When women pray and prophesy in the assembly, they must do so with some sign that signifies their authority to do so. In other words, something must tell the congregation, “This woman speaking in public is not throwing off her role as the glory of man. She is still in submission to her husband (if she has one), and therefore has authority to speak.” Maybe this symbol is a wedding ring, or the way she dresses, or taking her husband’s last name (in some cultures), or a well-known demeanor of gentleness and respect.
Q: What does it mean that the husband is the head of his wife?
A: 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 (1 Cor.11:3).
Verse 3 outlines a series of overlapping relationships: “The head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Anyone familiar with the scholarship on this issue knows that the little word “head” (kephale) has killed a lot of trees. Scholars, using their expertise in Greek and the latest computer software, have gone back and forth in articles and books arguing whether kephale means “authority over” or “source” (like the head of a river is its source). Others have argued that the word means “prominent,” “preeminent” or “foremost.” In the end, the context suggests that kephale in verse 3 must have something to do with authority. Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner are right:
Even if by “head” Paul means “more prominent/preeminent partner” or (less likely) “one through whom the other exists,” his language and the flow of the argument seem to reflect an assumed hierarchy through which glory and shame flow upward from those with lower status to those above them. In this context the word almost certainly refers to one with authority over the other.1
Furthermore, we have other examples in Paul’s writings where kephale must mean something like “authority over.” In Ephesians 1, Paul says that Christ has been seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and all things have been placed under his feet, and he has been made head (kephale) over all things to the church (Eph. 1:20–22). The context demands that kephale refer to Christ’s authority over the church, not merely that the church has its origin in Christ. Likewise, in Ephesians 5 Paul says wives are to submit to their husbands, for the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church (Eph. 5:22–23). Citing the headship of the husband as a reason for the wife’s submission makes little sense if headship implies only source or origin without any reference to male leadership. Kephale, in at least these two instances in Ephesians, must mean “authority over.” And there are no grammatical or contextual reasons to think that Paul is using kephale in a different way in 1 Corinthians 11.
Therefore, we should understand 1 Corinthians 11:3 as saying that Christ has authority over mankind; the husband has authority over his wife (the Greek words for man and woman are the same for husband and wife); and God has authority over Christ. Thus, we have male and female—equal and interdependent (1 Cor. 11:11–12)—relating to one another within a differentiated order.
In previous years, some complementarians made too much of the fact that Paul relates the husband-wife relationship to the headship of God over Christ. To be sure, there is an important point to be made from the God-Christ parallel in verse 3—namely, that headship does not imply ontological inferiority. To have authority over someone—to be head of another—is not inconsistent with equality of worth, honor, and essence. But even here we should be careful to note that there is an “economic” expression of the Son in view in verse 3 (“Christ”), not an immanent or ontological expression (e.g., “Son”). We should not use the Trinity “as our model” for the marriage relationship, both because it is not necessary for complementarianism to be true and because the metaphysical inner workings of the ineffable Trinity do not readily allow for easy lifestyle applications. In fact, it is striking how the New Testament often grounds ethical imperatives in the gospel (e.g., marriage as an outworking of Christ and the church), but never in the eternal “ordering” of God.
If we are talking about the economic Trinity—the activity of God and the work of the three persons in creation and redemption—we can certainly say that the Son acts from the Father, while the Father does not act from the Son. There is an eternal ordering (taxis) of the Trinity that finds expression in time. And yet the language of the eternal subordination of the Son is not the best language to describe this order, nor do we ever see in Nicene tradition that the persons of the Trinity are distinguished by a relationship of authority and submission. Traditionally, the way in which the persons of the Godhead have been distinguished—and technically, they are distinct (which suggests three hypostases) not different (which would suggest another ousia)—is not by roles or by eternal relations of authority and submission, but by paternity, filiation, and spiration. To put it another way, the Father is the Father (and not the Son or the Spirit), the Son is the Son (and not the Father or the Spirit), and the Spirit is the Spirit (and not the Father or the Son) by virtue of the Father’s unbegottenness as Father, the Son’s generation from the Father, and the Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son.