Subordination, Trinity and gender

Read time: 10 minutes

The supposed connection between Trinity and gender-equality (or not) has come up for me in a couple of different settings recently. On the one hand, I have been trying to decide whether a statement about the equality of persons in the Godhead has a bearing on Christian Associates’ policy regarding women in leadership. On the other, I have to write an essay for a theological forum in the UK looking at the connection (or otherwise) between a doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son and the subordination of women to men. From a biblical point of view I settled this question in my own mind years ago, but I must admit I did not pay a great deal of attention to the Trinitarian argument.

Trinitarian thought is a muddy business at the best of times. Add gender to the debate and we have a veritable quagmire. To keep things relatively simple here, I think it can be reduced to two questions and two positions.

Question 1: Is there a correlation between the Father-Son relationship and the man-woman relationship? Is the former in any sense determinative for the latter.

Question 2: If there is a correlation, is it to be understood as one that gives the man permanent authority over the woman?

Position 1: Some complementarians maintain that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, though they are careful to differentiate between an orthodox relational or functional subordination and an unorthodox essential or ontological subordination. This is how Wayne Grudem, who is perhaps its foremost modern proponent, explains the position in his Systematic Theology:

This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase “ontological equality but economic subordination,” where the word ontological means “being.” Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say “equal in being but subordinate in role.” Both parts of this phrase are necessary to the true doctrine of the Trinity. If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed. (251)

Position 2: Egalitarians, if they show an interest in such theological arguments at all, hold that there is no essential or ontological hierarchy in the Trinity; the Son was made temporarily subordinate to the Father in the incarnation.

I will focus mainly on the complementarian response to question 2, that the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father provides the pattern for the eternal subordination of the woman to the man. I will argue that the emphasis on subordination in the Father-Son is right but not in the way that systematic theologians understand it. But more importantly I will argue that there is no biblical basis for the correlation supposed in question 1. On the whole, on the strength of a rather limited reading of the arguments, I think that position 2 is biblically rather weak.

The story of the Father and the Son

In his chapter “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father” in D.W. Jowers and H.W. House (eds.), [amazon:978-1608998524:inline] (available online), Grudem argues that the Son is subordinate to the Father not merely during his ministry on earth but eternally. 

The eternal names “Father” and “Son”… give a significant indication of eternal authority and submission among the members of the Trinity.

The support provided for this view is remarkably flimsy. If there is any reference at all to the existence of Christ before creation in the texts that he cites, it is not presented as a relationship between Father and Son. In Ephesians 1:3-5 the God who would be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ chose Paul and other Jews before the foundation of the world to be adopted as sons. According to Romans 8:29 God—not here the Father—foreknew and predestined the saints to be “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers”. Sonship is a status which Christ shares with those “sons of God” who will suffer and be glorified with him (cf. Rom. 8:17, 19). In the remaining passages the Father-Son relation—and arguably Christ’s pre-existence—is missing altogether (Eph. 1:9-11; 3:9-11; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pet. 1:19-20; Rev. 13:8); in fact, Grudem goes so far as to insert it by way of square brackets into the text.

The argument that Jesus was in some sense subordinate to God in the “process of creation” carries more weight. Although the Word was God, all things were made through him (Jn. 1:1). All things are from God, the Father, but through the Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:6). The Son has been appointed “the heir of all things”, but also through him God “made the ages” (Heb. 1:1-2). These statements clearly give some sort of priority to God.

The authority of the Father and the submission of the Son are also presumably entailed in those passages which speak of God sending the Son into the world (cf. Jn. 3:16; Gal. 4:4; 1 Jn. 4:9-10).

The Father sending the Son into the world implies an authority that the Father had prior to the Son’s humbling himself and becoming a man. This is because to have the authority to send someone means to have a greater authority than the one who is sent.

