Talking Heads 2: 1 Cor 11:3

Kephale in 1 Cor 11:3: Part One

(If you missed it, read Talking Heads 1)

On why I’ve changed my mind about 1 Cor 11:3…

In the next three posts, I’m going to explore what Paul might have meant by using the term ‘kephale’ in 1 Cor 11:3 in relation to the idea of kephale as ‘cornerstone’ from Eph 5. Here I spell out the problems with this verse, and explain why I’ve changed my mind about how 1 Cor 11:3 should be translated.

When I wrote Women and Worship at Corinth, I thought that Paul had written the following in 1 Cor 11:3 –

Christ is the head of every man.

Man is the head of woman.

God is the head of Christ.

I knew that there were problems with this. They are as follows:

  1. No one can really come up with the definitive once-for-all definition of kephale in this context that both conforms to one of the accepted definitions of the word, and then is easily applicable equally to all three pairings. All definitions have their flaws either in relation to how the word was used in context, or in relation to application.
  2. When Paul says Christ is the ‘head’ of every ‘man’, we don’t know what exactly he was referring to when he says ‘man’. Does he mean every man who is ‘in Christ’? Does he mean every male of the species who has ever lived? Does he mean prelapsarian man – man before the Fall? None of the definitions is very satisfactory.
  3. Paul is using one word to draw analogies between relationships that are not really comparable. Christ is not to God as ‘man’ (whichever man) is to Christ. Quite simply Christ is not ‘created’ by God and is of the same substance as God. Man is created by God through Christ, and is not of the same essence. In what way then is God’s relation to Christ analogous to Christ’s relation to man, and further to that, man to woman? So is Paul really referring only to one concept in all three pairings and if so, which one? (Chrysostom was so sure that the analogy was limited that he believed we should refrain from explaining all things ‘by like measure in respect of ourselves and God, though the language used concerning them be similar’. We just shouldn’t do it. Chrysostom himself applies necessary distinctions.)

On that theme of necessary distinctions, do grasp the complexities of the analogy here, and note how we can’t take the analogy too far in relation to heads and bodies, which is the plain reading of the text, once we call someone the ‘kephale’of someone else. Kephale very often does just refer to a physical head on a body.

  1. God has no head over him, and is himself the head of Christ, but it would not be correct to say that Christ is merely the ‘body’ of God, even if in a profound way, he is God in a body!
  2. Christ has a head over him in God, and is the head of the man/husband, but it would not be correct to say that men/husbands are the ‘body’ of Christ, because that role belongs to the whole church full of men, women, and children, who all have Christ as their head.
  3. The man/husband has a head in Christ, and is the head of the woman/wife. Is the woman/wife the ‘body’ of the husband if this analogy has failed in the other two pairings? (That’s just a question for people who are tempted to push this too far. What are the implications of that?)
  4. Another question is this: How far do we push the analogy between all three pairings if Christ is situated in an analogous position to God as the church is to Christ and as the woman/wife is to the man/husband? Hmmm.

This is all by way of demonstrating, that as Chrysostom cautions us, we should exercise caution with our analogies. It doesn’t mean we can’t explore meaning though, and so here are my explorations with regard to 1 Corinthians 11:3.

I was aware that the words that Paul uses for ‘man’ in verse 3 can be translated as either ‘man’ or ‘husband’ and both words (andros and aner as they occur in order in our verse) are translated as sometimes ‘man’ and sometimes ‘husband’ in the NT, depending on the context, and the decision of the editors. The RSV translates the first ‘man’ in v.3 (andros) as ‘man’ and the second ‘man’ (aner) as ‘husband’. In 1 Cor 14:35, however, andros is translated husband, and in the rest of 1 Cor 11 where andros and aner are used interchangeably, they are both simply translated as ‘man’. In other words, these two words are entirely fungible. You see the confusion. Here’s the RSV and NRSV.

“Christ is the head of every man.”

“The head of the woman is her husband.”

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, we have freedom to translate the words andros and aner as either ‘man’ or ‘husband’ so I have now changed my mind and I think that Paul taught this in 1 Corinthians:

The head of every husband is Christ.

The head of a wife is her husband.

But the head of Christ is God.

I now think that when Paul uses kephale language, he uses it exclusively in relation to the marriage relationship because this is part of the mystery regarding the church that he is attempting to describe in Eph 5. There is no real reason here to imagine that 1 Corinthians is a different version of his ideas on marriage in Eph 5, changed in order to encompass all men and women, especially if a) the words he is using here can still be translated as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ (as they are in Eph 5 and in 1 Cor 7) and b) it obfuscates the meaning to change them to ‘man’ and ‘woman’, thereby implying all men and women, and causing a whole host of problems that are eliminated if we stay with his husband/wife imagery. Moreover, one of the big issues that Paul is addressing in this letter is the Corinthians’ attitude to marriage, thus marriage is generally a prominent theme.

If you’ve read Women and Worship, you’ll know that I believe 11:4-10 to contain references to the faulty theology of the Corinthians vis-à-vis men and women. I believe that Paul is arguing with a group of Corinthian male leaders who believe men only to be the ‘glory’ of God and women to be the glory of man. I suggested that their faulty theology had sprung from their misunderstanding and misapplication of his kephale teaching, which if it was always intended only for a marriage relationship would put a clearer perspective on my theory. If I’m right, then the irony, which shouldn’t be lost on us, is that Paul’s teaching on kephale in relation to man and woman was always meant to apply exclusively to a married relationship (which in his mind somehow mirrors a deep spiritual principle rooted in the being of God), but had been taken out of context and misapplied to all men and women, and that in a hierarchical and subordinationist fashion to suit their own domineering tendencies and practices. So not much is new then. It’s nearly funny.

In the next post, I’ll spell out some of the implications of making the transition from translating man and woman to husband and wife and how that helps us with kephale in relation to the other two pairings.

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