In the Incarnation, does it make a difference whether the Father sends the Son or the Son sends the Father?

the trinity and subordinationism
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Although most Christians would answer with a resounding “yes,” gender egalitarians, in their pursuit of radical equality between the sexes, appear to be suggesting otherwise. On the surface, connection of gender equality with the Trinity seems strained, even strange. Philosophy and theology, however, demand or at least suggest a tight relationship. This post explains. In more technical terms, it describes how the Trinitarian doctrine of “eternal subordination of the Son to the Father” functions within the present-day dispute over gender roles among evangelical Christians. In doing that, it also provides a broad critique of Kevin Giles, one of the leading proponents for remaking the Trinity into a model (and therefore motive) for the interchangeability of the sexes.

The present dispute between “egalitarians” and “complementarians” is over the implications of passages such as Ephesians 5:22-24 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 for male-female relationships.

Ephesians 5:22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. (NASB)

1 Corinthians 11:3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. (NASB)

Egalitarians argue for “mutual submission” of husbands and wives, while complementarians argue for complementary submission– wives to husbands and husbands to Christ. Egalitarians seek to remove all perceived inequalities between male and female in church and in home.[1] They often style themselves as “biblical feminists” or “evangelical feminists.”

Complementarians, as the name suggests, see the complementary pattern of roles and submission in the godhead as the timeless pattern for analogous relationships between males and females. Their goal is to realize that pattern in church and in family. For them, both relationships (divine and human) reflect the enduring natures of the persons in question.[2]

Egalitarians view the same relationships (human and divine) in terms of “temporary subordination.” The Son was subordinate to the Father only in relation to His incarnated existence. Similarly, the subordination of wives to husbands is not normative, but rather simply reflects temporary accommodations to a patriarchal culture– accommodations that no longer make sense.[3]

The controversy is largely fueled by the negative valuations contemporary culture places on subordination, particularly those related to gender. It deals with that offense in three ways:

  • The first tactic is Reinterpretation of troublesome passages to eliminate offense.
  • If reinterpretation fails, then Reevaluation of passages eliminates applicability to present situations.
  • If both reinterpretation and reevaluation fail, then Repudiation of scripture becomes necessary.

The “Three R’s” of reinterpretation, reevaluation, and repudiation represent escalating ways of dealing with unwelcome ideas. If one tactic fails, then another is attempted. Although gender debates cover all of the “R’s,” the narrow issue of “eternal subordination” begins with the first “R”– reinterpretation─ more specifically, reinterpretation of the nature of the godhead to support a particular view of male-female relationships.

More precisely, the recasting of the Son’s subordination to the Father as temporary rather than eternal is actually a second-order reinterpretation– something of a retrenchment due to the failure of a prior reinterpretation, both of which intend(ed) to achieve the same goal– elimination of gender distinctions. That earlier attempt centered on translating the Greek word κεφαλὴ as “source” instead of “head”─ the idea being that “source” avoids the hierarchical implications of “head.”

To some extent, the present prominence of the “eternal subordination” issue concedes the defeat or at least weakness of the κεφαλὴ reinterpretation. In other words, Paul does indeed describe husband-wife relations as a hierarchy that mirrors the godhead.[4]

Although some egalitarians may have given ground on κεφαλὴ, they make up part of the loss by reinterpreting subordination (divine and human) as temporary. From there, they seek to recover the remaining ground by resorting to the second “R” of the Three R’s– reevaluation. That is, they reevaluate all passages reflecting subordination as culture-bound and therefore not applicable to present-day circumstances.

