3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
There’s something Paul wants the Corinthians to know, and it’s this:
- the head of every man is Christ,
- and the head of the woman is man,
- and the head of Christ is God.
And the questions begin.
What does “head” mean?
For centuries “head” in this verse has been read as “authority”, but about 30 years ago there was a big dust up when some people suggested it meant “source”. And since then, “prominence” has become a third major player in the “head wars” (my own term).
Interestingly enough, the passage from verses 2-16 provides fodder for each of these readings: “authority” is used in verse 10 as a synonym for a woman’s head covering; “source” is discussed as part of the reason for head covering in verse 8; and “prominence” can be understood as a reason men do not wear a head covering in verse 7.
So, which is it?
I lean heavily toward the primary meaning of “authority” because it is the only one of the three suggestions that directly refers to the metaphorical head – “prominence” is used in reference to the man as being under God, not head of woman (and the idea doesn’t really work for God being the head of Christ), and “source” is taken indirectly from one of a couple of points supporting woman’s identity as “glory of man”.
But even if I am wrong, all three meanings can help us understand what being the head means and how it relates to head covering, and it may be just as well to allow for a breadth of meaning.
Why are the pairs out of order?
Paul is discussing the tradition of head covering. Head covering involves man and his head, and woman and her head and so, that is where he begins. Paul then adds the head of Christ, God, because the relationship between man and God is essential to understanding the message behind head covering, as we’ll see as we work through the passage.
Why is Christ mentioned here and hardly anywhere else in the passage?
It’s a striking fact that for a Christian tradition, Christ is mentioned only four times from verse 2-16: twice here in verse 3, once in verse 4 (man’s head) and once in verse 11 (the Lord). So how does Christ fit into all this?
Christ has redeemed us and restored us to our proper relationship with God in his death and resurrection.
What is rarely discussed about this verse is that each head of these pairs is also in the same category as their pair. So, we can say:
Christ is the head of man, and he is the head man.
Man is the head of woman, and he is the head human.
God is the head of Christ, and he is the head member of the Godhead.
This will become important in a moment.
Originally, man was created in the image and glory of God (as Paul says in verse 7), but this relationship was ruptured by sin. It is only in Christ, the head of man, that man has been restored to this position because Christ himself is the very image and glory of God.
Christ’s redemption, of course, extends to woman. As the head man, Christ doesn’t change woman’s created purpose but as the second Adam fulfills it by becoming her greatest head, without cancelling out the lesser heads she might have.
Is Paul sexist? Is God sexist?
As far as our culture understands sexism, Paul and God are sexist. Paul is saying man has a superior position to woman, but as in all of life, this does not tell the whole story. A woman can be superior to a man in character and intelligence, even while recognising him as her head (see, for example, Nabal and Abigail in 1 Samuel 25). Being created for a position does not limit the value of a person to that position. We will discuss this further as we move through the passage.
Is every man the head of every woman?
Paul uses the word “every” when he talks about the head of man – Christ is the head of every man. Paul does not use “every” when talking about the head of woman, and so we cannot say every man is the head of every woman.
This makes sense. A man walking down one side of the street is not the head of a woman he does not even know walking on the other side. A teenage boy is the head of his mother. A butler in a well-to-do house is not the head of the woman owner. There are specific men in different types of relationship with a woman who are her head in specific circumstances – fathers, husbands, elders, politicians – and their responsibilities vary.
Yet, there is a general sense in which every man is the head of every woman. The Bible says men are soldiers because they are the ones who protect. The Bible also shows men as the pool from which leaders of churches, communities and nations are drawn. (Where this is not the case, the Bible indicates something has gone wrong).
This more generalised expression of man being head over woman is also seen in fading cultural practices, such as men walking on the outside of a footpath, giving up their seat for a woman and putting women and children first when mixed groups require rescuing.
So, is every man the head of every woman? In specifics, no. But in a more general sense, yes.
The next question is:
“How does this relate to covering your head?”
We’ll find out in the next verses.