What is the Biblical basis for male headship per 1 Corinthians 11:3-10? From what I have studied, the meaning of the word "head" back in the time Paul wrote it meant "source". The definition "leader" was only introduced in the 4th century A.D.

N.T. Wright also had this to say on the matter, among others and in connection to other related ideas:

The trouble is, of course, that Paul doesn’t say exactly this, and we run the risk of ‘explaining’ him in terms that might (perhaps) make sense to us while ignoring what he himself says. It’s tempting to do that, precisely because in today’s western world we don’t like the implications of the differentiation he maintains in verse 3: the Messiah is the ‘head’ of every man, a husband is the ‘head’ of every woman, and the ‘head’ of the Messiah is God. This seems to place man in a position of exactly that assumed superiority against which women have rebelled, often using Galatians 3.28 as their battle-cry.

But what does Paul mean by ‘head’? He uses it here sometimes in a metaphorical sense, as in verse 3, and sometimes literally, as when he’s talking about what to do with actual human heads (verses 4–7 and 10). But the word he uses can mean various different things; and a good case can be made out for saying that in verse 3 he is referring not to ‘headship’ in the sense of sovereignty, but to ‘headship’ in the sense of ‘source’, like the ‘source’ or ‘head’ of a river. In fact, in some of the key passages where he explains what he’s saying (verses 8, 9 and 12a) he is referring explicitly to the creation story in Genesis 2, where woman was made from the side of man. I suspect, in fact, that this is quite a different use of the idea of ‘headship’ from that in Ephesians 5, where it relates of course to husband and wife and where a different point is being made. That doesn’t mean Paul couldn’t have written them both, only that he was freer than we sometimes imagine to modify his own metaphors according to various contexts.

I am generally curious about this and have been struggling with this idea for quite some time. I've done my bit of studying but would also like to get insights from others.

  • What Bible verse are you alluding to??
    – user25930
    Commented Dec 9, 2018 at 5:18
  • 1 Corinthians 11:3-10.
    – Philip
    Commented Dec 9, 2018 at 5:30
  • There is no need for a change in metaphor if marriage is seen as the same 'preaching of the cross' that baptism is. How a marriage is practiced is a mirror of the relationship between Christ and the church. Nothing Paul says should be taken as new law, but as guidance to those who would preach Christ in love. Why does a woman learn from her husband? As a testimony the church learns from Christ. Not as a command, but as an act of love to preach the cross in metaphor by our actions.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 14:55
  • (1). Daniel 2:38 was written long before the fourth century. (2). It also carried the connotation of source, as it still does. (3). The latter implies the former: God is the author of everything there is, which is why all creation is meant to obey Him (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2); parents are the origin of their children, therefore their offspring are supposed to obey them (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16); even the Son Himself obeys His Heavenly Father (Luke 22:42; Philippians 2:8); and man, Adam, is the source of woman, Eve, hence wives are to obey their husbands (1 Corinthians 11:8-12).
    – Lucian
    Commented Dec 22, 2018 at 1:52

1 Answer 1


@Philip...I remember studying this in detail back in 2011 or so while I was doing my academic studies online. It's been a while. I just reviewed all my peer-reviewed journal articles I had accumulated and the critical commentaries I have in Logos Bible Software. This is clearly an issue of Greco-Roman background (1 Cor. as a whole and 1 Cor. 11 in particular), lexicography and word semantics. The literature on "head" (Greek, kephale) is immense! There were many debates for dozens of years among scholars, grammarians and lexicographers. Anyhow, Im not an expert on this particular matter, but it seems to me that scholar Anthony C. Thiselton in his critical commentary ( The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text [2000]) has a good lengthy analysis on Kephale with a huge bibliography and very detailed analyses of the greek text and what scholars have said in the past, including the Patristic Fathers of the early Church.

I read the sources you pointed out and N.T. Wright. It seems to me that N.T. Wright is mostly correct that Kephale has various meanings. In my words, it has subtle nuances that are hard to represent in English because they overlap. So, it's hard to detect what Paul had in mind when he used it in Ephesians and 1 Cor 11.

Thiselton explains in length that the English "head" is an acceptable translation, but that it might wrongly communicate the idea of "leader" or "authority", as in the woman is subordinate to the man. But, in context, that doesn't seem to be Paul's point. Paul's point seems to be sex differentiation and position--i.e., the man was created before the woman and thus has prominence. The man is "first" and the woman is "second". In some sense, it's equally true that the woman was taken out of the man ("source") as Paul says elsewhere, and so man first and woman second.

Thiselton on Kephale as English "head" (not necessarily "leader" or "authority"):

If we use the term “head,” its multiple meanings from context to context as serving a polymorphous concept must always be kept in view.

Thiselton on Kephale as English "source":

This has eminent advocates, including three leading commentators, namely, Barrett, Fee, and Schrage. Yet in spite of claims to the contrary, the paucity of lexicographical evidence remains a major obstacle to this translation. Such contexts of head of the river are so self-evident as a transferred metaphor that they should be held aside from those contexts where no such clear signal is generated by the immediate context

Thiselton on Kephale as Preeminent, Foremost, and Synecdoche for a Representative Role OR in his other words: " prominent, foremost, uppermost, preeminent " (bold in original) :

This proposal has the merit of most clearly drawing interactively on the metaphorical conjunction between physiological head (which is far and away the most frequent, “normal” meaning) and the notion of prominence, i.e., the most conspicuous or topmost manifestation of that for which the term also functions as synecdoche for the whole…Neither “headship,” nor “order,” nor “equality” alone conveys the complexity and wholeness of Paul’s theology. Again, multiple meaning holds the key.

Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000).

  • Hey XegesIs! I thank you for your objective, holistic answer. Personally, to lock down the meaning of what Paul really meant we have to look at how the word was used back when he wrote it (some say that it was the meaning "source", not "leadership"). But because there isn't any clarity from other sources, for now it isn't as crystal clear as we want it to be.
    – Philip
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 9:31
  • @Philip....Yep, and there is so much nuance that there is no good reason for us to spend so much effort on this except for grammarians and lexicographers simply because it's their passion and work to drill down these rabbit holes.
    – XegesIs
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 12:20
  • True, but there also is a benefit to figuring out that because it drastically changes gender relations within Christianity.
    – Philip
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 2:35
  • 1
    @Philip...of course, but only inasmuch emphasis is put on the nuances of the word(s). Gender relations should rest on the wider context and background, not word nuances. I dont know how many times I have to repeat it here, but lexicographers and scholars say: " Words do not have meanings. Meanings have words. "
    – XegesIs
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 2:45

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