Several terms are critical in making sense of the how the Trinity fits into the gender debate. Egalitarians carefully distinguish (1) the way God reveals Himself in the Incarnation from (2) the way He truly is in terms of His being. “Immanent Trinity,” “Ontological Trinity,” and “Essential Trinity” typically describe the nature of God as He truly is. “Functional Trinity,” “Economic[5] Trinity,” and “Dispensational Trinity” refer to how God appears within history.[6]

The egalitarian position is that the Economic Trinity (how God reveals Himself in the Incarnation) differs from the Immanent Trinity (God’s transcendent nature). The first is hierarchical. The latter is egalitarian.[7]

The complementarian position is that the Economic Trinity reveals the true nature of the Immanent Trinity. Both are asymmetrical.[8] Moreover, the Economic Trinity has impressed that asymmetry onto the creation itself. By extension, the creation is “good” because it reflects the image of the Immanent Trinity– the image of God as He really is.

Some egalitarians use the term “subordinationism” to imply or characterize the complementarian position as heretical.[9] Complementatians respond by distinguishing “subordination” from “subordinationism“– the latter referring to the diminution of Christ to something less than God and the former simply referring to the subordination of the Son to the Father. Subordinationism is heretical; but subordination, properly conceived, is orthodox.[10] Although the precision of language on “subordination” versus “subordinationism” is attractive, commentators do not always cooperate, thereby facilitating the egalitarian charge of heresy against the complementarians.

Figure 1 simplifies historical developments to show that Trinitarian controversies preceded Christological disputes. Questions of how divine and human natures resided in one person (Christ) did not become compelling until the divinity of Christ was firmly established.

trinitarian controversies
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Figure 1 Trinitarian and Christological Controversies

Trinitarian and Christological controversies diminished with the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. They have resurfaced in the Modern era as a consequence of “immanentist” theologies which arose to a great extent in response to (1) historical criticism of the Bible and (2) the Kantian dichotomy between the transcendent and the immanent. Those two developments, in essence, cut humanity off from God in two directions. God has not broken into history (via the Bible) and humanity cannot break out of history (according to Kant). Theology therefore has to be totally grounded in this world– hence the label of “immanentist.”

Immanentist theologies include those of Hegel, Schleiemacher, Kant, and Ruether. According to Hegel, God Himself is realized in history. For Schleiemacher, theology is grounded in experience. For Kant, the ground was ethics. For feminists like Rosemary Ruether,[11] the ground of theology is relief from oppression and subordination– hence the need to affirm “temporary subordination” as a theological basis for escape– a need that sparks a new Trinitarian and Christological controversy.

A major question is which side of the controversy is doing the innovating.[12] Some egalitarian proponents use quotes from patristic writers on the equality of Christ with God to assert the orthodoxy of “temporary subordination.” They accuse complementarians of reworking the Trinity along subordinationist lines to bolster a cultural regime that oppresses women. For them, the idea of “eternal subordination” is heresy. As one egalitarian puts it…

To argue, as many have, that the subordination of the Son to the Father is the theological basis for the subordination of women to men, or of any human group to another, is to promote the Arianist view that the Son was subordinate to the Father, a view which was condemned as heresy by the early church. Genuine communion implies equality and mutuality as its necessary conditions.[13]

A complementarian response would be to say that genuine community– human or divine– cannot exist without willing subordination.[14]

Complementarians point out that patristic quotes emphasizing total equality within the godhead are in the context of controversies over whether Christ is something less than God– hence the emphasis on equality. There is no reason to think ancient authors were proposing the radical egalitarianism envisioned by feminists.

An illustration would be the phrase “mother of God” to describe Mary, the mother of Jesus. Historically, it served to emphasize the truth of the Incarnation. Using it to prove that Jesus derived His divinity from his mother would be to force an idea onto the phrase that never occurred to its authors. Likewise, to use phrases emphasizing the equality of Christ with the Father to argue for radical equality among the divine persons would be to force an alien idea onto the words.

Egalitarians also have a problem in explaining the difference between their view of the Immanent Trinity from modalism– the idea that the three persons of the Trinity are just three modes of the same person.[15] If the persons in the Immanent Trinity are essentially the same, then of what value is the concept of the Trinity? It becomes mostly a burden– a concept that offers no advantage while being difficult to explain and an invitation to attack. No one would embrace that burden without some overriding concern. For egalitarians, that overriding concern is elimination of gender distinctions.

