What Does “Head” (Kephalē) Mean in Paul’s Letters? Part 4: Early Church Fathers

Preston Sprinkle

Introduction

We turn now to what I think will be my final survey of how kephalē is used in Greek literature outside the New Testament. The body of literature we’ll be looking at—early Church Fathers (ca. AD 100-400)—is different from the ones in the previous posts, since these writers are actually drawing upon the New Testament. In other word, the following texts aren’t early sources of Paul’s linguistic world, nor are they potential sources Paul might be drawing upon; rather, they offer ancient interpretations of Paul, which includes how they understood the word kephalē

For the sake of space, I’ll skip all the introductory stuff about what kephalē can mean or what I think it means in the LXX and Greek literature outside of the Bible. (See the previous three posts HERE, HERE, and HERE.) But I do need to give few quick caveats before we jump in. 

First, by way of reminder, in these posts I’m trying to build my understanding what Paul meant when he said “the head of the woman is man” (1 Cor 11:3; cf. Eph 5:23) from the ground up. That is, I want to understand what Paul meant by the words he said in his own context, which requires me to gain a historic understanding of the Greek word kephalē—among many other things—likely meant to both Paul and his readers. As a Christian and servant of the church, I’m deeply interested in practical questions related to women in church leadership today; as a Bible scholar and exegete, I’m deeply interested in what the biblical text originally meant to both its authors and readers. And I want the latter to drive the former, not the other way around. 

Second, I’m not an expert in the early church fathers, so if any of you are, I’d love feedback on how I’m understanding the passages below. In light of this, I’ll do my best to cite larger chunks of most of the texts in question, so that we can all see the broader context where kephalē occurs. 

Third, I do not claim to have covered every single non-literal use of kephalē in the early fathers. I’m drawing from several scholarly studies and the texts they cite, and I think I’ve covered most of the relevant ones. But if you know of any important passage I’m missing, I’d love to know in the comment section below.

Fourth, speaking of scholars, it is interesting how different—and sometimes quite sweeping—the scholarly conclusions are. Regarding how the fathers used kephalē, egalitarian scholar Catherine Kroeger says that the “church fathers argued vehemently that for Paul head had meant ‘source’.”1 Kroeger, “Head,” in the first edition of DPL; cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 44. Philip Payne likewise argues that “Church fathers overwhelmingly interpret ‘man is the head of woman’ and the other two kephalē occurrences in 1 Cor 11:3 to mean source, not authority, even though they teach elsewhere that women are inferior and subordinate to men.” 2 Payne, “Forthcoming,” 2. 

Wayne Grudem, of course, holds to an opposite view, pointing out that there is absence of the meaning “source” for kephalē in Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon, “the standard lexicon for this material, in the entry for kephalē.3Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 40. And Grudem’s extensive study of the early fathers argues in support for kephalē most often meaning “authority over, leader.”4Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’).”

Passages Used to Support “Source”

One of the most frequently cited passages in support of “source” comes Cyril of Alexandria (AD 376-444): 

De Recte Fide ad Pulch. 2.3, 268
[T]he one of the earth and dust has become (gegonen) to us the first head of the race, that is source/ruler (archē) but since the second Adam has been named Christ, he was placed as head (kephalē), that is source/ruler (toutestin archē) of those who through him are being transformed unto him into incorruption through sanctification by the Sprit. Therefore he on the one had is our source/ruler (archē), that is head, in so far as he has appeared as a man, indeed, he, being by nature God, has a head, the Father in heaven. For, being by nature God the Word, he has been begotten from Him. But that the head signifies the source/ruler (archē), the fact that the husband is said to be the head of the wife confirms the sense for the truth of doubters for she has been taken from him (elephthē gar ex autou). Therefore one Christ and Son and Lord, the one having as head the Father in heaven, being God by nature, became for us a ‘head’ accordingly because of his kinship according to the flesh.5Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 38).

I’ve listed two different possible translations for archē (“source/ruler”), since both are possible, even though scholars don’t often mention this. They usually just translate it one way or another (“ruler” or “source”) depending on their respective understandings of kephalē as either “ruler” or “source.” Payne, for instance, assumes that archē means “source” here and therefore argues that:  

Cyril’s apposition, “the archē of man, the Creator God’, clearly explains what God as Creator is the source of man” that that “[t]he same meaning ‘source’ is required for kephalē by the immediately following, ‘Thus we say that “the kephalē of every man is Christ,” for man was made through him and brought into existence’.”6“Forthcoming,” 3 (emphasis original).

Wayne Grudem actually agrees with Payne here (it does happen from time to time) that “source” is possible, but that “this is still not an instance of ‘source’ apart from authority.”7Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 38. Grudem supports this by pointing to other passages where the idea of woman being created out of man is evidence of her subordination; therefore, the idea that kephalē could mean “source and not authority” would not have been recognized by the fathers. 

For instance, Grudem points to Clement of Alexandria who cites 1 Corinthians 11:3 and splices it together with 1 Corinthians 11:8, where the woman was created out of man:

The Stromata 4:8 (ANF 2, 420)
“For I would have you to know,” says the apostle, “that the head (kephalē) of every man is Christ; and the headof the woman is the man [1 Cor 11:3]: for the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man” [1 Cor 11:8].

