John Chrysostom on 1 Cor. 11:3

One of the things that struck me in reading the Ware and Starke book was how much this sort of defence of complementarianism depends on 1 Cor. 11:3 – ‘But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God’ (NIV). Simply put, even if we could demonstrate an eternal functional subordination in the triune life, we would have no warrant to draw an analogy to gender relations apart from this single verse.

But the verse cannot bear that weight: however we read it, ‘head’ is being used in (at least) two senses. Particularly if we are talking about things like authority, the Father-Son relation is just not the same as the Christ-human relation. That surely does not even need arguing…

…but in case it does, here’s the argument, from St John Chrysostom’s Homily 26 on 1 Corinthians. Lucy Peppiatt put me on to the text in her (excellent) Women and Worship at Corinth (of which much more in a day or two…); I don’t know a modern English edition, so I have done a (fairly quick and dirty) translation of my own (from Migne, but I think his text is OK):

’The head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.’ Here the heretics attack us, contriving from these words to diminish the Son. But they trip over themselves! If the head of woman is man, and the head is of the same substance (‘homoousios’) as the body, and the head of Christ is God, then the Son is of the same substance (‘homoousios’) as the Father!

They say that they are not trying to show here that the Son is of a different substance to the Father, but that he is subject to authority (‘archetas’ – does this argument sound familiar at all?) How should we respond? First, when we speak of the incarnate Son’s being subjected, we do not mean that the divine Son is subject – that’s just how we talk of the economy of salvation. But anyway, how are you going to prove the point from the passage? If they say the Father has authority over Christ as a husband does over his wife, then they have to say that as Christ rules over men, so the Father rules over the Son – the passage says ‘the head of every man is Christ’! Who would dream of saying such a thing? If the Father is as much greater than the Son as the Son is greater than us, this really diminishes the Son!

So, we shouldn’t use the same arguments about our human existence and God’s divine existence, even if we use similar language. We have to recognise God’s transcendence – God is so great! If they don’t admit this, they end up with all sorts of absurdities – God is the head of Christ, and Christ is the head of man, and man of the woman; if we take ‘head’ in the same sense every time, then the Son will be as distant from the Father as we are from the Son – and the woman will be as far from us as we are from the divine Word, and what the Son is to the Father, we are to the Son, and the woman is to the man. Who could accept all that?

If you understand the word ‘head’ differently speaking of men and women from the way you understand it speaking of Christ, then you have to understand it differently speaking of the Father and the Son too!

(If you’ve not come across him, John was a great preacher in Antioch towards the end of the fourth century, and became archbishop of Constantinople; he is commemorated in the Orthodox calendar as one of the three great teachers of the church, along with Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus; to pre-empt the criticism that usually comes at this point, it is fairly certain that he does not say this stuff because he has been infected with feminism, or lost sight of the gospel through reading Germaine Greer…)


  1. Ian Paul
    May 23, 2015

    Thanks for this Steve. I too am enjoying Lucy’s book!

    There is a not too archaic translation here.

    Essentially, the logic here is that, if ‘head’ means the same thing, and is related to authority and being, then, since we are *ontologically* distinct and subordinate to the Son (as conservatives would of course maintain), then the Son must also (by analogy) be ontologically distinct and subordinate to the Father.

    This seems like a nice short summary of all Kevin Giles’ writings on the subject!

    • steve
      May 23, 2015

      Thanks, Ian. Yes, this is largely Kevin’s point, you’re right. He has challenged me to say more about the Trinity and gender more than once recently…

  2. Daniel Thames
    May 24, 2015

    Dear Steve,

    I thank you for your past two posts where I have been introduced to you. Briefly about me, I am half trained and have moving slowly and steadily away from complement Arianism (a very funny autocorrect just occurred that I will leave for posterity) for several years…

    I wonder if you would be willing to press into a historical exegesis of the 1 Cor 11 text. I would benefit from it.

    I feel that something akin to Lewis’ concern for riding metaphors fully out to pasture is in play (it likely isn’t…but I am seeing it as such). The concern that Chrysostom has for “head” and its possible ontological implications being passed on from one couplet (Father-Son) to another (Christ-man) is not the level of argument those in the complementarianism (That I had to save that word into my dictionary now shows how far I have drifted) are taking as John himself states the early heritics were arguing. He then seems to sum up his argument with a call to awareness of God’s transcendence.

    Where I am still floundering is that I do read 1 Cor 11 as having an architectural designation of public worship that truly does stem, singularly, from a worshippers gender…with this practice’s theological basis being the cascading relationship from the Father to the human female…

    As one who is also proud to affirm Sola Scriptura, would you do a post on “What Saint Paul Really Said….in 1 Cor 11”?


    • steve
      May 24, 2015

      Hi Daniel, Thanks. The book I mention in the post by Lucy Peppiatt offers the most plausible reading of 1 Cor. 11 that I have seen; she gives good reasons for hearing part of the text as Paul quoting the Corinthians back to them, which we know he does elsewhere in 1 Cor.

      That said, it is a difficult text; I don’t think we need to know how to read it in order to know how not to read it, if that makes sense. Consider by analogy the text about being ‘baptised for the dead’ later in 1 Cor.; I have no idea what this means; indeed, I am fairly confident that we will never know, barring some significant archeological discovery. There are several theories that are not implausible, but no data to decide between them. That said, I am confident that I can rule out the meaning that Mormons give to the text, and so the practices they derive from it. I don’t need to be able to propose a right reading to recognise a wrong one.

  3. Daniel Roberts
    May 24, 2015

    I think it would also be important to note that St. John Chrysostom also says a little bit more than what is quoted here. I’ve read the full homily on 1 Cor. 11 and he was clearly no egalitarian in his writing and might disagree with the assessment that which Kevin Giles would give about the church fathers rejecting all sorts of hierarchical relationships within the Trinity.
    “3. 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. 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? In the first place, when any thing 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.”

    St. Chrysostom appears to be speaking of subjection in terms of honor and not of subjection in terms of one being a master. The Father is greater than the Son in this respect (John 14:28). Yes, I am a Trinitarian subjectionist. I have come to this conclusion from my reading of the church fathers. I suppose all disagree and reach different conclusions about these things. The important thing to note is that while the Church has made the Trinity–God in three persons–a necessary doctrine, the Church has not anathematized views on the Trinity that indicate an hierarchical relationship within the Trinity. In fact, some of my favorite theologians such as Fr. Sergius Bulgakov maintained the belief of a hierarchical relationship within the Trinity. There are only two groups of Christians I know who want to dogmatize certain hierarchical views on the Trinity. Hyper radical egalitarians who want to contend that the Trinity is thought to be entirely equal in all respects, and hyper complementarians who want everyone to believe the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father to prove their variation of complentarianism. I see no heresy or connection to Arianism in hierarchical relationships within the Trinity because we are referring to apophatic theology.

    I have briefly touched up on this comment on a few blogs of my own starting here:

    A Catholic friend of mine also commented on another assessment of mine on Giles’s interpretation of St. Athansius.

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