Kevin Giles is representative of contemporary scholars who champion an egalitarian Trinity. He describes seven forms of unorthodox subordinationism in Christian tradition: (1) ante-Nicene subordinationism, (2) Arian subordinationism, (3) derivative subordinationism, (4) numerical subordinationism, (5) nineteenth- and twentieth-century ontological subordinationism, (6) operational subordinationism, and (7) eternal role subordinationism.[16] On the surface, the number of designations gives the appearance of precision and comprehensiveness, but they slice the subject at so many different angles that the designations have little value.

A better model would focus on key attributes of the godhead. For example, is the relationship between Father and Son symmetrical or asymmetrical? If asymmetrical, what is the nature of the asymmetry?[17] Does the Economic Trinity express the Immanent Trinity?

For Giles, the answer to the latter question is no. Consider a quote from the introduction to his book, The Trinity and Subordinationism: the Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate. In describing the fruits of his research, he says…

The learned tomes I turned to invariably said nothing about subordination in the Trinity, except in relation to the pre-Nicene fathers and the fourth-century debates about Arianism. What is more, they made no comment about “the headship” of the Father in the Trinity, they seldom discussed the significance of the Son’s subordination to the Father in the incarnation, and they said nothing about the three persons’ differences being grounded on their differing roles or functions– three matters central to the discussions on the Trinity in contemporary evangelical literature.[18]

Now compare Giles’ observations with the following quotes:

From Athanasius…

For the Father and the Son were not generated front some pre-existing origin , that we may account Them brothers, but the Father is the Origin of the Son and begat Him; and the Father is Father, and not born the Son of any; and the Son is Son, and not brother. Further, if He is called the eternal offspring of the Father, He is rightly so called. For never was the essence of the Father imperfect, that what is proper to it should be added afterwards; nor, as man from man, has the Son been begotten, so as to be later than His Father’s existence, but He is God’s offspring, and as being proper Son of God, who is ever, He exists eternally. For, whereas it is proper to men to beget in time, from the imperfection of their nature, God’s offspring is eternal, for His nature is ever perfect. If then He is not a Son, but a work made out of nothing, they have but to prove it; and then they are at liberty, as if imagining about a creature, to cry out, ‘There was once when He was not;’ for things which are originated were not, and have come to be. But if He is Son, as the Father says, and the Scriptures proclaim, and ‘Son’ is nothing else than what is generated from the Father; and what is generated from the Father is His Word, and Wisdom, and Radiance;[19]

…when the Son is called First-born, this is done not for the sake of ranking Him with the creation, but to prove the framing and adoption of all things through the Son. For as the Father is First, so also is He both First, as Image of the First, and because the First is in Him, and also Offspring from the Father, in whom the whole creation is created and adopted into sonship.[20]

From Gregory of Nyssa…

…for we hold that one who maintains that [the Son is ungenerate] is no less impious than an Anomoean.[21]

For when He [Jesus] said, “I and My Father are one,” He conveys by that confession of a Father exactly the truth that He Himself is not a first cause, at the same time that He asserts by His union with the Father their common nature; so that these words of His secure our faith from the taint of heretical error on either side: …. …we are taught in that utterance the dependence of our Lord on a cause, and yet the absolute identity of the Son’s and the Father’s nature;[22]

From Gregory of Nazianzen…

The Father is the Begetter and the Emitter; without passion of course, and without reference to time, and not in a corporeal manner. The Son is the Begotten, and the Holy Ghost the Emission…. When was the Son begotten? When the Father was not begotten. And when did the Holy Ghost proceed? When the Son was, not proceeding but, begotten– beyond the sphere of time, and above the grasp of reason…. How then are They not alike unoriginate, if They are coeternal? Because They are from Him, though not after Him.[23]

