1 Cor. 11:3, the word 'head' does not mean authority

by Matt Slick

"But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ." (1 Cor. 11:3).

The egalitarians say that the word "head" in 1 Cor. 11:3 has nothing to do with authority. They insist it means source. They say this because since they deny the idea of male authority in the church and marriage, this passage cannot be referring to authority. It means source. If that were true, this is what the verse would look like. "But I want you to understand that Christ is the source of every man, and the man is the source of a woman, and God is the source of Christ." Is this a reasonable option? To answer that, we need to examine the context.

1 Cor. 11:1-16, "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. 2Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. 3But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. 6For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. 13Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with head uncovered? 14Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God."

There is nothing in the text that requires the word "head" to mean "source." Still, the egalitarians say that as Christ made man, Adam became the source from which God made Eve. They refer to verse 8 that says that woman originated from man which they insist means that "the man is the source of a woman." But, Paul mentions Adam and Eve in verse 8 not to support an idea that Adam was the source of Eve but because of authority. Let's take a look at the section again.

  • vv. 1-2, imitate Paul and hold to the tradition delivered to them.
  • v. 3, Christ is head of man, man head of woman, God head of Christ.
  • v. 4-7, men should not have heads covered while praying, but women should.
  • v. 8, The woman (Eve) originated from man (Adam).
  • v. 9, The woman was created for the man's sake.
  • v. 10, the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.
  • v. 11, mutual dependence of men and women.
  • v. 12, the woman originates from man, man is born through the woman, God created all things.
  • v. 13, is it proper for a woman to pray with head uncovered?
  • vv. 14-15, long hair.
  • v. 16, this is the practice of the churches.

Notice that verse 10 says, "Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels." In verse 10, Paul says "therefore." He is drawing a conclusion from the previous verses, verse 8 included, where he speaks about prayer, head covering, how the woman was made for the sake of the man, and therefore, a woman ought to have a symbol of authority1 on her head. Again, notice that Paul is drawing the conclusion in verse 10 when he says, "therefore . . . " But the egalitarians draw the conclusion in verse 8 saying it is dealing with origination. The fact is verse 8 is used to support the conclusion drawn in verse 10. Paul makes his point in verse 10 dealing with authority and continues to support it and shows that man is not superior to woman, but that both man and woman need and depend on each other. Paul does not point out anything to do with the idea that Adam was the source of Eve; but, Paul does speak about the created order and how Eve was created for the sake of Adam--that is why he referenced them. Eve was made to help Adam carry out the responsibilities God gave him--not the other way around. (For more on the issue of the created order and authority, see the article Genesis 2, Adam and Eve, and Authority.) Quite simply, the egalitarian focus is in the wrong place.

Also, please pay attention to the word "ought" in verse 10. It implies a moral obligation. If it were about "source," it would not be an issue of morality--since that would be dealing with origins. If the text is about authority in the Church and in marriage, then it deals with morality--since we are told that it is morally proper to submit to our leaders. Consider the following verses in support of this.

  • Heb. 13:17, "Obey your leaders, and submit to them . . . "
  • James 4:7, "Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you."
  • 1 Pet. 2:18, "Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect . . . "
  • 1 Pet. 3:1, "In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands . . . "
  • 1 Pet. 3:5-6, "For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. 6 Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear."

What do other verses say about this?

So, we can see that The best understanding of 1 Cor. 11:3 is to read it as dealing with authority structure--not source. This is a consistent with what Paul says elsewhere about the husband being the head of the wife.

Eph. 5:21-24, "and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything."

Clearly Eph. 5:23 cannot mean that the husband is the source of the wife. It just doesn't fit--and Paul uses the same terminology here as he did in 1 Cor. 11:3. In 1 Cor. 11:3 the Greek literally says, "Christ is the head of all man, but the man is the head of woman." Eph. 5:23 says literally, "because man is head of the woman, also, Christ is head of the church . . . " In both places the man is the head of the woman and both contexts deal with authority--of which Eph. 5:23 is explicitly clear in context since it speaks of subjection prior to and after the verse.

The word "subject" is "hupotasso." It means to be subordinate, to be subject, be in subjection to, etc.2 If there isn't supposed to be any authority structure in marriage, then why does Paul tell the wives to be subject to their husbands even as we are subject to Christ?

But, let's consider the egalitarian position. If 1 Cor. 11:3 must mean source, then does the same wording in Eph. 5:23 require that it also be source since they are so very similar? Of course not. Paul knew what he was saying, and we can see the meaning of the word "head" in Eph. 5:21-24 as authority just as the context of 1 Cor. 11 deals with authority.

Before we leave this topic, there are two other verses worth considering briefly.

