Male Headship in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16

Cory Thompson

The meaning of words matters, especially in the biblical text. The authority of the Bible is a critical issue that confronts every age. To faithfully follow the Lord Jesus is to faithfully follow his Word. To faithfully follow the Lord Jesus and his Word, the Christian must understand what his Word means. Article VI of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states, “We affirm the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the original words, were given by inspiration.” Shortly after this statement was composed, an appendix to A Treatise of Faith and Practices of the NAFWB was adopted that read: “Free Will Baptists believe in the plenary verbal inspiration of the Bible. By plenary we mean full and complete… By verbal we mean that inspiration extends to the very words of Scripture.” The meaning of words in the biblical text matter. And one such word that matters for discussing the roles of men and women in the home and the church is “head” in 1 Cor 11:3-16 (cf. Eph 5:23).

1 Corinthians 11 is an interpretive maze that is difficult to navigate. The main issue the text addresses relates to head coverings required of women in the church’s gathered worship. As to what the head coverings were is anyone’s guess. Yet, the theological principle of male headship that Paul uses to advocate for head covering as a sign of submission in the Corinthian church is clear and relevant to the discussion of the roles of men and women in the home and church. There is an obvious play on words concerning “head,” the anatomical head and head as a metaphor for authority or leadership. The use of “man”(ἀνδρὸς) and “woman” (γυναικὸς) in 1 Corinthians 11 appears to focus on the husband-and-wife relationship. The two words translated for man and woman can also mean husband and wife and when used together, almost always have this meaning.

Understanding “Head” (κεφαλὴ)

             The critical issue in this text is understanding the meaning of “head” (κεφαλὴ) in verse 3: “But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ.” There are three primary interpretations for “head:” authority, source, and preeminence. The traditional view understands “head” to mean authority or relational subordination. Another view is “source,” meaning Christ is the source of man or that he created man; man is the source of woman, she came from his side; and Christ came from God, either with the meaning of the Father sending the Son in the economy of salvation or the Son’s eternal generation from the Father. This view eschews the notion of submission and subordination within the husband-and-wife relationship.[1] A more recent definition is preeminence, such as occupying a prominent position that may entail leadership. So in 1 Cor. 11, the behavior of the woman reflects on the man, the prominent partner in the relationship.[2] The burden of proof, however, falls on those who wish to define “head” as something other than authority in this context.

            Wayne Grudem’s work on the meaning of “head” gives overwhelming evidence that it means authority. One argument against understanding “head” as authority is that “authority” and “leadership” were never attributed to the word in the ancient world, therefore this meaning would not have easily come to the mind of Paul or be understandable to his audience. In response to this, Grudem surveyed 2,336 examples of the use of “head” in ancient Greek literature. He concluded that there were forty-nine literary works where “head” had the undeniable meaning of a person with authority, whereas there was no uncontested meaning as “source.” Usually, three or four examples are enough to establish meaning, Grudem found forty-nine.[3]

            Virtually all the major NT Greek lexicons give the meaning of authority. This includes A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) and Theological Dictionary of the NT (TDNT), whose editors and contributors could be considered anything but theologically conservative, much less complementarian. Egalitarians advocating the meaning of “source” tout the Liddell-Scott-Jones lexicon, an important standard lexicon for Ancient Greek, yet this lexicon failed to provide an example of a person called “source.” Grudem sent a copy of his research to the editorial term for a revised LSJ lexicon. The editor, Peter Glare, concurred with Grudem’s research and responded by saying, “…it seems perverse to deny authority. The supposed sense of ‘source’ of course does not exist…the idea of preeminence seems to me to be quite unsuitable.”[4]

            Paul’s major source of drawing meaning from a word is not from culture or other works of literature but from the OT, specifically the LXX. According to Walter Bauer, “The influence of the LXX…outweighs all other influences on our NT and early Christian literature.”[5] Paul is immersed in the OT referencing it by quotations, allusions, and echoes. “Source” is never the meaning of κεφαλὴ in the LXX, yet it means “leader” or “ruler” several times translating the Hebrew term רֹאש (Judg 10:18; 2 Sam 22:44; Ps 18:43; Is 7:8).[6]

