Introduction: Passages where Paul uses Kephalē (“Head”)
The apostle Paul refers to actual heads only a few times in his letters. He usually uses “head” metaphorically, and he is the only New Testament author to do so in the context of people.
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 these seven passages in Paul’s letters:
~ three in Ephesians (Eph. 1:22–23; 4:16–17; 5:23ff)
~ three in Colossians (Col. 1:17–19; 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 are tied to “firstness” in Colossians 1:17–18 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. 1:17–18).
Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman [who I believe is referring to 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 (cf. Col. 2:19 CEB, CSB, KJV, NRSV). However, this idea of nourishment 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 also mentions growth. He 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.” In this verse, Paul does not say that the church is subjected to Christ. Rather, we are meant to be “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” In Ephesians 1:22–23, Paul used “head” (kephalē) once to illustrate two different concepts: fullness for the church, subjection for others.
We, the community of Jesus-followers, are meant to grow up and become like Jesus. We are meant to become like the head. 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 believe Paul wanted to close the distance between the status of the “head” and the status of the “body” in marriage and in our relationships with Jesus. Let me reiterate that we the church “which is his body” are to become “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:22b-23). 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 can sound 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 (cf. 1 Cor. 12). Moreover, we start off on the wrong foot altogether if we read these passages as though “head” primarily means “a person in authority over others.” See the linked articles below to explore more on this topic.
 Paul refers to actual heads (the part of the body 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.
 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’ (kephalēn gōnias)” (cf. Mark 12:10 KJV).
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.
 In Ephesians 1:10 Paul uses the word anakephalaiōsasthai (the middle aorist infinitive of the verb anakephalaioomai). It is used in a phrase that is variously translated as “to bring everything/ all things together” (CSB, NASB 2020, etc); “to bring unity … (NIV); “to unite all things … (ESV); “to gather up all things …” (NRSV cf. KJV).
Paul’s choice of word is interesting. Anakephalaioomai usually means “summarise” (cf. Eph. 1:10 NASB 1995, REV, etc), but when you summarise something you bring all the parts together, and unity seems to be Paul’s sense.
“… making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Ephesians 1:9–10 ESV
Strictly speaking, the root of anakephalaioomai is probably the neuter word kephalaion (not kephalē: “head”), plus an ana prefix. But kephalaion is itself derived from kephalē. The LSJ entry on kephalaion is here. The LSJ entry on anakephalaioomai is here.
© Margaret Mowczko 2022
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Last edited September 3rd, 2023.
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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