Clement immediately leaves the topic of “head” but returns to it several paragraphs later, when he says: 

The ruling power is therefore the head (kephalē). And if “the Lord is head of the man, and the man is head of the woman,” the man, “being the image and glory of God, is lord of the woman.” Wherefore also in the Epistle to the Ephesians it is written, “Subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife…”

At least for Clement of Alexandria, it seems that when kephalē is used to describe man as the “source” of woman, his use of kephalē doesn’t exclude notions of authority. Or according to Grudem, “the man has ruling authority over the woman because she was taken from him. Clement of Alexandria is simply connecting 1 Cor 11:3 with 1 Cor 11:8, and seeing one as the reason supporting the other.”8Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 40.

I think Grudem’s point is well taken for Clement of Alexandria. But I’m nervous jumping so quickly to interpret Cyril’s words via Clement’s, unless we see evidence within the writings of Cyril that he used kephalē to mean “source” and“authority.” I very well could have missed it (and please let me know if I have!), but I have not seen Cyril use kephalē to mean “authority.” 

In fact, in another passage, Cyril again understands kephalē to mean “source” (or “beginning”): 

Cyril of Alexandria, De Recte Fide ad Arcadiam 1 1 5 5(2) 63
“But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.” The blessed Luke, composing for us the genealogy of Christ, begins (archetai) from Joseph, then he comes to Adam, soon speaking of God, placing as the beginning/source (archē) of man the God who made him. Thus we say Christ is the head of every man, for man was made through him and he was brought to birth, the Son not creating him in a servile way, but more divinely, as in the nature for workman“But the headof a woman is the man,” for she was taken out of his flesh, and she has him even as (her) beginning/source (archē). And similarly, the head of Christ is God,” for he is from him according to nature for the Word was begotten out of God the Father. Then how is Christ not God, the one of whom the Father, according to (his) nature, has been placed as head?’ Whenever I might say Christ appeared in the form of man, I understand the Word of God” (cited in Grudem, JETS 2001, 41). 

This is another passage that Payne and others take to refer clearly to “source.”9Payne argues: “Cyril’s apposition, ‘the archē of man, the Creator God’, clearly explains that God as Creator is the source of man. The same meaning ‘source’ is required for kephalē by the immediately following,’ Thus we say that ‘the kephalē of every man is Christ’, for man was made through him and brought into existence’” (“Forthcoming,” 3) and I think this is a better interpretation than “authority over, leader.” More precisely, I think something like “beginning” is probably a more accurate meaning, though “source” and “beginning” seem to overlap in meaning. Payne doesn’t seem to appreciate the various possible meanings of archē; he simply translates it as “source” and uses this as evidence that “[t]he same meaning ‘source’ is required for kephalē.”10“Forthcoming,” 3 The Greek word archē, however, is notoriously polysemous (it can mean “source,” “beginning,” “ruler,” among other things) and I do think “beginning” is probably the better translation of archēhere. Archē could mean “ruler,” though I don’t think that’s the best translation here. In short, kephalē means something like “beginning” here without conveying any clear notions of “authority” or “rulership.”11 Grudem says that kephalēprobably means “beginning” here; “namely, the point from which something stated.” But he then says that “someone might argue for the sense ‘source, origin’, but the sense of ‘authority’ would fit as well” (“The Meaning of Kephalē(‘Head’),” 41).

Another passage where kephalē is taken to mean “source” comes from Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. AD 350-428): 

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3
This he wishes to say that, on the one hand, we move forward from Christ to God, out of whom he is, but on the other hand from man to Christ (apo de tou Andros epi ton Christon) for we are out of him according to the second form of existence. For on the one hand, being subject to suffering, we consider Adam to be head (kephalē), from whom we have taken existence. But on the other hand, not being subject to suffering, we consider Christ to be head (kephalē), from whom we have an unsuffering existence. Similarly, he says, also from woman to man (kai apo tes gunaikos epi ton andra), since she has taken existence from him.12Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 42-43.

This seems to be another clear instance where kephalē means “source.” But did Theodore believe that “source” excluded all notions of “authority?” A few lines later, Theodore appeals to 1 Corinthians 11:7-8 (where Paul refers to the woman being created out of man) in a way very similar to Clement of Alexandria’s quote above, where the man’s “source” of the woman is the reason for his “authority” over his wife:

He calls the woman “glory” but surely not “image,” because it applied faintly, since “glory” looks at obedience but “image” looks at rulership (eis to archikon). 

Theodore takes “glory” to signify the woman’s obedience to man and “image” to refer to the man’s “rulership.” This statement is important, not simply because it occurs in the context of his previous comment on 1 Corinthians 11:3, but precisely because it teases out his theological understanding of what “source” means. I think Payne is correct that Theodore’s “three repetitions of the phrases ‘from whom’ and ‘received existence’ explain each instance of kephalē to mean the source,” but Payne doesn’t mention Theodore’s later understanding of what source means according to his comments on 1 Corinthians 11:3. In short, I think this text might be a case where kephalē means “source” and “authority.” 

