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.
-1 Corinthians 11:3
What is the foundation of a Christian marriage? Who is the key to a happy, joyful, abundant husband and wife relationship? And what is the Christ-following husband’s role in regards to his wife?
These are questions that cross the minds of Christians who are married, thinking about being married, or have been married in the past and are looking back or looking forward. In society, getting married is much easier to do, even though some single people who are searching or waiting might not agree with this; it is easier to do than getting a drivers licence or all sorts of other things we commonly do.
Being married and staying married are much, much harder. Two people living in a space together, even with rings and the paperwork, does not a marriage make.
Christian marriage is a covenant between two people, both who are in Christ, that is held together by God. The legal marriage certificate is a contract that in enforced by laws that will come into play if one of the spouses ends the marriage through divorce.
The covenant only works when we work with it. God holds our marriage together, as we hold onto God. It is all about our relationships to God and to one another.
We are all in a covenant, the New Covenant, in Christ, with God. There are always two sides or two parties in a covenant. Even though God does all the saving in our covenant with him, we must participate or be engaged in it to actualize the covenant in our lives.
We can’t say, “I’m saved”, and then go back to our lives, running our show. Being saved means we have begun a journey with God, where we give up everything we have and God gives us everything we need. That may not be the gospel message that you have heard or believed in, but this is the gospel of the kingdom.
When we say we are in the covenant of salvation or the covenant of marriage, the next step and life style is to live in the covenant relationship. We don’t leave Christ or our spouse at the altar, so to speak, where we said “I do” and then go off on our own, saying, “see ya when I need ya!”. But that is how some people live towards Christ and towards their spouse.
Before we look at this issue of head and headship, we need to make sure we are saved and look at our salvation. If a man or a woman is not in a vital union with the living Christ, where they are dying to their selves and living to Christ, marriage will not work.
Many people are legally married, but not living in marriage. The Bible gives clear instructions on how to live in marriage as Christians. If you are not first living as a Christian, then you will not be able to or will have troubles participating in marriage, God’s way.
What Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 11, is, “this is the way it is and the way it is supposed to be”. If you read the whole letter, you will see that the Corinthians had problems and Paul is addressing the problems and their questions. Some of them were not doing great in their being in Christ.
Before Paul addresses the issues that were coming up regarding hair and head coverings, he says the statement that I am highlighting, as a foundation or backdrop to a discussion on hair and head coverings. Paul could have said: “Thanks for remembering a lot of the stuff I taught you about being Christians. Now, before I get into this issue of hair and covering or not covering one’s head, 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.”
In case you did not realize it, and the Bible translation, HCSB, that I quoted has a footnote to flag this: scholars say that Paul meant husband and wife, when he wrote man and woman, here. The ESV, for example, does this without a footnote:
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.
Before Paul gets into the hair and veil customs, he grounds things in Christ; and that is how we get this verse and that is the context, which we will go through broadly, in a moment. The back story to Paul’s admonitions on head coverings, may have been questions or problems with this issue at Corinth. And Paul brings them and all his readers from then till now, back to our relationship to God and each other.
Before we get into head and headship and the wife being under her husband’s head, we have to say this: A married Christian woman is a person who is herself in Christ, under Christ, and living her life from Christ; while also being and living under her husband’s headship. A married Christian man is a person in, under, and from Christ; while also the head of his wife.
There has been an ongoing discussion, a theological debate, about what “head” here means. Over on one side, some scholars have said that head here means ‘source’ or ‘origin’; while the other side says that head means ‘chief’ or ‘ruler’. Head (kelphale’) also means the ‘end-point’ of something: the top of a column or the end of a pole. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is also called the head of the year.
Also, head (kelphale’) means controlling agent, but not preeminent. Our physical heads, having our brain within, rules and has authority over our bodies: our head is the controlling agent of our bodies. This has nothing to do with preeminence, but everything to do with function. The head is the boss, from which control emanates, but is not bossy nor controlling.