Who then is that Father Who had no beginning? One Whose very Existence had no beginning; for one whose existence had a beginning must also have begun to be a Father. He did not then become a Father after He began to be, for His being had no beginning. And He is Father in the absolute sense, for He is not also Son; just as the Son is Son in the absolute sense, because He is not also Father.[24]

Is it not clear that the Father impressed the ideas of these same actions [miracles], and the Word brings them to pass, yet not in slavish or unskillful fashion, but with full knowledge and in a masterly way, or, to speak more properly, like the Father?[25]

…so let us refer [the Son’s] knowledge of the greatest events, in honor of the Father, to The Cause.[26]

From Ambrose of Milan…

He [the Son] is one with the Father, one in eternity, one in Divinity. Not that the Father is one Person with the Son; between Father and Son is the plain distinction that comes of generation; [27]

This, then, is the foundation of our faith– to know that the Son of God is begotten; if He be not begotten, neither is He the Son.[28]

He Who proceeded and came forth from God can have no attributes but such as are proper to God.[29]

…it is Christ’s especial power to will what the Father wills, even as it is His to do what the Father doeth.[30]

[The Father] hath given [the power of Judgment], that is to say, not as of largess, but in the act of generation.[31]

[Is it proper to] … seek freedom and pardon of Him [the Son] Whom thou thinkest to be subject as a slave [to the Father]?[32]

And you say that the Son of God is subject [to the Father] by reason of weakness– the Son, to Whom the Father bringeth men that He may raise them up in the last day. Seemeth this in your eyes to be subjection, I pray you, where the kingdom is prepared for the Father, and the Father bringeth to the Son and there is no place for perversion of words, since the Son giveth the kingdom to the Father, and none is preferred before Him? For inasmuch as the Father rendereth to the Son, and the Son, again, to the Father, here are plain proofs of love and regard: seeing that They so render, the One to the Other, that neither He Who receiveth obtaineth as it were what was another’s, nor He That rendereth loseth.[33]

From Augustine …

But if the Son is said to be sent by the Father on this account, that the one is the Father, and the other the Son, this does not in any manner hinder us from believing the Son to be equal, and consubstantial, and co-eternal with the Father, and yet to have been sent as Son by the Father. Not because the one is greater, the other less; but because the one is Father, the other Son; the one begetter, the other begotten; the one, He from whom He is who is sent; the other, He who is from Him who sends. For the Son is from the Father, not the Father from the Son. And according to this manner we can now understand that the Son is not only said to have been sent because “the Word was made flesh,” but therefore sent that the Word might be made flesh, and that He might perform through His bodily presence those things which were written; that is, that not only is He understood to have been sent as man, which the Word was made but the Word, too, was sent that it might be made man; because He was not sent in respect to any inequality of power, or substance, or anything that in Him was not equal to the Father; but in respect to this, that the Son is from the Father, not the Father from the Son; for the Son is the Word of the Father, which is also called His wisdom.[34]

As, therefore, the Father begat, the Son is begotten; so the Father sent, the Son was sent. But in like manner as He who begat and He who was begotten, so both He who sent and He who was sent, are one, since the Father and the Son are one. So also the Holy Spirit is one with them, since these three are one. For as to be born, in respect to the Son, means to be from the Father; so to be sent, in respect to the Son, means to be known to be from the Father.[35]

But in their mutual relation to one another in the Trinity itself, if the begetter is a beginning in relation to that which he begets, the Father is a beginning in relation to the Son, because the begets Him;[36]

The clash between what Giles says and what the preceding authors say should be readily apparent. But from Calvin, perhaps a somewhat different perspective appears. In reference to 1 Corinthians 15, Calvin says of Christ …

“His giving up of the kingdom to the Father, so far from impairing his majesty, will give a brighter manifestation of it. God will then cease to be the head of Christ, and Christ’s own Godhead will then shine forth of itself, whereas it is now in a manner veiled.”[37]