            In Pauline usage, “head” occurs once in Romans and seven times in Ephesians and Colossians. The word is often used with “body,” emphasizing Christ’s supremacy and authority over the church. In Col 2:20, Christ is the “head over every power and authority” (see also Eph. 1:22-23). Its usage in Eph 5:23 is similar to 1 Cor 11:3, “For the husband is the head of the wife.” The headship of the husband in Eph 5:23 stands in direct association with Christ’s headship over the church: “as also Christ is the head of the church.”[7]

            When considering the meaning of “head” in 1 Cor 11:3, Richard Hays, an egalitarian, writes, “An honest appraisal of 1 Cor 11:3-16 will require both teacher and student to confront the patriarchal implications of verses 3 and 7-9. Such implications cannot be explained away by some technical move such as translating κεφαλὴ as ‘source,’ rather than ‘head,’ because the patriarchal structures are embedded in the structure of Paul’s argument.”[8] Hays gets around the patriarchal structure by accusing Paul of misinterpreting the creation accounts in Genesis.

The Headship of Husband Transcends Culture

 According to William Webb, whether 1 Cor 11:3-16 relates to male headship is irrelevant because the arguments of 1 Cor 11:3-16 are culturally bound and the interpreter must apply a  redemptive-movement hermeneutic for the true meaning. In his book Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, Webb argues, “as with slavery, the patriarchy found within the Bible does not offer us an ultimate social ethic.”[9] He suggests a redemptive-movement hermeneutic is needed to distinguish between the culturally bound and transcultural components because God gives his message in a way that reflects a less than ideal ethic. It is up to the interpreter to understand the redemptive spirit of the text. In a recent blog post about John MacArthur, Michael Bird referenced Webb’s work and wrote of the need to have an ethical system better than the Bible.[10]  Now to be fair to Bird, he is clear that he is not anti-Bible or that he rejects the Bible, he believes there is a way to go beyond the Bible biblically. Like Webb, he advocates not to live out the isolated words of the text, but the redemptive spirit of the text in one’s own culture.

The hermeneutical method advocated by Webb and Bird is fraught with problems. Evaluating this hermeneutic is beyond the scope of this session. But suppose this approach has merit, is the teaching on the headship/authority of husbands in 1 Cor 11:3-16 culturally bound or transcultural? There are three ways Paul frames 1 Cor. 11:3 to support the idea that the headship of the husband transcends culture: the creational design of husband and wife, the Christ-man relationship, and the God-Christ relationship.

1). Male headship is God’s good creational design for human flourishing. Verse 3 alone may not be enough to ground the husband’s headship in God’s creational design, but Paul further elaborates on this relationship in verses 7-10. Contextually, verses 7-10 function as the theological basis for why men should refrain from head coverings, they are the glory of God and women should wear them because they are the glory of man. Paul gives two reasons in verses 8-9 from the creational narratives of Gen 1:26-27 and 2:18-23 as to why women are the glory of man. First, “the man is not from the woman, but the woman from the man” (v. 8; cf. v. 12). This reflects on both the priority of man’s creation, his leadership role, and that the woman came from the man, which is expressed with the LORD God taking a rib from the man’s side (Gen. 2:22) and the subsequent exclamation: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (Gen 2:23). Second, verse 9 explains that the woman was created for the man. Again, Paul reflects on Genesis 2. The woman’s creation was for the man because he was lonely and to serve as his helpmate.[11] The creational account of man and woman serves as the authoritative framework for apostle Paul’s teaching on home and church order.[12]

Based on the creational framework of verses 8-9, Paul claims in verse 10, “For this reason, the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of angels.” The word “symbol” is not in the Greek text. It literally reads, “the woman ought to have authority on her head.” The meaning is that the wife should keep her own head covered when she prays and prophecies to show that she stands in a specific role in relation to her creational design from and for the man.[13]