A body without a head is dead. It is normal for a body to be under the rule and control or authority of the head. When we take headship as a metaphor, we see that Christians can and do live without being under Christ’s headship.
In Christ, there is life and outside of Christ there is not life. If a Christian is not living in Christ, functionally, then they are not living in his life. Imagine a person who is legally married, but does not live in a marriage.
Living as a room mate, living self centered, not sacrificing, not sharing everything you have, and not laying down your life for your wife; are examples of the husband who is not living under the headship of Christ.
Christ is head of the church, head over all things, the head corner stone, and head of man; and God is the head of Christ and husbands are heads of their wives. The church can ignore, set aside, or give lip service to Christ being it’s head. And wives can also not believe in or live under the headship of their husband; and both of these can be happening today, to our detriment.
After studying, reading, listening, looking things up, and reading some more; my conclusion is that ‘head’ (kephale) here in Paul, means ‘authority’, and not ‘preeminent’, ‘source’, or ‘origin’. There are links to articles, in the bibliography at the bottom, for your further study, if desired.
There have been Christians who are confused about Christ and God, saying things like, “the man upstairs”, or “God is my co-pilot”. The truth is that God and Christ is king and we need to bow and surrender our lives. But God is also good, love, and full of mercy and grace.
Christians are the bride of Christ and the children of Father. God and Christ are not this incredible religion or philosophy that we adhere to. Being a believer means we give up everything and God gives us a different everything.
It means death and resurrection. It means leaving our mother and father and getting married to Christ. It means that we are no longer orphans, but get adopted and become God’s children.
If you do not have these basics, these staring points down; if you are not in and on the pathway of Christ; then having Christ as chief, head, authority, and boss of your life might be a strange and off-putting topic for you. And it would follow, that if you are a wife, to have your husband over you in any chief, boss, or leader role would possibly be foreign, unwanted, incorrect, and rejected as archaic and bluntly crass.
God and Christ is and are our source, and that is a Pauline idea (Acts 17:28, Rom. 11:36). But that is not what 1 Cor. 11:3 is saying. It is also not saying that one is superior and one is inferior. Paul is not saying the husband is the inferior to Christ and the wife is the inferior to the husband and Christ is inferior to God.
The text is neither saying that the husband is inferior to Christ nor is Christ inferior to God, and not that wives are inferior to husbands. But it is saying that there is a hierarchy. Some of us don’t like that word.
God’s headship of Christ gives us an example to follow. Jesus lives under his father’s authority. He did all the good things and said all the good things, under his father’s headship.
The husband lives out his life under Christ’s headship and his wife lives out her life under her husband’s headship. The wife has her own walk under Christ, while also walking under the headship of her husband. Christ is the wife’s savior and Lord, but she functions under the authority of her husband.
The husband has Christ as his model for leadership. Christ’s leadership is sacrificially loving. The husband is called to sacrificially love his wife, who he is head over.
Men and women are equal before God. Husbands and wives are equal in value before God. But husbands and wives have different roles in marriage.
Different positions in the hierarchy does not mean superior/inferior. That is a worldly perspective and not part of Christ’s way. Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus Christ is Lord, and not just a man who was a carpenter and a traveling teacher/prophet/healer, who had and still has followers.
“God is the head of Christ”, means God the Father has a role of authority over Christ. It is a function and role issue. While the husband is not God, Christ is also the head of him; and again it is a role and function.
Remember how in the great commission, Jesus says, “all authority has been given to me”? Father gives authority to Christ and Christ gives authority to us. The one is functionally over the other and gives authority to the other. Jesus has a oneness with Father, but is also under his headship.
In marriage, the two become one; but the wife is under her husband’s headship.