Eph. 1:21-23, "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. 22 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all." We see that Jesus is above all authority, v. 21, that all things are in subjection to him, and he is the head over the church. Again we see the term "head" being used in the context of authority.

Colossians 3:18 says, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord." The word "subject" is again hupotasso. We see a consistent teaching of Paul of subjection of the wife to the husband. Therefore, the word "head," when speaking of the husband being the head of the wife, cannot mean that he is her source. It must be dealing with authority.


There is a word for "source" in Greek. It is "aitio" aitio." It is translated as "guilt," "cause," and "source" in three places in the New Testament:

  • Luke 23:4, "And Pilate said to the chief priests and the multitudes, “I find no guilt in this man.”
  • Acts 19:40, "For indeed we are in danger of being accused of a riot in connection with today’s affair, since there is no real cause for it; and in this connection we shall be unable to account for this disorderly gathering.”
  • Heb. 5:9, "And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation."

Since Paul knew of the Greek word that specifically meant "source," why did he not use it in 1 Cor. 11 if that was his clear and intended meaning? The fact is Paul didn't use it at all in 1 Cor. 11. He used the word "head," kephale.

But then we might also ask why he didn't use the word authority instead of "head" if that is what he intended. The word for "authority" in Greek is "exousia," and it occurs 102 times in the NT. The NASB translates it as "authorities" (7 times), "authority" (65 times), "charge" (1 time), "control" (1 time), "domain" (2 times), "dominion" (1 time), "jurisdiction" (1 time), "liberty" (1 time), "power" (11 times), "powers" (1 time), "right" (11 times).

Alright, so it is a common word. Still, why didn't Paul use the word "source" or "authority" in place of "head" and 1 Cor. 11:3 in the verses considered above. Let's take a look at some Bible dictionaries that examine the word "head."

"It can refer to a leader, such as the head of a family (Josh. 22:14) or province (Neh. 11:3). In Eph. 4:15, Jesus is described as the head of the church. In a phrase such as ‘on the top (Heb. rosh, ‘head’) of the hill’ (Exod. 17:9) it refers to a topographical feature. It can be used with an opposite noun to designate a limit: ‘from the sole of the foot even to the head’ (Isa. 1:6); ‘from the beginning (Heb. rosh) to the end’ (Eccles. 3:11)."3

"κεφαλή, head, the body part (Mk 6:25); 2. LN 87.51 superior, one of pre-eminent status, figurative extension of first entry (1Co 11:3; Eph 4:15); 3. LN 7.44 . . . (kephalē gōnias), cornerstone, as the important stone for building a proper foundation or possibly capstone in an arch (niv), (Mt 21:42; Mk 12:10; Lk 20:17; Ac 4:11; 1Pe 2:7+); 4. LN 49.16 . . . (kata kephalēs echō), have one’s head covered (1Co 11:4+); 5. LN 23.83 τaν κεφαλaν κλίνω (tēn kephalēn klinō), lie down to rest (Mt 8:20; Lk 9:58; Jn 19:30+); 6. LN 25.160 (epairō tēn kephalēn), have courage (Lk 21:28+); 7. LN 37.102 (epi tēn kephalēn), take responsibility for (Ac 18:6+); 8. LN 25.199 cause to be ashamed (Ro 12:20+), see also 5397."4

"1 the head, both of men and often of animals. Since the loss of the head destroys life, this word is used in the phrases relating to capital and extreme punishment. 2 metaph. anything supreme, chief, prominent. 2a of persons, master lord: of a husband in relation to his wife. 2b of Christ: the Lord of the husband and of the Church. 2c of things: the corner stone."5

The word "head" has a variety of meanings in the Bible. It seems that Paul was alluding to several of them. The word "head" means the top of the body, the head of a family, the cornerstone, the primary, and even source if used in reference to Adam as the source of humanity. But, even in the case of Adam, since he is the federal head, he is the one in authority to represent mankind. So, it seems that Paul used the word "head" to designate more than just "source" and/or "authority" would entail. He did it to convey a lot more than the simple words "source" and "authority" would entail.

  • 1. The word for "authority" is exousia. It is translated as "authority" in the Darby, ASV, ESV, HCSB, ISV, NASB, NCV, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, and YLT. It is translated as "power" in the KJV and "veil" in the RSV. Clearly the context is dealing with authority.
  • 2. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1995, p. 40.
  • 3. "Head," in Harper's Bible Dictionary, p. 377.
  • 4. Swanson, J., Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek New Testament, electronic ed., Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997, kephale, GK3051.
  • 5. Strong, J., Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, electronic ed., Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1996, GK2776.

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.