So does Giles have a point– at least with Calvin? Not really. Calvin apparently did see biblical texts that subordinate the Son as speaking only of the Economic Trinity, not the Immanent. At the same time though, he was like patristic writers in being preoccupied with defending Christ’s divinity[38]— hence his zealousness for that point at the expense of nuances that would have prevented later exploitation of his words for different purposes. Nevertheless, Calvin’s desire to defend the equality of Christ does not eliminate “subordination” from his view of the Immanent Trinity. In another place, he says…

The words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, certainly indicate a real distinction, not allowing us to suppose that they are merely epithets by which God is variously designated from his works. Still they indicate distinction only, not division. …. This distinction did not take its beginning at the incarnation: for it is clear that the only begotten Son previously existed in the bosom of the Father…. This distinction is, that to the Father is attributed the beginning of action, the fountain and source of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and arrangement in action, while the energy and efficacy of action is assigned to the Spirit. Moreover, though the eternity of the Father is also the eternity of the Son and Spirit, since God never could be without his own wisdom and energy; and though in eternity there can be no room for first or last, still the distinction of order is not unmeaning or superfluous, the Father being considered first, next the Son from him, and then the Spirit from both. [39]

Space does not permit a fuller treatment of quotes from ancient and medieval writers. The point here is that ancient sources are packed with statements that imply the very things Giles denies. Jack Cottrell sums up the matter with the following words:

From the second century onward a concept of the Son’s subordination to the Father has been combined with a concept of the full equality among the Three. Each is seen to be fully, equally and eternally divine, although in their relationship to one another, the Father assumes supremacy and the others a subordinate role.[40]

What are the implications for today? In 1990, Robert Letham closed an article in Westminster Theological Journal with the warning, "One fails to see how evangelical feminism as such can consistently or for long preserve the historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity." His prediction has come true. The Trinity, the central doctrine of Christianity, is being redefined.[41]

Why is that happening? A big reason is postmodernism. In postmodernism, facts are not important. What is important is the creation of a metanarrative that rebalances the power relationships between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. That criterion means postmodern scholars are not held accountable for misrepresentations of history– because history doesn’t really matter.

But history does matter. The Fall of man has a continuing sexual dimension– one that is worked out in history and communicated most prominently through the “sins of the fathers.” In large part, people get their souls– “life” writ large– from their parents and part of that heritage involves distorted sexuality. Gender issues easily become the principle expression of humanity’s alienation from God.

the fall and its consequences
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Figure 2 The Fall and Its Consequences

That is particularly problematic for Christianity; because in Christianity, God reveals Himself as gendered, as Father and Son– going to the very heart of humanity’s alienation. The result is to amplify humanity’s response– to attract or repulse for better or for worse.

Egalitarians are among those who take offense. They see radical equality as the antidote, confuse it with justice, and raise it to such a level that it becomes incoherent if not outright evil. The result is to reduce equality to "sameness" without appreciating the chaos of that "sameness.” The only kind of equality that really works over time and space– that is non-chaotic– that actually accomplishes anything– is complementary equality.

Being averse to that, egalitarians substitute a secular value system (submission is bad) for the divine value system (submission is part of the nature of God) to reinterpret and reevaluate tradition and scripture.[42] They feel justified in finding the divine value system offensive, not recognizing that such offense is the characteristic response of fallen humanity to the experience of the divine.

Good examples are Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), in which Brock and Parker describe the Christian message “as the story of an all-powerful father who sends his son to die on a cross, in the process saving his other children from an awful fate he himself ordained.” In sharing that message, “Christians unwittingly make a story about child abuse into a narrative of salvation.” Their solution is to reject the whole notion of redemptive suffering– divine and humane. Promotional literature for the book demonstrates that both Brock and Parker use negative experiences of gender (unavoidable in a Fallen Creation) as the starting point of their theology. Their endpoint is to remake the Creator along egalitarian lines. God acts in the incarnation (subordination) against His (alleged) egalitarian nature!

