31 What does Paul mean by head, 2?

by | Jan 29, 2020 | 01 Podcasts, Corinthians

Most everyone agrees that Paul is speaking metaphorically, but few agree exactly what he means by the metaphor of head. To understand Paul’s use of head in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, we look at Paul’s use of head in all his other letters, particularly in Ephesians.

In the first podcast I gave you the bottom line.  I went straight through 1Corinthians 11:2-16 explaining my conclusions.

In the second podcast we talked about the cultural background that informs Paul’s advice.

In the third podcast we begin tackling what Paul means by head by looking at Genesis 2 and why he appeals to it. 

In this podcast, we look at Paul’s use of head in the New Testament.


I argued that in Corinthian culture married women kept their heads covered in public as a sign of respect for their husbands while husbands removed their head coverings when they stood up to pray or prophesy as a sign of respect for God.

Women did not participate in the Jewish worship service. In the Christian church, women begin participating alongside men, creating a conflict of symbols. 

What’s a married woman to do when she stands up to pray or teach? If she removes her head covering that is seen as respectful to God but disrespectful to her husband.  If she keeps her head covering on, that is seen as respectful to her husband but disrespectful to God. 

I understand Paul to be saying wives in Corinth should keep their head coverings on because that symbol speaks the loudest in their culture.


But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 11:3

As I argued in the last podcast, when Paul appeals to the creation account, his concept is:

  • Husband headship is the biblical concept that God assigned the husband responsibility for the marriage and resulting family.
  • Being a Helper is recognizing who is responsible and granting him the freedom to follow his conscience.

Egalitarian View of Head

Some egalitarians argue that the metaphorical use of “head” means source, like the head of the river is its point of origin.  They argue that the order of creation does not imply any kind of authority or difference in roles.  It is merely and only the idea that the woman was made from the man.

Complementarian View of Head

Some complementarians argue that head means to have authority over. 

The head chef is the boss.  The head teacher is the one in charge.  The head of the company is the one who gets the last word.  The husband as the head of the wife has authority over her and she has an obligation to submit to him.

The hard complementarian tend to emphasize the authority of the head, while the soft complementarians tend to emphasize the responsibility of the head.

What is a hard complementarian?

What is a soft complementarian?

What is an egalitarian?

Paul’s use of the head-body metaphor – Ephesians 1

1:22And He [God] put all things in subjection under His [Jesus] feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. – Ephesians 1:22-23

  • Christ solves the problem of sin, death and futility, and brings everything in subjection under his rule so that all creation might find fulfillment and completion in him. 
  • His completion arrives when he stands as king and lord over a new creation with a people washed, clean and holy who confess that he is Lord.  Our role is to be those people. His body (the church) completes the one who completes everything else.
  • Jesus’s role is to be the Messiah, the redeemer and rescuer of mankind.  Our role is to be his body.  There is a lack of symmetry in our roles.  Christ has responsibilities we do not have. 

Ephesians 4

4:14As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. – Ephesians 4:14-16

  • Here the context is teaching. The head gives growth to the body and that growth is worked out through the various parts of the body.
  • As head of the body, Christ laid the foundation of truth. Then the various parts of the body administer the truth and teachings of Christ.
  • Christ gave us the truth. The pastors, apostles, prophets and evangelist’s role is to administer and teach that truth to the body so it grows. Their role is dependent on Christ’s role.

Colossians 2

2:18Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. 20If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” – Colossians 2:18-21

  • In this context, the issue is whose doctrine you listen to. Why are you listening to this nonsense about do not taste, do not touch? Don’t submit yourself to these foolish decrees, rather hold fast to the head. 
  • Christ has taught us the truth. Growth comes from his truth working its way through the various parts of the body.

Ephesians 5

5:22Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. 25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. 28So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; 29for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, 30because we are members of His body. 31FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. 32This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. – Ephesians 5:22-32

  • Headship in practice looks like Christ dying to save his people. His goal was to sanctify and redeem his church so that he could present the church to himself in spotless holy glory. 
  • As head, Christ’s agenda was not to be boss, not to rule with an iron fist, not to always get his own way or have his people serve him like slaves. 
  • As head, Christ’s agenda was the salvation, and welfare of his church.  His agenda was that his church reach full maturity, wisdom and holiness.  His agenda was to lay down his life for her so that she might be his people.
  • What does being the head look like?  It looks like what Christ did:  self-sacrificing love and service while holding fast to the truth of the gospel.


Marriage God’s Way (8 audio files)

Marriage: In Order to Form a More Perfect Union (4 audio files)

For more detail and explanation, please listen to the podcast.

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Series: 1 Corinthians: Pride & Prejudice in the church

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