Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Introduction: Passages where Paul uses Kephalē (“Head”)

The apostle Paul refers to actual heads only a few times in his letters.[1] He usually uses “head” metaphorically, and he is the only New Testament author to do so in the context of people.[2]

I believe there is an implicit sense, or nuance, of “higher status” and “preeminence” in all of Paul’s metaphorical uses of “head” which he uses for God (in 1 Cor. 11:3), Jesus Christ (in seven passages), husbands (in Eph. 5:23), and every man (in 1 Cor. 11:3 and 5). “Head” is also used in general teaching about ministry within the body of believers (in 1 Cor. 12:20–24).

Jesus is referred to as “head” in seven passages in Paul’s letters:
~ three in Ephesians (Eph. 1:22–23; 4:16–17; 5:23ff)
~ three in Colossians (Col. 1:18–19; 2:9–10; 2:18–19)
~ and in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:3–4)

“Higher status” and “preeminence” is also a sense of “head” in non-biblical ancient Greek literature. I give several examples of this use in my previous blog post: Kephalē (“Head”) as Metaphor in First-Century Texts. (Kephalē is pronounced ke-fah-lee in reconstructed Greek pronunciation.)

In this article, I give an overview of how Paul uses the word kephalē (“head”) in his letters, and I give a brief note on each verse that contains the word.

Passages where Kephalē Refers to “Higher Status”

In Colossians 2:9–10, Jesus has a higher status, a more elevated position, than all rule and authority.

[Jesus] is the head of every power and authority (Col. 2:9–10).

A sense of unequal status, with Jesus in an exalted position, is emphasised when Paul uses “head-feet” and “over-under” language in Ephesians 1:22–23.

[God] exercised this power in Christ by raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens—far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, and every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he subjected everything under his feet and appointed him as head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way (Eph. 1:20–23).

The highest and lowest extremities of the body illustrate two extreme positions. Jesus, who is above in the heavenly realms, is in the highest position as “head,” with authorities, including enemy powers, in the lowest position under Jesus’s feet.

Status and preeminence is tied to “firstness” in Colossians 1:18–19 and in 1 Corinthians 11:3.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth … all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have preeminence (Col. 1:18–19).

Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman [who I believe is Eve] is the man [who I believe is Adam], and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies having his head down (or, covered) dishonours his head (1 Cor. 11:3-4).

Within the body, for those who are “in the Lord,” however, Paul encourages mutuality and honouring each other equally (1 Cor. 11:11–12).

Kephalē (“head”) is used in 1 Corinthians 12:20–22, in the chapter following 1 Corinthians 11. Paul uses the language of extremities, “head” and “feet,” but rather than reinforcing a distinction of status where the “head” is honoured, he urges for an equal distribution of honour and the same care for one another.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” and neither can the head say to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
On the contrary, rather, the members of the body [the people] that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the members we think less honourable, to these we bestow greater honour, and our undignified members are treated with greater dignity, which our prominent members don’t need.
But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the members that lacked it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another (1 Cor. 12:20-22).

Paul presents a picture here where those who lack social status are given greater, “more abundant,” honour and dignity in the church (1 Cor. 12:23). Moreover, he effectively says that those who already have dignity, or prominence, don’t need more of it (1 Cor. 12:24a). Many churches are guilty of doing the opposite of what Paul wanted. The apostle wanted a levelling of status within the body of believers, the church, and he believed unity is the outcome when honour is given to those who lack it. I’ve written more about unity and mutuality in 1 Corinthians 12 here.

Passages where Kephalē is part of a Head-Body Metaphor

When the word “body” occurs in the same passage as the word “head,” a head-body unity is usually the primary sense. It has been suggested there may also be an implicit idea of nourishment from the head. However, this idea does not routinely occur in non-biblical examples of the head-body metaphor in first-century texts. What is clearer is an idea of support and connection coming from the “head” in some verses about Jesus. Also, while unity is the main sense, the “head” typically has a higher status than the body.

In Ephesians 4, “head” and “body” signifies unity. Moreover, Paul says that we are to become like the head.

God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ…. let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part (Eph. 4:13b, 15–16 CEB).

In Colossians 2:18–19, Paul says that people who get sidetracked on irrelevant doctrines “have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow” (Col. 2:18–19).

In Ephesians 1:23 (previously mentioned above), “head” is used where Christ subjects everything under his feet for the sake of the church, which is his “body.” The church, however, is not subjected to Christ. Rather, we are meant to be “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” In Ephesians 1:23, Paul uses “head” (kephalē) once but with two senses.

