Empowering Women Part 2 | Defining Headship

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:1–3, ESV)

Man is the head of woman. I know ESV says the husband is the head of the wife, but NKJV, NASB, NIV and more all say man and woman. The verses that follow talk about the importance of a woman covering her head when she prays or prophesies in the worship assembly. Paul makes it clear that for a woman to not cover her head (her literal head) shames her metaphorical head (man). These are not popular verses and I’ve never been part of a church that even attempted to make women cover their heads.I do want to point out that this passage assumes that women are proclaiming the word of God at church in front of men.

Paul is writing to a particular church in a particular culture in a particular time.  Paul and the Corinthians have some shared cultural knowledge and practices. He writes to them as if they already know exactly what he’s talking about in reference to gender, head coverings, hair length, etc. So he doesn’t really explain in sufficient detail for us to know exactly what he’s talking about. For us it’s all a bit confusing. Is he talking about cloth head coverings or hair length? If women are supposed to have long hair, why is it also assumed that they can’t wear it down? Why is it shameful for a woman’s head to be shaved? What does cloth symbolize on a person’s head? Why is it different for a man or woman? What does a woman or man’s hair length symbolize within that culture? What social assumptions are in place that he’s referring to? What is communicated about gender and appropriate gender relationships by these things and why? What things might be intentionally communicated that would, within that culture, be shameful? Why? Paul doesn’t explain himself. He just assumes his readers know what he’s talking about. They did. We don’t.

Gordon Fee is a premier scholar in this area and in his commentary, he repeatedly admits that we just don’t have clarity on precisely what Paul was instructing and why when it comes to head covering and hair length. It’s interesting to me that so many churches that would never attempt to literally enforce this passage by making women cover their heads will claim great clarity in regards to what headship is all about. It seems no small coincidence that in these cases it’s a male exclusive leadership making that claim and “headship” is assumed to mean that they’re in charge and women aren’t.

But there’s also a lot of confusion about the issue of headship. And this is something we can get clarity on. “Head” does not mean “chief” or “ruler”. It has very little if anything to do with who’s in charge. If it is about authority at any level, it has, in practice and result,  to do with empowering others and sharing authority. More on that in a minute. “Head” refers to being a source or an origin. Like the headwaters of a river. Christ eternally proceeds from the Father, so the Father is Christ’s head. Both in Creation and Redemption, Man’s origin is Christ. Because Eve came from Adam, man is the head of woman. There is nothing about authority implied in the term. Paul later reverses that, pointing out that since Eve, every man has come from woman. He does this to make sure we don’t use “headship” to make women second class citizens.

We tend to assume Paul is talking about authority because that’s how we use the English word. We say that someone is the “head of state”, or the “head of a household” and what we mean is that this person is in charge. We’ve used the word this way for so long, and even interpreted this passage like this for so long that we just assume that’s what it means. The actual Greek word was hardly ever used to reference authority in that way. This just isn’t what Paul is talking about.

But let’s suppose it is.

Let’s just assume that Paul means this: “God has authority over Jesus. Jesus has authority over man. Man has authority over woman.”

We still need to mean something biblical by this. What does authority look like in God’s kingdom? How does God exercise this authority over Jesus? What is the result? How does Jesus exercise this authority over man? What is the result? Isn’t kingdom authority expressed through serving rather than ruling?  God exalts Jesus to his own right hand and gives him all authority in heaven and earth. Jesus exalts man to God’s right hand and, in Christ, gives him all authority, making him a co-heir with Christ. If we assume that Paul is talking about authority (and I don’t think he is), then what would it look like for man to be the head of woman in this context? It means that man, in using his authority in a kingdom manner, exalts woman to his right hand and gives her complete access to every bit of authority he has.

That these verses have been used to oppress and subjugate women is completely ludicrous. And completely unbiblical.

The real issue Paul is addressing isn’t authority. It’s gender distinction. Women were behaving in ways (though we culturally don’t have access to the specifics) that tended to blur the lines between men and women. Women were becoming man-like. Now we’re getting to something I have observed and do understand to some degree. Here’s where I can understand the term shame and it’s application in this context. What is shameful? For a woman to feel like she has to abandon her femininity to some degree in order to be powerful. It happens all the time.

Women were made to be powerful. They shouldn’t have to abandon their femininity to give expression to that. They shouldn’t have to square their jaw, leave their emotions at the door, drop intuition as a way of perceiving reality, and learn to think of life in carefully partitioned off categories in order to give expression to their God given design to have dominion and subdue the earth (see Gen 1).

Men – if we want to quote this verse and establish our headship with women, then let’s mean at least what Paul meant. Let’s be a source for them. Let’s be a resource. Let’s leverage our influence to benefit them. Let’s make sure that their relationship with us results in them becoming all that’s in their hearts to become. Let’s make sure that the women in our lives “know their place” — right by our side, co-heirs, co-dominion-takers, co-subduers of this planet.




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