Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism


In preparation for a recent talk that I gave on gender and creation, I read Raymond Ortlund’s essay “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship, Genesis 1-3.”[1] In his essay, Ortlund managed to use the word “headship/ head” 70 times, he even included the word “headship” in the title of his essay, but he does not use the word “head” in the way it is used in Genesis chapters 1-3.

The Hebrew word for “head” is rosh (רֹאשׁ). It is a common Hebrew word and occurs hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. Rosh is used three times in Genesis 1-3, once in each chapter. This post briefly looks at how this word is actually used in the text.

Rosh as “Beginning” in Genesis 1:1

The very first word of the Bible is bereshit which consists of the word resheeth (רֵאשִׁית) with the bet preposition meaning “in.” Resheeth is derived from the word rosh which commonly means “head” but also has the meaning of “beginning” or “point of origin”; hence “in the beginning” in Genesis 1:1.[2]

Rosh as “Source” or “Point of Origin” in Genesis 2:10

Rosh is used in the plural, rashim (רָאשִֽׁים), in Genesis 2 where it refers to headwaters, that is, the sources or points of origin of the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2:11-14. The meaning of “heads” is hidden in most English translations because they use the word “rivers” rather than the literal “heads.” The King James version, however, translates Genesis 2:10 literally: “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.” (Italics added)[3]

Considering the meanings of rosh in Genesis 1 and 2, Ronald Pierce suggests that if you want to speculate and relate “head” to man and woman in these chapters, “then it seems only fair that you take the meaning that the text gives … and apply that meaning to the use of “head” with man and woman … [that is] Adam was Eve’s point of origin.”[4]

Rosh as “Head” and “Life” in Genesis 3:15

Rosh (רֹאשׁ) is used in a more literal sense in Genesis 3 where we read that the seed of the woman will strike the snake’s “head.” We are meant to envisage the body parts of heel and head in Genesis 3:15. Nevertheless, these words are also used metaphorically. This verse is not about an actual snake being physically struck on its actual head. Furthermore, a common interpretation of Genesis 3:15 is that the seed of the woman will kill the snake by mortally wounding its head. Thus it could be argued that “head” metaphorically refers to “life” in this verse.

Rosh as “Chief” and “Leader” in Hebrew

Rosh has still other meanings in Hebrew. It can mean “chief person” or “leader” in Hebrew, but rosh is not used with these meanings in Genesis 1-3. Nevertheless, Ortlund persistently argues his case about male authority while repeatedly using the terms “headship” and “head” in a way that is foreign to these chapters.

Authority and Rule in Genesis 1-3

In Genesis 1, words meaning “authority” and “rule” are used, but these words apply equally to men and to women. Both men and women have been charged by God to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion, or rule, over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” Genesis 1:28 (italics added). According to Genesis 1, men and women have the same shared authority.

Nowhere in chapters 1 or 2 does it say that some people are to lead or rule other people, or that some have been given extra permanent responsibilities. After the Fall, however, as a consequence of sin, God foretells that man will rule woman (Gen. 3:16). This is not God’s best plan for humanity, and even here, the Hebrew word for “head” is absent.

“Head” in the Greek New Testament

In the New Testament, man is called “head” in two verses. In Ephesians 5:23, the Greek word for “head” is used as part of a head-body metaphor signifying unity in marriage: “the husband is the head (kephalē) of his wife.” In 1 Corinthians 11:3, “head” is used in the context of origins: “the man is the head (kephalē) of woman” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:12). These verses are not about men exercising leadership or authority. I have written about the meanings of kephalē in these and other New Testament verses in several articles. (See Related Articles below.)

It is important to note that, unlike Hebrew and English, “head” in Koine Greek (the original language of the New Testament) rarely meant “chief person” or “leader.” The kind of “male headship” that Ray Ortlund and others push—that all men have extra leadership responsibilities simply because they are male—is ill-conceived and absent in New Testament instructions.

Nowhere in the New Testament are men told to lead or have authority over their wives or over any other people. Paul’s instructions to husbands, for example, are to love and serve (Eph. 5:25ff; Col. 3:19). And in 1 Cor. 7:4 husbands and wives have the same “authority.

“Male headship” should be absent in New Creation relationships in the church and in Christian marriage. In the New Creation, ministry gifts, abilities, and responsibilities, including the ministry of leading, are not tied to one gender.


