Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Subordination, Christology and the Gender Debates

I recently gave a lecture at my church on the complementarian/egalitarian debate. The debate is broad and multi-layered (exegetical, theological, practical, historical) and I only had a little over an hour to speak, so I focused primarily on the typological relationship between gender and the image of God. A major text in this debate is 1 Corinthians 11:3, where Paul notes a parallel relationship between God and Christ, and the relationship between the husband/man and the wife/woman; just as God is the “head” of Christ, so too the man is the “head” of the woman (the parallel is there irrespective of what one concludes about the meaning of the Greek word kephale).

Generally, complementarians believe that Scripture teaches (in this verse and elsewhere) a kind of functional (not ontological) subordination of Christ to God. While the Father and the Son are equal in essence (pertaining to ontology), the Son voluntarily submits his will to that of the Father (i.e., the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father). This functional subordination between Father and Son is then seen as the anti-type of the functional (not ontological) subordination of the wife to her husband. Or to state it again, the voluntary submission of the wife to the husband is seen as an expression/image/type of the intra-Trinitarian relationships. Of course, the whole complementarian position in this regard hangs on the idea that Christ is indeed functionally subordinate to God. Egalitarians (naturally) don’t agree, and have accused complementarians of espousing a neo-Arian Christology. Consequently, both sides have sought to recruit the church fathers to their side. Did the church fathers recognize a functional subordination between the members of the Godhead (Christ to God, and the Holy Spirit to both God and Christ)? Or is any form of subordination beyond the pale of Trinitarian orthodoxy?

It seemed to me that a profitable way of determining the Church father’s position on this subject (beyond reading the secondary literature) was to examine the ways in which the fathers handled the key texts of the current debate, most notably 1 Corinthians 11:3, John 14:6, 1 Corinthians 15:28-29, and the various passages which speak about the Father sending the Son. Key to this whole discussion is the extent to which the Son as God submits to the Father. Everyone agrees that the Son voluntarily subordinated himself to the Father during his brief sojourn on earth. But egalitarians insists that this subordination was a mere thirty-three year ordeal, and that upon Christ’s ascension he returned to “equal footing” with the Father, so to speak. What do the fathers say? I read the Trinitarian writings of Augustine, Athanasius, Gregory of Nanzianus, and Gregory of Nyssa—arguably the four most important early Church fathers regarding Trinitarian theology. Generally speaking, here’s how they handled the passages noted above. . .

When the Scriptures speak of Christ submitting to the Father, we should understand this to be a submission of Christ’s humanity. Gregory of Nazianzus writes:
What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that nature in him which is superior to suffering and incorporeal: but all that is lowly to the composite condition of him whofor your sakes made himself of no reputation and was incarnate—yes, for it is no worse thing to say—was made man, and afterwards was also exalted (Theological Orations, 18).
And Augustine writes,
But because, on account of the incarnation of the Word of God for the working out of our salvation, that the man Christ Jesus might be the Mediator between God and men, many things are so said in the sacred books as to signify, or even most expressly declare, the Father to be greater that the son.
This is their general interpretive rule of thumb for handling the texts that seem to suggest a subordination of the Son to the Father. The Son does not submit to the Father as the divine Son per se, but rather submits to the Father as the incarnate God-man—the theanthropos. This is seen pretty clearly in the way the fathers handle 1 Corinthians 15:28-29. In this passage, Paul states that Christ will subject himself to God in order that God may be all in all (the time frame of this passage is clearly eschatological). Augustine interprets this to mean that Christ as theanthropos submits his himself as anthropos—and thus all of humanity with him—to God the Father (of whom the Son as theos is an equal). Further, in as much as the incarnation is an eternal reality, a perpetual inequality of nature (indeed ontology!) is present in the relationship between God and Christ. While the Son remains ontologically equal to the Father in his divinity (he is eternally God of very God, begotten not made, etc.), the Son as theanthropos—in as much as he is now also fully human—is at the same time ontologically inferior to the Father and thus in proper subjection to the Father. In short, the Son is ontologically equal to God in his divine nature, and ontologically inferior to God in his human nature. Which is to say that the Son is both equal to, and less then, himself!