On at least two occasions, Athanasius refers to Arian creeds that use kephalē in a non-literal sense: 

Athanasius, Anathema 26, MPG 26, 740B
Whoever shall say that the Son is without beginning and ingenerate, as if speaking of two unbegun and two ingenerate, and making two Gods, be he anathema. For the Son is the Head, namely the source/beginning/ruler (archē) of all and God is the head, namely the beginning/source/ruler (archē) of Christ, for thus to one unbegun source/beginning/ruler (archē) of the universe do we religiously refer all things through the Son.13Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 38; see also Payne, “Forthcoming,” 55 for a different translation and interpretation.

 Athanasius Syn. Armin. 26.3.35
…the Son to have been generated before ages, and in no wise to be ingenerate himself like the Father, but to have the Father who generated him as his source/beginning/ruler (archē)— “the head (kephalē) of Christ is God.”14Cited in Payne, “Forthcoming,” 5.

Payne lists these two texts as further evidence that kephalē means source (and again, he assumes that archē means “source” here). But given the ambiguity of archē and the fact that these are Arian creeds and not Athanasius’ own words makes me hesitant using these two passages to help us understand how the early fathers understood kephalē. As for Athanasius himself, I only know of one other place where he uses kephalē in a non-literal sense. He refers to “the bishops of illustrious cities” as “the heads (kephaloi) of great churches,” which seems to point clearly to their authoritative leadership over those churches.15Athanasius, Apol II contra Aranos 89, PG 25 409A; see Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 38; Fitzmyer, “Kephalē in 1 Corinthians,” 56.

Payne appeals to a passage from Eusebius as proof that “[m]any church fathers…explain that each instance of ‘head’ in 1 Cor. 11:3 means ‘source’:”16The Bible Vs. Biblical Womanhood, 54; cf. Payne, “Forthcoming,” 6.

Eusebius, Eccl Theol 1 11 2-3
And the great apostle teaches that the head of the Son himself is God, but [the head] of the church is the Son. How is he saying, on the one hand, “the head of Christ is God,” but on the other hand saying concerning the Son, “and he gave him to be head over all things for the church, which is his body?” Is it not therefore that he may be leader(archēgos) and head (kephalē) of the church, but of him [the head] is the Father. Thus there is one God the Father of the only Son, and there is one head, even of Christ himself. But if there is one source/beginning/ruler (archē) and head, how then could there be two Gods? Is he not one alone, the one above whom no one is higher, neither does he claim any other cause of himself, but he has acquired the familial, unbegun, unbegotten deity from the monarchial authority (tes monarchikes exousias), and he has given to the Son his own divinity and life, who through him caused all things to exist, who sends him, who appoint him, who commands, who teaches, who commits all things to him, who glorifies him, who exalts (him), who declares him king of all, who has committed all judgment to him.17Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 43-44.

Payne cites his passage as clear proof that kephalē means “source.” But I don’t see this interpretation to be as clear as Payne does. For one, Payne leaves off the final part of the paragraph that I’ve underlined (beginning with “who sends him…”). This seems curious to me, since this section describes what certainly appears to be the Father’s authority or leadership over the Son. (This should not be taken to imply some kind of ontological subordination of the Son, but a relationship of mutual love, where the Son freely submits to and obeys the Father as one who is ontologically equal). But even in the section Payne does cite, I find it hard to interpret kephalē in such a way that excludes all notions of “authority” or “leadership.” Eusebius seems to assume the Father’s authority over the Son, while defending this notion against the heresy that such authority implies ontological subordination. I think Grudem is probably closer to the mark when he says that “this quotation from Eusebius shows that the Father as ‘head’ has supreme authority, and that his authority over the Son is seen in many actions: he sends the Son, he appoints him, he commands him, he teaches him, commits all judgment to him, and so forth.”18Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 44.

There’s one final text that scholars cite as evidence that the church fathers interpreted kephalē to mean “source.” 

Photius, Comm. 1 Cor. 11:3 (AD 9th Cent.)
On the one hand, the head of us who believe is Christ, as we are members of the same body and fellow partakers with him, having been begotten through the fellowship of his body and blood: for through him we all, having been called ‘one body’, have him as head. ‘But the head of Christ is God’ even the father, as a begeter and originator and one of the same nature as him. ‘And the head of the woman is the man’, for he also exists as her begetter and originator and one of the same nature as her. The analogy is suitable and fits together. But if you might understand the ‘of every man’ [1 Cor 11:3] also to mean over the unbelievers, according to the word of the creation this (meaning) only is allowed: For having yielded to the man to reign over the others, he allowed him to remain under his own unique authority and rule (auton hupo ten idian monon eiase menein exousian kai archēn) not having established over him another ruler and supreme authority.”19Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 51.