Egalitarians see both the Creator and the creation through a lens distorted by the Fall. Both are packed with gender and gender-type relationships. Thus, the gender consciousness of Scripture is not some appendage to biblical faith that can be severed with little consequence. Rather, it is part of the infrastructure. That means reinterpretation and reevaluation will ultimately fail. Repudiation is the final solution– as Brock and Parker exemplify.

The whole issue can be clarified provocatively by saying the ONLY difference between gay marriage and the marriage of egalitarian heterosexuals is that gay couples are of the same sex– the point being that the central issue is not about the physical fact of being male or female. Rather it is about an ideological hostility toward the notion of gender distinctions per se— a hostility that alienates both gays and egalitarians equally from their God– hence the impulse to remake the Trinity in their own image.


historeo.comhistoreo 2


Ambrose. In Schaff, Philip, ed. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series. Vol. X, Ambrose: Select Works and Letters. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

Athanasius. In Schaff, Philip, ed. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series. Vol. IV, Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

Augustine. “On the Holy Trinity.” In Schaff, Philip, ed. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol. III, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

Calvin John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Albany, OR: AGES Software, 1997.

Nazianzen, Gregory. In Schaff, Philip, ed. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series. Vol. VII, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

Gregory of Nyssa. In Schaff, Philip, ed. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series. Vol. V, Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.


Bauman, Michael E., “Milton. Subordinationism and the Two Stage Logos.” Westminster Theological Journal. 48 (1986): 177-182.

Carr, Anne and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. Religion, Feminism and the Family. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

Clark, Stephen. Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Man and Woman in the Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, Mich: Servant Books, 1980), 41.

Cotterell, Peter and Max Turner. Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989.

Cottrell, Jack. What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1987.

Gallagher, Sally K. Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

Giles, Kevin. The Trinity and Subordinationism: the Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate. Downers Grove, PA: Intervarsity, 2002.

Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill. Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 19970.

Kovach, Stephen D. “Egalitarians Revamp Doctrine of the Trinity.” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Vol. 2 (Dec 96): 1-6.

Letham, Robert. "The Man-Woman Debate: Theological Comment." Westminster Theological Journal. 52 (1990): 65-78.

Pannenburg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Paulson, Matt. “Trinity-Ekstasis: A Theology of God the Father and Response to Kevin Giles.” Teckton Apologetics Ministries: Accessed 17 April 2005.

Rahner, Karl and Herbert Vorgrimler, eds. “Subordinationism.” Dictionary of Theology. 2d ed. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.

Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.

Torrance, Thomas F. The Ground and Grammar of Theology. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1980.

Ware, Bruce A. Tampering with the Trinity: Does the Son Submit to the His Father? Lousiville, KY: Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 2001.


[1] Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 19970), 15.

[2]Stephen D. Kovach, “Egalitarians Revamp Doctrine of the Trinity,” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, vol. 2 (Dec 96): 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cotterell and Turner provide an extensive summary of the argument for “head” and find the feminist argument unconvincing. See Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 141-145. Thiselton provides a ten-page summary of the pros and cons and sees the weight of scholarship going against the idea of “source.” See Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 812-822. Note that in a 5 May 04 submission to the Sydney Doctrinal Commission, Giles incorrectly claims Thiselton is against the meaning of κεφαλ as “head over” in 1 Corinthians 11. For Giles’ assertion, see

[5] Thomas F. Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1980), 157.

[6] See Wolfhart Pannenburg, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 1:291 n. 111.

[7] Bruce A. Ware, Tampering with the Trinity: Does the Son Submit to the His Father? (Lousiville, KY: Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 2001), 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kevin Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism: the Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate, (Downers Grove, PA: Intervarsity, 2002), 22, 24, 26-28, 44, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60.

[10] For example, see “Subordinationism” in Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, eds., Dictionary of Theology, 2d ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1981).

[11] “The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive”– Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), 18.

[12] Both sides agree pre-Nicene writers often reflect an unacceptable degree of subordination; e.g., the neo-Platonic subordination of Origen. Thus the dispute begins with the Nicene authors.

[13] Anne Carr and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Religion, Feminism and the Family (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 21.

