Leon Morris on “Head” (Kephalē) in the New Testament

Written by Margaret Mowczko.
Margaret Mowczko is vice president of CBE-Sydney. She has a theology degree and is currently studying for a master’s degree with Macquarie University, specialising in early Christian and Jewish studies. Margaret writes on the subject of biblical equality for her website newlife.id.au. Her work has appeared in several publications of CBE-International, and one of her articles recently won an award in the 2014 Evangelical Press Association Awards held in Anaheim, California. Margaret is a leader of her church on the Central Coast where she regularly preaches.


At the moment I’m reading through a short book called The Bible and Women’s Ministry: An Australian Dialogue published by Acorn Press back in 1990.  The eight “chapters”[1] of the book are written by eight different men, all prominent, scholarly ministers and educators in the Anglican Church of Australia.[2]

In the first chapter, Peter Jensen (who recently retired as the Anglican archbishop of Sydney but was principal of Moore Theological College at the time of writing) explains how we should use Scripture in the debate about women in ministry.  I won’t comment on Jensen’s chapter except to say that he spends a bit of time critiquing John Stott’s hermeneutic and view on women in ministry.  Contrary to Jensen, I agree with what John Stott says here (quoted by Jensen on pages 7-8):

If God endows women with spiritual gifts (which he does), and thereby calls them to exercise their gifts for the common good (which he does), the Church must recognize God’s gifts and calling, must make appropriate spheres of service available to women, and should ‘ordain’ (that is commission and authorize) them to exercise their God-given ministry, at best in team situations.[3]  Our Christian doctrines of Creation and Redemption tell us that God wants his gifted people to be fulfilled, not frustrated, and his church to be enriched by their service.
J.R.W Stott, Issues facing Christianity Today (Basingstoke: Marshalls, 1984) p. 254

The chapter that has really got my attention is Leon Morris’s entitled Leadership and Authority.  (Leon Morris was the Principal of Ridley Theological College, Melbourne, at the time of writing, and was an esteemed New Testament scholar who has written many commentaries on New Testament books, etc.  Leon Morris passed away in 2006.)

In his chapter, Morris writes about the usage of  “head” in the Old Testament, in Greek writings, and in the New Testament.  In particular, he comments on Paul’s use of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11, Ephesians 5 and Colossians.  For too long the Church has assumed that “head” (Greek: kephalē) in the New Testament has the metaphorical meaning of “leader” or “authority”.  This faulty assumption is being perpetuated by people such as Wayne Grudem.  Morris criticizes Grudem’s 1985 article on kephalē.[4]

Here is the opening paragraph of Morris’s informative and enlightening chapter:

We are perhaps too well aware of the fact that we think with our brains.  To us it is accordingly the most natural thing in the world to understand “head” in terms of direction and sovereignty.  In the physical body it is the head that makes the decisions and gives the commands and when we use “head” metaphorically we quite naturally think of sovereignty.  Our problem when we approach the New Testament is that the function of the central nervous system was not known to the ancients; they were unaware of the fact that we think with our brains.  For them, thought was not located in the head but in the body, in the diaphragm or the heart.  It is also the case that the New Testament writers never explain what they mean by “head” nor do they discuss the relationship between head and body.  We must accordingly examine the relevant passages with some care.  We must be on our guard against thinking that Paul, for example, means by “head” what we would mean if we used the term, or that he sees the relationship between head and body the same way as we do.  He may, he may not.  It is not easy to see what the head-body relationship would mean to someone who held that we think with the diaphragm, not the brain.  We must think hard about what the ancients had in mind when they spoke about head and body. (p. 23)

It is important that we heed Morris’s caution and take care not to make hasty assumptions about the metaphorical meaning of “head” if we want to faithfully interpret Paul’s meaning and intent.

The chapter by Kevin Giles, where he considers 1 Timothy 2:11-14, is excellent with interesting and compelling insights.  But I’ll finish by quoting a paragraph which also concerns the interpretation of “head” or, more precisely, its application, from Paul Barnett’s chapter entitled “Women in the Church with Special Reference to 1 Timothy 2″:

“How is headship exercised? Husbands exercise it, we infer from Ephesians 5:22-33, as they love their wives as Christ loved and gave himself up for the church. On no less that four occasions in that passage husbands are instructed to love (agape) their wives. From a husband’s side it is a headship of agape modeled on the caring, sacrificial love of the Lord Jesus for his people (cf 1 Pet. 3:7). Men are not once directed to to express headship in any other way, neither by decision-making nor leadership and least of all by any kind of oppression.” (p. 59)


[1] The book is divided into four parts, each part containing two chapters (or essays.)  The second chapter in each part is a response to the first chapter of each part.

[2] I think it’s a shame that no women contributed to this book which is on a topic which clearly affects women deeply.

[3] I believe ministering in a team situation is the ideal for all Christians, both men and women.

[4] Morris also agrees with Gordon D. Fee’s criticism of Grudem’s article.  Morris quotes Fee as saying: “Grudem’s article is quite misleading both in its presentation and conclusion.” (p26)   Grudem’s article is in Appendix 1 of George W. Knight III, The Role Relationship of Men and Women: New Testament Teaching (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985).  A more recent article by Wayne Grudem on the same subject, which also draws criticism, is available online here.

A version of this article was first published on the 27th of October 2013 at newlife.id.au here.

4 comments on “Leon Morris on “Head” (Kephalē) in the New Testament”

  1. Eric Breaux Reply

    Has anyone ever responded to Wayne Grudems 1990 and 2001 critiques that have never been countered by the two respective scholars that he was arguing against?

    • Marg Mowczko Reply

      Certainly all the New Testament lexicons I know of give a definition of authority as a meaning of kephalē, but other lexicons of Ancient Greek, such as the LSJ, do not. I believe the authors of New Testament lexicons have been influenced by traditional ecclesial interpretations of kephalē in providing a definition of authority. There is one place in the Colossians where kephalē undoubtedly has the meaning of authority, but is the words around it which support that meaning rather than kephalē itself.

      While New Testament lexicons may be unanimous, there is no such consensus among scholars. Leon Morris being just one case in point. I write more about kephalē here: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/kephale-and-male-headship-in-pauls-letters/

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