Headship and Authority in 1 Cor. 11

This past Sunday, our senior minister approached with some trepidation 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, the passage which speaks of the subordination of women and their need to wear head coverings.  Also on the agenda was 1 Cor. 14:34-35, which states “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.  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”—although in the event, the sermon confined itself to the first passage.  These passages naturally can be quite a source of discomfort to churches committed, as ours basically is, to an “egalitarian” rather than “complementarian” position (though I hate those labels!) and to the legitimacy of women’s ordination.  But really, they will be a source of discomfort for almost any Christian today, however “complementarian.”  After all, Paul seems to go beyond a mere outward subordination to suggest that women are naturally inferior: women come from men, and are made to serve men.  Men stand in the same relation to women as Christ does to the Church.  Ouch.  Paul accordingly commands behaviors that only a few radical fringe groups of conservative Christians would actually observe—head coverings for women, silence of women in church.  

So I was genuinely interested in hearing what an egalitarian interpretation of these verses would look like. (The easiest route might to say that Paul was a product of his culture, and thus felt obliged to argue for something that was simply inconsistent with his teaching elsewhere; but I doubted our minister was going to take that route.)  The key argument hinged on the meaning of the word “head” (Gk. kephale) in v. 3, and suggested that of its three main meanings—”physical head,” “authority,” and “source”—it was the third, and not the second, which Paul was using here (in addition to the first, which is of course used in the following verses).  Man is not the boss of the woman, we were told, he is the source.   

However, this didn’t seem to me to be the anti-complementarian trump card that was desired.  What might it really imply to say that man is the “source” of woman?  I offer the following reflections with two major caveats: (1) I have not read any of what is no doubt the copious exegetical literature on this passage, so there will no doubt be a lot of re-inventing (and mis-inventing) the wheel here; (2) I am not trying to argue here for or against women’s ordination, or to provide a decisive solution to the dispute between “egalitarians” and “complementarians”—I am simply trying to trace out the logic of these concepts and of this passage, and see whether it might lead us to conclusions that could be attractive to both sides in certain respects.

 

So first, it’s worth noting that these three meanings of the word “head” are, after all, not three completely unrelated meanings, like the “bark” of a tree and the “bark” of a dog.  Clearly, they are closely related.  The physical head is the source and guide of all intelligible action in the body.  The head of an organization is the source and guide of all intelligible action in the organization.  The head of a river is the source of that river, that which sustains its existence, sends it on its way, establishes its direction.  Clearly, we have three closely interrelated and mutually-interpreting concepts here.  The concept of authority is deeply rooted in the concept of origin.  “It is the authority which has called the form of action into being.  The term ‘authority’ in this sense recalls the Greek word arche, which means at once both ‘beginning’ and ‘rule.'” (O’Donovan, RMO 122)  Obviously, kephale has a somewhat different field of meaning than arche, but I think the analogy with arche is significant.  It was not a coincidence that the Greeks associated rule with beginning.  

While the concept of authority is not exhausted by the concept of origin or initiation (for instance, the concept of “judgment” is generally a central part of what we understand by authority), this is clearly a central part of it.  If we want to know whether an action is authorized in any organization or entity, we will ask where it came from.  If we find out that some order just came from a coworker, then we can scoff at it.  It needs to be traceable back to the “head”—perhaps indirectly, by coming from someone authorized by the head to act in certain matters.  Of course, an individual within the organization may take action on her own accord as circumstances seem to dictate, but if the action is to be meaningful or constructive, it must fit into a shape conferred by the head.  One way or another, all intelligible action in an organization is traceable back to the “head” of the organization, who initiates and orients the actions that are to be taken.  For this reason, of course, the head is also the endpoint, the point where buck stops—the person finally responsible for actions that are taken.

So authority initiates, authority serves as an origin, rule implies beginning.  Is it the other way around though—does an origin always serve as an authority?  Does the “source” of something necessarily have an ongoing claim over it?  Does “beginning” imply rule?  Most societies seem to have thought so.  In early modern political debates, the question of origin was always paramount.  Did the society predate the king as a political entity, did it call the king into being?  Or did the king predate the society, and call the society into being as a political entity.  Who came first?  Who was the source of the other?  The answer to these questions largely determined one’s political theory, one’s judgment as to which was the highest authority, king or parliament.  Theologically, we root God’s authority over the world in the fact that he is the source of it.  He created it, therefore he is king over it.  Likewise, Christ’s headship, in the sense of authority, over the Church, seems inextricable from the fact that he is the source of the Church, that which has brought her into being and sustained her. 

Perhaps there is no reason that we should draw the inference that origination implies authority.  After all, in what sense does the source, the head, of a river have “authority” over that river?  Well, in the sense that it initiates it and directs it.  It gives shape to it.  The source determines which way the river will start flowing, and if the source dries up, the river will not continue flowing.  The river depends on its source, just as a subordinate depends on an authority.

