Headship: What Does Kephale Have To Do With Anything?


Weird word right? It’s Greek, in fact, it is the Koine Greek of the New Testament.

This one little strange word causes some serious disagreements about Biblical husband/wife relationships.

Kephale is used in the New Testament when referring to God and the Church and husbands and wives. You might be asking yourself, “So what? What’s that got to do with me?” Well, I’m glad you asked. 🙂 This word actually has great importance to you. How you translate kephale can greatly impact how you view God’s relationship with the Church and marriage roles as designed by God. So let’s do a warp speed review of kephale and the Bible!

What are some of the different interpretation regarding kephale?

Since 1954 when Stephan Bedale’s 1954 article, ‘The Meaning of Kephale in the Pauline Epistles,’ varying opinions have been held on what exactly the word means in certain passages, for example in 1 Cor. 11:3 and Eph. 5:23. Some believe ‘head’ means ‘authority over’ or ‘rule,’ while others maintain that it regularly has the sense of ‘source’ in the New Testament.

Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty (All We’re Meant to Be) say, “Kephale is used almost synonymously with arche, ‘beginning,’ somewhat similar to our use of ‘the headwaters of a river’ or ‘fountain head.’ “Thus, when Ephesians 5:23 says “Christ is the head of the church, his body,” it means that He is the church’s “lifegiver.” And when Colossians 2:10 calls Christ “the head of all rule and authority,” Scanzoni and Hardesty say, ‘“Head’ here obviously means ‘source.’ “Similarly, “Christ’s headship over the church refers to his being the source of its life.”

Richard and Joyce Boldrey (Chauvinist or Feminist? Paul’s View of Women) also support this interpretation by saying of 1 Corinthians 11, “When Paul spoke of woman’s head being the man, he was emphasizing man’s temporal priority and woman’s derivation from him.”

These authors represent what is called the Evangelical feminism/egalitarian perspective. So what evidence do they have to support this meaning of kephale? Firstly, they cite no legitimate evidence from ancient Greek literature or English-Greek lexicons. It not listed as a meaning for kephale in the standard lexicon for New Testament Greek by W. Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker or in any of the older New Testament lexicons. The only lexicon it was listed as a possible sub-meaning was in the Liddell-Scott lexicon for classical Greek, not the Koine Greek of the New Testament. In that lexicon, it was listed as: In plural, source of a river, Herodotus 4.91 (but singular, mouth; generally, source, origin.) Interestingly enough, the editor later said, after seeing Wayne Grudem’s research, “The supposed sense ‘source’ of course does not exist and it was at least unwise of Liddell and Scott to mention the word.” So Evanglical Feminists have to misconstrue the text and search out weak sources to support their view.

On the other end of the argument, Wayne Grudem, in his 1985 article (Does Kephale (Head) Mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples) examined 2,336 instances of the use of the word from the eighth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. In 2,004 of those instances, kephale refers to the physical head in contrast to the rest of the body. Of the different occurrences, 49 examples hold the meaning of “head” in the sense of a “ruler” or “one having authority over” someone else: 12 in the New Testament, 13 in the Septuagint, 5 from other Greek Old Testament translations, 2 from Herodotus, 1 from Plato, 1 from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, 7 from Plutarch, 5 from Philo, 1 from the Apostolic Fathers, 1 from the Greek Anthology, and 1 from Libanius. None of these instances use “source” as its meaning. The sources used by Grudem are recognized throughout the Academic realm as solid sources.

So what does all this research have to do with Scripture?

Let’s take a look at the passages that are disputed the most with kephale. These are the main passages dealing with Christ:

Ephesians 1:22“He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all
things for the church.” Here God the Father made Christ the authority over all things for the
sake of and the benefit of the church.”

Ephesians 4:15“We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied,
when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.”

