If Paul’s concern is with origins, then “head” probably means “source” in 1 Corinthians

What we’ve just concluded about Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy—that they aren’t intended as a blanket prohibition of women in authority roles, but rather as a corrective to a false teaching and a restraint on the spread of that teaching—has implications for the comment Paul makes in 1 Corinthians, when discussing head coverings, about man being the “head” of woman. This comment is often cited to argue that men should be in authority over women.

When it comes to interpreting this statement, the debate centers on whether “head” means “authority over” or “source.”  This question can best be settled by considering the context.  (Usage determines meaning.)

If we have reconstructed the context correctly, and Paul is indeed opposing a teaching that man came from woman and that woman is therefore the source of spiritual enlightenment for man, it makes sense that he would correct a wrong practice based on this wrong belief by first stating what should properly be believed.  And what should be believed is that “the head of the woman is man,” i.e. the source of the woman is man, meaning that woman originally came from man.  Paul goes on to state this at more length:  “man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”  And he then qualifies this statement by describing what life is like “in the Lord,” that is, in the community that now embodies God’s inbreaking work of redemption:   “Woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.  For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.  But everything comes from God.”

There is really no reason for Paul to say any of this if his concern is with authority.  But there is every reason for him to go into this kind of detail if his concern is with origins. And while he wants to correct the false teaching, it’s clear from these subsequent comments that he doesn’t want to institute arrangements within the community of Jesus’ followers based on the supposed implications of origins.

In my view, a meaning of “source” for “head” also makes more sense for the statement “the head of Christ is God.”  The Father is the “source” of the Son in the sense that the Son is begotten of the Father.  It makes much less sense to me to say that the Father is in authority over the Son; at least in my understanding of the Trinity, all three persons are free and creative co-participants in every action.  One is not responsible for telling the others what to do.  While on earth Jesus did submit himself entirely to the Father’s will, but that was a necessary measure for Jesus to accomplish his redemptive mission under conditions where he had “emptied himself” of divine attributes such as omniscience.

The statement that “the head of every man is Christ” refers to the fact that Christ is source of man, that is, his Creator. But in light of Paul’s other epistles, we can also understand “source” to mean “ongoing source of life and nourishment,” as, for example, in Colossians: “the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.”

This passage in 1 Corinthians is also notable because on the surface it appears to require women to wear head coverings in gatherings of Jesus’ followers.  This requirement, like the one a little later in 1 Corinthians for women to keep silent, is not enforced today by virtually any group of Jesus’ followers (although there are, of course, some exceptions).  These two restrictions are instead treated as limited in their specific application to the original context, with only inferential applications today based on their principles.  Why, then, isn’t Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy about teaching and authority treated the same way?

You can read a more detailed discussion of this passage on head coverings in an article I wrote some years ago with Laurie Hurshman.

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