The submission of Jesus to God continues after his exaltation to heaven. Jesus did not pour out the Spirit on his own authority but “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit”, which he then poured out (Acts 2:33). As Great High Priest Jesus intercedes for “those who draw near to God through him” (Heb. 7:25). He receives from God the “revelation” of what would soon take place and shows it to his servants (Rev. 1:1). It is repeatedly said of Jesus that he has been given a position of authority at the right hand of God (Mk. 14:62; Lk. 22:69; Acts 2:32; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22) analogous to the authority that God gives his king (cf. Ps. 110:1). Jesus has received authority from his Father to rule over the nations (Rev. 2:26). When the last enemy has been destroyed, “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

So we have a “story” that goes something like this….

  1. Jesus is the Word or Wisdom of God through whom all things were made.
  2. The Father sends the Son into the world.
  3. Jesus is the Son (or servant) who is obedient to the Father to the point of suffering and death.
  4. Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and given authority as “Lord” to judge and rule over the nations throughout the coming ages.
  5. When the last enemy is destroyed and all things have been subjected to God, this authority to judge and rule will be given back to God and the Son will himself be subjected to God.

The relationship between the Father and the Son is conceived primarily in terms of the narrative of vocation-obedience-death-exaltation-lordship. This is certainly a relationship of authority and subordination, but two things should be noted.

First, authority is given to Jesus because of his faithfulness, as part of a story, which makes for an awkward correlation with the non-narrative relationship between the man and woman.

Secondly, the Father-Son dynamic should not be projected back from the apocalyptic narrative on to the process of creation. It has to do specifically with the eschatological transformation that gets under way in the early centuries: the suffering of the community of the Son of Man, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the defeat of an idolatrous imperialism, and the conversion of the nations. Whatever is said about Jesus and creation draws on a different conceptuality. There is a disconnection between points 1 and 2.

To my mind the theological arguments, on both sides, are fundamentally flawed because they flatten this narrative-historical shape into a pattern of theoretical abstractions.

But we need to get back to question 1….

The head of a wife is her husband

In 1 Corinthians 11:3 Paul states that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God”. Complementarians reject the standard egalitarian counter-interpretation that “head” means “source” and argue that Paul grounds the subordination of the woman to the man as her “head” in the subordination of Christ to God as “head”.

I agree with Thiselton, who agrees with me, that as a metaphor kephalē (“head”) would have connoted neither “authority over” nor “source of” but “prominence” or “preeminence”.

This proposal has the merit of most clearly drawing interactively on the metaphorical conjunction between physiological head (which is far and away the most frequent, “normal” meaning) and the notion of prominence, i.e., the most conspicuous or top-most manifestation of that for which the term also functions as synecdoche for the whole. The public face is linked with responsibility and representation in the public domain, since head is both the part of the person which is most conspicuous and that by which they are most readily distinguished or recognized.1

Paul’s argument in the passage is not that the woman should be subordinate to male authority but that she should not bring dishonour on her husband. What is at stake is the reputation or glory of the man as the prominent or conspicuous public figure. The behaviour of his wife in this radically new worship experience will reflect (hence “image and glory of God”: 11:7) either well or badly on him. To say that the “head of Christ is God” is to say that Christ by his faithfulness to the point of death and his exaltation to the right hand of God brought glory to God the Father (cf. Phil. 2:8-11). The only reference to authority in the passage is in verse 10: a woman should have authority over her head.

The husband is the head of the wife

Paul urges wives to submit to their own husbands “as to the Lord” for “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:22-23; cf. Col. 3:18). I don’t think that this comes under an overarching exhortation to mutual submission: what Paul means by “submitting to one another” in verse 21 is wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters—in other words, submit to one another as is socially appropriate. Nothing in what is said to the dominant figures either here or in Colossians 3:18-4:1 suggests that he expected them to submit to the inferior party. However, I also think that, as with 1 Corinthians 11:3, kephalē does not carry the idea of “authority over”. Paul urges the woman to submit to her husband as the socially prominent or conspicuous party in the relationship. This is simply the best way to do Christian marriage in a rigidly patriarchal context.