[14] Sally K. Gallagher, Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 204.

[15] Matt Paulson, “Trinity-Ekstasis: A Theology of God the Father and Response to Kevin Giles” (Teckton Apologetics Ministries: , accessed 17 April 2005)

[16] Kevin Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism: the Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate, (Downers Grove, PA: Intervarsity, 2002), 74-85

[17] An example would be what Michael Bauman describes as the “emphatic” subordinationism of the Arians– “emphatic” meaning that the subordination involves the very nature of Christ as inferior to that of God. See Michael E. Bauman, “Milton, Subordinationism and the Two Stage Logos,” Westminster Theological Journal 48 (1986): 177-182.

[18] Kevin Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism: the Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate, (Downers Grove, PA: Intervarsity, 2002), 1.

[19] Athanasius, in Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series, vol. IV, Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 314-315.

[20] Ibid, 398-399.

[21] Gregory of Nyssa, in Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series, vol. V, Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 78.

[22] Ibid, 81.

[23] Gregory Nazianzen, in Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series vol. VII, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 301.

[24] Ibid, 302

[25] Ibid, 313.

[26] Ibid, 315.

[27] Ambrose, in Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series, vol. X, Ambrose: Select Works and Letters (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 205.

[28] Ibid, 224.

[29] Ibid, 218-19.

[30] Ibid, 228.

[31] Ibid, 237.

[32] Ibid, 238.

[33] Ibid, 237-38.

[34] Augustine, “On the Holy Trinity,” in Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. III, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 83.

[35] Ibid, 84.

[36] Ibid, 94.

[37] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Albany, OR: AGES Software, 1997), 550.

[38] Ibid, 546.

[39] Ibid, 170-171.

[40] Jack Cottrell, What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1987), 146.

[41] Robert Letham, "The Man-Woman Debate: Theological Comment," Westminster Theological Journal 52 (1990): 78.

[42] In contrast, Stephen Clark describes three types of subordination (domination, mercenary and voluntary) manifested in three different ways (oppression, care and unity). See Stephen Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Man and Woman in the Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, Mich: Servant Books, 1980), 41.

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8 Comments on Eternal Subordination and Gender Egalitarianism

  1. Sue says:

    The Father sent the Son to take on mortality. The incarnation was the acceptance of decay. And Christ died. If somehow husbands are to send their wives onto the path of decay and death, then this is overwhelmingly revolting. As a victim of male violence and in the church taught by all the greats of subordination, I reject the violence I experienced at male hands, and reject the sending of woman by man to her death.

    • wtb says:

      Hi Sue,

      I’m sorry to hear you’ve had such a bad experience in marriage. Quite frankly, I’ve never heard complementarian thinking extended into the ideas you’ve expressed.

      Can you clarify your reasoning for me?

      If I were looking to understand subordination, would you use your situation as a good example of subordination or a bad example? Or is subordination always bad — even in the case where the “sender” is happy to send and the “goer” is happy to go?

      It seems to me that experiencing broken and diseased examples of something is not a good way to know the truth about that something, especially if one insists the brokenness and disease are normative.

      You sound wounded and I am sorry for that. I pray the wound will not be made invincible by confusing brokenness with the thing that was broken.



  2. Sue says:

    Since you are moderating, let me say I know the personal influence of Packer, Paul Barnett and Bruce Ware on my congregation. It was personal and effective. But I was ashamed to tell the police that this was the impetus behind the violence I experienced. This is a vile teaching. Filthy, to have men send women to die on the cross! what a model and metaphor for human relations. Can a human father so send his child? Can anyone send an inferior to die in his place? Get the trinity out of marriage and bind up the broken hearted.

  3. Sue says:

    Fortunately I can read Augustine in Latin, and I know that he says that the Son was not unequal to the Father in authority or in any other thing. Augustine is quite clear that Christ delivered himself up to die, and that the was sent by both the Father and by himself. Augustine presents a rather sane view of the trinity, and of Christ’s death on the cross, in which Christ was both priest and sacrifice. But this complementarian teaching creates a violent and oppressive metaphor for human relations.