2) Headship of men is grounded in the Christ-man relationship. Christ is the head of men and women exercising his authority because he is the creator and they are the creatures. Men and women are frail children of the dust as such that the Psalmist asked “What is man that you are mindful of him” (Ps 8:4a). Christ is also the head because he is the Savior, exercising his authority on earth over sickness, death, and the created order. He died, rose on the third day, and ascended to the right hand of the Father, a position of authority where he rules as King. All created beings will see and know the authority of Christ at his Second Coming and confess that he is Lord to the glory of God.

3) Headship of men is parallel, yet not the same as the relationship between Christ and God. “Head,” with the meaning of authority, is still in view even within the relationship of God and Christ. This is not the first time Paul references this idea in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Cor. 3:23 he says, “And you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.” And even more, provoking is 1 Cor. 14:28, “Now when all things are made subject to him, then the Son himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.” Is there subordination or headship between Christ and God? The answer is no and yes. Within the immanent Trinity, there is no subordinate relationship, only full equality between the Father and the Son. There is an eternal relation of origins that establishes both distinctions and shared essence.[14] The distinction between the Father and the Son in the eternal relation of origin is as follows: the Father is unbegotten and the Son is begotten from all eternity (eternal generation). Or to express the eternal relations of the Son in the words of the Nicene Creed, “begotten not created.”

The answer to the above question is also yes, which is the focus of 1 Cor 11:3. The phrase “God is the head of Christ” does not recall the immanent Trinity (ad intra) but the economy, the saving mission of the incarnate Son (ad extra). A contextual clue for this understanding is the title, “Christ,” a reference to his mediatorial work.[15] And in this role, Christ, the Second Adam, did what the first Adam failed to do: submit in full and perfect obedience to his “head,” God the Father.

Philippians 2:5-11 provides a helpful paradigm for the eternal relations of origin within the Trinity and the authority of God the Father over the incarnate Son in the economy of salvation. The Lord Jesus is carefully confessed as the eternal Son: “being in the form of God” (v. 7). Obedience was not something the eternal Son, “in the form of God,” did prior to the incarnation. He first had to humble himself (incarnation and humiliation) to become obedient. In the economy of salvation, in Christ’s mediatorial role, “he became obedient to the point of death, even death of the cross.”[16]

The listing of “the head of Christ is God” after “the head of woman is man” in 1 Cor. 11:3 may have the intended effect of establishing equality in essence between man and woman. According to Paul, headship does not imply inferiority or that women are lesser than men. Even though God is head over Christ in the economy of salvation, the incarnate Son is as the Chalcedonian Creed says, “the same perfect in Godhead…truly God.” There is no inferiority in the divine essence. Similarly, there is no inferiority in the woman’s personhood.

The Headship of Men Does not Negate the Women’s Participation in Gathered Worship

             The subject of male headship and complementarianism can unintentionally focus on what women cannot do. Yet this text is clear, women participated in the corporate gathering of the church by praying and prophesying. Paul’s concern was not that they prayed and prophesied in the church, his concern was the manner, not properly relating to male leadership. Some interpreters, with 1 Cor 14:33-36 in mind, suggest that the praying and prophesying occurred only in the home. There is no contextual evidence that the meeting in 1 Cor 11:3-16 differs from 14:33-36. Paul assumes women will pray and prophesy when the church gathers.[17] There is no doubt that women played a crucial role in the gospel’s extension to the ends of the earth in the early church. Just read Paul’s greetings at the end of his letters, numerous women are commended for their service and labor for the Lord Jesus. Where would the church be today without the gospel service of women in the church? Yet with this said, in God’s good and glorious design, there are defined roles for men and women in the home and the church. When these roles are joyfully embraced it leads to flourishing.