But for the present discussion this is really beside the point. There is no Trinitarian analogy here: the wife submits to her husband as the church submits to Christ, not as Christ submits to the Father (5:23-24).

So frankly…

So frankly, I find it hard to see how any doctrine of the Trinity can be used to determine the nature of the relationship between the man and the woman. In many respects Grudem gives us a better account of the biblical relationship between God and Christ than egalitarians like Kevin Giles. But there is no good reason to transfer the pattern to the man-woman relationship. On the one hand, the subordination of the Son to the Father is narratively and eschatologically constructed, and there is no corresponding narrative by which the woman first makes herself of no account, humbles herself, is obedient, suffers, and then is exalted by her husband and given authority to rule. On the other, the two passages (1 Cor. 11:3 and Eph. 5:22-23) which are commonly supposed to support the subordination argument do nothing of the sort.

  • 1A.C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (2000), 821; cf. A.C. Perriman, “The Head of a Woman: The meaning of ΚΕΦΑΛΗ, in 1 Cor.11:3”, JTS, 45, 602-22; and Speaking of Women: Interperting Paul, 84-102].
Steven Opp | Thu, 02/20/2014 - 21:17 | Permalink

I think the connections between Trinity and family can be made when examining the typology they share. There is Trinitarian and Family typology in various things in creation. For example, Sun/Moon/Stars is Trinitarian, but it is also Father/Mother/Children. Same with Sky/Land/Sea. In these "trinities" the mother is the one in the middle, the bridge between "father" and "children", as Christ is the bridge between Heaven and World, between the throne of the Father and the Spirit-filled nations. So there are parallels typologically between Trinity and Family.

"there is no corresponding narrative by which the woman first makes herself of no account, humbles herself, is obedient, suffers, and then is exalted by her husband and given authority to rule."

The "corresponding" narrative is found in the symbols. For example, if the moon is both "Son" (Trinity) and "Woman" (Family), then what do they have in common? The moon humbles itself in that it inhabits the night, but it governs the night (Gen. 1:16). Just as the Son reflects the Father and governs the world, the Woman reflects the Husband and runs the home, the night filled with children (stars).

I would also argue that the way children are made corresponds to this. The woman "humbles" herself in marital relations, but is exalted to power as she conceives a child who she rules over.

The reason homosexuality is so attractive yet so desturctive is because it conflates these two "trinities" (Godhead and Family) and tries itself to be the corresponding narrative. It involves simultaneously a "Father" and a "Son" and a "Man" and a "Woman". It is an attempt to be both Godhead and Manhood all in one. The movement has gained ground because Christians have failed to identify the parallels between the Trinity and the Family. Homosexuality is the counterfeit parallel between Trinity and Family, it is the false corresponding narrative. It is the fake Sun/Moon/Stars that fall out of the sky when judgment comes.

Paul's command to submit therefore goes deeper than how to get by in a patriarchal society. It is about creating a society, about being the new sun/moon/stars in the world. It is not about how to exist until the new heavens and new earth. It is about being the new heavens and new earth. If the family doesn't reflect the Trinity, something else will.

@Steven Opp:

Steven, what on earth are you talking about? These “typologies” are arbitrary and confused. How does Christ correspond to the mother when he is supposed to be the Son? Why not Stars/Sun/Moon on the basis of distance? How is the sea the offspring of Sky and Land? How is Christ the bridge when he is in heaven and it is the Spirit who mediates the presence of God in the world? Why is the night filled with children and not the day? It goes on…. With respect, this is all a flight of fancy and not remotely biblical. And I really don’t follow your argument about homosexuality. There is nothing in scripture to suggest that Father, Son and Spirit correspond to father, mother and children.


@Andrew Perriman:

Ha, I thought you might find my comment to be a bit “out there” :) But the truth is, I’m as convinced of this stuff as you are of narrative/historical theology. But before you write me off as nuts, let me do a bit of name dropping. I learned my typology A-B-C’s from the greats: Peter Leithart and James Jordan, both of whom highly recommend The Future of the People of God. So if I’m nuts, they’re nuts. And they like your book (a circular argument I know, but there it is for what it’s worth:) However, I will take the blame for all poor communication of these ideas.

