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.

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 is the man, 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.

© 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

 

8 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.

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