Thomas Jefferson, Headship, and I Corinthians 11

My writing has taken me down a twisted, rocky path. But it’s ended at a beautiful destination – one that is tweaking how I think about gender in the Scripture.

I started with a manuscript addressing hard things in Scripture concerning women. I wanted to wrestle with as many of the hard passages as I could, and none seemed quite as convoluted and unhelpful to women as I Corinthians 11’s presentation of headship and head coverings. (If you aren’t familiar with the chapter, I suggest you stop and read through it – this post assumes a basic familiarity with it.)

I wrestled. And studied. And talked to others who wrestled with me. No one has helped me think through this quite as much as Hannah Anderson. The thing that finally unlocked I Corinthians 11 for me was applying the number one law of hermeneutics – the Bible is the best commentary on itself. Was I Corinthians the only place the Bible talked about head coverings? No, actually, it wasn’t. In fact, there is a highly relevant passage in Scripture that tells us exactly what Paul is referring to when he warned about head-coverings and the shame of a shaved head in Corinthian culture. It’s found in Deuteronomy 21.

10 “When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, 11 and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, 12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. 13 She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not mistreat her, because you have humbled her.

There you have it, folks. I Corinthians 11 decoded, and all from a simple cross reference in Scripture. The hair issue is about protection from sexual subjugation in a culture in which women were regularly used as sexual slaves. This was major issue in Corinth. And the entire world really. Women were taken captive, and female slaves were considered the sexual property of their owners. Their head covering was integral to their representation in that culture. A woman’s shaved head (and in Corinth apparently even just going without a head-covering) represented her status as a captive.  A recent New Yorker article on the hair styles of the presidential candidates pointed this out as well.

“Ted Cruz would fit perfectly in ancient Rome. Carly Fiorina, absolutely not: short hair was a sign you’d been conquered.

God’s children were to act differently. In the Law, if an Israelite took a female captive that he wanted sexually, there was a process. She went through a ritual to mourn her losses, and the Israelite then must marry her. He could not force her to be his sexual slave without the protections of the covenant relationship of marriage. And from the next chapter, Deuteronomy 22, we know that God took the marriage covenant very seriously. Covenant marriage under the Law, especially to a woman who was without family protection, offered the woman much needed protection, provision, and representation (consider also Boaz and Ruth).

Things hadn’t changed much between the time the Law was given in Deuteronomy and the time Paul addressed the church at Corinth. A friend of mine recently visited the acropolis at Corinth and learned of its long history of sexual subjugation of female captives. I could recount what she told me of its sexual history, but we really don’t need to look much further in the United States than our very own founding fathers to see exactly what the issue was.

My kids and I love the musical Hamilton, and therefore, we’ve been learning a lot about Thomas Jefferson. I was intrigued last week to read this story in the New York Times about Jefferson and his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. I knew of Sally, but I researched her deeper. I learned that there are no pictures of Sally, but accounts say that she was a beautiful light skinned woman who Jefferson began a sexual relationship (non-consensual since she was a slave without the ability to say no) when she was quite young. She eventually had six children believed to be fathered by Jefferson. After reading the NY Times article, I went to the Monticello website to read more about Sally Hemings.

And I cried.

I’d been studying I Corinthians 11 too long to miss the significance of her story. For what I learned was that, beyond just being the mother of six of Jefferson’s children, Sally Hemings was also likely the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, fathered by Jefferson’s white, respected father-in-law John Wayles. Wayles had a daughter by a covenant marriage that he recognized who became Jefferson’s legal wife. Wayles educated that daughter and saw her married to a brilliant, powerful man. But John Wayles had another daughter, Sally. This daughter was born from a relationship of captive sexual subjugation. Her mother was a slave with no rights. Her father provided Sally and her mother food, shelter, and clothing. But he didn’t claim either as his own. He didn’t take responsibility for Sally the way he did for his daughter of covenant relationship. Neither Sally’s mother or Sally herself carried his name or the protections and privileges that went with it.

Jefferson continued this generational sexual subjugation. It is thought that Sally was pregnant with her first child by him at the age of 16. There is no record of Wayles objecting to this relationship. Jefferson never freed Sally but did eventually free her living children. His daughter of covenant marriage, Martha, who bore Jefferson’s name and inherited his estate, freed Sally after his death. 

Martha Jefferson and her descendants claimed Jefferson’s name freely. Eventually, the family of one of Sally’s children added Jefferson to their name. They had every right in my opinion, yet in the culture at the time, they were Jefferson’s slave bastards. They had no legal rights to his name. He certainly never claimed them.


Egalitarians argue that head, gr. kephale, in I Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 means source – the husband is the source of the wife, as Eve was made from Adam’s rib. Complementarians emphasize that it means authority – a wife is under her husband’s authority. But both of those meanings miss the point. Jefferson was an authority in Sally Hemings life! But he wasn’t her head. He didn’t take responsibility for her. He didn’t represent her with his name. He didn’t steward his role in her life or the lives of the children he created with her. He used her. His authority over her resulted in her abuse and misuse.

Headship in I Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 isn’t primarily about authority. At least, if you look at how Scripture uses the word throughout the Bible, it isn’t. Headship is about responsibility and representation. It’s about entering covenant with someone and following through on your God-given commitments to them. It’s about owning your relationship with them, both the rights of relationship and the responsibilities. It’s about covering them in ways that protect them and provide for them.

The Greek word for head is used most often in Scripture to refer to the literal head on a body. But there is one other time it’s used that has nothing to do with the head on a body, and I find that use of it especially helpful when we consider I Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5’s figurative use of it to refer to a husband.

Matthew 21:42 Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, This became the chief corner stone; This came about from the Lord, And it is marvelous in our eyes’?

