My first annual SBC meeting was in 1979, the year the Conservative Resurgence began. I was a seminary student then, and my first decade of service in SBC churches was marked by the great denominational battle over the Bible. I am now 52 years old and have (if all goes well and I lose some pounds) 15 or 20 active years of ministry left (maybe more?). I believe those years will be marked by another battle; a battle over gender roles at home and at church.
I am making no pretense of dispassionate objectivity in this debate. I have come to a conviction based on study of scripture and I believe this issue is crucial. My purpose today is to argue on behalf of the doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son. I am also not a scholar like Bruce Ware, Jeff Robinson, Wayne Grudem and others who have written on the topic. Anyone deeply interested in this subject should read their writings. I want to write a simple, introductory statement of the issues and a brief explanation of what I believe and why I think it is important.
I believe that God’s Word teaches that the Father and Son (and Spirit) are of equal essence – they have an ontological equality that must be maintained by all orthodox Christians. However, I also believe that there is a relational subordination within the Trinity. Though equal in essence with the Father, Jesus submits his will to the will of the Father and seeks the Father’s glory in all that he does.
Because of that, I believe that a husband should be a servant leader in his home and that the authoritative leadership roles in the church (pastor, elders, etc) are reserved for men as well. Women are of equal value and worth as men in God’s eyes, but that he created us with different roles in mind. This world finds this view heinous, Neanderthal and oppressive. But I do not believe that it demeans women. The Son submits to the Father but is equal in essence. If that is so, then submission to another human does not necessarily demean women. We cannot let culture dictate truth.
For this essay, I will present ten assertions that I believe to be true and give what evidence that space allows.
1) The Eternal Subordination (ES) of Jesus is a key component of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity
The “Eternal Subordination of the Son” (ES) is the belief that Jesus, while equal in essence with the Father, submits himself to the will of the Father and works to glorify him. Subordination does not imply oppression or the demeaning of another, but the idea of rank or authority. The Father does not oppress the Son, but simply holds a higher rank of authority in the workings of the Trinity.
The issue at stake is whether this doctrine demeans Jesus Christ. “Egalitarians” (those who oppose this doctrine) maintain that it does precisely that. We who support the doctrine hold that it is possible for one to hold a lesser rank without diminution of essence. Egalitarians have made accusations about the denigration of the Savior inherent in our doctrine.
This is a false and unfair accusation. The Bible clearly asserts the equality of Jesus Christ and the Father. That is not at issue here. The only question is whether one can hold this doctrine without diminishing the glory of Christ. Christ’s glory is not diminished because he obeyed the Father or served the Father’s eternal plan. Jesus gave glory to the Father and thus was glorified himself. It is a distinctly modern sentiment that submission to another is demeaning. I believe that egalitarians are reading their modern prejudice onto a biblical truth. Jesus chose to submit himself to the Father and glorify him. He did not demean himself at all in doing so.
I must be clear here. I believe that Egalitarian denial of ES is a serious misinterpretation of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. On the other hand, I do not call those who believe this heretics. This is a more serious error than simple differences on ecclesiology or eschatology, because it strikes at the nature of God. I would put it in the same category as Open Theism. These are serious doctrinal errors held by Christians who still maintain the biblical doctrine of salvation.
2) The passion attached to ES is largely because of its implication for the gender debate.
I am convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity is not the source of the passion behind this debate. The real issue, as I have already mentioned, is the effect this doctrine has on the issue of biblical gender roles. Paul based his teachings on the roles of husband and wife on the relationship of the Father and the Son (and the Son with the church).
1 Corinthians 11:3 says, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” God is the head of Christ. Christ is the head of the man and the man is the head of the woman. To me, this clearly teaches that Jesus is eternally subordinate to the Father. They are equal in essence but different in rank. Because of that, I believe that husbands should be the “head” of their wives (more on the word “head” later). Ephesians 5:23-24 backs this idea up. “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
This forms the basis of the complementarian (men and women have equal value but different roles) view. It is also why egalitarians (who maintain men and women must have equal roles to have equal value) oppose ES. Subordination of roles is diminution of value in their eyes. It must be opposed in both the Godhead and in marriage.
3) There are three significant positions related to ES (each of which has a corollary in the gender debate.)
There are three views that have been prominent at times in church history. Each of these has a corollary position in the gender debate. I am not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg. Does our view of gender roles color our view of the Trinity or vice versa?
