son and Lord has as his head the heavenly Fa­ther, having himself become our head because he is of the same stock according to the flesh.
(See Patrologia Graeca 76, pp.1336-1420.)

Even hierarchical complementarian, Wayne Grudem, who states that kephalē implies authority, concedes that:

There are some texts which indicate that the physical head was thought of as the source of energy and life for the body, and therefore the possibility exists that the word kephale might have come to be used as a metaphor for ‘source’ or ‘source of life’. . .
“The meaning of Kephalē (Head): A Response to Recent Studies” in Rediscovering Biblical Manhood and Woman hood: A Response to Biblical Feminism (Wheaton, Il: Crossways, 1994) 467.

[7] In reality, many complementarian men (who believe that God has ordained them to be the leaders of their wives and homes) do not lead or run their house and family life; they leave much of the running of the household and family to their wives. (See 1 Tim. 5:14 where, in the Greek, Paul uses the word oikodespotein in reference to young Christian wives in Ephesus. The etymology of oikodespotein gives the meaning “to be the master of the house”, but it its actual usage in contemporary Greek literature has the sense “to manage the household”. The KJV translates this verse too  literally. (More on 1 Timothy 5:14, and similar verses in Titus 2:3-4, here.)

[9] The verb for “rule” is used twice in the Bible in reference to husbands as rulers. In Genesis 3:16 it says that one of the consequences of sin was that the husband would rule the wife, but this is far for God’s ideal. In Esther 1:20-22 (esp. v22) the Persian king Xerxes decreed that husbands should rule their households. Christians, however, should not take their cues for living from the curses and consequences of the Fall or from decrees of pagan kings.

[10] In I Believe in Male Headship, Gilbert Bilezikian writes:

There are scores of references in the documents of the New Testament to leaders from all walks of life: religious leaders, community leaders, military leaders, governmental leaders, patriarchal leaders and church leaders. Never is anyone of them designated as head. A profusion of other titles is used, but head is conspicuously absent from the list. The obvious explanation for this singularity is that head did not mean “leader” in the language of the New Testament. (Source)

[11] Paul also used the word kephalē (head) to show that the church, the body, was closely allied and had an affinity with Jesus Christ, the head.  [More on this in my next article which is about the Gnostic concept of kephalē in Paul’s letters here.]

[12] Paul wanted all Christians, including husbands and wives, to be mutually submissive to each other (cf. Eph. 5:21). Mutual submission is what Paul was aiming for in his teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5, but he conveyed his meaning in ways that men and women at that time could relate to. Women were used to be told to be submissive, so Paul (and Peter) wrote plainly about this. Paul (and Peter) use different words when asking for submission from husbands.  [My article on Submission in Marriage here.]

[13] Some argue that the man, or husband, has more prominence than the wife because the source or beginning of something usually comes first and this position usually has more prominence than other positions. However, it is difficult to see how “prominence” fits with Christian ideals of humility, self-sacrifice, service, and the “first will be last” concept.

[14] There were many myths circulating in the Greco-Roman world about the creation of particular men and women, and the creation of men and women in general. Hesiod’s Theogony, a well-known ancient Greek work, states that the origin of woman was independent of man. Unlike the Genesis accounts, this account denied that men and women were compatible and equal. A very different Greek myth was that the goddess Athena was miraculously “born”, or generated, as a fully formed adult woman from the head (kephalē) of Zeus. This myth, and a few others like it, show that the Greeks saw the head (kephalē) as being some sort of a source of life. Still other myths, which seem to have been causing problems in the Ephesian church, told the story that Eve was created first and that Adam was the one deceived. [My articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 in Context here.]

Instead of a variety of pagan myths about different ways that different men were created or generated, the truth is that the source of every man, whether Jew, Roman or Greek, is Jesus Christ. And instead of a variety of pagan myths about the different ways that different women were created or generated, the source of the [first] woman was man (1 Cor. 11:3). Nevertheless, Paul goes on to say, “For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (1 Cor. 11:12). God is our ultimate source whether we are male or female.

© 18th of September, 2011, Margaret Mowczko

Further Reading

“A Meta-Study of the Debate over the Meaning of “Head” (Kephalē) in Paul’s Writings” by Alan F. Johnson here.

“The Meaning of Head in the Pauline Epistles” in Abusing Scripture: The Consequences of Misreading the Bible by Manfred T. Brauch here.

“Does kephalē (“head”) Mean “Source” or “Authority Over” in Greek Literature: A Rebuttal” by Richard S. Cervin here.

“Head as Metaphor in Paul” by Al Wolters here.

Below is a screen shot of a paragraph from Richard Cervin’s article where he states that lexicons for individual Greek authors (pre-classical, classical, and Hellenist authors) do not give “leader” as a meaning for kephalē. Note the last sentence in this paragraph where Richard quotes Dhimitrakou who states that “leader” as a meaning of kephalē is medieval. That is, kephalē did not mean “leader” in New Testament times, but it did in medieval times. Richard then goes on in his article to explain the reasons why most New Testament lexicons do have “leader” as a possible meaning.

Kephalē and "Male Headship" in Paul's Letters


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