  4. Sue says:

    Here is more – Bruce Ware at ReFocus Canada taught that the Father never submits and the Son always submits and this is the model for marriage. This was preached in the congregation as follows by Richard James,

    Notes from Richard James’ sermon on marriage. Aug. 24, 2008, St. John’s Shaughnessy Church, Vancouver.

    “Marriage is like the trinity, The Father is in charge. Jesus ALWAYS submits to the father, he obeys, he says what his father has told him to say, Jesus sees the father in the trinity as the head, and he obeys him. It is never the other way around. Isn’t it interesting?”

    To teach that the Son is subordinate in that he was sent (to die) and this is the model for how a husband treats his wife is simply using a violent image. Ware teaches that the very nature of the Father is to exert authority, and the very nature of the Son is to submit. Having someone exert authority over another person in EVERYTHING, or at least any time he feels like it creates insanity.

    John Piper speaks about the time he counseled a woman who had not been able to move about her house from one room to the other, including the bathroom without permission from her husband. When Piper asked how her husband had he got that idea, she explained that it was from Piper’s sermons.

    My complaint is that Piper did not fund that woman’s therapy any more than Richard James funded therapy for women in distress in his congregation. In fact, both Piper and James laugh at the point in their sermon when they talk about abuse. This is profoundly wrong, and I am ashamed of this trend in the church.

    We do not believe iin the permanet subordination of any class of people to others. Everyone has some access to the seat of power, through voting or some other means. Only women are asked to submit without recourse. Men want democracy because of teh possibility of abuse. Perhaps somebody ought to ask, why men don’t offer to women the liberty which they fought for for themselves.

    Why don’t the USA, Canada, and the USA all return to being colonies and give up their own consitution and become subject to the queen. She is a just woman and would surely treat her subjects well. Why does anyone need democracy? And if anyone needs democracy, then why don’t women?

  5. Sue says:

    “If I were looking to understand subordination, would you use your situation as a good example of subordination or a bad example?”

    It is a real example. Since it is real, it is a good example.

    “Or is subordination always bad?”

    Subordination is wrong when it is involuntary. The wife must obey because if she doesn’t she has gone against the teaching of the church, and she is tuaght that she will go to hell, and she is told that the reason why a husband is abusive is because she “chafes and bucks against the rightful leadership of the husband.”

    Consider all the crazy things that men do in their lives – sometimes women do protest, and resist, and so they should! But Bruce Ware evokes the image of the “chafing and bucking” wife, she is a filly not very well broken at that.

    This is the complementarianism I read. Callous and disrespectful of women.

    “— even in the case where the “sender” is happy to send and the “goer” is happy to go?””

    It was the role of the Son to die. Women offer their bodies to die in every pregnancy. Isn’t that enought? Why should they have to be sent to die by their husbands? I don’t understand.

  6. Andrew says:

    It seems to me that these (broadly speaking) Nicene writers certainly saw a tαξις, an order, which corresponded to the Father being the αρχη, origin/beginning or πηγη (fount) or αιτια (cause) of the Son. And I think they saw that this corresponded to the Father being the One who sent, and the Son being He who was sent. But they don’t – and this may be a consequence of their being in a contest with the Arians – seem to say much about authority as such, of the Son being in submission to the Father. I have a bit of an impression – I may be wrong – that they rather avoid 1 Corinthians 11.3, which does perhaps seem to imply that the Son submits to the Father as His Head. Alford: ‘God is the Head of Christ, not only according to His human Nature: the Son is, in his Sonship, necessarily subordinate to the Father’. See also Alford’s comments on the avoidance by many of the plain meaning of 1 Cor 15.28:

    ‘The refutation of these and all other attempts to explain away the doctrine here plainly asserted, of the ultimate subordination of the Son, is contained in the three precise and unambiguous words, αὐτὸς ὁ υἱός.’

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