[1] Raymond C. Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship, Genesis 1-3,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 86–104. (Ortlund’s essay can be viewed here.)
Ortlund states “My purpose in this essay is to demonstrate from Genesis 1-3 that both male–female equality and male headship, properly defined, were instituted by God at creation and remain permanent, beneficent aspects of human existence.” (p. 86) He defines “male headship” in terms of responsibility and leadership: “In the partnership of two spiritually equal human beings, man and woman, the man bears the primary responsibility to lead the partnership in a God-glorifying direction.” (p. 86)
Ortlund describes women as being the spiritual equals of men, but not as equals in other senses. He writes, “… was Eve Adam’s equal? Yes and no. She was his spiritual equal and, unlike the animals, ‘suitable for him.’ But she was not his equal in that she was his ‘helper.'” (p. 91) Ortlund seems to think that “helper” is a synonym for “assistant” or “auxiliary”. He goes on to say, “A man, just by virtue of his manhood, is called to lead for God. A woman, just by virtue of her womanhood, is called to help for God.” (p. 91) His understanding of “help” and “helper” does not take into consideration how the Hebrew word ezer (“help/helper”) is used throughout Hebrew scripture.

[2] Genesis 1:1 in the Septuagint has the Greek word archē with the meaning of “beginning.” John 1:1, which alludes to Genesis 1:1, also has archē.

[3] Genesis 2:10 in the Septuagint has the plural of the Greek word archē meaning “origins, sources, beginnings.” However, kephalē is used in other Greek texts to refer to the source of a river.
Writing in the fifth century BC, Herodotus stated, “From the ‘headwaters’ (plural of kephalē) of the river Tearus flows the best and finest water of all …” (Histories 4:91.2).
In the third century BC, Callimachus wrote, “I know of the city lying at the kephalē (‘head, source’) of the river Gelas …” (Aetia 2.43.46).
In the second century AD, Galen wrote, “No river that comes from a single spring is smaller at its kephalē (‘head, source’) than it is thereafter” (On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato And speaking of how whirlpools are formed in a river, Galen said, “[whirlpools] arise when they are warmed by the sun or its kephalē (‘head, source’) is heated up in some way” (De locus affectis 3.12).
The Digest of Justinian, commissioned by Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 530 CE, and written in both Greek and Latin, makes the comment, “The kephalē (‘head, source’) is the place from where the water issues forth”  (Digesta, 43.20.8). (I can only find a  Latin source online.)

[4] This post was inspired by, and partly based on, Prof. Ronald Pierce’s excellent lecture on “Male and Female in Creation and Fall (Gen. 1-3)” as part of Biola University’s Theology of Gender course, recorded in 2013. See 1.15.49-1.16.35 minute marks. (Source)

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The headwaters of the San Joaquin River, California (Wikimedia)

Explore more

4 reasons “head” does not mean “leader” in 1 Corinthians 11:3
(Part 1) Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
(Part 2) Kephalē and “Proto-Gnosticism” in Paul’s Letters
The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Ephesians 5:22-33, in a Nutshell
Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers
Various articles on Gender in Genesis 1-3
Freebies for Students of the New Testament

24 thoughts on ““Head” and “Headship” in Genesis 1-3

  1. Thank you for this very well written piece. It was/is an encouragement to me.

  2. As always Marg, your articles are logical and precise, based on the actual meaning of words instead of what people want them to be. I still find it confusing and sad that so many men and women take the Curse literally as God’s plan for relationships — that God WANTS men to rule women! It’s a curse, and the curse is all the more painful because it’s been claimed as a blessing. Thanks so much for your writing.

    1. Patriarchy has been a curse for the whole world…yes, even for the men who have locked themselves into a closed room where they isolate themselves from the love of women by their self-deception. The ongoing determination to rule only gets them farther and farther from the relationships with women they would probably prefer if they knew how to have them.

      If they only knew that their sense of entitlement causes women to shut them out emotionally. I see it over and over. I have warned a family member that he is cutting off his nose to spite his face when he rolls over his wife’s ego like an ox…he doesn’t seem to get it, that she will sooner or later be cutting him off relationally while (hopefully) remaining faithful physically (she won’t be able to help how she feels and that will seal their fate)…what a sad tale of ongoing patriarchy. No wonder marriages like this don’t work out well.