We, the community of Jesus-followers, are meant to become like Jesus. We can miss this astounding message if we interpret Paul’s “head-body” metaphor as being about authority and subordination. Furthermore, in verses in Ephesians and Colossians where only Jesus is the kephalē, there may also be a “Hellenistic” sense to “head.” I’ve written about this here.

In Ephesians 5:23, Jesus and husbands are called “heads” of bodies.

For the husband is the head (kephalē) of the wife as Christ is the head (kephalē) of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.

What is usually not well understood in this verse is the example of Jesus as “head” and saviour of his “body,” the church. In a nutshell, Jesus lowered himself, he relinquished his higher status and came down to our level to become the saviour of humanity. But more than that, he also brings us up closer to his level; he elevates us so he can present us, the church, to himself in splendour (Eph. 5:26–27). And unity is the overall aim (Eph. 5:31–32). I’ve written about Ephesians 5:22–33 and the levelling of status in Christian marriages here.

1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23, it sounds like Paul is condoning and reinforcing the higher status that free men had in the first century. What he says in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 and Ephesians 5:1-21, 5:25ff, however, undoes the idea of gender-based hierarchies in Christian relationships. Moreover, we start off on the wrong foot altogether if we read these passages as though “head” means “a person in authority over others.” See the linked articles below to explore more on this topic.


Footnote

[1] Paul refers to actual heads (the organ on top of our necks) only a few times in his letters: once in Romans (Rom. 12:20) and a few times in 1 Corinthians 11 (1 Cor. 11:4, 5, 7, 10). Note, however, that literal heads (twice) and metaphorical heads (twice) seem to be the meanings of the four instances of kephalē in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5.

[2] Kephalē (“head”) is also used in five New Testament verses in a building metaphor involving a stone, and this stone refers to Messiah Jesus: Matt. 21:42 // Mark 12:10 // Luke 20:17// Acts 4:11 // 1 Pet. 2:7 (cf. akrogōniaios in Eph. 2:20-21; 1 Peter 2:5-6; Isa. 28:16 LXX). These five verses use a word-for-word quotation from Psalm 118:22 in the Septuagint which is usually translated as, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

However, this statement can also be translated as, “The stone that the builders rejected, this one has been made into, or used for, the ‘head of the corner’” (cf. Mark 12:10 KJV).

οὗτος (this one)
ἐγενήθη εἰς (has been made into/ for)
κεφαλὴν (head)
γωνίας (corner)

The idea of the metaphor is that of a rejected stone being used in a vitally important position. There is a change of status for the stone. Furthermore, the cornerstone holds two walls together.

© Margaret Mowczko 2022
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Explore more

Kephalē (“Head”) as Metaphor in First-Century Texts
4 reasons “head” does not mean “leader” in 1 Cor. 11:3
All my articles on kephalē are here.
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33
All my articles on Ephesians 5:22-33 are here.
All my articles on submission are here.
1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell
Man and woman as the image and glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7)
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here.
Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Cor. 12:12-31)
Galatian 3:28: Our Identity in Christ and in the Church

 

20 thoughts on “An Overview of Paul’s Use of Kephalē (“Head”)

  1. Typo: We can miss this astounding message is we interpret Paul’s “head-body” metaphor as being about authority and subordination.

    1. Thanks for spotting that, Dan. All fixed.

  2. What I see most in the “head” passages is that Paul is trying to impress the people with the UNITY of those in Christ. Considering that the head was not the source of intellect for the Greeks, I still think that your explanation does nothing to show that. Instead, it gives a basis to the concept of male superiority. Even though it may not be intended that way, we know that many men will embrace that as the logical conclusion – they have been doing it for centuries.

    I must admit that I am very disappointed by this interpretation.

    1. Hi Cassandra, The Greeks had various views about the source of intellect and thinking. Some knew the brain controlled the body. But I haven’t seen this idea carry over into metaphorical uses of “head.”

      I see the same concern for unity and harmony in the passages where submission is mentioned in the context of Christian relationships. Hypotasso is even used this way in secular (pagan) and Jewish texts.

      I’ve been looking at how kephalē is used by Greek writers, including Paul, for about a decade, and I do think higher status is the sense or a sense. And I acknowledge that it may not sound great for women in two verses in the New Testament if we only look at these two verses and not at what Paul says after (or before) these statements.