This is an aside, but if Christ calls a woman, a married lady, to be a pastor; her husband is obviously still her head. If she is married, a blurb on their church’s website might read, “Sue Jones is the pastor (or lead minister) of Tall Mountain Jesus Is Lord Fellowship, and her husband Larry Jones is the boss of her”. For anyone worried that she is not under her husband’s headship, that settles it.
To every pastor, preacher, or standing up in front of people in a leadership role person; I would simply ask, “has Christ called you?” If Christ calls a woman and if Christ gives a woman the desire to serve and teach and speak and minister, and gives her his authority to stand in leadership; who are we to argue with him?
If elders are men and the elders are the pastors, then it makes it difficult to be a woman pastor. But if Christ not only gifts a woman with gifts and then calls her to serve as a leader, and there is much discernible fruit from her ministry, then we call her a pastor, agreeing that Christ has made her one and his. He has ordained her and we bless his work in her life.
Also, it would be ideal for a woman pastor to have a qualified elder husband. His being qualified as an elder actually is an endorsement or qualifier of her standing up and speaking and thereby leading other people.
However, most people don’t make it to the ideal, and being divorced or never married should not disqualify anyone who Jesus desires to use, and he does.
Is Christ the head of all Christians, male and female, husbands and wives, young and old? Yes, of course. This passage or section does not need to say that because Paul is talking about roles and functions.
Husbands and wives have equal value and standing before God, in Christ. But they have different roles, and that is what this verse is saying. Imagine a narrow path, where only one person can fit at a time and one goes first and the other follows. That is a picture of roles, not about one person being valued more.
Think about a car, where there is one steering wheel in front of one seat that the driver sits in. The one who drives and manages the wheel, is not superior, but only in the role, function, and service of driving. Drivers who drive recklessly, speed, blare the radio, where headphones, text while driving, have their eyes off the road, tailgate, cut off other drivers, or drive the wrong way may be called bad drivers and get in trouble or hurt themselves or others, but being in the role, function, or service is not a bad thing.
And that is the way it is with bad husbands. Their God given role of being head is not the problem, but what they are doing in their role is the problem that needs correction. Egalitarianism might be saying that the role thing is the problem, so we need to get rid of that and be equal in the roles.
But the complimentary roles and functions, unique to each sex, are given by God; and are not the problem. The problem are people who do bad things, act in bad ways, and are ungodly. Egalitarianism seeks to set us free from ‘archaic’ roles, ‘patrimony’ and ‘misogyny’.
The Bible and the roles for husbands and wives are not wrong and don’t need a re-write. We need to separate the people who have done wrong, lived sinfully, even while saying they are walking with God, from the God we serve, who has created man and woman, with equal value, but different roles as husband and wife, that compliment each other.
The only way to have a Christian marriage is in and through Christ. We know that Christ is under the headship of God, but the husband must also be intimately aware of his being under Christ’s headship, for his wife to take her place under his headship. It is about function and relationship.
But before the husband begins to exercise his authority, as head of his wife,there is something to check. Is he under or functioning under the headship of Christ? If he is not, then he needs to come under Christ and let Christ be his authority.
This is the subject I wanted to talk about. Everything I have said up to this point is an introduction to what I am about to say. There is a problem today, with Christian marriages failing or being dysfunctional, because the husband is not living under the headship of Christ.
I could and am tempted to give you a list of bad things that Christian husbands do. I could also give you a list of problems that Christian wives have that are to an extent, the result or fruit of their husband not being under Christ’s headship. Obviously, Christian wives may sin themselves in ways that are not the fruit of their husbands lack of relationship with Christ, but that is not what I am talking about.
This word, that I am focusing on, that says that, “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ”, is found in the context of Paul’s words about hair and the covering of a person’s head. It may be stating the obvious, but we know that Christ and his headship is for all time and universal; but the issues of hair length, and the covering of one’s head, in Corinthian, Grecian society are particular.
The challenge for us with passages like this, is to find out how the passage applies to us today. And we can broadly place many things in the Bible into two categories: custom and command. The statement, that Christ is the head of the husband is a command, for all Christians: to obey.
