Eternal Subordination?

Dear Complementarian Friend,

In my last post, I wrote from the perspective of a minister and church leader, concerned about the impact on the church of proclaiming certain views about women.

For this one, I’d like to put on my theological hat.

The whole term "Complementarian" has been around for 30 years, as a reaction to some evangelicals promoting equality for women in marriage and in the church. The counter-arguments (and the torrents of books and articles) began in earnest.

It seems to me these Complementarian arguments are on a sliding scale of merit.

Some appeal to biology (“men and women are biologically different, and reflect different roles... that doesn’t make them unequal”). Some appeal to proof texts (“wives, submit to your husbands”). Some appeal to biblical precedent (“the twelve apostles were all men”) (1) Some appeal to church tradition… and a mixture of all of this and more. I can discuss such things civilly, I hope. (2)

But there is a Complementarian argument going around called “the eternal subordination of the Son”. I'm a little nervous about that.

Wayne Grudem, (3) a prominent Complementarian theologian and founder of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has stated: “I hold to the eternal submission of the Son to the Father”

Strachan and Peacock, in The Grand Design note “The Father is the authority of Christ, and always has been…There is no Holy Trinity without the order of authority and submission”.

In effect, they seem to suggest that Christ is like some kind of archetype of feminine submission to male leadership.

Now I don’t normally quote Complementarians on this blog, but I will in this case. To quote from Dr. Liam Goligher:

“(These writers) are building their case by reinventing the doctrine of God, and are doing so without telling the Christian public what they are up to. What we have is in fact a departure from biblical Christianity as expressed in our creeds and confessions. Out of that redefinition of God their teaching is being used to promote a new way of looking at human relationships which is more like Islam than Christianity; more concerned with control and governance than with understanding the nuances of the relationship of the Son with His Father in eternity on the one hand and how that differs from the roles they adopt in the economy of redemption on the other. They make this move by failing to distinguish between God as He is in Himself (ontology) and God as He is in Christ in outworking of the plan of redemption (economy).

“They are in turn doing great dishonor to Christ. They collapse the intra-Trinitarian life of God into the roles adopted by the persons to accomplish our redemption. If they are right, then Paul is wrong when he writes that Christ "took the form of a servant" and became man in order that He might become "obedient to death," because for these new teachers, his obedience in his humanity is simply an extension of his eternal obedience. It means the writer to the Hebrews is wrong because Jesus did not "learn obedience" since He had spent eternity "obeying" His Father. Jesus is wrong because, when He says, "I and the Father are one," He means so only in a modified sense. And John is wrong when He says that “the Word is God,” for, by definition, if He is a servant bound to obey, then He must not have as much Godness as God the Father has in His Himself. Surely it has been the basic stuff of Christian preaching that Christ gave up status and place to take on our humanity and become obedient to death, even the death of the cross. Where is the glory in Christ's humiliation and obedience that have been the theme of our songs through the ages? Let there be no doubt at this point; departure from the faith starts with incremental adjustments to received doctrine, those adjustments eventually lead people away from the faith altogether. So, we urgently need to see how far these men are moving.”

You can read more of Goliger's perspective here

Christianity Today has written a good overview of the theological wars on this topic, critiquing the "eternal subordination' movement as "socially right-wing, deeply conservative and neo-Calvinist, with deep pockets, charismatic and successful figureheads and granite certainties. That doesn't make it right."

CBE has a helpful article on this topic also: here.

So be a Complementarian… though as noted in my previous post, I think there are good reasons to be quiet about it. But I think Goliger's concerns need thoughtful consideration. The Nicene Creed states:

"We believe... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man."

Should we be messing with the equality of Christ with the Father?

In the words of the aforementioned Christianity Today article: "If people really feel they must be complementarians, they would be wise not to ground their views on such a very contentious re-interpretation of the Trinity."


(1) The 12 were all Jewish, and uniquely called “the apostles”. Jesus noted they were (male) judges over the 12 tribes, a messianic symbol of the restoration of Israel (Matthew 9: 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel".) Very few of the people who insist on the maleness of the 12 as an archetype of church leadership, also insist that church leaders must be Jewish. (Though it seems like the same logic to me).

(2) OK, I’m prone to ranting sometimes, and to excessive use of humour.

(3) As I write it's 100 days into Trump's Presidency, and I am still bemused that Grudem publicly advocated voting for him. (I think Grudem's at his best when he sticks to systematic theology). It should be said I am bemused by any Christian leader adopting any public partisan position, and am bemused by US politics in general. But I digress....


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