      Paul’s words really are good news for women. Higher status meant something in Greco-Roman society, it was valued, but it means nothing in Christian relationships! Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12 and his words to husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff, for example, are extraordinary in that regard. Paul in no way condones or reinforces male superiority or male authority. That some Christians cannot see Paul’s vision for community won’t be affected by the way I, and others, understand kephalē. But I won’t be dishonest and say kephalē means x when I think it means y.

      The fact remains that neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor Peter, nor any New Testament author ever tells men to lead or have unilateral authority over women or wives. Not once. Never. The command is to love and humbly serve one another. Kephalē doesn’t change that.

      Kephalē meaning “higher status” makes good sense to me of all Paul’s (and Philo’s) metaphorical uses of the word. Don’t you at least think “higher status” makes good sense of the verses where only Jesus is the kephalē (“head”)?

      And it’s not just that Jesus is “head,” but what Paul says about Jesus as “head” in relation to the church, that is amazing! It’s mindblowing!

  3. In all the noise surrounding this topic, I don’t think I’d ever read an article called “An Overview of Paul’s Use of Kephalē.” Thank you Marg!

  4. Hi Marg,

    I’m wondering about the translations of Eph 1v22 and Col 2v10. Specifically the ideas of “over all things” and “over all rule and authority”. I’ve always read them as a bit of a sweeping statement about Christ’s authority, but now I’m looking at them in a totally different light (with head as the start of the body, the first/top/prominent/pre-eminant part). And I’m wondering what are some of the ways these verses could plausibly be translated in your opinion?

    Thanks!

    1. I think the translations I have in the article are fine. “Head” could be understood as, or replaced with, “the one in the top position,” or “the one with the higher/ highest status,” or something along those lines.

  5. Hi Marg. Thanks for this summary – it’s helpful. I agree with your noting a sense of ‘preeminence’, and totally support your focus on Paul’s radical reworking of what this looks like when reshaped through the example of Christ. We invest too much when focussing on one word, especially when it carries a reasonably flexible semantic field. The substance is to be found in the unit as a whole, and especially when the key point is summarised in concluding statements. I tend to avoid narrowing potential nuances or meanings when working with a range of metaphorical applications – they can vary significantly from context to context. While keeping abreast of more recent proposals with regard to 1 Cor. 11:3, I am still persuaded by Gordon Fee’s reading in terms of ‘source’ or ‘originating point’ for contextual reasons. Ephesians 5:23 approaches things differently, and the social order assumed in the (somewhat idealised) household context does point to social position and rank. Paul’s point (as highlighted by Edwin Judge) is less about trying to rework social order but to transform how such status might be employed for the benefit of those without such status. I guess my main response is to allow metaphors to sit with some degree of interpretive ambiguity to be considered with reference to context (as you do), and avoid building theological constructs such as headship when based on such tenuous foundations and assumptions. Your work on this is really helpful in countering the latter!

    1. Thanks, Tim. I think we’re pretty much on the same page.

      David A. deSilva uses the word “firstness” for idea behind 1 Corinthians 11:3, and it resonates with me: “However, one chooses to translate kephalē (“head”) here, the firstness indicated by the term is difficult to avoid.”
      deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 231.

      “Firstness” is similar, but not identical, to “source” or “originating point.”

      1. Must the metaphorical use in both passages be identical? We have metaphors that can mean different things considering the context. For example, “There’s a little play in this steering wheel.” and “I enjoyed her play on words.” So, I’ve wondered if “head” in Ephesians 5 has the metaphorical sense of “higher status,” while in 1 Cor 11, it’s more the sense of “origin.” Both have an undertone of “firstness.”

        1. Hi Tammi, it’s a fair question.

          To clarify, I don’t think the metaphorical use of “head” is identical in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and in Ephesians 5:23.

          I believe “head” has the sense of firstness, related to origins, in 1 Cor 11:3, and is part of a head-body metaphor with the sense of unity in Eph 5:23. (I can’t see that firstness is a sense in Eph 5:23.) Plus, there are other nuances in some other NT verses.

          Still, there is an implicit sense of higher status in all of Paul’s metaphorical uses of kephalē which corresponds with how contemporaries were using the word: https://margmowczko.com/kephale-head-philo-first-century/

          Paul, however, wanted mutual relationships, with equal honour for all, among the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:11-12; 1 Cor. 12:20-22). And he wanted husbands to treat their wives as having the same status as them, with an emphasis on love (Eph. 5:24ff).