Colossians 1:18: “He is the head of the body, the church.” Here Paul, in emphasizing the
great superiority of Christ, reminds his readers that Christ is the exalted authority over the

Colossians 2:10: “And you have come to fullness of life in him, who is the head of all
rule and authority.” Here Paul emphasizes that Christ is the authority over not only the
church, but over all rulers and authorities, over all powers in the universe.

These passages all reveal Christ’s headship over the church. Christ rules over the church, and His authority, direction and guidance are the reasons the whole Church body even works properly, continues in spiritual growth and sharpens each other with love. We need Christ’s authority over us for us to function in His will and to be obedient. If Christ was just the ‘source’ of the Church, there would be no submission to Him because we would have no one to answer to, only someone we derived from. There has to be a sense of organization and hierarchy within relationships. If there are not different role distinctions, functions get confusing.

Imagine a grandmother and a granddaughter together. If that granddaughter didn’t know who was to lead her, then she might lead the grandmother maybe even act disrespectfully to her because she would not have any honor for the role her grandmother plays. She would not submit to her grandmother’s authoritative role.

On the other hand, the grandmother’s role over the granddaughter is to lead her, guide her, love and care for her. The grandmother sacrifices herself for her granddaughter to make her life better. She is in authority over the grandchild but in no way superior to her. They just have different roles.

Here are the main passages dealing with kephale and marriage roles/relationships:

1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

Ephesians 5:22–24: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.”

In 1 Cor. 11:3, the point of this passage and of kephale is to show that man is a leader and guide for his wife. Paul is showing the creation order and how that correlates to our relationships and behavior today. Women are to honor Christ and their husbands through submissive attitudes and behavior. Man answers to his authority, Christ, and woman willingly submits to man and Christ as those in authority over her.

But couldn’t this kephale mean ‘source’ though? James Hurley (Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective) argues that the sense of “source” is impossible in 1 Cor.11:3:

“However we try to construct the parallels in the sense of ‘source’ there is an impossible result: Eve was physically taken out of Adam but we cannot say that every man was physically taken out of Christ. But if we say that God the Father was the creator of the human nature of Christ, then must we say that Adam was the creator of the human nature of Eve? Or if we say that God the Father gives the economic distinction of sonship to the Son, then must we say that Adam gives a distinct personality to Eve, or a man to a woman generally?”

This applies to the Ephesians passage, as well. If kephale meant ‘source’ here, that would mean that women derive their life from men. Wives do not exist because of their husbands. Just because men are the head of women does not mean that we are subordinate to them. Christ is not subordinate to God but He does voluntarily subject Himself to God. As Christ has a different function within the Trinity but is still equal with God, men and women are equal in essence but perform different functions. Role differences do not imply inequality and inferiority, just as Christ’s willful obedience to the Father’s headship does not imply His inferiority.

Paul is indicating in this passage (Eph. 1:22; 5:23-24), through the use of “head,” that the husband is the head of his wife and Christ is the head and authority of the Church. These two concepts given in the same chapter explain one another: wives submit to their husband’s authority, just as the Church submits to Christ’s authority because Christ is in authority over them. God designed wives to follow their husband’s loving leadership and husbands are to genuinely love their wives, care for them, and give themselves up for them, as Christ did for the Church (Eph. 5:25). This is what God intended for a true partnership in marriage. This is His perfect design with man as the authority of woman and Christ as the authority of man and the Church.

God did not do this to the Church and women to demean them, this was and is for their best. God takes care of us and that’s why He put man as the head of us, so we will be led and cared for by godly men as we help and willingly submit to them. God’s designs are always perfect and His will is perfect. It does not always make sense to human intelligence but, God’s thoughts are so much higher than the earthly thoughts of humans. That’s why He’s God and we’re human. Let us obey our perfect and gracious Savior and His plans set out for us in Scripture.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” ~Romans 11:33-34

—–If you would like to read more in-depth information on this topic, I suggest the following articles that can be found online:

Wayne Grudem– “Does (“Head”) Mean “Source” Or “Authority Over” in Greek Literature?”

