I taught 1 Corinthians 11:3 this morning in my New Testament Survey class at Boyce College. One student asked what implications a text like this one has on our thinking about the presidential election. If the Bible teaches male headship, should a Christian vote for a female running for president? I want to share how I answered that question, but before doing that I should stipulate that what follows should not be construed as an endorsement or non-endorsement vis a vis the current candidates for president. I should also stipulate that the Bible has much more to say on this question than is contained in a single verse. Still, it is instructive to think through what this text means and how it might relate to our thinking about our democratic stewardship. Here’s the text:
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. –1 Corinthians 11:3
One thing that is clear in this text is that “head” refers to a relation of authority (cf. Eph. 1:22; 5:23; Col. 2:10, also see BDAG). Thus to say that “Christ is the head of every man” is the same as saying that Christ is the authority over every man. Likewise, to say that the man is the “head” of the woman is to say that man is the authority over the woman.
But we must add two important clarifications at this point. First, while Christ is said to be the head of “every” man, man is not said to be the head of “every” woman. One reason for that is because Paul intends “man” and “woman” in this context to refer specifically to “husband” and “wife.” The Greek words for “man/woman” are the same terms used for “husband/wife.” Thus many translations make clear that the marriage relationship is in view: “The head of a wife is her husband” (cf. ESV, RSV, NRSV, NAB).
So Paul is not talking about the relation of every man to every woman but of the husband’s and wife’s specific covenant obligations to one another (cf. Eph. 5:22). The husband is the leader in the home, and the wife is to affirm and follow that leadership. The relation between husband and wife in the home has implications for public worship when the church gathers, which is what the rest of the passage fleshes out (1 Cor. 4-15).
Second, the headship language establishes an analogy not an identity. In other words, Christ’s headship over the man is analogous to the husband’s headship in marriage, but they are not the same in every respect. They are both alike and unlike. The key to understanding the analogy is to discover the points of correspondence and not to press the analogy further than Paul intends.
The narrow point of analogy here is that there is a leader in both of these relationships. It would press the analogy beyond Paul’s intent to observe Christ’s absolute authority over every man and then to conclude that a husband has absolute authority over the wife. The husband is not like Christ in every respect, so neither is his authority like Christ’s in every respect. Christ is sinless, perfect, and all-powerful deity. No husband can say the same of himself.
That is why, for example, no husband can claim the authority to lead his wife into sin or to require her to submit to abuse. His authority is delegated to him by God, and he is not free to do with it as he wishes. He is free to be servant of the Most High God in his leadership in the home. While it is always wrong to resist Christ’s authority, it is not always wrong to resist human authorities. Indeed, sometimes it is our duty to resist them (e.g., Acts 5:29). So there is analogy between Christ’s headship and a husband’s headship, but not identity.
The text speaks first of Christ’s headship, then the husband’s headship, and then finally God’s headship. Why is God’s headship over Christ mentioned last? Before answering this question, it is important to note that “God” (Gk. theos) is the term Paul typically uses to refer to God the Father (e.g. Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3). This means that within the Trinitarian economy, God the Father is the authority over Christ. Christ himself refers to this relation when he says things like, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38). Why is this intra-trinitarian relation mentioned last? I think Tom Schreiner’s answer to this question is correct:
I think Paul added the headship of God over Christ right after asserting the headship of man over woman in order to teach that the authority of man over woman does not imply the inferiority of women or the superiority of men. Some Corinthians may have concluded that the headship of man over woman diminished woman’s worth. Paul anticipates this objection and adds that God is the head over Christ. And even though God (i.e., the Father) is the head over Christ, He is not essentially greater than Christ. So too, even though women are under men’s authority, they are not essentially inferior (Tom Schreiner, “Head Coverings, Prophecies and the Trinity,” p. 130).
To sum up: The husband’s leadership in the home is analogous to Christ’s authority over every man. The husband, therefore, should think of his own headship as loving, benevolent, and sacrificial leadership in the home (Eph. 5:25). And he should remember that his leadership in no way implies the inferiority of his wife. The husband and wife are equally created in God’s image and therefore have equal value and dignity. In Christ, husband and wife are co-heirs of the grace of life even as they have different roles in the covenant of marriage (1 Peter 1:7).
So how does all of this relate to the question that my student asked me in class? Does the headship principle rule out voting for a woman running for president? Here’s my answer:
First, this text addresses the way that husbands and wives relate to one another in the covenant of marriage. Because the covenant of marriage places certain obligations on husbands and wives, that order must be reflected when husbands and wives gather together for worship with the church. That means that this text is defining the way things should be within the home and within the church. It is not giving explicit instruction about how men and women relate generally outside of those two spheres. Any application outside those two spheres would have to come by way of implication, not by way of explicit instruction.
Second, it is true that Paul is dealing with principles that are rooted in the order of creation (see 1 Cor. 11:4-12). But the wider implication of that principle has less to do with headship than with gender presentation. Because gender differences are grounded in the creational order, men and women should never dress or behave in ways that blur the distinction between male and female. Certainly, this norm is required within the covenant community, but by implication it would also be required outside the covenant community (cf. Deut. 22:5). One application, therefore, is that Paul would oppose the normalization of transgender identities.
Third, while complementarians agree that the headship principle must be observed within marriage and within the church, there is no complementarian consensus on whether or how the headship principle applies outside those two spheres. Here are two examples to illustrate this complementarian counterpoint. On the one hand, John Piper has argued that the creation order means that women should not run for president, even though wise Christians may indeed vote for a woman for president. On the other hand, Russell Moore has argued that we should not expect or require secular authorities to reflect kingdom order. That order belongs to the church alone.
I tend to agree with Moore about our expectations for secular authorities, and I agree with Piper that wise Christians may sometimes choose to vote for female political leaders. Indeed both men end up agreeing that it is permissible to vote for female political leaders. It does not necessarily undermine what the Bible teaches about manhood and womanhood to do so.