  3. Hi Tricia and Lucy,

    I’m glad this info was useful and encouraging for you. 🙂

  4. I heard about a book called “What Paul Really Said About Women” by John Temple Brisow”. Although I never read the books I’ve read some excerpts from the book especially in relation to the word “head” and it’s Greek and Hebrew translations “Kephale” and “ro’sh”. It’s quite an interesting take and makes so much more sense then the “leader” meaning of the word. Anyway loved your post once agan. God Bless.

    1. I have that book. It covers the basic nicely.

      God bless you too, CT.

  5. I was talking about this subject at church the other day and someone brought up the fact that Ephesians 5:24 it says that just as the church is subject to Christ so also wives ought to be in everything to their husbands

    What does “subject” mean in this verse because it comes across as meaning subjugated to rule. Anyways it threw me a bit and I would appreciate any insight

    1. Hi Sarah,

      The participle in Ephesians 5:21 (ὑποτασσόμενοι “submit yourselves”) is made up of the same verb in Ephesians 5:24 (ὑποτάσσεται “[as the church] submits itself). I believe both are in the middle voice, which means everyone in verse 21, and wives and the church in verse 24, are the people doing the action. No one is being subjugated. Rather, we choose to be submissive, much the same as we choose to be humble and deferential (as per Philippians 2:1ff and many other NT verses).

      I can’t think of anywhere in the New Testament where Christ’s reign is described in terms of subjugating believers. (I actually feel ill just writing that.) Becoming a believer is not about subjugation but about salvation, empowerment, and love. Furthermore, nothing in Ephesians 5:21-33 suggests that Paul has “rule” in mind.

      Paul never tells husband they are to lead or rule. Rather he uses the “word” love 6 times when addressing husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff. 6 times! Paul writes about love and unity, and he prefaces instructions to husbands and wives with a call to mutual submission in verse 21.

      I think “is/ be subject” is an unfortunate translation of hypotass- words. In some non-biblical Greek texts, the words are used in a military context (sometimes in the active voice). But in the military, people are ranked and there are subordinates.

      Paul is pretty clear, however, that there are no subordinates in the church (e.g., Gal. 3:26-28) or in marriage (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:1-16). So we need to translate the word with a non-military, softer sense in verses about believers. Moreover, the idea that any believer subjugates another person is the opposite of what Jesus and Paul taught. It’s the antithesis of the gospel!

      I think the “in everything” in verse 24 refers to the fact that wives are to be, where possible, totally united with their husbands. A wife is not to be submissive in just one or two aspects or areas of her life, but to be submissive with her whole life, as we are to Jesus. In a similar vein, husbands are to yield their whole life to their wives, as Jesus did for his beloved church. But neither wives or husbands should throw common sense out the window when implementing Ephesians 5:21-33.

      All biblical commands, instructions and advice must be applied with kindness and common sense. And prayer too. I’ve only ever had one person contact me because they were worried about the parameters of “submit to one another”. Almost no one worries about how to implement this instruction, but lots of people, LOTS, worry about a wife submitting to her husband. We need to use similar discernment and wisdom when applying both Ephesians 5:21 and Ephesians 5:24.

      I hope this helps. I have articles on Ephesians 5:21-33 here: https://margmowczko.com/category/ephesians-5/

  6. Marg, Being new to your site I’ve been reading through some of your posts and came across this one. In this post you said: “After the Fall, however, as a consequence of sin, God foretells that man will rule woman (Gen. 3:16). ”

    I wonder if you could expound on what you mean by the allusion to the specific portion of Gen 3:16 being a “consequence of sin,” as if it were something bad? In the specific instance God is speaking to Eve about Adam. If the implication was that there would be something wrong with Adam’s treatment of her, would not the LORD correspondingly instruct Adam to correct him? Would it not make more sense that God would address this to Adam if it indeed implied mistreatment? I see it quite differently.

    Look forward to your thoughts.

    1. Hi Doug,

      Most people believe that Adam and Eve are archetypes for all men and women, and that the curses and consequences given in Genesis 3 apply more broadly than the immediate setting. Pretty much everything God says in Genesis 3, including the woman’s desire, is not ideal. (The ideal is given in Genesis 1 and 2.) Some consequences are devastating.

