The Headship Principle
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 (1 Cor. 11:3).
Here a basic order of authority is given: God the Father > Christ > man > woman.
The rationale for this order of authority is found in the creation story. As we discussed in the two previous parts, Eve was made from Adam’s rib, and made for him to be his helpmate. Paul explicitly gives this creation order as the basis for the order of authority in the human family:
. . . For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man (1 Cor. 11:8-9).
Proponents of female ordination often argue that although the culture of the Bible-writers was patriarchal, Scripture does not prescribe patriarchy as normative for us. But according to this passage, the patriarchal order is not based upon culture, but upon the creation story. It is tied to our origins as a race. Because all of us trace our history back to the creation of Adam and Eve, the order of authority then established applies universally to all times and places.
Nevertheless, in the Lord 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. (1 Cor. 11:3-12)
The function of this passage, I believe, is to clarify that the headship principle does not abrogate the created equality of women, and to caution men against the abuse of their authority by reminding them that (other than Adam) every man is born of a woman, and that men are under the sovereignty of, and answerable to, God, who created all things and from whom all things come.
For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. (Eph. 5:23)
Here, we see the headship principle repeated in a domestic setting. But the fact that the headship principle applies to the home does not mean it does not apply to the church.
In 1 Corinthians, the context is worship, the deportment of women in the worship service, and specifically the propriety of wearing a head covering as symbol of being under male authority. Based upon 1 Corinthians 11, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the headship principle is not limited to the marriage relationship, but applies in a church setting as well.
Frequently Asked Questions:
1. Doesn’t the word “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 mean “source” or “origin,” not “leader”?
This is a very unlikely translation. The underlying Greek term, kephalē, means “head.” It is used over 70 times in the New Testament, and it is always translated as “head,” never as “source” or “origin.” It is typically used literally, and refers to the part of a person's anatomy that sits atop his shoulders. When used metaphorically, the term “head” means someone who holds superior rank as leader, master, ruler, or authority figure. Feminist writers have attempted to substitute a definition of kephalē that, although rarely seen in other koine Greek writings, is never encountered in Scripture.
2. Doesn't the reference to head covering indicate that 1 Corinthians 11 has only a local, cultural application?
Paul's description of the divine order of authority includes not only the relationship of men and women, but also the man’s relationship to Christ, and Christ's relationship to God. (1 Cor. 11:3). These relationships obviously transcend local, cultural considerations, and their inclusion here makes it much more likely that the headship relation between men and women is not merely of local, cultural application.
Scripture often uses culture-specific illustrations of universally applicable principles. The woman who lost her coin, the bridesmaids waiting for the groom, the candle under a bushel are all examples. We still must let our light shine (Mat. 5:16) even though we no longer light our houses with candles. Likewise, it would be wrong to reason that we can ignore the order that is based upon the creation narrative just because the wearing of head coverings has become culturally optional. In the culture of First Century Corinth, women wore a head-covering in church to symbolize being under authority. The symbol was culturally specific, but the principle is not.
3. Why would Eve need Adam as her head before the Fall, since both had the same perfection of character and mind?
Headship exists within the Godhead itself where there is no sin (1 Cor. 11:3), and will continue to exist there after the end of sin (Matt. 20:23; 1 Cor. 15:28), because well defined roles are essential to order and organization.
Moreover, the same question could be asked after the Fall: “Why would a modern Eve need a modern Adam as a head since they both had the same imperfection of character and mind?” The answer is the same—because clearly defined roles are a crucial principle of organization.
Satan asked why angelic beings created with perfection of character and mind needed the headship of Jesus. Satan’s implication was that headship for angels was unnecessary. Korah asked in the wilderness why the priesthood must be limited to the sons of Aaron because “all the congregation is holy” (Num. 16:3). This line of questioning is problematic because it challenges God’s sovereign choice.
4. Is headship a recent teaching in the church?
Headship was well known to Ellen White, as she speaks often of “those standing at the head of the work” (e.g. 1T 572; 5T 672; RH May 25, 1905). She says that Stephen was “considered the most proper person to stand at the head and have supervision of the disbursement of the funds appropriated to the widows, orphans, and the worthy poor” (SR 260). In 1891 A. T. Jones, who was at that time in close harmony with Ellen White, wrote:
“This word does indeed speak to man of his son, his daughter, his manservant, his maidservant, etc., not because it contemplates his duty to man, but because it contemplates his duty to God; contemplates man as the head of the family, and as such responsible to God for the conduct on the Sabbath day, of those under the jurisdiction which God bestowed upon man in his headship of the family” (AMS June 25, 1891, p/ 202).
