Back in 2009 Dr. Wayne Grudem wrote a piece titled Personal Reflections on the History of CBMW and the State of the Gender Debate*. Grudem first became involved with the topic in 1979 after reading an article in Christianity Today by Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen:
[The] article was titled, “Does male dominance tarnish our translations?” They argued that the Greek word kephalē (literally, “head”) often means “source” but never “authority,” so that “the husband is the head of the wife” (Eph 5:23; cf. also 1 Cor 11:3) means “the husband is the source of the wife” and does not have authority over his wife. I thought the argument was wrong, but I didn’t have the time or material at hand to answer it.
Originally Grudem hoped to enlist another scholar to refute this article, but instead he was encouraged to do so himself.
Six years later, in 1985, I published a twenty one-page article in Trinity Journal, “Does kephalē Mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’? An Examination of 2,336 Examples”2—examples which took me some time to look up in ancient Greek literature!
However, even though egalitarians couldn’t point to any examples of the word meaning “source”, and despite Grudem showing that it was regularly used to mean authority, egalitarians continued to question the issue. In response, Grudem wrote an even more thorough refutation of this claim:
There were several responses from egalitarians to that twenty-one-page article. So, five years later, in 1990, I published a seventy-page article in Trinity Journal,3 responding to other studies on the meaning of kephalē and showing that there were now over fifty examples where it meant “someone in authority,” or “a leader,” but never an instance where someone is said to be the “head” of someone else and was not in the position of authority over that person. Never.
This of course still didn’t satisfy the egalitarians, because this was never really about a serious disagreement on what the Bible said. This was about feminist rebellion against Scripture, with a minimal effort made to pretend this was a real theological discussion. Unfortunately Grudem still hadn’t figured this out, so he went back and did even more research on the topic and published a third scholarly article:
But there were still more responses, and more people disagreeing. So eleven years after that, in 2001, I published another article, forty-one pages in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, on “The Meaning of kephalē (“Head”): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged.”4
So that’s 132 pages of lexicographical research published in academic journals on one word in the Bible. And these articles spanned sixteen years of my life.
Note that the egalitarians only had to make an unsubstantiated claim, and continue to make the claim despite irrefutable proof to the contrary. By doing so, they managed to tie a scholar like Grudem up for fifteen years. Even after all of this, the organization Grudem founded (CBMW) presents this totally baseless argument as if it has merit.
Grudem makes a strange defense of his choice to keep researching the issue for an additional decade despite having settled the question in his original paper:
Why did I do this? Because it was a crucial word in a crucial verse in a crucial issue. Destroying the meaning “authority over” for kephalē is crucial to the egalitarian argument. If in fact the Bible says in Eph 5:23 that “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church,” and if head means, as I am convinced it does, “person in position of authority,” then the egalitarian cause is lost. That is because that verse anchors the husband’s headship in the headship of Christ over the church, which is not something culturally variable (and 1 Cor 11:3 makes it parallel to the eternal headship of the Father with respect to the Son in the Trinity). So the egalitarians cannot lose this argument, because if they lose on the meaning of that word, then they have lost their fundamental argument with regard to manhood and womanhood in marriage.
Grudem is clearly an outstanding biblical scholar, which makes this argument all the more striking. Ephesians 5 isn’t the only part of Scripture covering headship and submission. 1 Pet 3 is if anything even stronger at refuting the egalitarian claim, as it says that wives should submit to their husbands even if their husband fails to obey the word. 1 Pet 3 explains that wives are to do this because it is beautiful to God. Since God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the rooted in the times argument is out from the beginning. Moreover, 1 Pet 3 says wives should submit to their husbands as the holy women did in the past, again, showing that this is not practical advice related to the times as egalitarians so often claim.
The meaning of head in Ephesians 5 is critical not for egalitarians, nor even for traditionalists. Even if head meant “source” in Ephesians 5, the passage still tells wives to submit to their husbands, and it is merely one of many which does so. Egalitarians are lost even if they win this argument, and traditionalists are largely unfazed even if they somehow lost it. On the other hand, the meaning of the word head is critical for complementarians, because complementarians twist themselves into knots to avoid telling wives to submit to their husbands out of a fear of seeming harsh, demeaning, and male supremacist. The only way complementarians can sound traditional while avoiding preaching submission is to focus all of their energies on the responsibility of the husband to act in such a way that his wife naturally wants to submit. This is not the biblical model of marriage, it is the complementarian model of marriage. The closest to a biblical justification for this invention is the word head in Eph 5. This is true despite the fact that even the word headship is discomforting to complementarians, who have coined the term servant leader and focus on cartoonish chivalry.
Even so, Grudem has done a great service by vigorously refuting the spurious claim about head.
Why did I do this? So that commentaries, Greek lexicons, and Bible translations in future generations will accurately teach and translate a crucial verse in the word of God. If head equals “authority over” as has been shown now in over sixty examples, then the ballgame is over. And even today, twenty-four years after my first article, there are still zero examples where a person is called “head” of someone else and is not in authority over that person. Zero.