In early church history, a prominent doctrine, called Subordinationism, gained a large following. Subordinationists (Origen, Arius and many others – at one time, it may have been a majority view) held that Jesus was lesser not only in role, but in essence as well. Origen held that Jesus was distinct from and of a different essence than the Father. This doctrine was clearly and soundly rejected by the early church, after much debate. The Athanasian and Nicene Creeds refuted it forcefully.
Even though the orthodox creeds denied Subordinationism, they did not deny that the Father and Son had different roles, the basis of Eternal Subordination. The historical doctrine of the church has been that the Father and the Son (and the Spirit), while equal in essence also have different relational authority. This is the underpinning of the complementarian view of gender roles.
With the advent of the feminist movement, there was also a rise in feminist reinterpretation of key biblical passages about gender. Egalitarians maintain that the equality of the Trinity extends not just to essence, but also to role and authority. They claim that people like me have been blinded by our prejudice and failed to see the true meanings of these passages. I believe that they have employed shoddy hermeneutics and subjective interpretations of history and doctrine, being blinded by a desire to make the scripture fit with cultural norms. As a part of this movement, there has been a reinterpretation of the historic doctrine of the Trinity to eliminate ES.
Subordinationism, a heresy of the early church, maintained that Jesus was lesser than the Father in both role and essence. ES, the historic doctrine of the orthodox creeds and theologies, maintains that the Father and the Son have ontological equality but differences in relational rank. Egalitarians believe that the unity of the Trinity require both ontological and relational equality.
4) Egalitarians err by confusing Subordinationism and ES.
Egalitarians lay a claim that goes against the evidence of history – that the early church clearly rejected ES. Generally, they do that by confusing Subordinationism or by maintaining that there is no difference between the doctrines.
Clearly, the ancient creeds rejected the doctrine that Jesus was distinct from and of lesser essence than the Father. They point this out as proof that ES was rejected. But this is a false comparison. ES maintains passionately the equality of essence of the Godhead. We simply hold that Scripture teaches both sides – ontological equality and relational rank.
Egalitarians cannot nullify ES by simply demonstrating that Subordinationism was rejected by the church in history.
5) Orthodox Christians agree that Jesus was subordinated to the Father during his earthly sojourn.
With very few exceptions, both ES and Egalitarianism admit that Jesus was submissive to the will of the Father while he was on earth. Philippians 2:6-8 makes it abundantly clear that Jesus humbled himself and took a form that was foreign to him; the God of heaven was incarnated and became a servant.
The issue is whether that subordination predates the Incarnation and whether it continued after the Resurrection.
6) The Bible supports the relational subordination of Christ prior to his Incarnation.
The primary description used in scripture to describe the relationship of the First and Second Persons of the Trinity demonstrate that this is an ongoing, eternal relationship. Jesus is the Son of God. Father and Son – a relationship that implies both essential equality and relational rank. Father and Son share identity, but the Father has authority over the Son. Psalms 2:7, a passage applied to Christ in Acts 13:33, Romans 1:4 and Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5, would seem to demonstrate that this Father-Son relationship predated the Incarnation.
Over forty times in the John’s gospel, Jesus mentions that he was sent by the Father to earth to do his work. The one in greater authority sent the one in the subordinate position to accomplish the work assigned to him. Jesus never acted as if this was demeaning. He rejoiced in doing the Father’s will. John 3:16 tells us that because of the great love of the Father for the world, “he sent his only begotten Son.” In John 8:42, Jesus asserted, “I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.” John 12:49-50 makes it very clear. “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.” Jesus made it clear that he came to this earth on the orders of the Father to accomplish the Father’s work. Those orders preceded the incarnation.
7) The Bible supports the relational subordination of Christ after his Resurrection.
Did the subordination of Christ end at the resurrection? Certainly, Philippians 2:9-11 tells us that Jesus was exalted to the highest place and that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Yet, in spite of that truth, Scripture still maintains a subordination of rank that extended even beyond the Resurrection and exaltation of Christ.
The most powerful of these passages is, perhaps, 1 Corinthians 15:24-28. “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘all things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”
How could it be any clearer than that? Jesus will deliver the kingdom to God the Father, who has put all things (except himself) under subjection to Christ. Verse 28 seals the deal. When all things have become subjected to the Son (at the eschatos) the “Son himself will also be subjected to him (the Father) who put all things in subjection under him (the Son).” Why is this? So that God (the Father) may be all in all. All that the Son does to the very end of time is done for the glory of the Father. The Father glorifies the Son that the Son may glorify the Father. Essential equality with relational rank.
Fifteen times the New Testament describes Jesus being at the right hand of God (which clearly implies a secondary authority). In Romans 8:34, Jesus is at God’s right hand interceding for us. “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” The very act of interceding implies appealing to one of superior rank. Ephesians 1:20-23 describes this entire process. “(T)hat he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Note that the exaltation of Christ and the placing of him in authority is done completely by the Father. He is in charge and the Son serves his purposes. This picture is not isolated in the New Testament. Jesus continued to serve the Father’s purposes for the Father’s glory, even after his Resurrection and exaltation.
8) An accurate reading of church history demonstrates that ES was the predominant orthodox view of the Trinity during church history.
Both sides in this debate have maintained that their view represents the historical and orthodox view of the Trinity, and accuse the other side of innovation. I was, frankly, shocked the first time I read someone who claimed that eternal subordination was a recent innovation. That claim is made regularly by advocates of egalitarianism. They say that eternal subordination is a reaction to the cultural changes we have seen in the last generation. As women have gained greater equality in society and church, some have reacted by reinterpreting the doctrine of the Trinity to include ES, thereby justifying complementarianism, which they see as the subjugation and demeaning of women.
This is a uniquely bold reinterpretation of church history. The treatment of the Trinity in all the standard, orthodox systematic theologies of the post-reformation era consistently reveals the key assertions of ES – equality of essence but relational order within the Godhead.
Egalitarians tend to point to two things to buttress their view of church history. First, they point to the rejection of the subordination of Origen and those who followed after him by the ancient creeds (Nicene, Athanasian, etc). They refuse to accept the fact that ancient subordinationism is a significantly different doctrine from eternal subordination. Subordinationists held that Jesus was separate from and a lesser being than the Father. ES rejects that view just as the egalitarians do. We affirm Jesus’ place in the Godhead – his essential equality with the Father. We only hold that was the Trinity relates, there is an order of rank or authority. We deny that this demeans Christ or denies his equality of essence with the Father. The point is that egalitarians cannot simply demonstrate the early church’s rejection of subordination and take that as a rejection of ES. They are two different things. In fact, those who denied subordination demonstrated an understanding that the Father held a place that the Son and Spirit do not.
Egalitarians also point to affirmations of great theologians of the equality of Jesus to the Father. This, again, is a false proof. We do not deny the equality of the Father and Son. We affirm it. In fact, you can go to the theologies of those who affirm ES most strongly and cull statements about the essential equality of the persons of the Godhead. We believe that, just as the egalitarians do. To prove that someone affirmed the equality of essence of the persons of the Godhead proves nothing. Both sides do that.
What egalitarians neglect is the clear evidence that great theologians of Christendom have almost uniformly, until recent years, seen the Trinity as essentially equal with order of authority. Wayne Grudem’s “Systematic Theology” is one of the standard works. He is one of the vocal advocates of ES. On page 252 of his opus, he gives the following quotes from some of the great theological minds.
Charles Hodge was one of the theological luminaries of the 19th Century, serving as principal of Princeton seminary from 1851-1878. He made the following comments in his Systematic Theology. .
“The Nicene doctrine includes, (1) the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority.”
“The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation.”
“The Creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son and Spirit…and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothing; and it is in this sense that they have been accepted by the Church universal.”
Now, if nothing else, we see here that ES is no modern innovation. It was clearly affirmed in the 19th Century by Charles Hodge, an eminent theologian.
Augustus H. Strong, of Rochester Seminary, one of the preeminent Baptist Theologians of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries made the following statements in his Systematic Theology. These quotes also are culled from Grudem, pages 252.
“Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office and operation.”
“The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father, or in other words an order of personalty, office, and operation which permits the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority.”
“We frankly recognize an eternal subordination of Christ to the Father,but we maintain at the same time that this subordination is a subordination of order, office and operation ,not a subordination of essence.”
Stephen Kovach and Peter Schemm, in the September 1999 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, wrote a skillful defense of eternal subordination. It is available on the internet. In that scholarly treatment, they review the history of theology and give a devastating blow to those who hold that ES is not the historical and orthodox position of the church. Their thesis, which they carefully and convincingly demonstrate, is represented in the following quote.
“It cannot be legitimately denied that the eternal subordination of the Son is an orthodox doctrine and believed from the history of the early church to the present day.”
They also decribe the findings of preeminent church historian Philip Schaff that the Nicene Fathers believed that the Father, Son and Spirit “have the same divine dignity but in an order of subordination.” Schaff said that
“…all important scholars since Petavius admit subordination in the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity.”
Kovach and Schemm survey history and reveal the consistent presence of the doctrine of ES throughout church history. Hilary of Poitiers (291-371) in his “De Trinitae” made clear statements of the rank and order of the equal Persons of the Trinity. Athanasius’ “Orationes contra Arianos” gave three proofs of the Son’s eternity. While his chief aim was to prove equality of the Son, he also affirmed an eternal order in the Godhead.
They track the statements of the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, and the Reformers that support the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son. They did not clearly develop this doctrine, as has been done in more modern times. The modern gender battles have drawn us all back to sharpen our grasp on Scriptures. Their main purpose was to prove the deity of Christ and his essential equality with the Father. But even though their focus was on the eternal equality of Christ, they also clearly delineated (if they did not emphasize) the rank and order of the Persons of the Trinity.
Again, I would encourage anyone with greater interest to find and read Kovach and Schemm’s article.
History does not prove truth. What an objective review of church history does prove is that ES has been (in one form or another) the historical and orthodox position of the Christian church. There is no validity to claims made by some that ES is a modern theological innovation.
9) The Greek word kephale implies authority, contrary to egalitarian assertions.
In both 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23, the word head (kephale) is used. The following statements are clearly made. God is the “head” of Jesus. Jesus is the “head” of the church. Jesus is the “head” of man. Man is the “head” of woman. The husband is the “head” of the wife. The traditional interpretation of these passages has been to see “head” as a reference to authority. God has authority over Jesus. Jesus holds authority over the church and the man. The man holds authority over his wife and men hold authority in the church.
Feminist interpreters in recent years have questioned that translation of kephale. They claim that its primary meaning is “source” and that the concept of authority is not inherent in the word. So, who is right?
Again, I cannot give a full treatment to this discussion here. But I would refer the reader to Wayne Grudem’s devastating response to the arguments of Catherine Kroeger in her article “head” from the “Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.” She argues for kephale being interpreted as “source” and he demonstrates the fault in her argument and the weakness of her scholarly methods. CBMW and other sites have information to give help on this issue.
Based on my studies, I would make the following observations. First, it seems clear that in Ephesians 5:23, authority is at issue. The husband is the head of the wife and the wife submits to the husband. The word submission, held in opposition to “head” clearly implies authority. Colossians 2:10 clearly relates the concepts of “head” “with rule and authority.” Ephesians 1:22-23 is unmistakable. “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” All things were put under subjection to Jesus and he was made head over all things. Authority here is undeniable. Even in those passages in which “source” is an acceptable translation, authority is often also a component. Advocates of the “source” interpretation need to demonstrate not only that source is a possible translation, but that it is the presumptive meaning of the word. Paul’s usage makes it clear that authority is implied in his use of the word.
Second, the LXX gives testimony to the inherent concept of authority in kephale. Kephale translates “rosh” (Hebrew for head) 18 times (some are variants). The concept of authority is well evidenced in this and there is no instance of kephale meaning source.
Grudem identifies extrabiblical usages of kephale used metaphorically and demonstrates that the idea of leadership or superior rank is well demonstrated in those.
The most normal and natural interpretation of each of these key passages requires the idea of authority. Too often, feminist interpreters are put in the position of trying to convince us that what the Bible seems to say is not what it really says; that we must filter out our prejudices to see what they see. I am convinced that their interpretation of this word is flawed by their cultural prejudices.
10) Only the ES/Complementarian view adequately explains John 10:30 and 14:28
In John, Jesus makes two straightforward and seemingly conflicting statements. He says, in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” John is the clearest of the gospels on the deity of Christ and his equality with the Father. But, in John 14:28, Jesus also says, “the Father is greater than I.” How can both be true? How can Jesus be one with the Father, yet also assert that the Father is greater? Only the ES position adequately explains this. The Subordinationists denied the former statement.
The Egalitarians are left with the task of explaining away the clear meaning of the latter statement. The Complementarian view explains both. Jesus was referring to his ontological equality in chapter 10. In chapter 14, he refers to his submission to the Father because of their relational rank. ES allows us to balance both verses without ignoring either.
The Eternal Subordination of the Son is the clear teaching of Scripture and is backed up by the consistent testimony of church history. It is an essential component of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. While those who deny ES are not denying the faith, they are adopting a seriously flawed view of God that must be opposed.
I have argued my side forcefully, and I expect others to do the same. Let’s play nice, though, folks.