The stone which the builders rejected became the kephale cornerstone. If you think about the difference in cornerstones and chief cornerstones, you start to understand the nuance of headship. And when you then apply that nuance to I Corinthian 11’s application of headship to women caught up in a culture of sexual subjugation, the whole concept breaks open. And it doesn’t break open through some extra-Biblical secret cultural decoder ring. Scripture itself is the tool that breaks it open for us.

What was a cornerstone in the ancient Mid East?

The cornerstone (or foundation stone) concept is derived from the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation, important since all other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure. (thank you, Wikipedia)

Jesus is the kephale, the chief, cornerstone of the entire building that is the universal Church. And Christian husbands are called to reflect this in their family of influence. Lots of men have authority. But how many men own their covenant commitments, their responsibility and need to represent their family? Well, if you’re privileged by race or economic status, that entire question likely sounds ludicrous. But if you travel down the economic ladder just a rung or two, you will easily see how this matters.

From my article on Friday –

Another root problem in complementarian thought is that the movement was fundamentally a reaction to 2nd wave feminism. It’s obviously a problem to build a system of teaching from Scripture as a reaction against any cultural movement. But it is even more of a problem when you realize that 2nd wave feminism itself was in many ways a white privileged movement. First wave feminism was not, in my opinion. But 2nd wave feminism hasn’t impacted other cultures the same way it has middle and upper class whites because other cultures and other income brackets struggle with a different set of gender issues than those traditionally associated with 2nd wave feminists (like equal executive pay). Gloria Steinhem and other feminist leaders have long been criticized for their overemphasis on equal pay in the upper echelons of the privileged while only paying lip service to the types of gendered abuse that occur throughout the world among the poor. 

No wonder we’ve been off center in our discussions of headship.

I could (and will) write more. But to summarize this post, I think that I Corinthians 11 presents headship as a husband in a committed covenant relationship with his wife in which he protects her by owning his relationship with her, taking responsibility for her, representing her and their children with his name and protection, and much more. Does authority play a role in the husband/wife relationship? Certainly it does. But there are so many authorities and leaders in life that have nothing to do with headship and marriage that focusing on authority as the point of headship causes us to miss what it’s really about.

Looking at their absence in society helps us understand what God created husbands to be to their wives. Any wife who has had a husband abandon his responsibilities (and there are many) and walk away from covenant relationship with her can tell you exactly what her family is missing, what she has to make up in his place, the weight she has to bear and the triple work she must do. I’ve watched my best friend do this. And she did it! She was strong, and by God’s grace and a lot of help from her earthly father, she raised her sons to love God. She was faithful in church, paid her bills, and raised her children. But it was hard, and she felt the gaping hole left by the abandonment of her husband daily. I get disgusted by the headlines around the discrepancy in women’s pay in Hollywood. It’s hard to muster up outrage that Jennifer Lawrence made $3,000,000 less than Bradley Cooper in their last movie when nationally, $108 billion dollars is owed mostly by men to their children’s mothers in back child support.

The feminist response is to downplay the vulnerability of women. Be strong. Be powerful. Don’t let men define your identity. The problem is that women’s statistically smaller size than men and their bearing of children inherently puts them in a vulnerable position. Short of all women taking steroids worldwide, we are not likely to average out to the size and strength of the average male. Ever. And the human race will die out if women don’t allow themselves into the vulnerable position of childbirth and rearing. The Bible recognizes this vulnerability, and Peter specifically addresses it and the inherent role of husbands in this vulnerability in I Peter 3.

7 You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.

The stakes are high – that a husband’s “prayers will not be hindered.” A husband’s protection, representation, and responsibility at a woman’s weakest and most vulnerable time is a non-negotiable with God.

In conclusion, this probably sounds very much like old school headship. And in a sense it is. It’s an age old concept, arguably put in motion since creation. And though western culture is working like crazy to minimize it, in my opinion, the foundational need for husbands to bear their responsibility in their homes in order for the home to be set straight will never go away.

Why then is there so much dissonance around this concept in today’s churches? There is a very big problem, in my opinion, with how headship has been handled in the complementarian movement. I have loved exhortations to men to “man-up” and bear their responsibilities. But it has been the lip service paid to protection and responsibility without the hard actions in reality, particularly around the topic of spiritual and sexual abuse, that has really undermined this teaching. Instead of their headship elevating the status of the vulnerable, a number of complementarian leaders abused their headship to walk over the vulnerable. They confused headship with authority and forgot to protect and represent the vulnerable under their care. They made it unsafe to be vulnerable, and that is a travesty in God’s design. It is serious enough that their prayers will be hindered.

There are a few men speaking and acting on abuses. In our presbytery, there are godly men speaking out particularly on the topics of racial prejudice (which included much spiritual and sexual abuse). But again and again, there is another story of a conservative man who in theory believes in headship who allowed his daughters to be molested, or molested them himself. There are pastors who look away again and again when men in their church use a young woman who is not in position to give consent, men like Thomas Jefferson with an air of respectability who still see women as sexual objects. What should be a load bearing cornerstone that contributes to the full functioning of other stones instead becomes a stone that crushes others under it. If the leaders who put forward headship can’t call out those who abuse it, their moral authority to speak on the subject erodes away. 

NOTE — I haven’t addressed the functioning of wives in the concept of headship – I’ll point out now that the cornerstone doesn’t consume or subsume the other stones. It contributes to their best use, and the other stones bear weight and contribute to the alignment of the building as well. In my next post, I’ll talk about the interpretation problem of conflating apostle and elder in the New Testament and prophet and priest in the Old which has made correct interpretation and application of what women can do in the Church nearly impossible. This has contributed to a de-emphasis of women’s essential role in the health of local conservative churches and resulted in closing off opportunities to women in conservative churches that were clearly given to women in Scripture.