Subordination in Scripture: κεφαλή in 1 Corinthians 11:3

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Perhaps the text that is closest to the heart of the ESS (eternal subordination of the Son) debate is found in 1 Corinthians 11:3. The prominence of this text is in large measure due to the manner in which it supposedly provides the basis for a connection between the relationship between the Father and the Son and that which exists between the man and the woman. While this apparent parallel has previously provided for some a helpful analogy by which to resist the charge that complementarian theology maintains the inequality of the sexes, more recently this analogy has come to assume a greater theological centrality and to bear more theological weight.

As this text has increasingly become architectonically foundational to the complementarian edifice for many, a great deal of effort has been required to shore it up against challenge. Wayne Grudem stands out as someone who has particularly worked to reinforce and tighten the bond between each element of this complementarian use of the text: he has written at length on the relations of authority and submission between man and woman, has argued for such relations in the Trinity, and has extensively treated the meaning of the Greek word κεφαλή (typically translated 'head') in this and other key verses, insisting that it has the import of 'one in authority (over)'.

At such points, the exegete is at considerable risk of being blown off course by the crosswinds of the gender debates. I do not believe it accidental that gender debates have increasingly come to focus upon the questions concerning the meanings, not just of particular proof-texts, but of isolated words and phrases. Slight differences in translation are used to justify remarkably different accounts of appropriate relations between the sexes. Different sides of the debates can construct vast theological edifices upon the slender pinnacles of terms such asכנגדו עזר in Genesis 2:18 or התשוק in Genesis 3:16, for instance.

This can occur for various reasons. For some, it accompanies the attempt to kick the debate into the long grass of hopelessly contestable exegesis, thereby preventing Scripture from playing a deciding role in our conversations. When so many interpretations are floating around, Scripture can no longer arbitrate and personal choice--with its tendentious, eccentric, and often wilful readings of particular texts and terms--steps in to take its place.

For others, it results from the desire for incontrovertible readings that can decide the gender debates in our favour, or for proof-texts that will serve as a foundation for our systems. When our reading of Scripture is framed by controversy, we can easily be tempted to focus our efforts upon looking for unambiguous and explicit scriptural propositions, proof-text pillars for the superstructure of our theological positions. This quest is frequently misguided and unhelpful. It has the tendency to concentrate weight that should be more widely distributed. The strength of biblical teaching lies less in a number of large and visible proof-text trunks than in the deep and extensive root system of scriptural narrative and intertextuality beneath them. Cut off from this root system, proof-text trunks can easily be toppled. Furthermore, Scripture rarely forces its meanings upon those wilfully resistant to it, even though those with ears and hearts to hear will do so.

The need for a sturdy proof-text pillar for complementarian theology can put considerable pressure upon a term such as κεφαλή. I believe that such scholars as Grudem unhelpfully downplay the multivalency of this term, a multivalency that is important to Paul's argument in the immediate context (where more metaphorical senses of the term in verse 3 are purposefully brought into connection with literal senses of the term in the verses that follow). Literary word play and expansive breadth of meaning may not be especially welcome when we are looking for clear theological propositions. However, multivalency need not entail ambiguity: multivalency can bring a different sort of clarity, as it establishes illuminating relationships between concepts, realities, and images, rather than detaching them from each other and analysing them individually.

I mention this pressure for singularity and extreme clarity in the meaning of terms in large part because this pressure can produce a secondary impulse towards theological univocity when interpreting the statements 'the κεφαλή of woman is man' and 'the κεφαλή of Christ is God'. Where this impulse exists, a far closer relation between the headship of God with respect to Christ and the headship of the man with respect to the woman may be drawn than would have been drawn otherwise.

I have been persuaded by Andrew Perriman and others (including Gregory Dawes and Anthony Thiselton) that, in the metaphorical uses of the term under consideration, κεφαλή does not mean 'one in authority over' or 'source', but refers to 'the dimension of visibility, prominence, eminence, social superiority' (Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul, 33). Of course, in many of the instances of the use of the term, authority over may be contextually connoted, but this is not what the term itself actually means.

Even were we to take the description of the relationship between 'Christ' and God in 1 Corinthians 11:3 to apply to the eternal relations of the Trinity, this recognition may unsettle the ESS case at this juncture. Rather than claiming that the Father has 'authority over' the Son in the Trinity, it might be making a weaker claim about the priority of the Father, as the 'first person' of the Trinity, the one of whom the Son is begotten and from whom the Spirit proceeds.

This shift in translation/interpretation may suggest further changes in our understanding of the relationships being discussed. When κεφαλή is interpreted as 'one in authority (over)' it typically functions as a polarizing term, setting one party over against the other in each of the pairings in 1 Corinthians 11:3: one party exercises authority over the other, who responds with submission. For instance, 'the κεφαλή of every man is Christ' would mean that Christ hierarchically exercises authority over every man. However, slightly shift the meaning of κεφαλή and suddenly, rather than place Christ over against every man, Christ may be set forth as the one preeminent among us: the firstborn of many brethren, the firstborn from the dead, the one Man who works on our behalf, the one who represents us in human flesh in the heavenly places, the one in whose name and power we act.

Although it is not my intention to explore this point here, it should also be noted that such a change may have important implications for the way that we conceive biblical teaching concerning relations between man and woman.

There is still undoubtedly an authority involved, but this change is a very significant one: κεφαλή becomes a term describing an empowering union, not just a hierarchical relation. The temptation to read 1 Corinthians 11:3 in terms of a chain of hierarchies is a real one. However, this temptation, as Francis Watson has observed, is challenged even by the ordering of the text itself, which disrupts any such chain by listing the pairings out of expected sequence.

In my next post, I will continue to reflect upon 1 Corinthians 11:3 and some of the other texts under discussion.
Posted November 22, 2016 @ 8:08 AM by Alastair Roberts

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