      I firmly believe patriarchy is the result, directly and indirectly, of the Fall. God has tolerated a lot of sinful practices: polygamy, slavery, genocide, war, as well as patriarchy, because situations were no longer ideal and society is flawed.

      In Genesis 1, we are shown that men and women at creation have the same status, the same authority, and the same responsibilities or purpose. In Genesis 2, we are shown that it’s not good for the man to be alone, and the woman (who was made from a part or side of the man’s own body) is his perfect and equal companion. The theme in Genesis 2 is of the affinity, sameness, mutuality, and unity of the first man and woman. It falls apart after the Fall. Now man will rule woman (Gen 3:16).

      However, for those of us who are “in the Lord” there is the possibility of regaining this pre-fall affinity and mutuality. In 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, Paul speaks about the mutual interdependence of Christian men and women and says, “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” And alluding to Genesis 1, Paul says, “… there is neither male and female, for you are all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28).

      There is correction after redemption.

      1. Marg, thanks for the thought provoking reply! In Genesis 4 the LORD tells Cain, “…sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you.” The LORD continues, “but you must master it.” Shouldn’t we expect the LORD to give the same corrective instruction to Adam if he was going to be mistreating Eve in any way? Does not the absence of the LORD’s correction lend credence to the view that both Eve’s passionate desire for Adam and his corresponding masculine rule are to be viewed in a positve light?

        1. Hi Doug,

          There are lots of things I wish were included in the Genesis accounts of the creation and the fall. They raise a lot more questions than they answer. And I am reluctant to speculate beyond the text. Though, we all do it.

          Like I said, I do believe all God’s pronouncements in Genesis 3 are not ideal. The woman’s primary devotion and desire (or “turning“), for example, should be towards God, not her husband.

          God does provide correctives, but not until Moses and the book of Exodus. But even here, the regulations address practices to do with slavery, polygamy, rape, war, etc, without totally denouncing and outlawing them. God recognised that his people were living in the real world surrounded by nations who were doing these sinful things and worse. So God seemingly tolerates the less than ideal things among his people, including patriarchy. God works with his people within their flawed society, accommodating the less than ideal, without fully endorsing things such as slavery and patriarchy.

          Paul, likewise, realised that the new church was living in the real world. His instructions about relationships within the household do not attempt to dismantle the structures of the day, but lesson the power of the more powerful and encourage these people (husbands, fathers, and slave owners to be more compassionate to those who society had endowed with less power (wives, adult and younger children, and slaves).

          There is no doubt that patriarchy is the backdrop for the Bible, but it is not the message of Genesis 1 & 2, or of Jesus, or of Paul.

          Also, I don’t think we are meant to understand that Adam went straight from equal partner to her ruler overnight. Genesis 4:7 is useful in understanding the word teshuqah, but the two scenarios are different. Eve is not crouching. Eve is not sin. We mustn’t think of women as adversaries of men who need to be mastered.

          1. Marg, I didn’t intend to give the impression I’m for patriarchy, at least as it is commonly viewed. I’m definitely against patriarchy’s obsession with authority. My point was to question the common view that the “he shall rule over you” in Genesis 3:16 portrays anything negative. In fact, I would posit it is to be viewed in a positve light. My reason for pointing out the Genesis 4 incident regarding Cain, was simply to note the LORD’s attempt to correct misbehavior. The line of reasoning being if Adam was inclined to mistreat Eve the LORD would likewise have attempted to correct him. The fact that He didn’t is strong evidence that 3:16 should be viewed as a good thing. We have every reason to believe Adam and Eve had a very long and wonderful relationship.

          2. I didn’t think you were pro-patriarchy. 🙂

            God doesn’t correct Eve either. God is just saying this is how it will be: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” And he was right. But it was not like this before the fall.

          3. Marg, The fact that God does not correct Eve either, as you pointed out, also lends credence to the things of 3:16 being things God desires. Would you agree? These are things He wants going forward. That is, He wants Eve to desire the embrace of her husband, and He wants her to respect his “function” of rule. Eve is expected to converge into Adam’s vision (never giving up ultimate moral responsibility to God). Here’s where I strongly disagree with Patriarchy and its emphasis on authority as opposed to function. In the male-female relationship of marriage, man has the function of rule (father), and woman (mother) has the function of childbearing as implied by Romans 1 which speaks of those that abandon the natural “function” of women. Simply by the nature of how God created Eve, she should have acknowledged Adam’s rule and acted in accordance from day one (at the tree she defied his rule by acting his equal); after the Fall the LORD had to reiterate Adam’s rule verbally. That’s the way I see it.