So, if “head” in 1 Cor. 11:3 is not to imply authority in any sense, but only “source,” then what content are we to give to this attribution of source?  What does “source” mean?  The answer that our minister wished to give, it seemed in our conversation afterward, was “mere temporal priority.”  The man is the source of the woman in the sense that January 1st is the source of the new year.  The year does not depend on January 1st, January 1st exercises no directive power over the following year, but January 1st does happen to come first.  Now, the problem is that I am not at all sure, then, that we could meaningfully speak of January 1st as the “source of the year.”  I certainly don’t know anyone who has done so (though I was told that the ancient Hebrews did so).  As a concept, “source” simply has to imply more than mere temporal priority.  Perhaps more problematically, it is unclear how this line of argument could make any sense from the theistic evolutionist standpoint, which is of course the operative standpoint here.  For the theistic evolutionist, there can simply be no literal meaning in the assertion that man is the source of woman, unless perhaps we mean to say that the first hominid that God chose to designate a human being was in fact male, although there were of course a multitude of roughly equivalent female hominids, including his mother.  For the theistic evolutionist, it is hard to see how the narrative in Gen. 2:18-24 could be anything more than metaphorical.  And what then would the point of this metaphor be?  Well, probably something like what Paul seems to say about it—that woman is the glory of man, and woman was created for the man.  

 

Now, the point of all this is to say that it’s not immediately clear that substituting the meaning “source” really gets us away from the concept of “authority.”  But what it does do is to help suggest a new context for the concept of authority; no doubt part of the hostility to the use of that term stems from a misguided paradigm of what “authority” involves—an authority, we think, is someone who can command you to do something without good reasons, who can oblige you to obey whether or not you want to.  Authority, we think, is the opposite of freedom.  But O’Donovan, in his remarkable discussion of authority in Resurrection and Moral Order, invites us to see authority as “the objective correlate of freedom.”  What the heck does that mean?  Well, the concept of authority as initiator, which we have gestured at here, might help us out somewhat.  

At this point, we can finally turn to look again more closely at the passage itself.  We have a good clue that in fact the concept of “source” is central here, in v. 8, “For man is not from woman, but woman from man.”  Does this work with v. 2? “the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”  Well, let’s work back from the last.  The Father is certainly not “the boss” of the Son, to use the contrastive term our pastor used.  But the Father clearly can be legitimately said to be the “source” of the Son.  He is the fons divinitatis—the Son is eternally begotten from Him.  But although the Son therefore has dependence on the Father, the Father does not for this reason stand over against the Son then as the one who commands him, for the two are perfectly united.  The Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father.  If we look at the relationship of Christ and the Church, we have the same thing.  The point being made here is not that Christ has authority to command the Church, although that may be true in its own context.  The point is that Church has come out of Christ, it is the creature of the water and blood flowing from his side.  The Church has come out of the side of Christ, and therefore it depends on him, and he has defined its identity and its calling.  It exists in relation to Him. However, again, it is not separate from Him.  He is our King, but that is not the point here.  We are in him, and he in us.  Now clearly, these same points are being made about man and woman.  Woman was taken out of the side of man, just as the Church out of the side of Christ.  For this reason, woman depends on man, exists in relation to man, is oriented toward man.  However, likewise, as with the other two relations, the key point here is indwelling.  Eve was taken out of Adam in order then to be made one flesh with him.  

And this perhaps provides us with a helpful way forward.  For thus far, I expect, few egalitarians are going to be very satisfied with the implications of this concept of source and origin, with its inescapable connotations of dependency.  Woman is dependent on man?  Yuck.  Of course, one might reply, “Sorry, that’s what Paul says.  Deal with it.”  But I’d like to brainstorm some ways in which the egalitarian might take comfort from this passage.

 

First, one might point out that the language of priority is frequently subverted throughout Scripture.  The last shall be first, the elder shall serve the younger.  Throughout the Old Testament, the one who, by virtue of priority, has a claim to be “head,” turns out to be dependent on the one who comes after—Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David and Saul.  And of course, this repeated plot line turns out to be prophetic of the greatest reversal at all.  The Church comes out of Israel; Israel is the source, the head, of the Church, and yet the Church is greater than Israel.  The feminist could perhaps have a lot of fun with this plotline of reversal—sure, man may have come first, but now woman is in charge.  Naturally, this would be taking it a bit too far.  Indeed, if we look at the illustration of the Church and Israel, Paul cautions the Romans against just this sort of thinking (Rom. 11:16-18).  Yes, there has been something of a reversal, but neither should boast against the other.  Both have need of one another.  The reversal is one in which a relationship of dependency is transformed into one of interdependency.  If we look back at our 1 Cor. 11 passage, we see something very like this being expressed. “Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God” (vs. 11-12).  In the beginning, woman came from man, but then, God made it so that every man has to come out of woman.  The initial dependency is transformed into interdependency.  Or, to put it in other terms, man does not command, and woman obey; man initiates, and woman responds, as an equal, in perfect mutuality.

