The world of Christian bloggers has been filled with controversy in the past few weeks. It began with a critique of the complementarian teaching on the Eternal Subordination of the Son. Various authors, mainly from the Reformed branches of the church weighed in, some for and some against. Eternal Subordination of the Son, referred to variously as ESS or EFS, claims that God the Son submits to God the Father in the eternal order of the Trinity. Using I Corinthians 11:3 as their main passage, proponents of ESS say that the submission of women to men is meant to be an analogy of the submission of the Son to the Father in the Trinity. Critics point out that analogies from human relationships to the Trinity should be handled more carefully.
John Chrysostom – the Golden Mouthed – lived from 349-407 A.D. The Arian controversy was still ongoing in his day, so he understood the need for clear interpretations of Scriptural analogies. His twenty-seventh Homily on First Corinthians addresses the I Corinthians 11:3 verse, and he points out the necessity of limiting the conclusions we draw between the relationships in the Trinity and the relationship between men and women.
“The head of every man is Christ.” Is He then Head of the Gentile also? In no wise. For if “we are the Body of Christ, and severally members thereof,” (c. 12:27) and in this way He is our head, He cannot be the head of them who are not in the Body and rank not among the members. So that when he says, “of every man,” one must understand it of the believer. Perceivest thou how every where he appeals to the hearer’s shame by arguing from on high? Thus both when he was discoursing on love, and when on humility, and when on alms-giving, it was from thence that he drew his examples.
“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 thou intendest to prove this from the passage? “Why, as the man governs the wife, saith he, “so also the Father, Christ.” Therefore also as Christ governs the man, so likewise the Father, the Son. “For the head of every man,” we read, “is Christ.” And who could ever admit this? For if the superiority of the Son compared with us, be the measure of the Father’s compared with the Son, consider to what meanness thou wilt bring Him. So that we must not try all things by like measure in respect of ourselves and of God, though the language used concerning them be similar; but we must assign to God a certain appropriate excellency, and so great as belongs to God. For should they not grant this, many absurdities will follow. As thus; “the head of Christ is God:” and, “Christ is the head of the man, and he of the woman.” Therefore if we choose to take the term, “head,” in the like sense in all the clauses, the Son will be as far removed from the Father as we are from Him. Nay, and the woman will be as far removed from us as we are from the Word of God. And what the Son is to the Father, this both we are to the Son and the woman again to the man. And who will endure this?
But dost thou understand the term “head” differently in the case of the man and the woman, from what thou dost in the case of Christ? Therefore in the case of the Father and the Son, must we understand it differently also. “How understand it differently?” saith the objector. According to the occasion. For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection, as thou sayest, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master. For what if the wife be under subjection to us? it is as a wife, as free, as equal in honor. And the Son also, though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God, it was as God. For as the obedience of the Son to the Father is greater than we find in men towards the authors of their being, so also His liberty is greater. Since it will not of course be said that the circumstances of the Son’s relation to the Father are greater and more intimate than among men, and of the Father’s to the Son, less. For if we admire the Son that He was obedient so as to come even unto death, and the death of the cross, and reckon this the great wonder concerning Him; we ought to admire the Father also, that He begat such a son, not as a slave under command, but as free, yielding obedience and giving counsel. For the counsellor is no slave. But again, when thou hearest of a counsellor, do not understand it as though the Father were in need, but that the Son hath the same honor with Him that begat Him. Do not therefore strain the example of the man and the woman to all particulars.
Notice the interpretation which Chrysostom gives to I Corinthians 11:3. First, he points out that the phrase “the head of every man is Christ” refers to every believer: “So that when he says, “of every man,” one must understand it of the believer.” Advocates of the King James Version of the Bible and critics of gender neutral translations often point out that the word ‘man’ in the KJV is frequently used to refer to both men and women in general. This is one of those cases.
Then, Chrysostom interprets “the head of the woman is the man” as referring to husbands and wives: “For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection, as thou sayest, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master.” The word for wife and woman, gune, is the same in Greek; it is the endings (even nouns are conjugated in Greek) and context which indicate whether the word should be translated woman or wife. Since the other passage which speaks of the man being the head of the woman is clearly referring to married couples, Ephesians 5:22-33, it is a strong indication that I Cor. 11:3 also refers to husband and wife.
Finally, Chrysostum views the phrase “the head of Christ is God” in the light of Christ’s Incarnation: “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.” So, I Cor. 11:3 could be read in this way: “But I would have you know that the head of every believer, male and female, is Christ; and the head of the wife is the husband; and the head of Christ, the God-man, is God.”
Do not therefore apply the examples to all, since elsewhere also from this source many grievous errors will occur. For so in the beginning of this very Epistle, he said, (I Corinthians 3:22-23) “All are yours, and ye are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” What then? Are all in like manner ours, as “we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s?” In no wise, but even to the very simple the difference is evident, although the same expression is used of God, and Christ, and us. And elsewhere also having called the husband “head of the wife,” he added, (Ephesians 5:23) “Even as Christ is Head and Saviour and Defender of the Church, so also ought the man to be of his own wife.” Are we then to understand in like manner the saying in the text, both this, and all that after this is written to the Ephesians concerning this subject? Far from it. It is impossible. For although the same words are spoken of God and of men, they do not have the same force in respect to God and to men, but in one way those must be understood, and in another these. Not however on the other hand all things diversely: since contrariwise they will seem to have been introduced at random and in vain, we reaping no benefit from them. But as we must not receive all things alike, so neither must we absolutely reject all.
Now that what I say may become clearer, I will endeavor to make it manifest in an example. Christ is called “the Head of the Church.” If I am to take nothing from what is human in the idea, why, I would know, is the expression used at all? On the other hand, if I understand all in that way, extreme absurdity will result. For the head is of like passions with the body and liable to the same things. What then ought we to let go, and what to accept? We should let go these particulars which I have mentioned, but accept the notion of a perfect union, and the first principle; and not even these ideas absolutely, but here also we must form a notion, as we may by ourselves, of that which is too high for us and suitable to the Godhead: for both the union is surer and the beginning more honorable.
Again, thou hearest the word “Son;” do not thou in this case admit all particulars; yet neither oughtest thou to reject all: but admitting whatever is meet for God, e.g. that He is of the same essence, that He is of God; the things which are incongruous and belong to human weakness, leave thou upon the earth.
Chrysostom could not in any way be called an egalitarian. He interprets the passages on head coverings and women keeping silence far more strictly than even complementarians with a patriarchal bent would today. His refutation of the view that Christ is subordinate to God was based on an understanding of the limits of analogies. It is an understanding which theologians and Bible teachers today would do well to cultivate.
Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Corinthians. The Oxford Translation. “Homily XXVII”. Retrieved from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf112.iv.xxvii.html