Paul’s doctrine of headship is most clearly found in 1 Cor 11:3.
“But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” – 1 Cor 11:3
This verse is superficially described as speaking only about men and women. The teaching goes something like this: God is the ultimate head; Christ is under him; then men; and finally, women.
The problem with this explanation is that it the relationships must be out of order in the verse, the Godhead is confused, and the teaching about the church in the verse is entirely lost.
Reading carefully we can see that there are three separate headships in this verse and only one of them is about the man and woman.
Church: Every Man and Christ
“the head of every man is Christ”
The first headship concerns the church and every man in it. This should be clear from verse such as Col 1:18:
“And he [Christ Jesus] is the head of the body, the church:…” – Col 1:18
Christ is the head, the church is the body, and every member of the body includes both men and women:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Gal 3:28
Christ being the head of “every man” is the church operating under the headship of Christ (Col 2:10, 19). As a result, it is the church’s responsibility to do the will of God and “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).
Is it then true that Christ is the direct head of every man, but only the indirect head of every woman? No, of course not.
Marriage: Man and Woman
“the head of the woman is the man”
The second headship concerns marriage and is the one that sticks out most clearly in the eyes of those who think grace doctrine is misogynistic.
Grace doctrine is not against women, nor for abusive husbands, but there is a clear God-given authority in the partnership of marriage. It is given to the man to husband the marriage, and to the wife to submit to his headship (Col 3:11-12).
Two people cannot go different ways together (Amos 3:3). If a marriage is to operate there must be agreement on who is driving. God has given the man responsibility to go the right way, and when need arises to ask for directions.
Godhead: Christ and God
“the head of Christ is God”
This is the most neglected and mutilated part of the verse. This final headship concerns the Godhead as explained in more detail by Paul in Philippians 2. It is true that the Godhead is personal which is evident to those from the creation of the world (Rom 1:20).
It is also true that the one God exists in three persons which allows for this sort of headship and submission to exist. Jesus said in his earthly ministry to Israel:
“For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” – John 6:38
God was manifest in the flesh in Jesus Christ, in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col 2:9). The person of Christ did not lay aside any attribute of deity when he was made in the “likeness of men”, but rather humbled himself and was obedient to the will of the Father (Phil 2:7-8).
The Head and the Body
In each of the three relationships there is a clear head who has the power of will, but also a body which is to bring glory to the head.
– Christ’s will is to be done by the church, and the church is to the glory of God (Eph 1:6; Eph 1:12; Eph 3:21; Col 3:4).
– The woman subjects herself to the will of her husband, and the woman is the glory of the man (1 Cor 11:7).
– God’s will is done by Christ who gives glory to God (Rom 16:27; Phil 2:11).
These Three are One
Another similarity between the three relationships is that in each both are one.
– In the church, we are members of his body, and one with each other (1 Cor 12:12-14; 1 Cor 12:27; Eph 5:30).
– The man and wife become one in marriage (Gen 2:24).
– Christ and God are one (John 10:30; 1 John 5:7; 1 Tim 3:16).
The Mystery of Headship
What is also unique is that each of these relationships are related to the mystery revealed to Paul.
– The church with Christ as it’s head is a new creature made up of Jew and Gentile (2 Cor 5:17).
– The mystery of Christ is illustrated in the operation of the man and wife in marriage (Eph 5:32).
– That God was manifest in the flesh is listed in the mystery of godliness of 1 Tim 3:16.
Christ the Theme
Upon further review we can also see that Christ is the theme throughout the verse. Without Christ none of these headships would work.
– Without Christ taking responsibility to die for the church, we would not have the church (Rom 5:8).
– Without Christ submitting himself to the death of a cross there would not be glory to God the Father in all things (Phil 2:8-11).
– Without Christ being the head of every man and woman in marriage, marriages fail.
The relationship between God, his Church, and marriage in passages such as 1 Cor 11:3, Phil 2, Eph 5, and Col 2 promise a great profit of spiritual understanding and practical advice.
Unfortunately, most of this is lost to those who focus solely on the carnal battles of “who’s the boss”, egalitarian vs. complementarian, and marriage authority. When all three headships in 1 Cor 11:3 are given due emphasis then we may see some of our more temporal concerns fade away.