Messianic Apologetics

Addressing the Theological and Spiritual Issues of the Broad Messianic Movement

1 Corinthians 11:3: “Messiah is the head of every man…God is the head of Messiah” – Divinity of Yeshua

“But I want you to understand that Messiah is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Messiah” (NASU).

1 Corinthians 11:3

“But I want you to understand that Messiah is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Messiah” (NASU).

posted 02 October, 2019
reproduced from Salvation on the Line, Volume II

“But I want you to understand that Messiah is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Messiah.”

The Apostle Paul opens his argument about heads and hair on men and women in the assembly, in what has become a very dissected and debated statement in recent theological discussion.[1] 1 Corinthians 11:3 appears in most English Bibles along the lines of, But I want you to know that the head of every man is Messiah, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Messiah is God” (TLV). 1 Corinthians 11:3 is frequently viewed from the perspective of a hierarchical order to be present between God, the Messiah, males, and females.[2] A frequent conclusion drawn is that Yeshua the Son is permanently (or even eternally) subordinate to God the Father (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28), and that females are permanently subordinate to males. While Messianic readers of 1 Corinthians 11:3 might not be too sure over the relationship of the Father and Son in this verse, it is safe to say that most would definitely assert that, at least as a broad rule from this verse, that females are to be subordinate to males.

Within the past several decades, in evangelical Christian examination of 1 Corinthians 11:3, there has been considerable disagreement as to whether Paul is even presenting some kind of hierarchical order. If a hierarchical order involving God and human beings were the issue, then why does 1 Corinthians 11:3 not include some kind of descending or ascending order, such as: God, Messiah, males, females? 1 Corinthians 11:3 notably does not say, “God is the leader/authority of Christ, Christ is the leader/authority of every man, and the man is the leader/authority of a woman.” Instead, what is encountered are three pairs of relationships expressed, which are intended to convey something to the Corinthian audience:

hoti pantos andros hē kephalē ho Christos estin, kephalē de gunaikos ho anēr, kephalē de tou Christou ho Theos

Within discussions and debates over 1 Corinthians 11:3, no factor has become more pronounced than over the correct meaning of the Greek term kephalē, which would literally mean “head.” Obviously, in the various uses which follow in 1 Corinthians 11:4-16, that kephalē or “head” pertains to the physical head of a man or woman is contextually obvious. Strong debates take place in contemporary scholarship over what kephalē means in 1 Corinthians 11:3, specifically whether it means “authority” or “leader”—as the term “head” frequently can mean in English—or whether it means something else, particularly “source” or “origin,” akin to the “headwaters” of a river. An unambiguous term that Paul could have used, if “authority” were expressly intended in 1 Corinthians 11:3, is exousia, appearing in 1 Corinthians 11:10. Another term which could have been employed, witnessed in 1 Corinthians for sure (1 Corinthians 2:6, 8), is archōn, “a ruler, commander, chief, captain” (LS).[3]

Most people, in today’s broad Messianic movement you will encounter, will just assume that there is no other meaning for “head” than “authority” or “leader”[4]—especially given widespread English usage of the term “head” akin to “leader.” However, a brief survey of some scholastic examination of 1 Corinthians 11:3 has demonstrated greater variance than the average reader may know. Some general resources for popular distribution, such as the 1996 Hard Sayings of the Bible, certainly does include some deliberation over whether or not kephalē means “authority over” or “source,” with “source” definitely preferred.[5] Unfortunately, one of the major drawbacks regarding kephalē meaning “source” or “origin,” as noted by Garland (who is notably not favorable to it), is that “no Greek lexicon offers this as an option.”[6] What is more the case, is that some of the major tools available to Bible students, do not offer the definition of “source” or “origin” for kephalē. The unabridged Liddell-Scott-Jones-McKenzie lexicon, inaccessible to most, does include the definition “source, origin” for kephalē.[7] More accessible is the intermediate Liddell-Scott lexicon, which does state how kephalē can mean “the head or source of a river” (LS).[8]

There has actually been a considerable amount of ink spilled defending the view that kephalē should be viewed as “source” in some key Pauline texts describing gender roles,[9] and strong rebuttals issued holding to the position that kephalē means “authority.”[10] Fairer discussions as to whether or not kephalē means “authority” or “source,” are more often to be found in 1 Corinthians commentaries, among other studies (also notably including commentaries on Ephesians 5:23), because the textual usage of kephalē has to be evaluated. As is seen, there a fair number of examiners in agreement that kephalē does not at all have to mean “authority” in 1 Corinthians 11:3—and this will notably include complementarian theologians, who are widely disfavorable toward women serving on a more level playing field with men in the Body of Messiah.