Payne cites this passage as proof that “many church fathers” interpreted kephalē to mean “source” and not “leader, authority over.”20The Bible Vs. Biblical Womanhood, 54 The late Catherine Kroeger also cites this passage as one of many Classical Greek sources that use kephalē to mean “source.”21Kroeger, “Head,” in the first edition of the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. I have two main problems with both of these conclusions. First, Photius is writing in the 9th century; he’s neither an early church father nor writing anywhere near the classical era.22Grudem has pointed this out and Kroeger responded by saying that Photius was also a lexicographer who studied Greek literature from a much earlier period, so his understanding is important. (Payne simply lists Photius as one of several “church fathers,” citing Kroeger’s article in support.) Grudem, however, points out that the quote from Photius is in one of his commentaries, not his lexicon, so it’s misleading to cite him as evidence for a much earlier undresanding of kephalē (see Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 54. He’s so far removed from Paul’s time that whatever he thought about kephalē shouldn’t be considered valid evidence for how Paul might have used the word. 

Second, if you look at the latter part of the passage, it seems clear that Photius did not understand kepahle to mean “source” and not “authority.” But both Kroeger and Payne leave off the underlined portions of this quote when they cite it as evidence for their view, which feels suspicious to me, since the portion they leave off goes directly against their interpretive conclusions. 

In sum, from my vantage point, the first two passages from Cyril of Alexandria are the only texts where kephalē means “source” with no clear sense of “authority over, leader.” Other passages do interpret kephalē to mean “source,” but the larger context suggests that the authors did not see this as excluding notions of authority or leadership. 

Kephalē as Authority Over, Leader

We’ve already cited Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata 4:8), who said “the head is the leading (to hegemonikon) part,” which conveys the idea of “authority.” Are there other church fathers who do the same? 

In describing the teaching of the Gnostics, 2nd century Irenaeus writes:

Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5 3(ANF 1, 322-323) [PG 7 496]
They go on to say that the Demiurge imagined that he created all these things of himself, while in reality he made them in conjunction with the productive power of Achamoth…They further affirm that his mother originated this opinion in his mind, because she desired to bring him forth possessed of such a character that he should be the head and source/beginning/ruler of his own essence (kephalēn men kai archēn tes idias ousias), and the absolute ruler (kurios) over every kind of operation [that was afterwards attempted]. This mother they call Ogdoad, Sophia, Terra.23Quoted in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 50.

From my vantage point, this one is difficult to sort out. Once again, kephalē occurs in close relationship to the ambiguous word archē and is followed by a reference to “absolute ruler (kurios).” Do these terms help further define kephalē as “authority over?” Or are they used alongside kephalē, which should be taken to mean something other than “authority over?” I do lean toward the former, that the context is ripe with notions of “authority” and that these notions contribute to our understanding of kephalē here. But I hold this interpretation rather loosely. 

A much clearer example, to my mind, comes in Basil the Great’s homily on Psalm 28:

Basil the Great of Caesarea, In Psalmum 28 (homilia 2), MPG 30 80
“And the beloved is as the son of unicorns” [LXX Ps 28:6b]. After opposing powers are raised up, then love for the Lord will appear plainly, and his strength will become evident, when no one casts a shadow over those in his presence. Therefore he says, after the [statement about] beating “the beloved will be as the son of unicorns.” But a unicorn is a royal (archikos) animal, not made subject to man, his strength unconquerable (anupotakton anthropoten iskun akatamaxeton) always living in desert places, trusting in his one horn. Therefore the unconquerable nature of the Lord is likened to a unicorn, both because of his rule (archē) upon everything, and because he has one ruler (archē) of himself, the Father for “the head (kephalē) of Christ is God”.24Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 42.

The reference to “unicorns” is based on a mistranslation of the LXX and need not concern us. In any case, Basil associates “the unconquerable nature of the unicorn…to the supreme rule of Christ over everything” and cites the Father’s headship over Christ (from 1 Cor. 11:3) as correlating to Christ’s “rule (archē) upon everything.” I do think that “rule/ruler” is the best rendering of archē in this passage.25So also Grudem: “…it is significant that for Basil ‘the head of Christ is God’ meant ‘the ruler over Christ is God’, and the word archē meant ‘ruler’ when it was used as a synonym for kephalē” (Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 42. And if this is correct, then kephalē also means “ruler.” 

Again, framing it this way does not imply ontological subordination, nor does it demand something like the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. Rather, in the words of the so-called “Macrostich creed of Antioch” cited by Athanasius: “…the Father alone being head over the whole universe wholly, and over the Son himself, and the Son subordinated to the Father, but ruling over all things (apart from the Father) [in second place] after him through whom they have come into existence.”26Athanasius, De synodis 26, cited in Bray, “The Eternal ‘Subordination’ of the Son?” 56-57.

The Macrostich Creed earlier says: “we acknowledge that the Father who alone is unbegun and ingenerate, has generated inconceivably and incomprehensibly to all; and that the Son has been generated before ages, and in no wise to be ingenerate Himself like the Father, but to have the Father who generated Him as His beginning; for ‘the head of Christ is God’ (1 Corinthians 11:3).” This passage seems to clearly understand kephalē to mean “beginning” or “source,” though in my brief survey of scholarly literature, I have not found a contemporary writer who interacts with this passage. I very well could have missed it, but I’m inclined to chalk this one up as a rather clear understanding of kephalē to mean “beginning” or “source.” 