Most of what you write regarding the narrative interpretation is fantastic and I've learned a lot from it. But it only goes so far without robust typology alongside it. Narrative without typology is like a movie script without meaningful props. I know you're a busy man, but might you humor me by giving Jordan's "Through New Eyes" a read? I think you will discover these symbols aren't arbitrary notions but can be seen over and over again throughout the Bible and can be used to interpret what's going on.

@Steven Opp:

Well, that’s intriguing! I’ve had a quick glance at Jordan’s book—it’s actually available online. I agree that typology is an important part of the telling of the biblical story, but Jordan’s approach looks to me as though he allows typology to get the better of history. Typology can be used to clarify history, but it can also be used to obscure history.

@Andrew Perriman:


"and there is no corresponding narrative by which the woman first makes herself of no account, humbles herself, is obedient, suffers, and then is exalted by her husband and given authority to rule"

Am i missing your point? Aren't we(the church/bride) the woman that does all this and is given authority to rule here on earth in Christ? or are you asking for a narrative earlier in the story?


Andrew Perriman | Sat, 02/22/2014 - 18:06 | Permalink

In reply to by Doane


But the point was not about the church. It was about the woman. If hierarchy between Father and Son is to be mapped on to the relationship between the man and the woman, and if it is to be done biblically, then it has to be done narratively: the woman would follow the trajectory suggested by Philippians 2:6-11. Now a social history might actually affirm that. The woman first submits to the authority of the man, then is given (or takes) an equal authority. But that is beside the point as far as I am concerned, because there is no basis for mapping any Trinitarian relationship on to the man-woman relationship in the first place.

@Andrew Perriman:


One more thought. Many people have come on this blog and emphatically said Jesus is not God. Did not have pre existence, was just a wise sage, scriptures are polluted with later trinitarian additions etc. And Mr. Opp is the crazy out here on this blog? I would hope your usual respect for others and their ideas would extend to him. His ideas are grounded in the scriptures and take less work to see and work through than anything people like Jaco have written. At least interact with biblical typology that is plain to see.


Andrew Perriman | Sat, 02/22/2014 - 18:10 | Permalink

In reply to by Doane


Thanks for making the point. I expressed surprise because I have had some excellent exchanges with Steven in the past and I thought I knew where he was coming from. His response was gracious. Typology is an important part of how scripture constructs new meanings. But I really couldn’t see—and still can’t—how the typologies he was proposing were biblical or in any way helpful.

Steven Opp | Wed, 02/26/2014 - 19:26 | Permalink

I'll try to answer some of the questions one by one. But keep in mind that typology is not black and white, but it's not relative either. It is relational. The symbols mean different things in different contexts, depending on the relationships.

How does Christ correspond to the mother when he is supposed to be the Son?

In this case, both the Son and the mother submit to the first person in their "group". The son to the father, the wife to the husband. The holy spirit proceeds from father and son, and children proceed from father and mother. A father and mother become "one" and the one is a person, a child. The Father and Son are "one" and the "one" itself is a person, the Spirit. Those are just a few examples off the top of my head.

Why not Stars/Sun/Moon on the basis of distance?

The ancients were in many ways like children and took things at first glance, how things appeared. They weren’t as concerned with more abstract ways of ordering such as distance. Put sun, moon, and stars cutouts on a table and ask ten five year olds, independent of each other, if they had to choose, who would be daddy, who would be mommy, and who would be him and his siblings? Or who would be king, who would be queen, who would be princes/princesses? It is obvious what ten out of ten would pick.

How is Christ the bridge when he is in heaven and it is the Spirit who mediates the presence of God in the world?

Perhaps the word "bridge" carries too much modern evangelism baggage. The main thing is that Christ is the High Priest in Heaven mediating before the Father. No High Priest mediating in Heaven, no Spirit on earth (John 16:7).