——-“The Meaning Source “Does Not Exist”: Liddell-Scott Editor Rejects Egalitarian Interpretation of “Head” (Kephale)”

——- “The Meaning of Kephale (“Head”): A Response to Recent Studies

8 thoughts on “Headship: What Does Kephale Have To Do With Anything?

  1. Hey!
    This is a wonderful article. Simple and so insightful. Used it for my research project on Complementarianism and Egalitarianism.
    Thank you

  2. I don’t know which interpretation of kephale is correct, but I will say this: I see no reason why a woman needs to be under the authority of a man. Man is too imperfect himself and this only sets a woman up for abuse. I could never marry a man who accepts the doctrine of male headship. I don’t believe a man can see me as his inferior and love me at the same time. This is a oxymoron. It is an illogical, impossible premise. If husbands have all this authority, then a man’s relationship to his wife and to his daughter are pretty much the same, except for the sexual relationship that would exist with his spouse. This is confusing and really sort of creepy to me. Also, if husbands have all this authority, they must enforce that authority somehow. The only to enforce it is to abuse the wife. Studies show that women in egalitarian marriages are much happier than women in hierarchical, traditional marriages. In egalitarian marriages, 82% of women are happy, while only 18% of women are happy in traditional marriages. I also believe that most men in traditional churches are more attacted to the “permission” this doctrine gives them to abuse women than they are to the teachings of Christ.

    • Hi LOLA,
      Thanks for your comment. The reason we believe that the husband has a leadership position in the marriage is because we believe God intended it to mirror His relationship to the Church. In Eph. 5:22-33, it says that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. Does this picture get distorted and husbands abuse their wives? Absolutely. That’s because of man’s sin, not because of a flaw in God’s design for marriage. On the other end, the picture is distorted when a wife is nagging, controlling and does not respect her husband. She is then distorting the picture of the Church’s role to Christ.

      Christ is the authority over the church and loves her at the same time. Does Christ ever abuse the church? No. He leads the church and loves her at the same time, which is exactly what a husband supposed to mirror to his wife. Our marriage roles are important because they give the world a picture of the Gospel and without these roles the Gospel gets changed and distorted. (Eph. 5:22-33; Ti.2:3-10)

      I would recommend the following articles about this topic that might help clear up the issues on submission and what a man’s leadership/love is supposed to look like in marriage:

      The Myths of Submission

      The Truths of Submission

      More Than a Feeling: How Husbands Should Love Their Wives

      When A Man Loves a Woman

      Hope these help!

  3. Hello,

    I have been studying these Biblical doctrines for years and I am unable to make any sense out of them.
    Isn’t it strange that God would want marriage to mirror the relationship between Christ and the Church? Why? A perfect Savior should have authority over the church (we are inferior to Christ), but why should an imperfect human man have authority over a human woman? It sort of suggests that man is perfect and woman is not. The teaching that women are inferior to men is so misogynistic me. I think the Bible should be retranslated by 21st century linguists who are not so patriarchical in their outlook about women.
    Also, while it is possible for a woman to submit to her husband, it is impossible for a man to love his wife like Christ loved Church. So the whole hierarchical marital relationship fails right at this point.
    It is also impossible for a man to love you and degrade you at the same time.
    It is a shame that women like me, who find the doctrine of Christ in itself believable, must reject Christianity based on the unfair and inferior treatment of women. I just don’t believe a holy God would author such sexist doctrines and treat women like second-class citizens just to mirror the relationship between Christ and the Church.

    • LOLA
      Thanks for your reply! I believe why God chooses to design marriage that way and not explaining His choice is His prerogative. But just because we wouldn’t have chosen it doesn’t make it wrong on God’s part. His ways are higher than our ways and we can never know the mind of God (Isa. 40:13;55:8-9;Rom. 11:24;1 Cor. 2:11-16). That being said, I have not read any where in the Bible that men are superior and women are inferior. I personally have read that we are both equal in Christ (Gal. 3:28) and both made in the image of God (Gen.1:27). Jesus was also an advocate for women, ministering, encouraging, and teaching them alongside the men at a time when they weren’t supposed to have an education or know the Bible. Proverbs 31 also shows that godly women should be praised and valued by their children and husband. (Prov. 31:28-31) Is there a verse that you can point me to that states women are inferior to men?

