Leon Morris on the metaphorical meaning of "head" in the New TestamentAt the moment I’m reading through a short book called The Bible and Women’s Ministry: An Australian Dialogue published by Acorn Press back in 1990. The eight “chapters”[1] of the book are written by eight different men, all prominent, scholarly ministers and educators in the Anglican Church of Australia.[2]

In the first chapter, Peter Jensen (who recently retired as the Anglican archbishop of Sydney but was principal of Moore Theological College at the time of writing) explains how we should use Scripture in the debate about women in ministry. I won’t comment on Jensen’s chapter except to say that he spends a bit of time critiquing John Stott’s hermeneutic and view on women in ministry. Contrary to Jensen, I agree with what John Stott says here (quoted by Jensen on pages 7-8):

If God endows women with spiritual gifts (which he does), and thereby calls them to exercise their gifts for the common good (which he does), the Church must recognize God’s gifts and calling, must make appropriate spheres of service available to women, and should ‘ordain’ (that is commission and authorize) them to exercise their God-given ministry, at best in team situations.[3] Our Christian doctrines of Creation and Redemption tell us that God wants his gifted people to be fulfilled, not frustrated, and his church to be enriched by their service.
J.R.W Stott, Issues facing Christianity Today (Basingstoke: Marshalls, 1984), 254.

The chapter that has really got my attention so far is Leon Morris’s entitled Leadership and Authority. (Leon Morris was the Principal of Ridley Theological College, Melbourne, from 1964 until his retirement in 1976[4], and was an esteemed New Testament scholar who has written many commentaries on New Testament books, etc. He passed away in 2006.)

In his chapter, Morris writes about the usage of “head” in the Old Testament, in Greek writings, and in the New Testament; in particular, he comments on Paul’s use of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11, Ephesians 5, and Colossians. Morris wrote this chapter in answer to the presumption that “head” (Greek: kephalē) in the New Testament has the metaphorical meaning of “leader” or “authority”. This faulty assumption is being perpetuated by people such as Wayne Grudem. (Leon Morris criticizes Grudem’s 1985 article on kephalē.)[5]

Here is the opening paragraph of Morris’s chapter:

We are perhaps too well aware of the fact that we think with our brains. To us it is accordingly the most natural thing in the world to understand “head” in terms of direction and sovereignty. In the physical body it is the head that makes the decisions and gives the commands and when we use “head” metaphorically we quite naturally think of sovereignty. Our problem when we approach the New Testament is that the function of the central nervous system was not known to the ancients; they were unaware of the fact that we think with our brains. For them, thought was not located in the head but in the body, in the diaphragm or the heart. It is also the case that the New Testament writers never explain what they mean by “head” nor do they discuss the relationship between head and body. We must accordingly examine the relevant passages with some care. We must be on our guard against thinking that Paul, for example, means by “head” what we would mean if we used the term, or that he sees the relationship between head and body the same way as we do. He may, he may not. It is not easy to see what the head-body relationship would mean to someone who held that we think with the diaphragm, not the brain. We must think hard about what the ancients had in mind when they spoke about head and body. (p. 23)

It is important that we heed Morris’s caution and take care not to make hasty assumptions about the metaphorical meaning of “head” if we want to faithfully interpret Paul’s meaning and intent.


Endnotes

[1] The book is divided into four parts, each part containing two chapters (or essays.) The second chapter in each part is a response to the first chapter of each part.

[2] I think it’s a shame that not one women contributed to this book which is on a topic which clearly affects women deeply.

[3] I also believe ministering in a team situation is the ideal for all Christians, both men and women.

[4] “The Ridley staff and college were openly in favour of women lecturing, preaching, being ordained and when possible being appointed to incumbencies.” (Source)

[5] Morris agrees with Gordon D. Fee’s criticism of Grudem’s article. Morris quotes Fee as saying: “Grudem’s article is quite misleading both in its presentation and conclusion.” (p. 26)  Grudem’s article is in Appendix 1 of George W. Knight III, The Role Relationship of Men and Women: New Testament Teaching (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985). A more recent article by Wayne Grudem on the same subject, which also draws criticism, is available online here.

Update 15.08.17

Since posting this article, I’ve come across passages in Plato and Philo where they state the head (not the brain) guides or controls the body because of the head’s ability for sense perception (eyesight, hearing). I’ll post text references soon.


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