            One area that needs to be addressed is the function of prophecy and apostolic teaching. If women can prophesy in church, why can they not have church-wide teaching authority over men? How does the prophecy of women fit with Paul forbidding them to speak/teach in 1 Cor 14:34 and 1 Tim 2:12? Prophecy communicates revelation from God and consists of spontaneous speech inspired by God. Teaching, on the other hand, does not consist of new revelation, but instruction based on the authoritative prophetic and apostolic revelation. Prophesying did not necessarily rise to the authoritative level of teaching for three reasons: not everyone who prophesied was an authoritative prophet, prophecy must be critiqued, and not all prophecy was canonized. Teaching, however, was based on the established and authoritative prophetic word. Teaching is always authoritative when it rightly communicates God’s word.[18]

            This is why Paul prohibits women from having a church-wide teaching role in the church in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” And also explains the command in 1 Cor 14:34, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak.” Paul is not commanding absolute silence, for such would contradict women praying and prophesying in 1 Cor 11:5. He is calling for silence during the judgment of prophecies. 1 Cor 14:35, suggests the reason, “And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.” This implies the wife is challenging her husband. They were not free to speak this way in the gathering, thus undermining the husband’s headship.[19] The use of the word “shameful” (αἰσχρός) is the same word in 1 Cor 11:6 to describe a woman who does not cover her head. The headship principle applies here as it does in 1 Cor 11:3-16.

            No person comes to the Bible without presuppositions. Culture, experience, reason, and sentimentality all play a role in how one interprets the text. But as one comes to the biblical text they must stand under the Word of God, seeing it as authoritative for all of life. God’s Word is perfect and good, and getting the text right is crucial. The interpreter must come to the text and ask what does the text itself say and mean, not culture, experiences, reason, or feelings?  A wrong interpretive understanding of complementarian roles of men in women in the home and the church has dire consequences. God has designed the home and the church to function in a specific way. When the divine blueprint in God’s authoritative Word is followed faithfully it leads to the flourishing of homes and churches for the glory of God.


[1] Cf. Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 501-505.

[2] David Garland, 1 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on NT, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 516.

[3] Wayne Grudem, “Does κεφαλὴ (“Head”) Mean “Source” or “Authority Over” in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples,” Trinity Journal 6 NS (1985). See also Tom Schriener, “Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 127.

[4] Wayne Grudem, “The Meaning of κεφαλὴ (“Head”): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged,” JETS 44/1 (2001), 57-59. Joseph Fitzmyer also wrote to the LSJ editorial team, “The next edition of the Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell-Scott-Jones will have to provide a sub-category within the metaphorical uses of κεφαλὴ in the sense of ‘leader, ruler.” Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Another Look at κεφαλὴ in 1 Corinthians 11:3,” NTS 35 (1989), 511.

[5] BDAG, xxii.

[6] Cf. רֹאש, HALOT

[7] Mark Taylor, 1 Corinthians: NAC (Nashville: B&H, 2014), 258.

[8] Richard Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville, WSK, 2011), 192.

[9] William Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Westmont: IVP, 2001), 57.

[10] Michael Bird, “John MacArthur on Slavery,” accessed July 18, 2022,

[11] Schreiner, “Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity,” 133.

[12] Kenneth Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26: NAC (Nashville: B&H, 1996), 219.

[13] Taylor, 1 Corinthians, 263.

[14] Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021), 160-161.

[15]  Cf. Robert E. Picirilli, 1, 2 Corinthians (Nashville: Randall House, 1987), 49, 156, and 225.

[16] Barrett, Simply Trinity, 246-247.

[17] Tom Schreiner, 1 Corinthians: TNTC (Westmont: IVP, 2018), 229.

[18] Gordon Wenham believes the roles of prophets and pastor/elder are analogous to the prophet and priest in the OT. He states that the priests “had more intrinsic authority than prophets.” Although women could be prophets, only men were priests. Gordon Wenham, “The Ordination of Women: Why Is It So Divisive?” Churchman 92/4 (1978): 311-313.

[19] E. Earle Ellis, Making of the NT Documents, (Boston: Brill, 1999), 430-431.

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