If we look back at Paul’s analogies, we see this picture confirmed.  The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and yet (without wanting to peer too far into the mystery of inter-Trinitarian relations), their relation is one of perfect mutuality.  The Father initiates, the Son freely responds.  The Son is the equal of the Father.  The Church comes from Christ, and depends on him, and yet Christ is the firstborn of many brothers.  We are co-heirs with him.  By grace, he treats us as equals.  Christ initiates, and his Church freely responds, in a relationship characterized by mutuality.

Of course, these analogies are imperfect—they are not even strictly equivalent to one another, much less to the man/woman relationship.  And yet, perhaps they provide a clue that the concept of headship, although implying a certain kind of authority, does not imply the kind of authority that egalitarians hate.  We still have a certain kind of “complementarianism” here, but the kind that seems unavoidable.  Any river has to have a starting point.  Any organization has to have someone who’s responsible for getting things moving.  Any conversation has to be initiated by someone, or else everyone’s just going to stand there awkwardly looking at their feet.  Every dance has to have a partner who’s ready to take the first steps.  But for the Christian, this initiation serves the purpose of initiating a relationship of genuine mutuality and complementarity, in which both partners are equal participants, responding to one another.  

 

Of course, this does not begin to address the particulars of Paul’s commands to women, and how much they might still apply today.  Most of us are quite happy to say that the head-covering command was a culturally specific one, though “keeping silent in the churches” (14:34-35) is a bit more contentious.  The prohibition on women teaching (1 Tim. 2:12) has seemed to many to have a permanence that the earlier commands do not.  There are important arguments to be had here, to be sure, and I will not attempt to enter in to them.  It is simply worth noting that the answer to these questions is, I think, underdetermined by 1 Cor. 11:3.  It is not clear that the concept of man as kephale in the sense of “initiator,” as I have spelled it out, constitutes a blanket argument against women in the ministry.  Indeed, if we lay our emphasis on vs. 11-12, where the initial relationship of dependence is revealed to be one of of interdependence, one might say that v. 3 constitutes no bar to women’s ordination.  This, I think, would be overly hasty, but so would the conclusion that it constitutes a decisive bar.

2 thoughts on “Headship and Authority in 1 Cor. 11

  1. I'm always wary about interpreting "Christ" as "Son" in passages like these. It could just as easily be a reference to economic office. The head of the messiah is God. No perichoresis is necessarily implied, but rather order in the mission. You can think of other verses where the "Christ" is speaking to "God" and saying "Not my will, but Thine." That can only work in the economic, since there is but a single will in the ontological. The will which submits to God is the human. But beyond that, I always fear that our systematic explanations of Paul's "basis" or theological foundations take us away from the more plain point that he is still giving orders and directions based on sex. Since Man is the head of the Woman, certain actions, behaviors, and requirements follow. I've never seen an egalitarian theology that was still satisfied with a complementarian practice.

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Steven. You're probably right on the exegetical point about the meaning of "Christ" here. Whether that completely undermines the way I was using the Trinitarian analogy I was making, I'm not sure, and I'd be interested to hear from you. If we lay the stress on economic subordination, then of course we have the question of whether this is a permanent economic order, or else whether it is somehow mutable. You posted recently, of course, about John Calvin's observations on this passage, and how he insists that these commands are matters of the civil kingdom, of mere "outward propriety and decorum." Given that the Reformers believe that many matters of the civil kingdom are contingent on relations of time, place, and culture, this line of argument would seem at first glance to suit egalitarians very well indeed. But of course, Calvin didn't seem disposed to draw those sorts of implications.That, of course, is why systematic explanations of Paul's basis matter. Paul gives plenty of orders and directions that, according to Hooker at least, do not necessarily still apply in the same way. To determine exactly how they might apply, one has to discern Paul's foundational reasoning. "I've never seen an egalitarian theology that was still satisfied with a complementarian practice."I'm actually a bit curious about this statement. Recently, I was discussing with a couple other guys, after having sat through a rather assertively egalitarian paper, that it really didn't seem like, in a well-functioning Christian marriage, the difference was all that discernible. Both spouses will seek to respect and be attentive to the needs and wishes of the other, they will try not to make any important decisions without being on the same page, and they will defer to each other's strengths. Given that men tend to be more assertive, even in an "egalitarian" marriage, the husband will tend to be the primary decision-maker. But if he loves his wife, even a thoroughly "complementarian" husband will not make decisions without consulting her. But maybe I speak too much from my own experience. My own wife and I's personalities complement each other quite neatly in this regard, but I can imagine a couple with more clashing personalities in which it would make quite a difference.

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