Are women subordinate to men in family, church and society? That question rages throughout much of Evangelical Christianity today. It has been a major topic since at least the mid-nineteenth century when examinations of the scripture in the light of slavery began to challenge widely held hermeneutical approaches. The same questions that were raised about inequality between slaves and free persons quickly were applied to the issue of women’s subordination to men. One of the hallmarks of the Evangelical movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was its support of women’s suffrage and equality.
The Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions have had their own reasons for excluding women from leadership in the Church. Some have been based on scriptural interpretation of key passages and others have had more to do with their understanding of the sacramental role of clergy in the life of the church. For instance, Christ was a man, as were the apostles, and a man is needed to represent Christ to the people in the Eucharist. (Of course, they didn’t require a Jewish man.) These theological and ecclesiastical justifications became irrelevant for Protestants after the Reformation and their cry of sola Scriptura. The primary justification left for subordination of women was the teaching of Scripture in passages like 1 Corinthians 14, Ephesians 5, and 1 Timothy 2. When pressed on why these passages excluded women from leadership, the general rationale expressed as late as the twentieth century was bluntly that women are inferior to men.
Of course, the upheavals of the twentieth century have demonstrated that women are not inferior to men. Clearly there are differences in the aggregate on how men and women might approach some issues or problems but the overlap is more considerable than the differences. Clearly no given woman is inferior in intellect, ethical discernment or in leadership capabilities compared to men as a class, any more than any man is superior in these abilities compared to women as a class.
This growing realization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created somewhat of a crisis in Protestant circles. What are we to make of the passages that we have traditionally interpreted as indicating women’s subordination and the inferiority of women? Were we mistaken? Several strands of Evangelicalism in the nineteenth century had already come to the conclusion that these passages were culturally specific and not culturally transcendent. Many of the revivalists adopted this position. Holiness churches like the Wesleyan Methodists, Free Methodists, Salvation Army, Church of God, and Church of the Nazarene all took these positions. Coming into the twentieth century the Pentecostal movement took the same view. In addition, American Baptists, Evangelical Mennonites and even some predecessor denominations in the United Methodist and Presbyterian traditions began to ordain women before the twentieth century (although it was not widely practiced until the 1950s and 1960s.) The theological justifications for the change ran from carefully articulated exegesis to social justice thinking that took a low view of Scripture.
So you are now five paragraphs into this book review and by now I am sure you must be asking with what does any of this have to do with Jesus and the Trinity? If you read Kevin Giles’ book Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity you will learn that it has a great deal to with it.
Kevin Giles is the vicar of St. Michael’s Church in North Carlton, Australia, and has a ThD. from Tubingen University. He is with the Anglican Church of Australia. A central focus of his theological discourse has been with developments in the Diocese of Sydney and doctrinal statements they have made, but he has had considerable dialog with the American scene, most notably in addressing the work of people like Wayne Grudem and groups like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). I first became acquainted with Giles work when I read his book The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate. I see Jesus and the Father as an expansion and elaboration of this earlier book but there is enough unique material in each book that I recommend reading both.
Fundamentalists and some strains of conservative Evangelical Christianity have been troubled by the upheavals in American culture since the 1960s. They see confusion about sex and gender as central to much of the dysfunction that has emerged over the past half century and a key contributor to that confusion is the feminist movement. They also are critical of what they see as accommodation to the culture by some evangelicals. They believe the “plain teaching” of the Bible on gender roles is being distorted. (They often ignore the fact that these controversies extend back more than a century before the modern feminist movement began in the 1960s.) Consequently, any yielding on the role of women spells a capitulation to cultural accommodation, denial of the Word of God and the collapse of the social order. In other words, this is a fight to death.
The problem, of course, is that the historic teaching that women are inferior no longer is acceptable in our culture, even in conservative circles. We have inherited the “plain teaching” of Scripture and a practice of women’s subordination, but the “women’s inferiority” theological underpinning has been removed. Evangelicals who have opted for abandoning women’s subordination are often accused of creating novel theologies. To some degree this is true. But those who cling to women’s subordination are doing the same thing with various passages of scripture. For instance, hierarchical complimentarians argue that women must be subordinate because of the order in which men and women were created. Yet before the mid-twentieth century this idea of maintaining a created order is absent. What we have is a conclusion that because woman was created second she is inferior. Furthermore, it was widely held that passages like 1 Timothy 2:13-14 taught that women are inferior because they are more prone to deception, just as Eve was. This common understanding has been dropped and is even refuted by the hierarchical complimentarians.