          In the examples you’ve provided, “play” has a sense, or nuance, of flexibility.

          1. Hi Tammi and Marg. I agree with you both. Metaphors can operate with a different emphasis or application in different contexts (I think we are agreed on that), and it is the very semantic flexibility of connotation that makes the use of a narrow substitute such as ‘headship’ so unsatisfactory. Given this flexibility of connotation, I do think a wider contextual reading in 1 Corinthians 11 moves towards ‘firstness, related to origins’, while the strongly household context of Ephesians 5 speaks into the use of power and status in such a way that re-frames the role of the male head modeled on the servant mindset evident in Christ. This similarly carries over into Paul’s instructions to masters/owners and slaves.

  6. I really appreciate this overview. Just last night I was reading Ephesians 1 in the Blue Letter Bible app, and I clicked to learn more about the word head/kephalē in regards to Jesus and the church. I was extremely disappointed to see one of the definitions: “of persons, master lord: of a husband in relation to his wife”.

    From everything I’ve read about kephalē, the word itself isn’t about the husband being master/lord over his wife. This isn’t the first time I’ve been disappointed by the concordance in this app (for example, their handling of the word submission).

    Do you know if this is a good app overall? I’m thinking of deleting it from my phone. I also use the Logos app which offers less definitions, but I think that’s because they don’t add in things like the Blue Letter app appears to.

    I would love your thoughts on this. Thank you.

    1. Hi Stacy, Sorry for the delayed reply.

      I don’t use the Blue Letter Bible app, but I do use the website for certain things, mainly to see how certain Greek words are used in the Septuagint. Blue Letter Bible has some good resources and some mediocre resources. I wouldn’t delete the app unless you choose not to use it anymore.

      Having said that, BLB is totally sexist. Note how they separate the men and women on this page: https://www.blueletterbible.org/commentaries/
      And quite a few of these authors are not worth reading.

      The definitions of Greek words in Strong’s concordance (first published in 1890) are unreliable. As are Thayer’s definitions for kephalē. Thayer’s lexicon was first published in 1885, and an updated edition was published in 1889, but his lexicon drew on a still earlier lexicon published in 1841.

      James Strong and John Henry Thayer did phenomenal work. They did their best with the information available. However, our knowledge of Greek has improved immensely with more recent discoveries of ancient Greek papyri, and other ancient Greek texts, and with the advent of searchable computer databases which makes it relatively easy to search and see how certain words are used in various texts.

      I’ve written more about older lexicons and new discoveries of Greek papyri here: https://margmowczko.com/using-a-greek-english-dictionary-and-moving-bones/

      1. Thank you Marg, for taking the time to reply. That’s really helpful information. I wish I could say I was surprised to see how BLB separates men and women. I look forward to reading your article on using the dictionaries.

  7. I come here to remind myself why I left Christianity lol. I don’t know how anyone can read any of this, see how God made men vs women and what he’s allowed to be said about our substance and then roclaim were equally valued and loved. God is Greek when it comes to women.

    1. Perhaps you’re confusing the constraints of Greco-Roman culture on the fledgling church with how God made humanity. What Paul says about the relationship between women and men in Ephesians 5:25-33 and 1 Corinthians 11:11-16 would have been regarded as revolutionary by his original audiences.

      1. Yet men and maleness still carries a preeminence that female Ness does not. Yet God still thoroughly aligns himself with maleness throughout scripture despite several powerful empires having no issues with the idea of female deities. Yet God still chose to make women weaker in every regard and do nothing explicit enough to prevent modern churches from abusing women in his name. Amazing. And none of it matters anyway because gender will ultimately be obsolete. Lol.

        1. You’re welcome to your opinions and I have no desire to change your mind which seems made up. Needless to say, I disagree with you.

          ~ In the Greco-Roman world men had a marked preeminence. Paul wanted to change that in the Christian community (1 Cor. 11:11ff) and Christian marriage (Eph. 5:25ff). He wanted a levelling of status.

          ~ It is simply untrue that women are weaker than men in every regard. I’m sorry you feel that way about women. I think we are pretty great!

          ~ God is not male let alone thoroughly aligned with maleness. God is not a guy!

          Anyway, I’m sorry your experience with church stunk. There’s a lot of that going around and it has little to do with God. God doesn’t control people, and churches are people. There are good reasons to hate the church, that’s fair enough, but my blog isn’t the place to vent your hatred of God or Christianity.

          I hope you can get over your hurt and forget about misogynistic teachings of the church. I wish you well.

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