Women in Ministry, Part 5 – Headship

As we start into an analysis of some of the New Testament passages regarding women in ministry, I feel like Josiah Bartlett in season 6 of the West Wing. The President is negotiating a peace deal with Israeli and Palestinian representatives, but won’t address the only real issue that matters in the discussion till the end of the negotiations when the sides have made real progress. The issue, what to do about Jerusalem, was the most critical, and also the most difficult.

This is where we sit right now in our discussion of women in ministry after finishing our discussion of the prerequisites (Post 4 here). I have laid out a foundation for understanding the role of women without prejudice, and highlighted the unity of man and woman in the Garden, but if we are going to conclude that God wants women to have equal access to church leadership as men, our most difficult discussions are just starting. There are 3 key texts that we have to examine to see what God says about: headship, teaching, and eldership/deacon-hood which are the leadership offices found in the New Testament church.

Headship is the idea that God created man as the “head” or leader of his woman. Passages in I Corinthians 11:2-15 and I Timothy 2:11-15 are going to need to be dealt with to understand headship, if it is a thing, and what we can conclude about it. The role of women teaching/preaching in the church is addressed primarily in I Corinthians 14:34-35 and I Timothy 2:11-15, and will be the second set of verses we look at. Lastly, I Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9 will need to be discussed in relation to eldership & deacon-hood and if they are allowable for women. These posts will probably longer than the others, and I will probably have to leave some areas uncovered or just gloss over  them due to the complexity of the issues. I am more than happy to discuss anything unclear.

The first question we will look at is the idea of my headship, is it really a thing? At the outset, let me say that I am not going to look at Ephesians 5:23 or I Peter 3:1 because those in context, are about husband and wife relationships. That is on the periphery of what we are talking about here, but lest anyone be concerned that I am dodging them, I am not. If there are any questions about how those tie in, I would be glad to address them in the future.

One of the most difficult genres to translate in the Bible is the epistle type (apocolyptic is the most difficult in my estimation). In addition to understanding all of the things we need to know for other types of literature (time, date, author, reason for writing, cultural understanding, language) there is also the variable of not knowing the exact situation or questions that the author is addressing. More often then not, the author assumes we know the immediate context of their writing, and doesn’t lay it out for the reader. The recipients knew the context but we do not, and much of that knowledge is lost to history. Understanding just what the author means becomes even more difficult in these cases, so again, deriving principles is more our goal than deriving direct practice. Much of what the early church did was due to their culture.

I Corinthians 11:2-16

Staring with I Corinthians 11:2-16 we see the Apostle Paul addressing the topic of proper “attire” at gatherings of the church, especially when women pray or prophesies. He says this to start his discussion: “But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” There is more “For a man should not have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 In any case, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman. But all things come from God.” 

This is considered one of the most difficult passages to translate in all of Scripture because there are so many unknowns (what is this covering business, what is the type of cover because veil is not mentioned in this text, what in the world is a women’s authority especially if she to be under the leader of a man, etc…), and Paul’s argument is so complicated and difficult to understand in our modern context (below is a PDF with a detailed exegesis of the passage). We also do not really know the make up of people that Paul is writing to (Greek, Roman, Hebrew), which is critical to knowing just how “covering the head” would be viewed culturally. Much of that is ancillary to our concern here, but know that this passage is quite complex. The main argument in regards to women in ministry rests primarily in I Corinthians 11:2, 7-9, starting with verse 2: what does Paul mean by “man is the head of  woman” which is bracketed by “Christ is the head of man” and “God is head of Christ.” Paul uses the word “head” (Greek κεφαλή) in both literal and metaphorical senses in this passage, but in verse 2 Paul is obviously using κεφαλή metaphorically.  Now this answer is very easy in English and quite possibly in Hebrew thought: head means leader. However, this is not always (or mostly) true in Greek thought in this time period. It isn’t till much later that the semantic range (what a word can mean) included “leader” or “ruler” as the primary meaning of this word. In Greek, the metaphorical use of this word can mean (or possibly should mean in this time period) “source,” though it has been pointed out in recently scholarship that both meanings can be used faithfully in this text. This is where the uncertainty of knowing who Paul was writing to impacts our understanding of the timeless principle. If Paul is writing to Hebrews, he is more likely establish a creation order argument, if he is writing to Greeks he more likely means source.