Quibbling over the meaning of a specific passage is one thing but Giles shows quite convincingly that something more disturbing is at work here. We are witnessing the emergence of the heresy of subordinationism within Evangelical circles. This debate over subordinationism extends back at least as far as the Nicene Creed when Arius’ argument that Christ was less than full deity was rejected by the Church. Since that time, until the past two centuries the Church has uniformly held to the doctrine of equality in the Trinity. The exceptions have been certain evangelicals like Charles Hodge in the nineteenth century. Hodge taught that Christ was ontologically subordinate (in being and function) to the Father just as slaves are to masters and women are to men. (34-37) In fact, ontological subordinationism seems to be closed linked to American Reformed theologies defense of slavery.
The hierarchical “complimentarians” have a new spin on subordinationism. They teach that Jesus and the Father are “Equal in being, unequal in role.” What is the inequality in role? Giles writes “He [Wayne Grudem] writes, ‘The Father has the role of commanding, directing, and sending’ and the Son has ‘the role of obeying, going as the Father sends, and revealing God to us.’” (21) This is the eternal role distinction between Father and Son. Therefore, the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. The relationship between man and woman is the same as that between Father and Son. Men and women are “equal in being, unequal in role.” Women are eternally subordinate to men because that is their role. This novel teaching was first introduced into the modern debate by George K. Knight, III’s The New Testament Teaching on the Role and Relationship of Men and Women in 1977.
It is here that we have to understand the difference between what theologians call the economic trinity and immanent (or ontological) trinity. (Giles gives an excellent review of how this difference has been understood over the history of Church in chapter 7.) In short (definitions from Wikipedia):
- Economic Trinity: This refers to the acts of the triune God with respect to the creation, history, salvation, the formation of the Church, the daily lives of believers, etc. and describes how the Trinity operates within history in terms of the roles or functions performed by each of the Persons of the Trinity.
- Ontological Trinity: This speaks of the Trinity "within itself."
There clearly is a sense in which the Son subordinated himself to the Father for his earthly mission to humanity and creation. But the historical position has been that Christ temporarily subordinated himself to the Father to accomplish his earthly mission. At the end of his mission he returns back to his former status. Philippians 2:5-11:
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death --
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (NRSV)
Giles gives a wonderful analysis of this passage in Chapter 3. (101-103) The hymn begins with noting Christ’s equality with the Father (v. 6) and his choosing to become submissive to the Father. (v.7) Then God “exalted him” which means restored to equality. (v. 9) The idea of “Jesus is Lord” in verse 11, means Lord above everything in the sense that Yahweh is above all things. Jesus is no longer subordinate to the Father as he was in his earthly mission. (Giles also addresses the complex passage of 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 (112-115) and shows why he believes that this passage supports the conclusions he makes from Philippians but notes, “Here I think – more than anywhere else in Paul’s writings – our attempts to understand the apostle are penultimate and inadequate.” (115))
All this is to say that there is subordination of the Son to the Father in the economic Trinity but the idea of subordination in the immanent or ontological trinity is anathema to the Church throughout the centuries. This is the line that has been crossed by evangelical proponents of subordination. Yet these hierarchical complimentarians, like Robert Doyle, insist that theologians throughout the ages like Athanasius, Augustine, Calvin, Barth and Rahner, have held their position of eternal subordinationism. (27) How is this so? To get a grip on this, one has to appreciate the incredible linguistic gymnastics that have been created by these folks.
With regard to the word role Giles writes:
“In everyday speech the word role refers to actions people perform, for example in the home who cooks, cuts the lawn, goes to work, and so forth. One’s role does not define one’s person. Roles can change. In evangelical literature supporting the permanent subordination of women in the home and the church, the word role (and its synonym function) has another meaning. It is a gender-and-person-defining category. A woman’s role, which is nothing other than her subordination in authority to men, defines who she is. She is the subordinated sex. Her role or function defines her being: It can never change. A man’s role is to lead. It is this “role” that defines him as a man.” (45-46)
In “The Trinity and Subordinationism,” (T&S) Giles uses the example of a military officer with a subordinate.