Bruce was a relatively early commentator who remarked, “By head in this context we are probably to understand not, as has frequently been suggested, ‘chief’ or ‘ruler’ but rather ‘source’ or ‘origin’—a sense well attested for Gk kephalē.”[11] Morris would also have to indicate, “‘Head’ was used of the ‘source’ (as ‘head’ of a river)…Paul is saying that the woman derives her being from man (Gn. 2:21-22), as man does from Christ and Christ from God. But we must be cautious in pressing these words, for none of the relationships mentioned is exactly the same as either of the others.”[12] And other commentators, who to various degrees do believe in a hierarchical order present in 1 Corinthians 11:3, have had to acknowledge how kephalē could mean “source” or “origin.”[13] In his 1994 volume in the NIV Application Commentary series, Blomberg usefully indicates, “The order of the three parts of verse 3…proves significant. Some commentators stress that the sequence does not set up a chain of command, as if Paul had written, ‘The head of the woman is man, the head of every man is Christ, and the head of Christ is God.’” He goes on to conclude, though, “the vast majority of all church history has understood ‘head’ as ‘authority’…[W]eighty arguments are needed to overthrow it.”[14] The considerable bulk of data which has been put together, by mainly evangelical examiners, in support of the term kephalē meaning “source” or “origin,” has been witnessed in the 2000s and 2010s.[15]

While lexical debates over the meaning of the term kephalē will probably never end, what is notably changed if kephalē in 1 Corinthians 11:3 does not mean “authority” or “leader,” as it has been traditionally approached? Fee draws out how when kephalē is approached as “source” in 1 Corinthians 11:3, the relationships of the different parties, with one originating from another, are necessarily highlighted:

“The metaphor itself is often understood to be hierarchical, setting up structures of authority. But nothing in the passage suggests as much; in that the only appearance of the word exousia (‘authority’) refers to the woman’s own authority (v. 10). Moreover, vv. 11-12 explicitly qualify vv. 8-9 so that they will not be understood in this way. Indeed, the metaphorical use of kephalē to mean ‘chief’ or ‘the person of the highest rank’ is rare in Greek literature—so much so that even though the Hebrew word rō’š often carried this sense, the Greek translators of the LXX, who ordinarily used kephalē to translate rō’š when the physical ‘head’ was intended, almost never did so when ‘ruler’ was intended….Paul’s understanding of the metaphor…and almost certainly the only one the Corinthians would have grasped, is ‘head’ as ‘source,’ especially ‘source of life’…Thus Paul’s concern is not hierarchical (who has authority over whom), but relational (the unique relationships that are predicated on one’s being the source of the other’s existence).”[16]

With physical head ornamentation on men and women to be discussed in the verses which follow (1 Corinthians 11:4-15), “the man is the head/kephalē of a woman” expressing origins, necessarily directs people to how Eve came from Adam (1 Corinthians 11:8), and how there were gender distinctions to be properly maintained in the Body of Messiah, although there is notably also an interdependence of both genders (1 Corinthians 11:11-12). If particular sorts of physical head ornamentation conveyed an inappropriate message for the assembly—such as men identifying as homosexuals or females as prostitutes—than an affirmation on where human beings come from, and what they stand in relation to, should be in order. As Thiselton directs,

“Paul’s concern is not with subordination but with gender distinction. He expresses no less disquiet (probably indeed more) about men whose style is effeminate with possible hints of a quasihomosexual blurring of male gender than about women who likewise reject the use of signals of respectable and respected gender distinctiveness.”[17]

Of course, concurrent with woman originating from man, would be how kephalē concerns the relationship of Yeshua the Son to God the Father. While the Son is certainly witnessed in other passages as being submissive to the Father, particularly involving His agency—is the Son the Father’s permanent subordinate, and possibly a lesser supernatural being than He, rather than His equal (cf. Philippians 2:6)? This does not need to be a conclusion drawn from 1 Corinthians 11:3. When kephalē is approached as “source” or “origin,” the statement “Messiah is the kephalē of every man” concerns the Messiah’s role in the Creation of Adam. When kephalē is approached as “source” or “origin,” the statement “God is the kephalē of Messiah” is more appropriately to be approached as “The Godhead is the source of Messiah,” given the presence of the definite article in ho Theos, and would be appropriately viewed as the Messiah’s Incarnation.

With kephalē approached as “source” or “origin” in 1 Corinthians 11:3, rather than some sort of hierarchical relationship involving God-Messiah-males-females, we instead see three pairs of relationships present, both beginning and ending with an emphasis on the Messiah. It begins with the place of the Messiah in creation, the origin of woman from man, and it ends with the place of the Messiah in His Incarnation and redemption. Between the Messiah as Creator and Redeemer sit the man and the woman, who indeed have Divinely-granted differences of gender. Evangelical Christian egalitarians, who do interpret the Scriptures as presenting a trajectory of a level playing field for men and women as co-leaders in the family and the Body of Messiah, do not at all conclude that the Bible presents men and women as eventually merging into some kind of unisex. Woman does originate from man, but both genders are interconnected (1 Corinthians 11:11).