A similar connection between archē and kephalē comes in a passage in Eusebius: 

Eusebius, Eccl. Theol. 2 7 1 
…but fear, O man, lest having confessed two substances, you would bring in two rulers/beginnings/sources (archē) and would fall from the monarchial deity? Learn then thus, since there is one unbegun and unbegotten God, and since the Son has been begotten from him, there will be one ruler/beginning/source (archē), and one monarchy and kingdom, since even the Son himself claims his Father as ruler/beginning/source (archē): ‘for the head (kephalē) of Christ is God’, according to the apostle.

Grudem has a one-line commentary on this passage: “Again, Eusebius explains ‘the head of Christ is God’ to imply that God the Father has supreme authority, and the Son is not another authority equal to him.”27Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 44. Grudem might be right, but his interpretation does depend on archē meaning “ruler” rather than “source” or “beginning.” to my mind, the ambiguity of archē feels more pronounced. Since Eusebius says “the Son has been begotten from him, there will be one archē,” this seems to suggest that archē does mean “source” or “beginning.” But I think it’s difficult to say for sure. 

As far as I can tell, John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) gives us one of the more detailed discussions on the meaning of kephalē in one of his homilies on 1 Corinthians. I do think this passage has been misunderstood by some scholars, so I’ll walk through a large portion of this text chunk by chunk so you can see the entire context:28The following text is translated by Talbot W. Chambers. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 12. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889).

Homily 26 on 1 Corinthians
“But the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” Here the heretics rush upon us with a certain declaration of inferiority, which out of these words they contrive against the Son. But they stumble against themselves. For if the man be the head of the woman, and the head be of the same substance with the body, and the head of Christ is God, the Son is of the same substance with the Father. 

Chrysostom is commenting on 1 Corinthians 11:3 and responding to Arian heretics who say this text shows that the Son is not of the same divine essence as the Father. He goes on to say: 

“Nay,” say they, “it is not His being of another substance which we intend to show from hence, but that He is under subjection.” What then are we to say to this? 

So, the heretics, according to Chrysostom, seek to show that if Christ is “under subjection” to the Father, then this must mean that he’s ontologically inferior to the Father. Chrysostom will go on to argue that wives submit to their husbands and yet they are ontologically equal to their husbands. This provides the logic that both the Son and wives can submit to the Father and their husbands respectively and this does not mean that they are ontologically inferior. Chrysostom says: 

In the first place, when anything lowly is said of him conjoined as He is with the Flesh, there is no disparagement of the Godhead in what is said, the Economy admitting the expression. However, tell me how you intend to prove this from the passage? Why, as the man governs the wife, says he, so also the Father, Christ. Therefore also as Christ governs the man, so likewise the Father, the Son. For the head of every man, we read, is Christ. 

And who could ever admit this? For if the superiority of the Son compared with us, be the measure of the Father’s compared with the Son, consider to what meanness you will bring Him. So that we must not try all things by like measure in respect of ourselves and of God, though the language used concerning them be similar; but we must assign to God a certain appropriate excellency, and so great as belongs to God. For should they not grant this, many absurdities will follow. As thus;the head of Christ is God: and, Christ is the head of the man, and he of the woman. Therefore if we choose to take the term, head, in the like sense in all the clauses, the Son will be as far removed from the Father as we are from Him. Nay, and the woman will be as far removed from us as we are from the Word of God. And what the Son is to the Father, this both we are to the Son and the woman again to the man.

As far as I can tell, Chrysostom is granting the premise of his opponents, that the relationship between the Father and Son correlates with the husband and the wife. We should notice that if Chrysostom understood kephalē to mean “source” with no sense of “authority over, leader,” he could have nipped the whole debate in the bud. But he doesn’t. He agrees that “head” means “authority” but will go on to show why this does not imply ontological subordination. He continues: 

And who will endure this? But do you understand the term head differently in the case of the man and the woman, from what thou dost in the case of Christ? Therefore in the case of the Father and the Son, must we understand it differently also. How understand it differently? says the objector. According to the occasion. For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection, as you say, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master. 

This is a key statement. Chrysostom is wrestling with two different understandings of “rule and subjection.” One is between a “slave and a master,” which implies inferiority. Another, however, is between “husband and wife,” where the wife still submits to her husband but such submission is as an ontological equal. Chrysostom says: 

For what if the wife be under subjection to us? It is as a wife, as free, as equal in honor. And the Son also, though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God, it was as God…For if we admire the Son that He was obedient so as to come even unto death, and the death of the cross, and reckon this the great wonder concerning Him; we ought to admire the Father also, that He begot such a son, not as a slave under command, but as free, yielding obedience and giving counsel. For the counsellor is no slave. But again, when you hear of a counsellor, do not understand it as though the Father were in need, but that the Son has the same honor with Him that begot Him. Do not therefore strain the example of the man and the woman to all particulars.