Clearly, headship is not a recent teaching. It is as ancient as the Bible, and as such it was known to the early leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
5. Hasn’t the gospel freed us from the headship principle?
Salvation is available to all, regardless of ethnicity, social class, or gender (Gal. 3:28). But the very apostle who wrote Galatians 3:28 was equally clear that God’s order of gender authority was still in force after Calvary. This is how Paul could write, many years after the cross: “The head of woman is man” (1 Cor. 11:3), that “the husband is the head of the wife” (Eph. 5:23). Any notion that the cross has abolished gender role distinctions is eliminated by these post-Calvary statements in the New Testament.
6. Did headship in Heaven exist before the entrance of sin?
Yes. Headship was present before sin, when “peace and joy, in perfect submission to the will of Heaven, existed throughout the angelic host” (4SP 316). We don’t know how long this happy state lasted, but it “existed for ages before the entrance of sin” (4SP 316). We do know that “Lucifer was the covering cherub, the most exalted of the heavenly created beings; he stood nearest the throne of God, and was most closely connected and identified with the administration of God’s government, most richly endowed with the glory of His majesty and power” (ST April 28, 1890).
Before the fall, God’s government was organized and structured. There was a council where Lucifer was an honored member (GC 669). Lucifer was not a puppet. When God gave Lucifer a throne, God gave him power, authority, and command. Before sin Lucifer gave commands, and “angels delighted to execute his commands” (PP 36), obeying them with “alacrity” (1SP 18). Lucifer “began his work of rebellion with the angels under his command” (1SM 222).
Sin did not change the organization in heaven. The desertion and rebellion of a third of the angels required a reorganization of the angels who remained loyal, which was done at the very start of the war in heaven (Rev 12:7). These loyal “angels were marshaled in companies, each division with a higher commanding angel at its head” (EW 145). Though reconstituted, the basic organization of God’s government remained the same. Despite Satan’s charges, it was not defective.
Even if headship were imposed only after the Fall, and because of sin (Gen. 3:16), as some argue, this does not abrogate the headship principle. Why not? Because we still live in a sinful world, obviously. In an increasingly sinful and corrupt culture, it is all the more important to follow the plan God put into effect.
7. Isn’t headship just an idea of Paul, who was a chauvinistic misogynist?
The headship principle is not unique to Paul, but is consistently taught in Scripture. Peter taught the same principle:
“Likewise, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands, that, even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. . . . For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror” (1 Peter 3:1-2,5-6).
8. In 1 Corinthians 11, isn’t Paul talking only about relationships between husbands and wives, and not about relationships between men and women in the church?
1 Corinthians 11:3 appears in the context of discussing church order and deportment, not the family. The immediate issue was head-covering in church during the worship service, not anything pertaining to the home. Women were to cover their heads in church to signify being under authority, but men were not to cover their heads in church.
9. If Jesus is Head of the church (Eph. 1:22), why discuss human headship?
Because Jesus, the great Head of the church, works through human agency:
“Since His ascension Christ has carried forward His work on the earth by chosen ambassadors, through whom He speaks to the children of men and ministers to their needs. The great Head of the church superintends His work through the instrumentality of men ordained by God to act as His representatives” (AA 360).
The Chief Shepherd, works through human under-shepherds:
Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away (1 Peter 5:1-4).
“While Christ is the minister in the sanctuary above, he is also, through his delegates, the minister of his church on earth. He speaks to the people through chosen men, and carries forward his work through them, as when, in the days of his humiliation, he moved visibly upon the earth. . . . From Christ's ascension to the present day, men ordained of God, deriving their authority from him, have become teachers of the faith. Christ, the True Shepherd, superintends his work through the instrumentality of these under-shepherds. Thus, the position of those who labor in word and doctrine becomes very important.” (GW 11).
In the presence of Christ as the head of the church, under-shepherds are still needed:
“To Aaron and Hur, assisted by the elders who had been granted a revelation of God’s glory, was given the charge of the people in the absence of Moses. Aaron had long stood side by side with Moses, and Hur was a man who had been entrusted with weighty responsibilities. . . . . Today as then men of determination are needed—men who will stand stiffly for the truth at all times and under all circumstances, men who, when they see that others are becoming untrue to principle, will lift their voice in warning against the danger of apostasy. ” (White, MS 43, 1907, from Letter 69, 1904, written to J. E. White, Feb. 9, 1904 “Exhortation to Faithfulness to Church Members and Elders,” March 12, 1907; cf. 5MR 451.4).