But as Grudem notes, despite the original claim being made without evidence, and having been thoroughly debunked, the Bible is not (and never was) the issue:
That kind of evidence would normally settle the debate forever in ordinary exegesis of ordinary verses.
But this is not an ordinary verse. Because the evangelical feminists cannot lose this verse, they continue to ignore or deny the evidence. I think that is very significant.
It now seems to me that, for some people in this dispute who have thought through the issue and are committed to the egalitarian cause and have the academic knowledge to evaluate the evidence for themselves, what the Bible says on this question is not decisive. And, sadly, InterVarsity Press (USA), in spite of being given evidence of multiple factual errors in Catherine Kroeger’s article on “head” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters,5 still continues to refuse to make any changes to the article.
Grudem goes on to recount his recollection of the founding of the CBMW. I won’t summarize it here, but you can read it in the linked piece. After the CBMW was founded, Grudem had his second major learning experience with egalitarians. Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) asked for CBMW leadership to meet with them in an effort to find common ground. At CBE’s urging the CBMW created what they expected would be a joint statement on abuse. The CBMW leadership did not seem to understand that feminists are very open that their focus on abuse is about eradicating headship, not on actual abuse. Even worse, the CBE was merely trying to take the CBMW off message, and had no interest in a mutual statement:
As we talked, there seemed to be agreement that one thing we could do together would be for both organizations to agree publicly that abuse within marriage is wrong. So we agreed to work on a joint statement on abuse. After the meeting, Mary Kassian drafted such a statement, and we got some feedback from the CBE people, and we were going to issue it. But, then on October 10, 1994, we received a letter from them saying that their board had considered it, and they would not join with us in the joint statement opposing abuse. I was shocked and disappointed when the letter came. I wondered then if their highest goal in this issue was to be faithful to Scripture above all and stop the horrors of abuse, or was to promote the egalitarian agenda. We ended up publishing the statement ourselves in CBMW NEWS (later renamed The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood).
Even after this, Grudem seems to have still expected good faith from egalitarians. In yet another incident, Grudem and the CBMW were assured that the gender neutral version of the NIV had been scrapped:
But just before the meeting began, the IBS issued a statement saying they had “abandoned all plans” for changes in gender-related language in future editions of the NIV. So we thought the controversy was done and the NIV would remain faithful in its translation of gender-related language in the Bible.
Little did we know, however, that the Committee on Bible Translation for the NIV had not “abandoned all plans”! Far from it! Unknown to anyone outside their circles, for the next four years the Committee on Bible Translation, apparently with the quiet cooperation of people at Zondervan and the International Bible Society, continued working to produce a gender-neutral NIV. They had publicly “abandoned all plans,” but privately they were going full-steam ahead. Then suddenly in 2001, they announced unilaterally they were abandoning the agreement not to publish gender related changes in the NIV, and they published the TNIV New Testament in 2001 and the whole Bible in 2005.
In his conclusion Grudem says he originally thought the whole feminist rebellion would blow over once he and others carefully explained the correct meaning of Scripture:
I am surprised that this controversy has gone on so long. In the late 80s and early 90s when we began this, I expected that this would probably be over in ten years. By force of argument, by use of facts, by careful exegesis, by the power of the clear word of God, by the truth, I expected the entire church would be persuaded, the battle for the purity of the church would be won, and egalitarian advocates would be marginalized and have no significant influence. But it has not completely happened yet!
Unspoken in this (and complementarianism at large) is an attitude that Christian feminists are not rebelling against God in a pattern that dates back to the fall, but are the natural reaction to a suddenly harsh generation of Christian men. This is why Grudem and his colleagues repeatedly fell for the feminist ruses, and why to this day they are most concerned with showing how reasonable they are. Grudem has adopted the feminist sin of a wife “being a doormat”, and teaches that it is a Christian sin! This feminist teaching, along with the statement on abuse the CBE tricked them into, is part of the founding charter of the CBMW.
However, Grudem is slowly starting to realize that at least some egalitarians aren’t arguing in good faith:
After that, in 2006, my book Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?6 solidified a new viewpoint for me—the conviction that many evangelical feminists are not going to change their minds or be convinced because, it seems to me, they have repeatedly adopted principles or chosen exegetical decisions that undermine or deny the authority of Scripture. Once that abandoning of scriptural authority comes about, then a movement will not be persuaded by Scripture, and in that case, when the culture is going the other way, they will not ever be persuaded on this issue. That conclusion has affected a lot of what I think about where this controversy is going.
But despite this, it is men who are too strong in their support of biblical headship and submission that Grudem warns complementarians need to forever be on guard against:
(2) Beware the opposite error of male supremacy and dominance. Whenever you fight against one error, those who hold the opposite error will cheer you on and seek to become your allies—but beware. Some will become harsh and demeaning and argumentative, and they will not truly honor women as equals in the sight of God.
*The original article is no longer on the CBMW site, so I have linked to an archived version. You can also find the article in the Spring 2009 Quarterly Journal.