What Does the Bible Teach about Headship?

Old Testament Teaching

The opening chapters of Genesis narrate God’s creation first of Adam, then of Eve from and for Adam as his “suitable helper” (Gen. 2:18, 20). The notion of Adam’s “headship,” that is, his position of ultimate responsibility and authority for his marriage and family, is supported by a series of factors:

  • Adam’s creation prior to the woman
  • Adam’s naming of the animals prior to the creation of Eve
  • Adam’s naming of Eve subsequent to God’s creation of her
  • God’s holding Adam—not Eve—responsible for his and Eve’s sin even though Eve had sinned first
  • the woman’s designation as the man’s “suitable helper”

New Testament Teaching

In the New Testament, Paul speaks of Adam’s representative actions on behalf of all of humanity (his “federal headship”) and of Christ’s serving as the head of a new humanity (Rom. 5:12–21). Paul also repeatedly affirms God’s creation first of Adam and then of Eve and on this basis makes pronouncements with regard to the man’s headship (1 Cor. 11:8–9; 1 Tim. 2:13).

Thus in 1 Cor. 11:3–5, reference is made to Christ’s headship over the man; the husband’s headship over his wife; and God’s headship over Christ, conveying the notion of authority (cf. 1 Cor. 11:10). In Ephesians, Paul speaks of Christ’s headship over all things in the church, again conveying the notion of authority (Eph. 1:21–22; cf. 4:15; Col. 1:18; 2:10, 19).

In Eph. 5:23, Paul writes that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. This connotes both loving provision (Eph. 5:25–29) and authority (Eph. 5:22). Hence Christ’s headship in a primary sense and the husband’s headship over his wife in a derivative sense are an integral part of Paul’s teaching on the nature of the church Christ’s “body.”

Contemporary Discussion

Today, the husband’s headship is challenged by some who claim that the New Testament teaches the husband’s and the wife’s “mutual submission” with reference to Eph. 5:21. However, in context it is only the wife that is called to submit (Eph. 5:22; cf. Col. 3:18) while the husband is called to love his wife sacrificially (Eph. 5:25–27).

Both 1 Cor. 11:3 and the Christ-husband analogy in Eph. 5:23 strongly suggest the husband’s headship in the home, and passages such as 1 Tim. 2:12 and 3:2 indicate that men are assigned ultimate responsibility and authority in the church. This congruity between God’s order for the home and the church flows from the fact that the church is “God’s household” (1 Tim. 3:15).


While the senses “source” and “pre-eminent” have been proposed for kephalē, no passage is extant where that sense is favored by the context. In fact, every time one person is referred to as the “head” of another person in both biblical and extrabiblical literature, the person who is the “head” has authority over the other person and kephalē conveys the notion of authority.

For Further Study

See my commentary on the Pastoral Epistles in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol. 12 (rev.ed.; Zondervan); God, Marriage & Family; and my various other publications on Gender and Family.

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