Chrysostom will go on to interact with 1 Timothy 2, Ephesians 5, and other passages that discuss male/female relations, where the wife is called to submit, but not because she’s ontologically inferior. I highly encourage the reader to read the whole homily, which is available for free HERE. As far as I understand Chrysostom, he’s arguing that neither the Son’s submission to the Father nor the wife’s submission to her husband—both of which are implied in the use of kephalē in 1 Corinthians 11:3—imply ontological subordination.29I think Catherine Kroeger misunderstands Chrysostom’s argument, when she says: “In view of Scripture ascribing coequality of Christ with the Father…John Chrysostom declared that only a heretic would understand Paul’s use of ‘head’ to mean ‘chief’ or ‘authority over’. Rather one should understand the term as implying ‘absolute oneness and cause and primal source’ (PG 61 214, 216)” (“Head” in DPL, 377). See Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 26-27, for a scathing rebuttal. Grudem points out: “Chrysostom uses kephalē to say that one person is the ‘head’ of another in at least six different relationships: (1) God is the ‘head’ of Christ; (2) Christ is the ‘head’ of the church; (3) the husband is the ‘head’ of the wife; (4) Christ is the ‘head’ of all things; (5) church leaders are the ‘head’ of the church; and (6) a woman is the ‘head’ of her maidservant. In all six cases, he uses language of rulership and authority to explain the role of the ‘head’, and uses language of submission and obedience to describe the role of the ‘body’. Far from claiming that ‘only a heretic’ would use kephalē to mean ‘authority over’, Chrysostom repeatedly uses it that way himself” (Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē [‘Head’],” 33-34). But his entire discussion assumes that kephalē conveys some sense of “authority,” not simply “source.”

In any case, there are several other places where Chrysostom uses kephalē to mean “authority over, leader.” For instance: 

Chrysostom, Homily 5 on 1-2 Thessalonians
Thou art the head of the woman, let then the head regulate the rest of the body. Dost thou not see that it is not so much above the rest of the body in situation, as in forethought, directing like a steersman the whole of it? For in the head are the eyes both of the body, and of the soul. Hence flows to them both the faculty of seeing, and the power of directing. And the rest of the body is appointed for service, but this is set to command. All the sense have thence their origin and their source. Thence are sent forth the organs of speech, the power of seeing, and of smelling, and all touch. For thence is derived the root of the nerves and of the bones. Seest thou not that it is superior in forethought more than in honor? So let us rule the womenlet us surpass themnot by seeking greater honor from them, but by their being more benefited by us.30 Quoted in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē(‘Head’),” 2001, 56. Grudem in response to Kroeger: “The words missing from her quotation disprove the point she is trying to make.” “Both at the beginning and the end of this quotation Chrysostom makes explicit the parallel with the husband’s governing role as ‘head’ meaning ‘one in authority’” (Ibid., 56).

Catherine Kroeger cites this passage as proof that kephalē means “source,” but I’ve underlined the portions of the text that she left out of her quotation. They happen to be the same portions that suggest—or, definitely show?—that Chrysostom understands kephalē to include some sense of authority. 

There are other passages where Chrysostom seems to convey ideas of both “prominence” and “authority” when he uses the term kephalē. For instance: speaking of the emperor he says: “For the king is the summit and head of all men on earth.”31John Chrysostom, Ad populum antiochenum 2 2, PG 49 36. See Fitzmyer, “1 Corinthians 11:3,” 56, who says this reference supports the translation of “ruler, leader, authority over.” Of the city of Antioch, he says: “Of all the cities that lie in the East our city is the head and mother.”32John Chrysostom, Ad populum antiochenum 3 1. Prominence seems to be the main point, but it’s hard to read this as not also conveying some sense of authority as well. In several different homilies where Chrysostom interacts with passages that include kephalē (Eph. 5:23, etc.), he seems to understand the word to convey “authority:”

Homily 20 on Ephesians
Then after saying, The husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is of the Church, he further adds, and He is the Saviour of the body. For indeed the head is the saving health of the body. He had already laid down beforehand for man and wife, the ground and provision of their love, assigning to each their proper place, to the one that of authority and forethought, to the other that of submission. As then the Church, that is, both husbands and wives, is subject unto Christ, so also ye wives submit yourselves to your husbands, as unto God. 

Chrysostom understands “head” to mean “the saving health of the body,” which, it seems, includes some sense of “authority” as the rest of the section suggests. 

Homily 3 on Ephesians
“And gave Him to be Head over all things to the Church.” Amazing again, whither has He raised the Church? As though he were lifting it up by some engine, he has raised it up to a vast height, and set it on yonder throne; for where the Head is, there is the body also. There is no interval to separate between the Head and the body; for were there a separation, then were it no longer a body, then were it no longer a head. Over all things, he says. What is meant by over all things? He has suffered neither Angel nor Archangel nor any other being to be above Him. But not only in this way has He honored us, in exalting that which is of ourselves, but also in that He has prepared the whole race in common to follow Him, to cling to Him, to accompany His train. 

Head here seems to convey the exalted position of Christ (based on Eph. 1:21-22) and the church, by virtue of being Christ’s body. Does this exalted position convey authority? It doesn’t seem that this is the point that Chrysostom draws out from kephalē, so it’s probably best to say he’s only thinking of the exalted and honorable position of Christ and his body (i.e. the church).

