Headship in Context


The single biggest question Brian and I had and that we hear in regards to equal partnership in marriage is: “What about the verses that say that the man is the ‘head’ of the woman?”

There is something very, VERY important missing in the traditional understanding of the concept that men are meant to be in authority over women, according to the Bible. And that is CONTEXT.

Complementarians openly profess to use what is called a “simple reading” of these texts about  marriage to understand them, and they openly frown on attempts to study the context around these verses. Which is so confusing to me because in everything else, my churches have been very careful to do word studies and try to understand cultural context around important passages of the Bible. But as soon as I started doing that with marriage and gender related passages, I was criticized for trying to “twist the Scripture” or “read into the Scripture.”

But I wasn’t! I was just applying the same study principles to the Bible’s instruction and celebrations about marriage that I had been taught to do about everything else! I was following the example of the Bereans, who searched the Scriptures to see if what Paul was teaching them was true, just like my churches do with every other topic.

So this is what I learned in my study of male headship. I learned about the cultural context and the word context.

In the city of Ephesus (which is where Ephesians and 1 & 2 Timothy were written to) and the surrounding areas, there was a religion that taught that women are the source of all life and men bring only death. Women came first. Terrible acts of violence were done to men, especially on certain days of the year. Paul spent a great deal of energy addressing this false teaching and trying to correct it.

This is what the “headship” talk is all about!

In English, the word “head” holds a connotation of authority. We have heads of state, heads of companies, heads of schools. And that is how most people read these verses — with that cultural understanding of the word “head.”

We also have heads of rivers, though. And THAT is how Greek speakers used the word “head.” It has no connotation or implication of authority at ALL in Koine Greek – it means “source, connection.”

Paul is literally saying that men came first in Creation – that men are the source of women. Men do not only bring death! The first woman came from the body of a man, and all other men come from the bodies of women – both genders bring life. Both genders are dependent on each other.

That’s it. That’s what Paul is saying. He’s not contradicting his teaching that it is better for a woman to remain single than to marry. He’s not contradicting his teaching that there is no male or female in Christ. He’s not contradicting his teaching that a wife has authority over her husband’s body as he does over hers.

And he’s definitely not contradicting his teaching that men must give up their rights and die to themselves and imitate the earthly Christ as He humbled Himself on the cross. He is not teaching that in marriage, and only in marriage, men should imitate the exalted Christ as He reigns at the right hand of God.

This completely blew my mind. It took me months to process this fully. But the freedom…

God made me to be dependent on HIM! And I can be a whole person in Him without any other person in my life. I do not need the authority of my (dearly loved and respected) father or (beloved and also respected) husband to have a completely full relationship with God. This is amazing to me.

Jesus BROKE the curse.

This knowledge, at the same time, was and is very painful to me. It’s horrifying to me that so many people still live as if the curse is still in place. And I have seen a lot of pain because of it.

May Jesus keep shining His light and hope and freedom for all His men and women!


If you want to study this further, here are some places to start:

An article discussing what it means to believe in headship with the right meaning of “head”

An article about the difference between English and Greek interpretations of the word “head”

An article that discusses the implications of understanding the Greek connotations of “head”

A book that includes and great description of the culture of Ephesus (and that region in general)

Happy growing in the knowledge and understanding of our Lord Jesus Christ!

5 thoughts on “Headship in Context

  1. Thanks for including my post on your resource list, Nikki. You did a great job with this subject. Did you know that Paul’s letter to Titus also concerned Ephesian cultural/religious issues? Titus was on Crete and the people there were heavily influenced by Ephesus and its Artemis cult. So the similar matters found in Titus and 1 Timothy are due to the similarity in the cultures.

  2. Part of the challenge is that we have a skewed understanding of the word “authority.” Especially the concept of being under authority, or submitting to His authority. In Christ, this is an awesome position. We are given His name, and in His name, under His authority, by means of the Spirit of Jesus, we are able to do what we could not do apart from Him. God has established an order of authority that became evident on the first day of creation. When we step outside of His order of authority, we are weakened and ineffective.

  3. When we are under the headship of Christ, we are a people under authority. This is not a position of weakness, but is empowering. In the same way, a husband is to empower his wife. She is not weakened by her husband, but empowered.

    1. If “head” in these verse ever had any connotation of authority, I would whole-heartedly agree with you. And I definitely think that Christ’s authority is well established in other parts of the Bible. But these verses are not talking about authority at all.

      I do agree with your conclusion, though – when a husband treats his wife as if she is connected to him and part of him and coming from him (as Eve came from Adam and as men are born of women, as Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians, I think) – he does empower her! Definitely. Spouses who take care of each other in the way that the Bible tells us to nourish each other, raise each other up, and empower each other.

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