In What Sense Is Man
the Head of Woman?
In one of his epistles, Paul says “the head of the woman is the man” (1 Corinthians 11:3). In what sense is this true? Does this apply to religious relationships alone, or is the principle broader?
“Though it seems clear that a woman has a certain subordinate role in church matters, what should be her posture in the business world? If she is a man’s boss, has she usurped his authority?”
There are no explicit guidelines regulating such matters, but there are some sacred principles that surely must be taken into consideration in assessing this issue.
First, there is an appointed scale of authority that God has prescribed for humankind, though such is scarcely recognized in today’s modern world. Paul alludes to it in 1st Corinthians 11:2ff, namely: God is he head of Christ, Christ is the head of every man, and man is the head of woman.
For our present purpose we will explore the meaning of the phrase, “the head of the woman is the man.” The Greek term is kephale. The word may be used literally of a physical head (Mark 6:24), or, metaphorically, of “rank,” as in the present case.
God the Father is the “head” of Christ due to the fact that Jesus, by means of the incarnation, subordinated himself to the Father (Philippians 2:5-8). Christ is “the head of every man” (1 Corinthians 11:3). It is important to note that the expression, “every man,” is more comprehensive than every “Christian” man.
Some commentators take the position that the “headship” here reflected pertains only to that of Christian men (Meyer, Fee, etc.), while others insist that the relationship principle is broader than merely that of a Christian woman to a Christian man.
Findlay argues that the issue here “is one that touches the fundamental proprieties of life (8-15); and the three headships enumerated belong to the hierarchy of nature” (p. 871). Lewis Johnson contends that the male gender as such “displays the authority of God on earth” (p. 1247; cf. 11:7). Lenski asserts that the phrase “every man” must not be restricted to Christian men; rather, literally, Christ is the head of “every man”—whether they accept him or not (p. 433). The subsequent context regarding creation, etc., would appear to support this latter view.
Man or Husband?
Next, there is the controversy as to whether the terms of verse 3 are to be rendered “man” and “woman,” or “husband” and “wife.” The KJV, NKJV, ASV, NIV render the Greek terms aner and gune as “man” and “woman,” while a few other versions (NRSV, ESV) translate the original words as “husband” and “wife” (though inconsistently within the same context).
This diversity is due to the fact that the Greek words serve a dual function, i.e., man/husband and woman/wife. It is the context that determines which should be employed. Neither the immediate passage, nor the surrounding context, warrants the rendition husband/wife. Certainly it is not suggested that Christ is the “head” of husbands only.
Thus, it would appear that while the apostle, in this context, is discussing the principle of “headship” within the assembly of Christian worship, nonetheless, the principle of headship applies generally—in the home (cf. Ephesians 5:22ff), in the church, and even beyond—in our societal relationships. Exactly how it is to be applied in every situation in these various settings is the tough question.
The word “usurp,” as used in the King James Translation of 1 Timothy 2:12, is not a good rendition of the original term. The Greek word authenteo simply means to act authoritatively; to exercise authority. In that context it appears to have reference to spiritual matters, i.e., a woman is not to act in an official capacity as an “authority figure” over man in any sort of religious teaching capacity.
Beyond this, however, there are these facts:
Even in the home, where the husband is to be the “head,” and the wife is to be in “subjection” (Ephesians 5:22ff), there is a sphere wherein woman is allowed to exert some authority. In one of his letters to Timothy, Paul declares that woman is to “rule the household” (1 Timothy 5:14). Allow me to quote from my commentary (not yet published) that addresses this matter.
Almost surprisingly, Paul contends that the woman is to ‘rule the household.’ The term ‘rule’ (oikodespotein—present tense; standard procedure) is a fairly strong word. It signifies to be the ‘master’ of a house, to ‘rule’ a household, ‘manage’ family affairs (Thayer, p. 439). The passage cannot be employed, of course, to cancel the role relationship taught elsewhere (e.g., Ephesians 5:22ff), but it does recognize that women have domestic skills that men do not possess. The wise husband will recognize this and cooperate with his wife, the result being a contented home. Lenski well noted that: ‘This is the domain and province of woman, in which no man can compete with her. Its greatness and its importance should ever be held up as woman’s divinely intended sphere, in which all her womanly qualities and gifts find full play and happiest gratification’ (p. 676). It is somewhat surprising at how many commentators slide lightly over this phrase” (on 1 Timothy 5:14).
In the modern world there are many instances where a woman might be technically in a position of having authority over a man. For example, suppose a business owner dies and the family business falls to his widow. May she continue to operate the business? Few, I suspect, would argue that she may not. The issue would be how she does it, i.e., her disposition and demeanor.
May a woman hire a carpenter to come in and do work on her house or landscape her yard? Of course she may. Might she give him instruction as to what to do? Yes. If she is dissatisfied with his work, might she dismiss him? Certainly. There are many such examples one might imagine.
The key issue seems to be this. In any instance where a woman finds herself in a role where she has “authority” over a man, she must exercise such with great care. She must ever be conscious of their respective positions in the divine scheme of things. She must always treat the man with respect, even if she is forced to correct him—or maybe even terminate his services. It will be a matter of attitude to a considerable degree.
It goes without saying, of course, that man’s headship over woman is never a license for him to be rude or abusive to her. The “golden rule” applies to all social relationships.
Fee, Gordon (1987), The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
Findlay, G.G. (1956), The Expositor’s Greek Testament, W. Robertson Nichol, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Vol. Two.
Johnson, S. Lewis (1962), Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Charles Pfeiffer & Everett Harrison, eds. (Chicago: Moody).
Lenski, R.C.H. (1963), The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg).
Meyer, H.A.W. (1879), The Epistles to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark), Vol. I.
Thayer, J.H. (1958), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark).
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