At first pass, this reading of the fathers may seem to support the egalitarian position. The Son doesn’t submit to the Father as the divine Son, but only as man. But hold on. The egalitarian position depends on a finite incarnation—it doesn’t deal with the fact that the incarnation is not a mere thirty-three year sojourn. Christ remains eternally theanthropos. Thus even is if the Son as Son does not subordinate himself to the Father, the Son as theanthropos does voluntarily submit himself to the Father—and eternally so. The Son is now and forever theanthropos, and thus in some fashion he is in perpetual subjection to the Father. The egalitarian logic would require that somehow the resurrection of the Son renders the Son’s finite human nature of equal ontology to that of his infinite divine nature. But such is impossible; the created can never ascend to the uncreated.

So the complementarian typology holds. But in as much as it wants to be in harmony with the fathers, it needs to be adjusted slightly. Rather than the man/woman relationship serving as a reflection of the eternal Father/Son relationship, it is perhaps more proper to speak of said relationship serving as a reflection of the God/Christ relationship—specifically of God the Father being the head of Christ as theanthropos. The logic could run thus: God, foreseeing the necessity of the incarnation, ordained the physical and cultural disparity between the man and the woman to be a reflection of Christ’s (as theanthropos) inequality with God as such. The man/woman relationship is a reflection of the relationship between God the father and his incarnate Son. In this way, the beauty of unconditional trust and love that exists perpetually within the Trinitarian relationship is expressed perpetually within humanity. Pragmatically speaking, the end result is still the same—submission and authority are viewed as everlasting elements of the Godhead, and as beautiful aspects of creation—and the complementarian typology is more adequately grounded in the fathers.

It should be pointed out that the fathers were battling against Arianism, and thus were very hesitant to in any way suggest that Son was subordinate to the Father. One wonders if they would have been more favorable to complementarian logic under less polemical circumstances. One can get this sense in that in at least two areas the fathers affirm at least some form of subordination (if that’s even the proper word) between Christ and God. In the first instance, God the Father sends God the Son as Son, not as theanthropos. It was fitting, Augustine says, that the Father would send the Son and not the Son send the Father. (This gets pretty convoluted in Augustine, and frankly, I’m not sure I follow his logic.) Augustine also seems to be working from the logic that the greater sends the lesser. Additionally, the fathers interpret John 14:6 as a reference to the Father’s generation of the Son as Son. The Father is “greater” than the Son in as much as the Father generates the Son and not vice versa.

Trinitarian theology is not my specialty, and I have no desire to be innovative. I may need to adjust the way I’m stating things, so if you see anything amiss, please speak up.


Anonymous said...


I share your sense that there is discontinuity between complementarian theology and the patriarchs. Many patriarchs are pretty clear that woman was subordinated in the fall, see Gen. 3:16 in the Vulgate and LXX, so the subordination of woman was not a created condition.

Therefore, the subordination of woman was not the intended by kephale, because Christ would not have been subordinated through sin. That is, the subordination of woman, and the subordination of Christ are not comparable for the patriarchs.

For example, see Chrysostom's homily on 1 Cor. 11:3,

For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection, as you say, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master. For what if the wife be under subjection to us? it is as a wife, as free, as equal in honor. And the Son also, though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God, it was as God. For as the obedience of the Son to the Father is greater than we find in men towards the authors of their being, so also His liberty is greater. Since it will not of course be said that the circumstances of theSon's relation to the Father are greater and more intimate than among men, and of the Father's to the Son, less. For if we admire the Son that He was obedient so as to come even unto death, and the death of the cross, and reckon this the great wonder concerning Him; we ought to admire the Father also, that He begat such a son, not as a slave under command, but as free, yielding obedience and giving counsel. For the counsellor is no slave. But again, when you hear of a counsellor, do not understand it as though the Father were in need, but that the Son has the same honor with Him that begat Him. Do not therefore strain the example of the man and the woman to all particulars.

For with us indeed the woman is reasonably subjected to the man: since equality of honor causes contention. And not for this cause only, but by reason also of the deceit 1 Timothy 2:14 which happened in the beginning. Wherefore you see, she was not subjected as soon as she was made; nor, when He brought her to the man, did either she hear any such thing from God, nor did the man say any such word to her: he said indeed that she was bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh: Genesis 2:23 but of rule or subjection he no where made mention unto her. But when she made an ill use of her privilege and she who had been made a helper was found to be an ensnarer and ruined all, then she is justly told for the future, your turning shall be to your husband. Genesis 3:16

Do you have any idea how old the belief in the created subordination of woman is, 500 years? 50 years? I honestly don't know. I think Chrysostom honestly believed in the subordination of woman from a logical viewpoint, to "avoid contention." That is, someone has to be boss. But I am not sure that is what Christ taught.

Look up the rest of the homily. What do you think?


Gerald said...