“In other words, the officer’s superior role is not intrinsically connected with who he is. His role is not an essential feature of his personhood.” (182)
It is also in T&S that Giles points out the use of the word role did not enter into the theological debate until Knights book mentioned above was published. (180)
Giles goes on to write about the word different. Most of would use the word to mean things like apples are different from oranges. Numbers are different from letters. None of this implies a hierarchy between apples and oranges or numbers and letters. Therefore, when you or I say that the persons of the Trinity are different there is no implication of hierarchy, correct? Not according to hierarchical complimentarians. Giles writes:
"Another key term in the evangelical literature advocating the subordination of women and the Son of God is different/difference. In everyday speech these cognate words mean “other than” or “not the same.” In the writings of my debating opponents they imply or mean “subordinated.” If anyone denies women are permanently subordinated, or the Son is eternally subordinated, they are accused of denying difference itself. … To be differentiated is to be subordinated. Thus, when egalitarians deny that the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father, they are accused of denying divine differentiation itself: of being “modalists.”" (46-47)
Next we encounter the word inferior. The hierarchicalists insist that they are not teaching that women are inferior. Subordination does not mean inferior. “Equal in being, different in role.” Giles writes:
“It is true that someone holding an inferior or subordinate position is not necessarily in their person (ontologically) inferior. … They would only be permanently inferior if the could never hold the superior position whatever their gifts, training, or experience might be. … If women are permanently subordinated to men and the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father, they are in some way less than the one who is always over them.” (48)
Thus, despite there protestations to the contrary, the subordinationists have made women ontologically inferior to men and the Son inferior to the Father.
Yet another word that gets distorted is the word order.
“The word order used relationally always implies the question, what order? Is it hierarchical, vertical, circular horizontal, sequential, chronological, or simply according to a given plan or pattern? In this last sense it is a synonym for the word dispose, meaning to arrange in a proper, given, or prescribed way. It is taken as axiomatic that the relations between the divine three persons of the trinity are ordered because nothing in God is random or arbitrary.” (48-49)
If you have read at all about the Trinity you know that order within the Trinity, as Giles has described it here, it is a central focus.
“Evangelicals committed to the permanent subordination of women and the eternal subordination of the Son almost invariably take the word order to mean “hierarchy” or “sub-ordering”.... [Yet] When orthodox theologians affirm the divine order they are never endorsing hierarchical order in the Godhead.” (49)
With this tortured semantics in mind, it is not hard to see how subordinationists find their position supported by many of the great theologians throughout the ages. Indeed, these historic leaders write about “differences” between persons of the Trinity and “order” among the persons of the Trinity. Giles examines case after case of subordinationists claims of historical support for their position, showing that they are little more than quotes taken out context into which subordinationists have read their idiosyncratic meanings for terms. Giles also points out that until the last generation or so, the doctrine of the Trinity has been sorely neglected for age. Many twentieth century theologians barely mention the Trinity and when they do it is not usually in a systematic form, making it hard at times to be certain with precision about their view with regard to some aspects of the Trinity. In the few cases where the new subordinationists find support for their thinking (like with Charles Hodge) it is misleading. Hodge taught that Christ was eternally subordinate but unlike the new position he clearly taught that this was an ontological reality. (37) Thus, the “equal in being, unequal in role” is nothing more than a semantic illusion that holds up neither to history or logic.
Giles observes one aspect of this debate which I have personally experienced in conversations with subordinationists. They will claim they are upholding the historic teaching of the Church. So I go to the Church tradition to show it does not say what they have claimed. The response back is that tradition is not our final authority, Scripture is. So we go to Scripture and begin examining passages. When it is shown that the Greek words and grammar do not say what the subordinationist's claim, or we place the scripture in context, accusations of “novel interpretations” that depart from what the Church has always taught are alleged. So we go back to tradition and the loop starts all over. This, combined with the highly idiosyncratic semantics, makes dialog so tedious that I question whether it is even worth the effort.
Giles does a wonderful job of examining the historical dialog about the Trinity, making the subject matter comprehensible. I am not saying that it doesn’t require some work because it does. These are highly abstract concepts but they are absolutely central to the life of the Church. Unfortunately, as Giles observes, too many Christians view the Trinity as an inconsequential and esoteric matter. (12-13) It is this neglect that is allowing heresy to emerge. Giles brings these complex issues into a package that I think most readers with a basic understanding of the Bible and Church history can begin to comprehend.
My life in the PCUSA has exposed me to some of the most unique theology (I am trying to be polite here) I have ever seen including universalism and Sophia worship. What I fear is not so clear to some of my Evangelical friends who wag their fingers at heresy in mainline traditions is the blindness to the insidious nature of doctrines like subordinationism entering their own midst. I am sympathetic with those who struggle with passages like 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and wonder what they mean for today. While I utterly reject the idea of subordination of women, differentiating between culturally contextual guidance and transcendent principles is difficult work. However, the twisting of words and the misrepresentation of the both the Word and tradition by purported teachers is deeply disturbing. Giles work is welcome corrective. I highly recommend it. You can order it by clicking here.