Grudem also lists Chrysostom’s Homily 6 on Ephesians and Homily 15 on Ephesians as texts that use kephalē to mean “authority,” but after reading through both homilies I couldn’t find any occurrence of the word along these lines.33See Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 28-31. (I simply could have missed it.) 

For the sake of space, I’ll only mention a few other places where early fathers seem to use kephalē to mean “authority over, leader.” 

  • Gregory of Nyssa (Encomium in Sanctum Stephanum 2 46, PG 46 733) refers to: “Peter, the head of the apostles, is recalled and with him the rest of the members of the church are glorified.”34See Fitzmyer, “1 Corinthians 11:3,” 56.
  • Pseudo-Chrysostom (In Psalmum 50, PG 55 581) similarly says: “Did not that pillar of the church [Peter], that foundation of faith, that head of the chorus of the apostles, deny Christ once and twice and thrice?” 
  • Tertullian, Marc. 5 8 (in Latin not Greek): “‘The head of every man is Christ’. What Christ, if he is not the author of man? The head here he has put for authority, now “authority” will accrue to none else than the ‘author’.”35The Five Books Against Marcion, book 5, chap 8, ANF vol. 3, p. 445, cited in Grudem “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 50. Kroeger lists this as one of many pieces of evidence that kephalē meant “source” in Classical Greek (??). Grudem points out that this text is neither classical nor Greek, nor does “head” mean source here.
  • Shepherd of Hermas, Similitudes 7:3: Though the author is not considered a “church father,” it was a significant early church text. In this passage, the husband is called “the head of your household” in a way that suggests authority.36Fitzmyer says “authority over, ruler” (“1 Corinthians 11:3,” 55). Perrimann says that “nothing is found in the context to suggest that the expression denotes his authority rather than simply his position sociologically defined” (“The Head of a Woman,” 610). False dichotomy? Wouldn’t the “sociologically defined” nature behind the “head of a household” including some kind of authority and rule?
  • Greek Anthology 8.19 (Epigram of Gregory of Nazianzus, 4th cent. AD). Similar to the previous text, Gregory is called “head of a wife and three children.”

Summary 

My lack of expertise in this material prevents me from making any strong conclusions. So—tentatively—as I read through the relevant texts, it appears that several church fathers understood the head metaphor in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23 to convey some sense of authority. We do see at least one writer (e.g. Cyril of Alexandria) and apparently one creed (The Macrostich Creed) which understands kephalē to mean “source” without any clear notions of “authority,” while others understand kephalē to mean “source” but as grounds for “authority” (Clement of Alexandria; Theodore of Mopsuestia). Other authors (e.g. Chrysostom; Basil the Great; possibly Irenaeus) seem to understand kephalē as “authority” with or without some sense of “prominence” as well. Several passages are complicated by the correlation between kephalē and archē —the latter term itself being ambiguous. 

In as much as I’m reading this material correctly, I’ll offer a few thoughts in conclusion. First, as the previous two posts have shown, it was not unheard of for kephalē to be used to convey some sense of “authority” in Greek literature, including the LXX. The early fathers were working within this linguistic world, so it should not be shocking to find some passages where they too understand kephalē in the Pauline texts to also mean “authority.” Second, I think we should be sensitive to the early church’s view of women, which did not always affirm their full (social or ontological) equality. I don’t think they would have any hesitation affirming that wives should submit to their husbands or that husbands are the “head” of the household—that is, exercising leadership and authority over their family. Determining whether they derived this perspective from Scripture, or absorbed it from their culture, is above my pay grade. Third, I do think the early church’s perspective on what Paul meant when he used the term kephalē is a limited value. Not no value; certainly, writers much closer to the time period and culture of Paul are important witnesses to his thought. But I do think my pervious point should temper how much weight we put on the fathers in understanding the New Testament’s radically high view of women in the face of a profoundly misogynistic culture (both Greco-Roman and Jewish). At the risk of what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery”—thinking the ideas of the ancients were far inferior to us moderns who have it all figured out—I’m typically under-impressed whenever I read the early father’s view of male and female relations. Not simply because I think they fall short of a modern, western vision of equality, but because I think they underappreciate how much Jesus and the apostles challenged misogynistic cultural norms.