10. But didn’t Ellen White clearly identify Jesus as the only head of the church?
“Christ is the only Head of the church” (21MR 274; DA 817; GC 51). The context clarifies her meaning: “He only has the right to demand of man unlimited obedience to His requirements” (21MR 274). Obviously, no mere human being put “at the head of the work” has the right to demand “unlimited obedience.” That may be a Jesuit belief, but it is not biblical.
Nevertheless, Ellen White was very clear about the delegated authority of the human leaders of the church:
“Jesus was given to stand at the head of humanity, by His example to teach what it means to minister. . . . The great Head of the church superintends His work through the instrumentality of men ordained by God to act as His representatives. . . . Christ's ministers are the spiritual guardians of the people entrusted to their care. Their work has been likened to that of watchmen” (AA 360).
“God has provided light and truth for the world by having placed it in the keeping of faithful men, who in succession have committed it to others through all generations up to the present time. These men have derived their authority in an unbroken line from the first teachers of the faith. Christ remains the true minister of his church, but he delegates his power to his under-shepherds, to his chosen ministers, who have the treasure of his grace in earthen vessels. God superintends the affairs of his servants, and they are placed in his work by divine appointment” (White, ST April 7, 1890, par. 6).
One more statement in this regard should be considered: “Christ, not the minister, is the head of the church” (ST Jan 27, 1890). The context of this statement reveals that Ellen White speaks against an unhealthy dependence on ministers, to the exclusion of personal growth and responsibility. This is not a restriction or definition of leadership, or local church headship, but a reprimand of lethargic, spiritually stunted church members. It is a warning against the all-too-common reality of ministry where the head (the pastor) works without the help of the body of laity! Here is the statement in its full context:
“When the members depend upon the minister as their source of power and efficiency, they will be utterly powerless. They will imbibe his impulses, and be stimulated by his ideas, but when he leaves them, they will find themselves in a more hopeless condition than before they had his labors. I hope that none of the churches in our land will depend upon a minister for support in spiritual things; for this is dangerous. When God gives you light, you should praise him for it. If you extol the messenger, you will be left to barrenness of soul. Just as soon as the members of a church call for the labors of a certain minister, and feel that he must remain with them, it is time that he was removed to another field, that they may learn to exercise the ability which God has given them. . . . Let it be seen that Christ, not the minister, is the head of the church. The members of the body of Christ have a part to act, and they will not be accounted faithful unless they do act their part.” (ST January 27, 1890, par. 9).
11. Why do some reject the term “headship”?
The term is disliked because the concept is disliked. But the fact that Scripture connects male headship in the church with the leadership of Christ and the order of authority within the Godhead itself (1 Cor. 11:3), should be sufficient to establish headship as a Biblical teaching, even if in our authority-resistant age many may resent it. We can only repeat that the Biblical meaning of headship is a positive one, which neither fosters nor condones abuse in any form.
12. But doesn’t “the priesthood of all believers” imply that women are now included in a headship ministry?
The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is derived from such Biblical passages as Exodus 19:6, where God speaks of Israel’s call to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” But this did not mean that every Israelite was called to serve as a priest in the earthly sanctuary, and it certainly did not mean that women could be priests. That role was reserved for the male descendants of Aaron (Ex. 28:1; Num. 3:3).
Peter borrows this Old Testament language, describing the church as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” 1 Pet. 2:9. But as with ancient Israel, this designation doesn’t mean every church member is qualified for every role. According to other New Testament passages, addressing both the family and the faith community, spiritual headship roles are reserved for men (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:22-25; 1 Tim. 2:12-13).
Statements about God’s people functioning as kings and priests appear in the book of Revelation (1:6; 5:10; 20:6), but always pertaining to final salvation. The twenty-four elders in Revelation 4-5 appear to have a priestly role, in that they are depicted holding golden incense burners, representing an intercessory function in relation to “the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8). But these individuals are represented as those who have received the promises of Jesus to the faithful overcomers in the churches (Rev. 4:4; cf. 2:10,26; 3:5,12,21), so they seem to represent redeemed saints who are already enjoying the blessings of the everlasting covenant.
The phrase “priesthood of all believers” simply means that no Christian has need of any earthly priest to mediate between himself and God. There is now only one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:1-2).