Before I continue with this blog, I must acknowledge the work of Manfred T. Brauch in his book, Abusing Scripture: The Consequences of Misreading the Bible, IVP, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2009. I am using this book as a guide in this discussion.
The issue that needs to be clearly addressed in regard to the relationship between men and women in the church is the teaching of “headship”. The Greek word kephalé (κεφαλὴ) is rendered “head” and therefore is assumed to mean authority over. It is necessary to explore this a little further to fully understand how this word is applied in the various contexts of the Scriptures where it is used. The use of the word is not how it is widely understood in our Western understanding. In a way, we have gone backwards in our exegesis of passages such as 1Corinthians 11. We have taken a modern thought process and interpretation and have overlayed it onto the ancient text.
If I was to have a discussion of the word head with people in this day and age and I said the Bible states that I am the head of the woman, then it would be interpreted as I am in authority over the woman. Within the church, there may be some resentment by some woman at such a teaching and outside of the church it is likely to cause an outcry of discrimination against women. When we try to interpret passages such as this one, we have to remain true to the union between God and humanity in the very Person of Jesus Christ. In doing so, we will find the following passage is consistent with the whole of Paul’s line of thinking.
‘As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female, for all of you are one in Christ’ (Gal 3: 27-28).
If there is equality between male and female in Jesus Christ and the social norms of the time such a passage was written no longer applies, then there must be another way of interpreting passages like 1 Corinthians 11 that would support the two. This reality of male and female in Jesus Christ was not the case in the social setting in the Roman-Greco times when these Scriptures were penned. On the one hand, the truth in Christ had to be upheld but on the other hand cultural and social norms had to be carefully managed so as not to place a stumbling block to the gospel. Women were generally regarded as inferior in the ancient world. Therefore today consideration has to given to the fact that there has been enormous progress made regarding women’s equality. To say that women are inferior is a myth. To weigh heavily on the issue of the subordinate role of women in the Bible to the wider community may also place a stumbling block to the gospel. The church has a responsibility to ensure that whatever they declare is consistent with the reality that in Christ there is do difference between men and women.
Now we must move towards the context of ‘head’ in 1Corinthians 11. As I have personally experienced the challenges of translating ancient Greek to English, the main problem I face is the context. Literally translating a particular Greek word to English hardly does justice to many of the Greek words. In this very case of the Greek word kephalé translated to head, this choice of word is not where Paul is coming from. When we say someone is the head of the other, then we immediately assume one is in authority over the other or one is greater than the other. There are other meanings to the word head in our language and how this word is applied gives us the indication of what the word means in its various contexts. It can mean origin such as headwater of a river. It can mean an exalted position such as someone being head and shoulders above the rest. It can be used for individual persons such as a teacher counting heads. It is also a slang word. It can mean someone in authority like the head of state. Not only do we have a physical head of the body but we also have various other metaphorical meanings.
The problem many translators face is trying to understand what words may have conjured in the imaginations and minds of people when they heard them. The challenge we face here is what was Paul conjuring in the minds of those who read or heard the words of 1Corinthians? There are many meanings given in Lexicons that cite extant manuscripts. However, there is not one ancient document that uses the metaphor of head as having authority over another as we see in this particular passage. There is no such evidence for using kephalé as having authority over someone else. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew ros is translated to kephalé in the Septuagint but the meaning of having authority over is rare.
When we look at 1Corinthians 11 there are literal usages of the word kephalé and there are metaphorical meanings of the word just as I have outlined the use of the word in English, head, having either a literal or metaphorical uses. For example, in 1Cor 11:4-5 and 10-13 the use of the word kephalé is in the literal sense but in verse 3 it is in the metaphorical sense. In verse 3 Christ is the kephalé of every man, the kephalé of the woman is the man, and God is the kephalé of Christ. What can the meaning of the passage be if the evidence is overwhelmingly against the use of authority over?
We must take into consideration how the whole passage is structured. In verse 8 Paul talks about where the woman comes from and in verse 12 Paul states men are born of women. Here is a clue as to what Paul is alluding to throughout the passage. As Brauch says, Paul is using ‘source’ imagery throughout the passage. The most likely meaning of the the word kephalé is ‘source’. There is evidence to suggest that kephalé and arché are used synonymously meaning source or origin. Paul is referring to the creation narrative of Genesis 2. If we are to use ‘source’ as the intended meaning of kephalé, then this has to be consistent with the passage in question. If we say that Christ is the source or origin of man this has to be consistent with what is said about Christ.
Christ is the one by whom through all things are created is affirmed in Scripture in John 1:3, 1Cor 8:6, Col 1:16 and Hebrews 1:3. Thus Christ is the source and origin, kephalé of every man. According to Genesis 2 the man is the source and origin kephalé of the woman. Christ is where the man comes from and the man is where the woman comes from. The woman was taken from the side of the man showing that the man and the woman is made from the same stuff and share in their being. Finally we have the source and origin of Christ as God. God is where Christ comes from also alluding in the very same way that Christ and God share their being. Just as we have no subordination between God and Christ, there is also no subordination between the man and the woman. There is also no subordination between the man, woman, Christ and God. The man and the woman see face-to-face. The man, woman and Christ see face-to-face. The man, woman, Christ and God see face-to-face. The only difference there is between God and humanity is the created cannot make themselves uncreated. Yet we are adopted into the life of the Uncreated.