  • 1
    Kroeger, “Head,” in the first edition of DPL; cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 44.
  • 2
    Payne, “Forthcoming,” 2.
  • 3
    Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 40.
  • 4
    Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’).”
  • 5
    Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 38).
  • 6
    “Forthcoming,” 3 (emphasis original).
  • 7
    Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 38.
  • 8
    Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 40.
  • 9
    Payne argues: “Cyril’s apposition, ‘the archē of man, the Creator God’, clearly explains that God as Creator is the source of man. The same meaning ‘source’ is required for kephalē by the immediately following,’ Thus we say that ‘the kephalē of every man is Christ’, for man was made through him and brought into existence’” (“Forthcoming,” 3)
  • 10
    “Forthcoming,” 3
  • 11
     Grudem says that kephalēprobably means “beginning” here; “namely, the point from which something stated.” But he then says that “someone might argue for the sense ‘source, origin’, but the sense of ‘authority’ would fit as well” (“The Meaning of Kephalē(‘Head’),” 41).
  • 12
    Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 42-43.
  • 13
    Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 38; see also Payne, “Forthcoming,” 55 for a different translation and interpretation.
  • 14
    Cited in Payne, “Forthcoming,” 5.
  • 15
    Athanasius, Apol II contra Aranos 89, PG 25 409A; see Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 38; Fitzmyer, “Kephalē in 1 Corinthians,” 56.
  • 16
    The Bible Vs. Biblical Womanhood, 54; cf. Payne, “Forthcoming,” 6.
  • 17
    Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 43-44.
  • 18
    Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 44.
  • 19
    Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 51.
  • 20
    The Bible Vs. Biblical Womanhood, 54
  • 21
    Kroeger, “Head,” in the first edition of the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.
  • 22
    Grudem has pointed this out and Kroeger responded by saying that Photius was also a lexicographer who studied Greek literature from a much earlier period, so his understanding is important. (Payne simply lists Photius as one of several “church fathers,” citing Kroeger’s article in support.) Grudem, however, points out that the quote from Photius is in one of his commentaries, not his lexicon, so it’s misleading to cite him as evidence for a much earlier undresanding of kephalē (see Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 54.
  • 23
    Quoted in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 50.
  • 24
    Cited in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 42.
  • 25
    So also Grudem: “…it is significant that for Basil ‘the head of Christ is God’ meant ‘the ruler over Christ is God’, and the word archē meant ‘ruler’ when it was used as a synonym for kephalē” (Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 42.
  • 26
    Athanasius, De synodis 26, cited in Bray, “The Eternal ‘Subordination’ of the Son?” 56-57.
  • 27
    Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 44.
  • 28
    The following text is translated by Talbot W. Chambers. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 12. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889).
  • 29
    I think Catherine Kroeger misunderstands Chrysostom’s argument, when she says: “In view of Scripture ascribing coequality of Christ with the Father…John Chrysostom declared that only a heretic would understand Paul’s use of ‘head’ to mean ‘chief’ or ‘authority over’. Rather one should understand the term as implying ‘absolute oneness and cause and primal source’ (PG 61 214, 216)” (“Head” in DPL, 377). See Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 26-27, for a scathing rebuttal. Grudem points out: “Chrysostom uses kephalē to say that one person is the ‘head’ of another in at least six different relationships: (1) God is the ‘head’ of Christ; (2) Christ is the ‘head’ of the church; (3) the husband is the ‘head’ of the wife; (4) Christ is the ‘head’ of all things; (5) church leaders are the ‘head’ of the church; and (6) a woman is the ‘head’ of her maidservant. In all six cases, he uses language of rulership and authority to explain the role of the ‘head’, and uses language of submission and obedience to describe the role of the ‘body’. Far from claiming that ‘only a heretic’ would use kephalē to mean ‘authority over’, Chrysostom repeatedly uses it that way himself” (Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē [‘Head’],” 33-34).
  • 30
    Quoted in Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē(‘Head’),” 2001, 56. Grudem in response to Kroeger: “The words missing from her quotation disprove the point she is trying to make.” “Both at the beginning and the end of this quotation Chrysostom makes explicit the parallel with the husband’s governing role as ‘head’ meaning ‘one in authority’” (Ibid., 56).
  • 31
    John Chrysostom, Ad populum antiochenum 2 2, PG 49 36. See Fitzmyer, “1 Corinthians 11:3,” 56, who says this reference supports the translation of “ruler, leader, authority over.”
  • 32
    John Chrysostom, Ad populum antiochenum 3 1.
  • 33
    See Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 28-31.
  • 34
    See Fitzmyer, “1 Corinthians 11:3,” 56.
  • 35
    The Five Books Against Marcion, book 5, chap 8, ANF vol. 3, p. 445, cited in Grudem “The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’),” 50. Kroeger lists this as one of many pieces of evidence that kephalē meant “source” in Classical Greek (??). Grudem points out that this text is neither classical nor Greek, nor does “head” mean source here.
  • 36
    Fitzmyer says “authority over, ruler” (“1 Corinthians 11:3,” 55). Perrimann says that “nothing is found in the context to suggest that the expression denotes his authority rather than simply his position sociologically defined” (“The Head of a Woman,” 610). False dichotomy? Wouldn’t the “sociologically defined” nature behind the “head of a household” including some kind of authority and rule?
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24 comments on “What Does “Head” (Kephalē) Mean in Paul’s Letters? Part 4: Early Church Fathers

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  1. Joy Spencer on

    I read (most of!) this with interest having been introduced to the idea of Kephalē as “source” rather than “leader” at a recent UK conference. Your scholarly investigations & discussions have given me food for thought as I wish to approach these matters like the Bereans, so thank you to all for your contributions…. However, considering “head” as “source” in Paul’s letters does seem to be a helpful illustration of the lively nature of the relationships described, given that a river for example dries up & dies if disconnected from its source.

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