But, the words that follow in 1 Corinthians 11, about hair length and veil wearing are in the custom category. Paul is referring to the customs of their culture and reflecting on how to be loving, in Christ, in the midst of their particular cultural customs.
The husband being the head of the wife is also in the command column. If you place that piece into the custom column, then you must also place Christ and his headship over man in the custom column as well. And some people do that, who say that the whole Bible is just customs.
At the other side of the spectrum, some might say that this whole passage is of the command type, and we must strongly transpose Paul’s words then to our lives now. And what this point of view would say, is that, “women must wear head coverings, for the Bible commands it”.
What is funny, in an ironic way, is that if you were to grow up, or be raised up and discipled in a church culture today, where you were taught, “women must wear head coverings, for the Bible commands it”, you would hear, and we could say, be indoctrinated, by an argument, that would lead you to believe that veils or head coverings are required by scripture, and the rest of Christianity and secular society that does not practice head coverings, is wrong. Does that sound like any groups of people today?
This is why critical thinking and cross-pollination is so important and beneficial for Christian strength of learning. Indoctrination and sectarianism are religion. Christianity is centered in Christ.
Today, many Christians are centered on their beliefs, doctrine, and customs; rather than Christ. They say they are centered on Christ. But if they were centered on him, they would love what he loves, both the lost and all of his different flocks.
Now, here is the context of the first half of 1 Corinthians 11:
Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ.
Now I praise you because you always remember me and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. 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. Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since that is one and the same as having her head shaved. So if a woman’s head is not covered, her hair should be cut off. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should be covered.
A man, in fact, should not cover his head, because he is God’s image and glory, but woman is man’s glory. For man did not come from woman, but woman came from man. And man was not created for woman, but woman for man. This is why a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, and man is not independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, and all things come from God.
Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her as a covering. But if anyone wants to argue about this, we have no other custom, nor do the churches of God.
-1 Corinthians 11:1-16
If you use this passage to say that women should wear head coverings, I might say that is ok, but please do not try to force it on others. It is interesting to note that in Paul’s day and today, in Judaism, in their worship; the men where the skull cap and women let their hair flow down and about. How did Paul get from that to the other?
The answer is tradition or custom or culture. If you look around the world, you will see different styles of dress. In various cultures, women cover up their heads and even their faces.
Corinth and Greece at the time had a culture that the Corinthians lived in. They had to live and witness for Christ within that culture.
This hair and head covering part is a cultural discussion that we can transpose and glean some wisdom from for today, which is what many even handed preachers try to do, when they speak on this passage. But that is not the point of my message.
My message is this: Christ is the center and Christ is the head of man and head of the husband. The husband is head of his wife, but that will not work out very well, unless that husband is under the headship of Christ. Any Christian husband who is not under the headship of Christ, needs to start living in and from that place, and any wife who in not under her husband’s headship needs to start living from, in, and through that place.
If we refuse this calling, we are living a double life that is exhausting and not in the peace of Christ. We will do the religious things to feel good and then be selfish and lash out at others and even make disciples in this wrong way. Please don’t do it. Please come home to Christ.
Brauch, Manfred T.; The Head of Woman is Man?, The Hard Sayings of Paul, The Hard Sayings of The Bible, pp. 559-602, (1989)
Bruce, F. F.; The New Century Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Corinthians; pp. 103-4, (1971)
Grudem, Wayne; Does Kefalh (“Head”) Mean “Source” Or“Authority Over” in Greek Literature?A Survey of 2,336 Examples (1985)
The meaning of κεφαλή (“head”):An evaluation of new evidence, real and alleged, (2002)
Kroger, Catherine; Head, The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Hawthorne & Martin eds.; pp. 375-7, (1993)
Nathan, Rich; Why Vineyard Columbus Encourages Women To Preach, Pastor & Church Plant, (2014)