Chrysostom is an interesting father in this respect. I went back and re-read the homily, and then checked my notes, and you are right that Chrysostom does not want to draw a straight parallel between the subordination of the wife to the husband and the relationship of Christ to God.

And he follows the same basic interpretive rule as the other Fathers when he writes, "In the first place, when any thing lowly is said of him conjoined as He is with the Flesh, there is no disparagement of the God-head in what is said, the Economy admitting the expression."

Chrysostom explicitly rejects the idea that the Father "governs the Son as the husband governs the wife." But while Chrysostom is not comfortable ascribing subordination to Christ, he acknowledges that Christ obeys the Father. But Christ does so as the Son of God, and thus freely and as an equal. This is the kind of "obedience" that complementarians affirm regarding wives to husbands. As Chrysostom acknowledges, the wife is under subjection "as a wife [not a slave], as free, as equal in honor. And the Son also, though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God, it was as God."

So I find the homily a mixed bag in the whole debate, yet generally in support of the complementarian position in that Chrysostom admits the Son obeys the Father as the Son (and not just as the Christ).

And I think you are correct that Chrysostom believes in the subordination of the women due to the fall, and not as an initial element of creation. I'm not up to speed on the historicity of this view.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

I think Chrysostom and Augustine share most of these views. I agree that there is a mixture of notions. But the crux is what does Chrysostom mean when he says that Christ gives counsel. I don't know the Greek word but it could be βουλη which would be to participate in the decision-making. So actually there is a reciprocity of obedience and counsel.

In any case, it is unpleasant for women to think that men think that women were created to function under men. What about older women and single women who don't want to exist only "under men." I don't see Jesus or Paul telling women to go back home and not follow him. No one now really thinks that a widow has to be under a man. Women were created to function the way they function in the greater society. A woman could not govern unless she was created with the function of governing. So how did Q. Elizabeth 1, Victoria, Thatcher, etc. lead if they were created without the function of leadership.

The church fathers thought that women had to be under men because sin caused too much contention otherwise. And the church fathers thought that it was just a logical part of life for women to be subordinate. It was reasonable.

Gerald said...


The church fathers thought that women had to be under men because sin caused too much contention otherwise. And the church fathers thought that it was just a logical part of life for women to be subordinate. It was reasonable.

I think this is accurate. Frankly, I don't find strong support for complementarian exegesis in the fathers I've read. Due to the Arian controversy, the fathers were loath to speak of the Son as subordinate to the Father. Even when their exegesis gets a bit strained, they are very committed to maintaining the equality of the Father and the Son. The complementarian hermeneutic of "ontological equality but economic subordination" would have been an easy way to respond to many of the Arian proof texts. But the fathers don't readily employ that logic. Instead, the fathers are much more comfortable ascribing any apparent subordination in Scripture to Christ's humanity. As I note in my original post, I think the complementarian typology would need to be adjusted a bit in order for it to be consistent with the fathers.

Of all the fathers I've read, Chrysostom (here) comes the closest to a complementarian hermeneutic.

As to your second paragraph, I think I would want to make a distinction between "functioning under men" and "functioning without men." I'm not aware that all (most?) complementarians insist that women cannot function without being under a man. The main thrust of most complementarian thought is that in the home and the church, the relationship between men and women should in some measure reflect the relationship between God and Christ, and Christ and the Church. But this is not to say that women (or men, for that matter) have no individual worth apart from how they, together in union, image forth these higher relationships. Both men and women exist in the image of God as individuals, and thus have value and dignity beyond the ways in which they relate to each other. Or to say it another way, single men and women exist in the image of God just as much as married men and women, even if in different ways.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing some thinking with me. We sort of agree that complementarian ethic, the relationship of man to wife, reflecting the relationship of God to Christ is a modern sort of thought. It is not a universal or historic thought. So thinking of the subordination of women in this way is quite recent.

Historically women were subordinate by reason, that is, men could just see that in society women were subordinate, except for those of royal class, called "princes" - these women were exempt by virtue of class.

Now, though, it is said that women may justly lead in the secular realm, and they do, as well as men, but then why claim that women are subordinate by design. What is it in the design of women that means that they are subordinate in the church, but not in the workplace.

what is the logic in claiming that there is a created feature in women that makes them predisposed to be followers and not leaders, and this feature only kicks in, in the church and in the home of married women. This feature of predisposition to be followers should not kick in, so to speak, for single women.

We must accept that there is no such feature, and that the model of reflecting the subordination of Christ is a recent theological twist.


Gerald said...