If Paul means “source” the argument changes from the idea of creation order, to one of interdependence based on sexual compatibility. I won’t cover the progression here (see the PDF) because its a bit complicated; but there is enough evidence in the exegesis to throw significant doubt on the idea that Paul wants man to consider himself the ruler of woman.

I Timothy 2:11-16

We will deal with this passage more fully when we get to the discussion of women teaching or preaching in the local church, but Paul also appeals to Genesis 2 and 3 when he discusses Adam and Eve to buttress his point about women teaching in Ephesus (where Timothy was). Paul said “For Adam was formed first and then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression.” This again appears to appeal to creation order at the outset of our analysis. The problem is that concluding that without properly understanding the purpose and situation in Ephesus is problematic. Paul stated his purpose in writing this letter to Timothy 1:3-7: he wrote to combat false teaching. It seems that women were the ones spreading the false teaching (4:3, 5:11-15), and that the false teaching was centered around the idea that woman was created first and having children was no longer necessary. Studies of Ephesus push this Gnostic idea pretty close to the time of writing (but not quite to the time of writing), make it a real possibility that Paul wrote this section specifically to address this heresy. In that case, the argument Paul makes is not necessarily arguing for creation order, but for a proper understanding of God’s creation and the necessity of reproduction. Man was created first, woman was created second. Men and women should continue to have children because it is not sinful. Paul uses Eve to illustrate exactly what the Ephesian women are doing – they were deceived and are deceiving others. This idea is how we can make some sense of 2:15 which is quite difficult to understand in context otherwise (no Complementarian believes women are saved by having kids). While this can not be proven (yet – if archeology and cultural study of Ephesus may yet yield this information conclusively), it is a very real possibility that takes into account the cultural, context, and addresses all the context issues the best. It isn’t perfect, but no exegesis of this passage is.


When we originally looked at Genesis 1-3, I said that we couldn’t derive headship from the immediate context and we had to reserve judgement until we looked at some relevant New Testament passages. After looking at these passages I believe that there is no way to conclude with certainty that Paul is interpreting Genesis to impose headship. I also think it is impossible to rule that conclusion out. This means to me that we are left to take headship as a gray area, where there is no biblical mandate requiring us to believe it. My conclusion is that headship is not in line with the idea of Genesis 1:27 – man and woman were made in the image of God, both sexes carry that image. Neither sex is intrinsically superior in leadership (there are great male and female leaders, deal with it), or designed to rule. While earlier cultures have been highly patriarchal, that tradition should not impact our application of God’s Word. One text that is usually used to highlight this truth is Galatians 3:28, Paul tells his readers that there are no longer distinctions between groups (slave/free, Jew/Greek, and man/woman). In context, this discussion about salvation, all people are equal in the site of God at the foot of the cross. It is disingenuous not to apply that same principle of equality in all areas of life if in the most important topic of human experience, we are all the same. If there was clear reasons (and not presuppositions) to see an established rule of men over women, that would be a different story, however; that is not what we have.

This is just one piece of the women in ministry puzzle, and possibly the least important for our systematic theology of the role of women in ministry. While I believe Complementarians have to hold to headship, I do not believe they do so because of the idea of the superiority of men (though I am sure there are misogynists among them). I believe they hold to it because it is the key point that buttresses their conclusion on the next topic we will look at. Without it, the restrictive Complementarian argument has very little support in application.  Next time we are going to examine whether women should be allowed to teach and preach in the local church, and if so, what restrictions should be placed on them.

As always, I am open to questions or further discussions!


One thought on “Women in Ministry, Part 5 – Headship

  1. Pingback: Women in Ministry, Part 6 – Women Should Be Silent | The Irreverent Theologian

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