      You’re right that it is impossible for a man to love his wife like Christ loved the Church because Christ’s love for the Church is perfect and He never fails us. But just because we cannot remain perfect at an act does not mean we shouldn’t strive for it. A child will never perfectly obey his/her parents but he/she should still strive to obey them; this does not mean that the parent/child relationship fails because one party cannot perfectly fulfill his/her role. We can never be exactly like Christ, that’s why He’s the sinless Jesus Christ and we’re flawed humans, but we are commanded to still strive to live in holiness, as He was holy (1 Pet. 1:16). My husband will fail me and I will fail him because we are both sinners who need to forgive each other and we should both strive to live out our lives and marriage in holiness.

      In regards to the Bible being retranslated by 21st century linguists; the Holman Christian Standard (2004), English Standard Version (2001), New Living Translation (2004,2007) are among those that have been translated in the 21st century. I highly recommend all three.

      I see that you have said that you have investigated biblical doctrines but not believed in Jesus. I want you to know that these marriage roles as given in the Bible are not something that I expect from the world, but rather people who have been transformed by Christ and are committed followers of him. It’s true that there has been abuse and unfair treatment towards women in the world by people of all religions and cultures, but Christ does not ever command this nor condone it. It is sin to treat women as second-class citizens. We are co-heirs in Christ with men and should be treated as equal co-image bearers. There are men who treat their sisters in Christ as their equals and value and respect them as such because they are doing what Christ asks of them in the Bible, but there are also men who are not showing Christ-like love to women; this should not be a reflection on Christ but on that man’s sinful heart. Christ is not the problem, but that man’s heart and actions are.

      If a man is degrading his wife, he is definitely not loving her and definitely not following God’s commands to husbands to love their wives. This is not a flaw in God’s plan or design but a reflection of the flaw in that man’s heart who needs to repent from that sin. If a parent teaches their child that they should treat their classmates with kindness but the child begins to bully a classmate, does that mean that the parent is at fault and should be punished because of the child’s sin and disobedience? I think you’re looking at the flaws of humans and how humans have disobeyed the Bible and mistaking their failed attempts at following the Bible for a flaw in Christianity or in God’s plan for humanity.

  4. Hello,

    There are so many verses that teach the inferiority of women that I don’t think I could keep count.
    Here are some from the Old Test: Leviticus 27:3-7,(women worth about 1/2-2/3 as much as men,

    Leviticus 12: women are unclean longer after giving birth to a girl).

    Deuteronomy 22:28-29 – a man must marry a woman he rapes.

    There are others, but these are my favorites.

    New Test: 1 Timothy 2:11-12 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.
    1 Corinthians 11:3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (This is where the meaning of kephale is debated)
    1 Corinthians 14:34-35
    Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
    1 Peter 3:1 Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands.
    Titus 2:4-5 Teach the young women to be … obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.
    Ephesians 5:22-24 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.

    These passages clearly teach a woman is inferior. There is no reason why a woman should be under a man’s authority or leadership. Women function just fine without men. Women have gained more rights since the mid 20th century and we have proven we don’t need men to take care of us.

    In Biblical marriage, women have no personal autonomy and no rights, but men do. We have to follow orders and get permission to do what we want. So, we are always under the control of the man. The man is free to do whatever he wants. Many Bible believers, not all, believe women are confined to cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Women are not permitted to pursue talents, dreams, interests,etc.

    I really don’t see how an authority/submission type of marriage is a perfect design. Egalitarian marriages work much better. The empirical studies prove that.

  5. Pingback: What is the cornerstone of your homeschool? - Life Led Homeschool

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