Thanks as well for the exchange. A couple of thoughts. First is just more of an FYI. Gregory of Nyssa (or perhaps Naziansus, I don't remember off hand) sees the relationship between the husband, wife, and child, as a picture of the Trinity. He doesn't apply it in complementarian ways, but rather is more interested in showing how three individuals can consists of the same essence (i.e., unity and diversity). I think a biblical case can be made of this, but I wouldn't want to push it too far in terms of application.

Second, in my mind, the complimentarian logic is grounded much more solidly in the Christ/Church relationship, than in the God/Christ relationship. Ephesians 5:21-33 pretty clearly draws a parallel between the husband/wife relationship and Christ/Church relationship. Paul's whole logic of how the husband and wife should treat the other is clearly patterned after the way that Christ and the Church relate to each other. Whatever one might conclude about the economic equality of God and Christ, there is certainly some measure of economic inequality between Christ and the Church.

The reason why the complementarian logic applies most immediately in the home and in the church (besides the fact that we think Scripture teaches it) is because both of these communities more closely reflect the final escatological community. The mandate of love and respect within the husband/wife relationship need not be extended to all male/female relationship because not all male/female relationship reflect the relationship between Christ and his Church.

Third, I think that the disparity of physical strength between men and women is not without significance. I've written about that elsewhere (search 1 Peter 3:7 under the "complementarian tag" on my blog if you're interested). God chose to make the woman physically vulnerable before the man. It is this very brute and basic fact that accounts for so much of the way women and men have related throughout human history, both good and bad. I would add the general observation that the vulnerable by nature of their vulnerability, tend to follow those to whom they are vulnerable, particularly if the one in the less vulnerable position treats them with love, dignity and respect. The egalitarian nature of our western legal codes, along with modern technological advancements, has made the vulnerability of the woman less, and therefore the woman has less of a need to depend upon/follow the man. But in most cultures throughout history, the egalitarian mindset just wasn't possible--even if both men and women had wanted it. Too much in life required physical strength (war, hunting, building, etc.), thus putting the woman in a place of deference before the man.

Anonymous said...

First, yes, I think the chruch fathers were more concerned with the nature of Christ as God than other issues.

Second, Christ gave up equality with God to become human and submit to human death. He submitted his life for the church, his body. In another sense, the church is animated by the Spirit. So Christ became on a level with humans, functional equality. Then he gave the church his Spirit, mystical equality. You cannot make a parallel that says the church obeys Christ and woman her husband, in the same sense, because the church does whatever it thinks is Christ's will but Christ leads the church from within, by his Spirit and not by the law, telling the church what to do. This is a complex comparison.

Last paragraph, to save time, you write,

The egalitarian nature of our western legal codes, along with modern technological advancements, has made the vulnerability of the woman less, and therefore the woman has less of a need to depend upon/follow the man.

Amen for the egalitarian nature of our legal codes.

Too much in life required physical strength (war, hunting, building, etc.)putting the woman in a place of deference before the man.

And let's protect women from this terrible situation you describe. The scriptures teach that men don't have to relate to those who are physically weaker as if they are inferior. That is what Christ came to teach.

Gerald said...


The relationship between Christ and the Church is perhaps not as complex for Paul in Ephesians 5 as you are making it. But I do agree that Christ "leads" the church freely and without constraint. This needs to be the pattern for how a husband "leads" his wife. Deference by the wife must be freely given and not forced. Interestingly, nowhere in Scripture is the husband told to "lead" his wife. He is told to protect, care for, love, etc. The wife is told to submit to her husband, but that's not the same thing as the husband being told to lead his wife. In other words, it is not my responsibility as a husband to ensure that my wife submits to me. That's between her and the Lord. It's her free choice. Forced submission does not reflect well the relationship between Christ and the church. Husbands should lead like Shepherds, not like someone herding cattle.

The scriptures teach that men don't have to relate to those who are physically weaker as if they are inferior. That is what Christ came to teach.

On this we fully agree.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Gerald. Peace.

Anonymous said...

Gerald typed:

Interestingly, nowhere in Scripture is the husband told to "lead" his wife. He is told to protect, care for, love, etc.

My Comment:

So why do you add something to Gods word by teaching Husbands/Men must lead Women/Wifes cannot. Why can't Husband and Wife work things out together as Teamwork/One Flesh!God gave equal rule to both Adam and The Woman (Eve)in the Begininng. Christ is the one who undos the affect of the Fall.

Eph5:21 is for ALL believers!

Ephesians 5:21
21Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.