          4. Hi Doug,

            Most scholars, as well as myself, do not believe that any part of Genesis 3:16 is what God ideally desires for his people.

            We see things very differently. I see similarity and mutuality, not rule, in how God created Eve from a part, or side, taken out of Adam’s own body.

          5. Understand, Marg. Thanks for your extensive study and valuable insights you share on your site! Plenty to ponder.

          6. No worries.

            By the way, if a person is always able to function as a leader or ruler of another person, but the other person cannot reciprocate, this would seem to be about position as well as function. Especially if that leadership is by virtue of sex, rather than ability, and the corresponding and permanent non-leadership is by virtue of sex, rather than lack of ability.

          7. Marg, I think sex does have much to do with it.

            Imagine a woman so supremely endowed with the ability to sympathize with others that if she simply entered the doors of a hospital she would uncontrollably break down in tears. This would be a great strength. But in another sense it would be a great weakness. The woman would hardly be a suitable candidate for suggesting painful remedies. Someone with a less sympathetic nature would actually be the better choice because they would be more likely to look past the emotions.

            The LORD has made man, in general, stronger to rule. He is generally weak when it comes to love. Consequently, it is his often lack of love in marriage relations that causes women to despise his rule.

            “While the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty.” —Sherlock Holmes, Sign of the Four

          8. Hi Doug,

            I find your hospital analogy odd. Hospitals are filled with doctors and nurses who are both male and female. In the 1900s most nurses were female, and I was one of them. We served with both strength and compassion.

            Please don’t underestimate the strength of women. Or overestimate how much strength is needed to rule a wife. Frankly, I am glad my husband doesn’t see me as someone to be ruled.

          9. Marg, I hear you. I think “rule her” is harsh. I prefer the translation “rule over her” which refers to caring oversight, like our heads “rule over” our bodies.

            That said, how would you say man differs from woman?

          10. The difference between a man and a woman is that a man can’t become pregnant, whereas most, but not all, women can. (This difference is true for many male and female animals too.) Also, men typically have more muscular strength, particularly in their upper body, than women.

            At a psychological level, men tend to be more goal-oriented, more goal-driven, and less empathetic in their pursuits and activities. Women tend to be more relational, collaborative, intuitive, and nurturing in their pursuits and activities. But it’s difficult to tell how much of this is a result of social conditioning and how much is a result of biology. And, of course, there are exceptions to the tendencies I’ve mentioned, tendencies that I have noticed in my own society.

            Furthermore, men vent frustration and irritation with expressions of anger, while women vent frustration and irritation with tears. These are broad generalisations, however; and the extent and incidence of anger and tears depends largely on a person’s emotional maturity. Nevertheless, this difference between men and women can be linked, at least to some extent, to biology (androgens and estrogens). But social conditioning plays a role in anger/tears because in some societies today boys and men are dissuaded from crying, and even made to feel ashamed and uncomfortable about crying.

            Men and women are not exactly the same but we share many things in common. When Adam first saw Eve, he commented on their similarities, not their differences. In fact, I don’t know of any non-biological human trait that is exclusively male or female.

          11. Wow Marg, I’ll have to save that for future reference. I do think what you said is instructive, that when Adam spoke he emphasized similarities. We also see this acted out at the tree where they acted as equals, functionally. Yet when the LORD first speaks following, to correct them, He emphasizes their differences.

          12. Yes, the fall will affect men and women in key areas of their lives. But before the fall, God doesn’t differentiate between male and female when he says, “Be fruitful and multiply”, etc (Gen. 1:28). And before the fall, God makes Eve as ezer kenegdo (Gen. 2:20ff).

            I do not regard God’s words in Genesis 3 as correction. In Genesis 3, God interrogates both Adam and Eve individually, holds each accountable for their own actions, and then tells each of them what the consequences will be for their actions. To both Adam and the Serpent, God says something like, “Because you have done this, XYX” (Gen. 3:14, 17).

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