I am troubled by 1 Corinthians 11:3, which seems to say that men are superior to women.

Question from a reader:

I am troubled by 1 Corinthians 11:3, which seems to say that men are superior to women: “The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

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This passage demonstrates what is often true—if we misunderstand one biblical doctrine, we will inevitably misunderstand others. For instance, two common approaches to “the head of a woman is her husband” are these: 1) Scripture is saying the husband is superior to his wife (and that’s true) or 2) Scripture is saying the husband is superior to his wife (and that’s false).

The first understanding is a denial of the equality of worth of man and woman, the second is a denial of the inerrancy and authority of Scripture.

Both misinterpretations are based on the same false assumption: that headship means superiority. But a sound doctrine of the trinity would immediately clarify the text’s meaning and eliminate the supposed forced choice between these two false doctrines. For the point is clear that as Christ is to God (the Father), so a woman is to her husband. So, is Christ inferior to the Father? Is his deity, personhood, or importance less than the Father’s in any sense? Of course not. He is in a different position, a different response role, and he is in submission to the Father, yet he is utterly and absolutely equal to his Father.

Hence, this passage CANNOT mean that the wife is in any sense inferior to her husband, unless it also means that Christ is inferior to his Father. It cannot mean that her humanity, personhood or importance is less than that of her husband. To conclude that the husband’s headship involves superiority, rather than difference in position and role, is not only a misinterpretation—it is false doctrine of the most serious type: it is Christological heresy. To say the husband’s headship means the wife is inferior is to say that Christ is inferior to his Father...that he is less than fully God. Among other things, this in turn makes Christ incapable of bearing the weight of our redemption (since the Father’s holiness can only be satisfied by the equal atoning holiness of Christ). This is a false doctrine that clearly violates the biblical revelation of the trinity. Since the text cannot mean Christ is inferior to the Father, it also cannot mean that the wife is inferior to the husband.

Hence, if the interpretation of this passage were guided by an accurate doctrine of the trinity, it would guard us from two other common heresies: 1) chauvinism/ male superiority/female inferiority or 2) biblical errancy.

Now, if we didn’t have the last clause, and the only guide as to the meaning of “head” was the first clause, “The head of every man is Christ,” this would leave superiority as a possible or even likely implication of “head.” Why? Because Christ is clearly superior to men. However, the inclusion of “the head of Christ is God,” proves that the point of headship cannot be superiority, but only authority.

We are constantly put under the authority of those we’re not inferior to. Children are under parents, citizens are under government. A person who is pulled over by a police officer may be intellectually and morally and spiritually superior to the officer, but they are still under his authority. An employee can be smarter and wiser than his employer, but there is still a place of submission, as is a private under his superior (in position not worth or quality) his officer. Likewise, a woman may be morally, spiritually and intellectually superior to her husband, yet she is still called upon by God to be in submission to him. (Recognizing that her higher head is Christ, and that she—like her husband—is first in submission to Christ. And if her secondary head, her husband, calls upon her to violate the revealed will of her primary head, Christ, she must obey God rather than man; just as the employer and soldier and child answers first to God and second to human authority whenever there is a call to violate God’s revealed will.)

This doctrine stuff—and the doctrine of God and Christ and Scripture perhaps more than any—stands or falls together. Get it wrong on one of these foundational doctrines, and the rest will fall like a house of cards. Get it right on these foundational doctrines, and the subordinate doctrines will build very nicely upon them.

Randy Alcorn, founder of EPM

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over fifty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries