Subordinationism and Gender


For decades, theologians have debated Trinitarian doctrine: whether the Trinity exists in scripture; what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are; whether the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate personas, etc. These debates and disagreements are still present in current doctrine, and provide some of the basis for denominational separation today. However, they actually date all the way back to the third and fourth centuries, when dozens of scholars sought to define and explain the foundation for the Trinity laid out by the apostles in scripture. Their endeavors at explaining scripture has served as the groundwork that has shaped Christian knowledge, and discussion, of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, it has even shaped the use of Trinitarian terms. This paper will focus on a specific area in Trinitarian debate called subordinationism, an extreme form of subordinationism known as Arianism, and contemporary conservative evangelical use of subordination. This paper will look at how subordinationism was defined in the early church in the third and fourth centuries, it will look at how Arianism radically reformed and developed its own subordinationism, and it will look at how contemporary evangelicals have manipulated subordinationism to support their doctrine about gender inequality. Through this historical account, this paper will argue that Trinitarian doctrines that do not have a balance between both the unity of the Godhead and individuality of the persons cause a heretical view of God, and lead to beliefs and behaviors that contradict His basic attributes, principles, and commandments for His people. Furthermore, this unity and individuality evidenced in the relational dynamics of the Trinity is the best example God could give His children for human beings striving to regain likeness with Him: it shows us how to successfully relate to one another in equality of nature, but difference in function.

As explained previously, early Christian scholars in the third and fourth centuries actively sought to explain the relationship of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is through their efforts that we have the doctrine of the Trinity today, even as far at the terminology that is currently used in describing these relations. However, even as contemporary times suggest, whenever interpretation of scripture takes place, debate and conflict arise; subordinationism is an example of such disagreements. Those who embraced subordinate ideals, in most cases, advocated the inferiority of Jesus Christ, and subsequently the Holy Spirit, to God the Father in nature, being, and essence. In these terms, subordinationists saw God the Father as head of the Trinity, like a commander in a military sense, and thus argued that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are subjects under Him, subordinate to His command and authority. Thus, subordinationism implies that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are lesser “gods, not of the same substance of God the father. However, it is important to understand that not all subordinationists ascribed to this idea that Jesus Christ was a lesser God, and this is where the conflict arose. Thus, it is necessary to divide subordinationism into two sects, the orthodox and the heretical: functional subordinationism, and ontological subordinationism.

Functional subordination is the idea that subordination is “for the sake . . . of accomplishing a specific task [and is] therefore limited in scope or duration” (Pierce and Groothuis, 2004, p. 316). Thus, functional subordination is dependent upon circumstances. For example, a blind person is subject to the authority of his or her see-and-eye dog while negotiating a busy street. Similarly, a student is under the authority of his or her teacher in the context of inferior knowledge about the subject being taught (Pierce and Groothuis, 2004, p. 316). If this idea is applied to the Trinity, then it can be argued that Jesus was subject to the authority of the Father during His incarnation and resurrection because He took on the inferior body of the human being. However, after He returned to heaven and shed His earthly body, He was no longer functionally subordinate: His “subordination [was] limited in scope or duration because it [was] contingent on conditions that [did] not always and everywhere obtain” (Pierce and Groothuis, 2004, p. 318). Most early church theologians, as well as Christians today, believed that there was a hierarchical structure within the Trinity in relation to the incarnate Son, but once the Son was resurrected, and returned to heaven, this hierarchical structure was no longer in place because the function had been fulfilled. Thus, functional subordinationism was seen as orthodox, and anyone who ascribed to the ontological subordination of the Son was seen as a heretic.
Ontological subordinationism is, as stated earlier, the crux of heretical subordinationism: it ascribes to the belief that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are inferior to God the Father in nature, essence, and being. Therefore, ontological subordinationism focuses on the Biblical teaching that there is only one true God. “God the Father . . . is God in the fullest sense, the Son is the . . . Word of God always in the Father who was brought forth for creation and redemption” (Giles, 2004, pp. 272-273). Thus, because The Son and Spirit are generated from the Father, they do not share the same essence, or being. Nevertheless, the Son and Spirit are fully divine persons, but this ontological difference in being subordinates them to the one true God. Therefore, ontological subordinationism focuses on specific passages of the Bible that support the inferiority of the Son, without filtering in those that state that the three persons of the Trinity work together in unity and that there is no inferiority among them: they ascribe to a heretical view of God because their doctrine denies all the attributes of God that appear in Biblical text.

Arianism is similar to ontological subordination in the idea that the human traits of the incarnate Son proved that he was inferior to the Father, that he was somewhat of a vulnerable God. Because of this, the Son always does the will of the Father, he has to be obedient; the Son is the Father’s subordinate, and describing God the Father and Son as coeternal negates the hierarchical structure of father and son language. The Arians’ ontological subordination of the Son “always had as its corollary the eternal functional subordination of the Son” (Giles, 2004, p. 273). However, Arianism takes subordinationism a step further and argues that, “the Son imaged the Father, but only by being created as a derivative copy of some of the Father’s attributes” (Ayres, 2004, p. 16). For the Arians, because the Son is begotten of the Father, it is impossible for him to be God because God is “uncreated, unbegotten, unoriginated” (Fortman, 1982, p. 63). Furthermore, the Son and Holy Spirit could not be of the same essence as the Father because that would imply that the Father is divisible and mutable. Therefore, Arians believed that the Son was made out of nonexistence and was thus a creature produced by an act of God’s will. Thus, there was not always a Son, so God was not always Father: God created the Son “as an instrument by which He created the world” (Letham, 2004, p. 113), so the unity of the Trinity is a moral one dependent on will, not an ontological unity dependent on essence. Thus, for the Arians, Jesus was more than ontologically subordinate, because not only was He not like God the Father is essence, being, and nature, but He only existed because of the will of the Father. It was impossible for Jesus to have any ontological relation with the Father; the only similarities to the Father were those created in Him by the Father. Thus, one could argue that the Arians created their own, hybrid subordinationism, one that combined with ontological subordinationism only to be manipulated for their own beliefs about the attributes of God.

A contemporary example of subordinationism is that of conservative evangelicals to support the idea that women are subordinate to men in marriage and in the church. These conservative evangelicals argue that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role or function, but equal to Him in essence or being. These conservative evangelicals, like the Arians, have come up with their own form of subordinationism, because prior to their claims, subordinationism argued that although the Son is divine, he is subordinate in his essence, nature, and being, while also being subordinate in his role and functions – ontological subordinationism. However, evangelicals are the first to ague that the Son is of the same essence as the Father, therefore He is equal in nature and being, but he is eternally subordinated in his role and functions. Thus, contemporary subordinationism among conservative evangelicals is a blending of functional and ontological subordinationism. Where functional subordinationism states that Jesus was solely subordinate in function in His incarnation, evangelicals argue that His eternal existence is functionally subordinate to God the Father. Conversely, where ontological subordinationism use evidence of Jesus’ role and functions to support claims that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father because it is impossible for Jesus to share essence with an immutable God, evangelical subordinationism argues that the Son’s role and functions make him eternally subordinate to the Father, while still having the same essence and nature of the Father. However, there are some evangelicals who believe that the Son’s subordination in function to the Father implies that he is also subordinate in essence, nature, and being as well.

Nevertheless, evangelical subordinationism argues that the Father is over the Son in authority, and that there is a hierarchical structure within the Trinity. They purport that this subordination of the Son to the Father, this hierarchical structure within the Trinity, correlates with gender relations between men and women. “Just as the divine Father-Son relationship is hierarchically ordered, so too are the husband-wife relationship in the home and the man-woman relationship in the church” (Pierce and Groothuis, 200, p. 334). Thus, these evangelicals purport that men and women are equal in nature, essence, and being, but women are forever subject to the authority of men functionally, both in the church, – a woman cannot have a higher position over a male – and in the home – the husband is the leader, commander, head of the wife, her role is to heed to his authority. Thus, no matter how “qualified a woman is, this can never overrule [the fact that] in church and home, she must not have authority over a man but must support and submit to a man’s authority over her” (Pierce and Groothuis, 2004, p. 302). These evangelicals are convinced that the Bible places men in authority over women. “Just as God has given ‘headship’ to men in the home and the church, so the Father has a ‘headship’ over the Son and this can never change. The eternal subordination of the Son in authority has its counterpart in the permanent subordination of women” (Giles, 2005, p. 4). In essence, what is being said is that women and men are equal in being, but unequal in role.

It is important to note, as Kevin Giles points out, that prior to the twentieth century, it was common to speak of, and purport, the superiority of men and inferiority of women. But, after the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, Christians were forced to abandon this language of inferiority, and “most also abandoned the idea that women were subordinated to men” (Giles, 2005, p. 4). Most conservative evangelicals abandoned this language, but still harbored the perception that men actually were superior and women inferior. Thus, they sought a way to support these principles with subtler wording. Therefore, “they said men and women are equals, it is simply that God has given them different roles” (Giles, 2005, p. 5). As evidenced earlier, although this sounded good, the meaning was entirely different, and not as nice: they argue that men were given the role of leading, and women the role of obeying, “no other role is in mind” (Giles, 2005, p. 5). Thus, the difference in role is really a difference in authority, which is really a circular way of saying that men are still superior and women are inferior. Add to this the argument about the subordination of the Son to the Father, and you have the perfect, acceptable sounding, modern and spiritual proof for the eternal inferiority of the woman. These evangelical theologians reformed the doctrine of the Trinity using the same terms and ideas they used to prove the leadership of men: the Father and Son are equally divine; they just have different roles or functions. What are these functions? The Father is the commander, the director, the leader, and the Son’s function is to obey and go as the Father sends. Thus, once again, the meaning for their argument of different roles is really an argument for difference in authority, and the evangelicals have a way of subordinating women through scripture. “If women are permanently subordinated in role and their subordinate role can never change, then they are the subordinated sex. In some way they are less than men . . .. Women do not merely function subordinately. In creation, God set them under men in perpetuity” (Giles, 2005, p. 5). Thus, when completely analyzed, these evangelicals have a circular argument, and in essence, support the ontological subordination of the Son without explicitly saying so, simply for the purpose of subtly advocating the inferiority of women. “The Father rules over the Son like men are to rule over the women set under them” (Giles, 2005, p. 5).

This circular argument is part of the basis for criticism of this conservative evangelical subordinationism, however most critics find a problem with the ontological connotations in their claims that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. Critics feel that “the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in function undermines the complete unity of person and work in the Godhead” because it implies that the Son is not fully equal to the Father in “divinity, majesty, power, and authority” (Pierce and Groothuis, 2004, p. 338). However, this is not necessarily true because there are several circumstances in which “equals have different roles – even roles of subordination and authority – yet with no entailment of personal inequality” (Pierce and Groothuis, 2004, p. 314). Is it not possible, then, for the Son to be subordinate to the Father in function while still being equal to Him? These critics would most likely agree, if the statement were qualified. They would more than likely say yes, it is possible for the Son to e equal to the Father in essence, but subordinate in function – during the incarnation. However, this is not necessarily completely true either. As argued by Robert Letham, the Son was the only person of the Trinity to become incarnate, not the Father, nor the Holy Spirit. Thus, “the Son has permanently and everlastingly united himself to humanity; the Father and Spirit have not” (Letham, 2008, p. 340).

Modern Trinitarian perspective illustrates this point best in describing the Trinity as a community of three persons who work in perfect unity and harmony with each other. Furthermore, there is a “downward thrust in God, from Father to Son by the Holy Spirit” that shows “a subordination that is not subordinationism or inequality of being in God” (Thompson, 1994, p. 146). The beauty of the Trinity is that the three persons perfectly submit to the authority of one another in unity, and there is no conflict, no jealousy, no hatred. Thus, the Trinity is the ultimate example for the human, especially believer, of one of the most important lessons God has been trying to teach His children after the fall: how to relate in community with other human beings in order to reshape oneself back into His likeness and regain communion with Him.

In relation to evangelical subordinationism, this idea can immediately be applied to the relationship of a husband to his wife, and vice versa. Most supporters of evangelical subordinationism quote 1 Corinthians 11:3 which states “that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (KJV). Evangelicals use this verse to support the subordination of women and of Christ. However, there are some problems with this interpretation. First, the Greek work kephale translated to head in English has multiple meanings in this passage, and in verse three does not “denote a relation of subordination or authority over” (Giles, 2004, p. 284). If we take this into account and jump over to Ephesians 5, we find a passage that admonishes husbands and wives to submit themselves one to another. Wives are to submit themselves to their husbands, and husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. In this context then, one can argue that the headship assigned to the husband means submitting, while also leading by example. Christ loved the church, His love for the church led Him to incarnate Himself to not only submit to us by dying for our transgressions, but to also provide an example of someone who could truly live upright before God; therefore, just as Christ lead the church, so too should husbands lead their wives.

Furthermore, in this context, equality of essence but difference of roles does not condone the superiority of males. Rather, it acknowledges that just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have different functions within the Trinity, which still having equality of being, each person is able to work in unity and perfection together. So should, and can, a wife and husband. Thus, “to say that two people differ in function is not to say that one is personally superior to the other” (Pierce and Groothuis, 2004, p. 314). Let it be noted that this position does not advocate cultural conventions of the “roles” for men and women, but rather the constant submission of husbands and wives to each other, as the Trinity constantly submits one to another. What works for one marriage does not always work for another, as well as the fact that one person’s strengths are another person’s weaknesses. Thus, as the parable of the talents teaches that the Master gives us each different gifts and abilities, determination of roles and functions within a marriage is personal. The two spouses should submit to one other and God, just as the individual persons of the Trinity submit one to another.

This principle of working together in unity can be expanded to community relations among mankind. Once again, the example of the unity yet individuality of the Trinity is a prime example of community relation, and God’s desire for His children to relate with each other in love. This example is illustrated all the way back in the Old Testament, when God gave the Law to Moses for the children of Israel. While the Law gave provisions for our relationship with God, much of it was also concerned about community relations with each other. As Leviticus 19:18 states, God desires that we love our neighbors as ourselves, and once again, this idea of equality in being, but difference in function brings a fresh perspective to community relations. As stated before, God gives us each different gifts and abilities, but as Romans 12:4-6 states, “for as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us” (KJV). These verses plainly speak of the community relationship God desires of us as humans, furthermore believers. Just as the body would not function properly if one part were missing, so too is the community relation of Christ’s church. We all have different roles, different functions, and no role or function is more important than the other because the body of Christ would not function properly without it. Thus, we are to submit one to another, and work in unity, in order for the community to be successful, in order to allow the body to function properly.

The interrelationship between the persons of the Trinity is the perfect example for humans, but especially believers, to relate with each other. Just as the three persons of the Trinity work together and submit to each other, they each have different functions. Furthermore the Trinity would not function properly, God would not be God, if one of the persons of the Trinity were not present. God would not be God if He were not God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The three persons, in unity, are God, but are also individually different. “The Father gives being to the Son, but in this the Son is not simply passive; he responds in receiving and accepting in obedience. Likewise, Son and Spirit are bound together in mutually receiving from the Father” (Thompson, 1994, p. 145). Thus, there is an eternal self-giving present in the Godhead, but this does not denote inferiority: “there is and must be total equality” (Thompson, 1994, p. 146). The Trinity is a community of three persons, with three separate centers of consciousness, who exist in unity with one another while still depending on one another. And that is the beauty of the Trinity: “they are bound together in love, agape love, which, therefore, unites them in the closest and most intimate of relationships” (Giles, 2004, p. 282). This agape love is how we, through the example of the Trinity, should relate with each other. The agape love that God the Father shows the Son and Spirit, and vice versa, is not selfish, and makes “each more concerned for the other than for himself. There is therefore a mutual submission of each to each of the others and a mutual glorifying of one another” (Giles, 2004, p. 282). Thus, there does exist an eternal functional subordination in the Godhead, but perhaps subordination is not the best term because of its hierarchical connotations of commanding officer and subordinate. Rather, we will say that there exists a self-less community order within the Godhead, where each puts the other before himself, each has separate functions, but each work together in unity, perfection, and love: the perfect example of how we, as humans, should treat our brothers and sisters.

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