A rendering of 1 Corinthians 11:3, with all possibilities represented, is offered by Thiselton in his commentary: “However, I want you to understand that while Christ is preeminent (or head? source?) for man, man is foremost (or head? source?) in relation to woman, and God is preeminent (or head? source?) in relation to Christ.”[18] The aptly titled Source New Testament by A. Nyland actually does have, “Now, I want you to know that the source of every man is the Anointed One, the source of woman is man, and the source of the Anointed One is God,”[19] for 1 Corinthians 11:3. A recognition that kephalē can indeed mean “source” or “origin,” as such ho Theos or “the Godhead” is the origin of the Messiah’s Incarnation, should lead to 1 Corinthians 11:3 being legitimately approached as, “But I want you to understand that the source of every man is Messiah, and the source of the woman is the man, and the source of Messiah is the Godhead” (PME).[20]

The advantage of approaching kephalē from the perspective of it being “source” or “origin” in 1 Corinthians 11:3, is how it would decisively place the discussion of head ornamentation on men and women, within the venue of Creation-humankind-redemption. The relationship of man and woman in the Body of Messiah, involves a wider place for humanity’s relationship with the Messiah who created them, the same Messiah who took on humanity to be sacrificed for their sins. As Payne excellently summarizes in his resource Man and Woman, One in Christ,

“‘God is the [kephalē] of Christ’ anchors Paul’s concern in the Godhead. This most naturally refers to Christ’s source as from God in the incarnation…This explains the order of these three [kephalē] (source) relationships as chronological: the creation of man, the creation of woman, and the incarnation…Preceding the statement, ‘the man is the source of woman,’ is an affirmation of Christ’s role in creation as the source of every man. Following it is an affirmation of Christ’s role in redemption, since this is implied by the reference to God as the [kephalē] (source) of Christ in the incarnation. This bracketing suggests that Paul desired the Corinthians to view the relationship of man and woman in light of two pivotal events, creation and redemption. These two pivotal events are the keys to understanding natural and special revelation. The creation of humankind in the image of God and God’s provision for redemption through his very Son provide the two pillars that uphold both the value of human life and the respect that people should show to each other.”[21]


[1] This entry has been adapted from the author’s commentary 1 Corinthians for the Practical Messianic.

[2] There are indeed versions which reflect this, including: “But I want you to understand that Christ is supreme over every man, the husband is supreme over his wife, and God is supreme over Christ” (Good News Bible); “In a marriage relationship, there is authority from Christ to husband, and from husband to wife. The authority of Christ is the authority of God” (The Message).

[3] LS, 122.

[4] A possible exception to this might be seen in the footnote offered on 1 Corinthians 11:3 in the public domain resource, Michael Paul Johnson and Wayne Mitchell, eds., World Messianic Bible (n.d., 2015) [eBook for Amazon Kindle], which does state, “or, origin.”

[5] Walter C. Kaiser, Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), pp 599-602.

[6] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 515.

[7] BibleWorks 9.0: LSJM Lexicon (Unabridged).

[8] LS, 430.

[9] “1 Corinthians 11:2-3: Head/Source Relationships,” in Payne, pp 117-139; specifically his fifteen reasons on why kephalē does not exclusively mean “authority.”

[10] Wayne Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’): A Response to Recent Studies,” in John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), pp 425-468.

[11] Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 103.

[12] Morris, 1 Corinthians, 149.

[13] Cf. Prior, 181.

[14] Blomberg, 209.

[15] For a summary of views surrounding the term kephalē, consult C.C. Kroeger, “Head,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, pp 375-377; Thiselton, 812-822; Alan F. Johnson, “A Meta-Study of the Debate over the Meaning of ‘Head’ (Kephalē) in Paul’s Writings,” Priscilla Papers Issue 20:4, Autumn 2006; Lynn H. Cohick, “Headship,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, pp 349-350; Richard S. Cervin, “On the Significance of Kephalē (Head): A Study of the Abuse of One Greek Word,” Missing Voices: A special edition journal of Christians for Biblical Equality 2014.

[16] Fee, 1 Corinthians, pp 502-503.

[17] Thiselton, 805.

[18] Thiselton, 800.

[19] A. Nyland, trans., The Source New Testament (Australia: Smith and Stirling Publishing, 2007), 323.

[20] Other passages to be considered, where kephalē appears, would include: Ephesians 1:21-22; 5:22-23; Colossians 1:18; 2:10.

[21] Payne, pp 138-139.

The author’s commentary 1 Corinthians for the Practical Messianic further defends, for 1 Corinthians 11:4-16, that the major issue detailed has nothing to do with head covering garments, but instead ancient hairstyles, which either communicated piety or lewdness. Also consult the FAQ, “Headcovering Garments.”