Our final stop in our analysis of the head metaphor, before returning to the household codes, is 1 Corinthians 11:3. But before we dive headfirst into this passage I want to step back and put this in a broader context.
I wrote earlier in this series about the circumstances at Corinth and I won’t recapitulate that here. The main thing I want to remind us of is that Paul wrote in response to a letter from the church at Corinth but he says that in addressing questions from their letter he is also addressing the whole church (1:2). Corinth was one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse cities of the Empire and by addressing Corinth he was in a sense addressing the diverse Roman Empire.
A second characteristic of this letter that I want to remind us of is that this letter falls into the category of the "concord speech" where the orator calls upon everyone in the polis to live according to their station in life, respecting the hierarchies, thus bearing the fruit of harmony and concord. Corinth is in conflict but Paul, instead of appealing for respect to hierarchies, appeals to them to be brothers (unranked in status and showing mutual care) “…united in one mind and the same purpose.” (1:10)
That said, many scholars who have studied 1 Corinthians have found it disjointed. Unlike Romans, with its systematic linear construction of theological arguments, this letter seems to flitter from topic to topic, sometimes revisiting themes and issues it as already addressed. Kenneth Bailey, using a literary analysis shows that the letter seems disjointed to us because we are trying to read the letter like modern Westerners. Unlike Paul’s other letters, this letter is not written in a linear fashion. It is a chiasmus that contains many smaller chiasmi within it. Five discourses make up the larger chiasmus:
A Cross and Christian Unity 1:1-7:24
B Theology of Human Sexuality 7:25-39
C Christian and Pagan 8:1-11:1
B’ Man and Women, and Order in Worship 11:2-14:40
A’ Resurrection 15:1-58
Personal Notes 16:1-24
Bailey also detects a general pattern within each of the five discourses that goes something like this (taken from his lectures 1 Corinthians: A Middle Eastern View):
A Reference to tradition or a creed
B A problem stated negatively
C A theology that solves the problem
B’ A return to the problem in a positive light
A’ Personal appeal to do as Paul says, to imitate him, or some such exhortation
It is the fourth discourse that concerns us here. It is about men and women, and orderly worship. It runs from 1 Corinthians 11:2-14:40, and is structured as a seven part chiasmus:
Men and women in worship 11:2-16
Disorder in worship 11:17-34
Spiritual Gifts 12:1-31
Spiritual Gifts 14:1-25
Disorder in Worship 14:26-33a
Men and women in worship 14:33b-40
Rather than building to a conclusion at the end, the focal point is the passage at the center of the inversion. Thus, 11:2-3 comes at the very start of this discourse that has as its central concern the other-centered love articulated in the often quoted chapter 13. Paul begins his discourse:
2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband (or man) is the head of his wife (woman), and God is the head of Christ. (11:2-3, NRSV.)
(The Greek words for “husband/wife” can also mean “man/woman” depending on context. I suspect that “man/woman” is intended based on the following verses.)
Here is the appeal to tradition that begins the discourse. He commends them because they maintain the traditions but he is especially concerned here that they remember the tradition/creed he is offering in verse 3. Verse 3 was apparently part of a creed from the early church. But the critical issue for us here is what does the metaphor “head” mean in this passage? Unlike nearly all of the other passages, which use “head” as a metaphor in conjunction with the image of a body, the passage merely says that someone is the head of someone else. (Eph. 1:22-23, 4:15-16, 5:22-23, Col. 1:18, 2:18-19. The exceptions are 1 Peter 2:7, which is dealing with the “head” of a building, and Col. 2:10 where preeminence and highest status is the intended meaning.)
A frequently offered interpretation is that Paul is teaching about a chain of command.
God > Son > Man > Woman
However, if you look more closely at verse 3, you will see that the three “head” dyads are out of order for a hierarchical chain. (B-C-A) Either the third dyad needs to move to the front of the list so we can descend down the hierarchy (A-B-C) , or the second dyad needs to move to the front so that we can ascend the hierarchy (C-B-A). Furthermore, as we have seen, “head” is used to symbolize Christ’s preeminence above other authorities and powers but not to symbolize the quality or action of “ruling someone.” It has the meaning of becoming organically connected to a body that then shares its status of being head over the authorities and powers. Life-giving source is a possibility here but how would "man" be the life-giving source to "woman?"
My Conclusion is that the best synonym for the “head” metaphor here 1 Corinthians is “origin.” Gordon Fee, analyzing Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary (d. c. 444) on 1 Corinthians 11:3, writes:
“The earliest extant consistent interpretation of the metaphor in this passage is to be found in a younger contemporary of Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444?), who explicitly interprets in terms of the Greek metaphor: “Thus we can say that ‘the head of every man is Christ.’ For he was made by [dia] him … as God; ‘but the head of the women is the man,’ because she was taken out of his flesh…. Likewise ‘the head of Christ is God,’ because he is of him [ex autou] by nature” (Ad Arcadiam et Marinam 5.6). That is, as with Chrysostom’s understanding of the two pairs (God-Christ, Christ-man), Cyril is ready to go this way with all three pairs because of what is said in verse 8: that the woman was created from the man. Not only was the idea that the head is the source of supply and support for all the body’s systems a natural metaphor in the Greek world, but in this case it also supported Cyril’s Christological concern (not to have Christ “under” God in a hierarchy), just as it did for Chrysostom.” (From “Praying and Prophesying in the Assemblies” in Discovering Biblical Equality. 151.)
A slightly different understanding would be that Christ was at creation and man originated from him. Man was created first and woman originated out of man. Christ is the new Adam or the new man. Being sent into the world by God, Christ originated in God.
What is interesting is that this creed largely disappears from the following conversation except as a general illustration for why it is important to honor heads. The third dyad “God is the head of Christ” is not mentioned again and verses 11-12 seemingly reverses everything in verse 3, making God the source of all. So what is the connection between verse 3 and what follows?
Kenneth Bailey explains it this way. You and I, living in the West, are prone to have identity crises. Few people in the ancient Middle East had an identity crisis. Why? Because they knew their origin. They knew what family they belonged to; They knew what clan their family belonged to; They knew what tribe their clan belonged to; And they knew what people group their tribe belonged to. Everyone else knew this about you and you knew this about others. In this honor and shame culture, whatever honor or shame you brought on yourself you brought on your family, clan, tribe, and people group. The “head” of your family, clan, tribe, and people group, - the one that gave it origin - was thus honored or shamed by your actions. Thus, honoring the “head” of these groupings was a way of showing solidarity and unity with the whole grouping. Dishonoring the “head” was a sign of contempt and disunity for the whole community.
We are now ready to turn to the rest of this passage which will enrich our understanding of verse 3.