The Eternal Subordination of the Son (and Women)

There is a debate right now over the implications of a teaching called the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS), which explores the intra-Trinatarian relationship between God the Son to God the Father. Here are two summary articles that will bring you up to speed if you are unfamiliar with this discussion and would like to learn more.

Opponents of ESS like Carl Trueman and Liam Goligher believe that ESS represents a departure from long-held confessional statements of the Church. ESS advocates Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware have responded by saying that they keep the confessions, and their theological beliefs are not being accurately represented. To complicate matters, the debate is actually more than one debate, as Andrew Wilson helpfully points out in the above article by identifying 10 essential questions underneath it. ESS adherents respond to these questions differently which even further impedes dialogue. It is not sufficient to say “ESS proponents” believe XYZ without designating which proponents and which beliefs.

For some, the debate is primarily academic and is best left to those who have spent years reading Trinitarian theology. But for others, the debate has very practical implications. Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem in particular have cultivated the doctrine of ESS in direct response to modern evangelical feminism and use it to bolster their very real world views on gender, particularly submission of women. This teaching then filters down through books, conferences, and pulpits and has significant influence on how men and women are taught to relate to each other in their churches, marriages, and society at large.

Some scholars see the link between ESS and gender as unhelpful. But we would like to submit that the link is much worse than simply unhelpful. We believe it is actually corrupting and confusing the Trinitarian debate. ESS is being shaped by gender debates, not the other way around. And this, in our opinion, is precisely where the disconnect lies. This is why so many have pushback against the ESS presentation of submission in the Trinity.

Grudem and Ware have unapologetically set gender relationships as the frame for their handling of ESS. In the book, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life (co-edited by Ware with essays by both Ware and Grudem), Grudem introduces the topic with the essay: “Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminist Arguments about the Trinity.” In Grudem’s book Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, his first chapter in response to evangelical feminism teaches that the “equality and differences between men and women reflect the equality and differences in the Trinity.” Ware, Grudem, and the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood on which they sit fundamentally link their understanding of ESS and Trinitarian relationships to gender.

In his Institutes, John Calvin famously wrote that without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self, and without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. While scholars are handling the question of “the knowledge of God” in this debate, we believe it’s essential to give attention also to “knowledge of self.” How has Ware and Grudem’s knowledge of human gender influenced their knowledge of God? Has the tail wagged the dog here? We think so.

In this sense, we are not offering solutions to the Trinitarian debate. We are instead suggesting that faulty anthropology has infiltrated it. We are suggesting that Ware and Grudem’s understanding of gender is the reason that their opponents believe their argument is ontological (essential to God the Son’s very existence – the foundational topic of debate among the scholars) while Ware and Grudem insist that it is not. Their gender angst is importing faulty categories into the Trinitarian debate.

Consider Grudem’s own words as he explains his understanding of Jesus’ subordination to God the Father –

“In those relationships, Scripture speaks of the Father having a unique role of initiating, planning, directing, sending, and commanding; it speaks of the Son as having a role of joyfully agreeing with, supporting, carrying out, and obeying the Father; and it speaks of the Spirit as acting in joyful obedience to the leadership of both the Father and the Son.”

Now consider how The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood applies this to women – First, from their website Summary of the Complementarian Position:

A. Created Equality of Essence and Distinction of Role

Male and female were created by God as equal in dignity, value, essence and human nature, but also distinct in role whereby the male was given the responsibility of loving authority over the female, and the female was to offer willing, glad-hearted and submissive assistance to the man. Gen. 1:26-27 makes clear that male and female are equally created as God’s image, and so are, by God’s created design, equally and fully human. But, as Gen. 2 bears out (as seen in its own context and as understood by Paul in 1 Cor. 11 and 1 Tim. 2), their humanity would find expression differently, in a relationship of complementarity, with the female functioning in a submissive role under the leadership and authority of the male.

And from another post on the website:

Given that gender identity will remain (in the New Creation), is there evidence that functional distinctions will likewise remain in the new creation? Will resurrected saints as male and female {emphasis added} have gender-specific roles? How will we relate to one another? Will male headship apply? … Complementarity is not just an accommodation to the less-than-perfect conditions that prevailed during the first century. Rather, it is a divine principle weaved into the fabric of God’s order for the universe.

Note the parallel language of the joyful agreement and support of the Son eternally to the leadership of the Father and the female’s willing, glad-hearted and submissive assistance to the man. If we are reading Grudem, Ware, and The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s position correctly, Jesus is eternally subordinate to God the Father and woman will be eternally subordinate to man in the New Creation.

Herein lies the problem. Grudem and Ware argue for submission of the Son on the basis of role. So far, so orthodox. But when they apply ESS to gender, they have tied submission to the essence of femaleness and not simply the role of being a wife. By necessity then, when they talk about the Son’s submission to the Father, it is almost impossible not to hear it as an ontological argument. Why? Because Bible-believing Christians know gender (more accurately, biological sex) to be an ontological category. We know that being female is an identity given by God and intrinsically bound up in the imago Dei. This is the fundamental argument against transgender positions: “So God made man[kind] in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.” ‘

When these leaders emphasize female submission instead of wifely submission, they are speaking of submission as if it were an ontological characteristic. Consider how John Piper answered a question on whether a woman should be a police officer.

“At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. … At the heart of mature womanhood is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships. … it would be hard for me to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant … over men without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood.”

These leaders of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood believe that this benevolent responsibility of man and joyful receiving from woman is the heart of mature manhood and womanhood – not roles for husbands and wives but the essence of the two genders, and they believe it holds still in the New Creation. So when these same men start talking about submission in the Trinity, it makes sense to import the categories they have already established back into the discussion. And they, not any of their detractors, have set this frame. If a woman is not fully female without submissiveness, how is Jesus fully God’s Son without it as well? That, friends, is by definition ontology.

Being a wife is a role; being a husband is a role; being a servant is a role; being a citizen is a role. Being male and female are not roles. While our biological sex necessarily shapes the roles we hold (in marriage, a woman will be a wife and not a husband), submission does not stem directly from gender but from a role that exists in the context of relationship. A wife submits to her husband not because he is a “man” but because he is her husband and has committed himself to certain vows and duties in the context of their marriage. The same is true of a servant and master, a congregant and elder, and a citizen and his government. Submission happens in context of specific privileges and responsibilities found in specific relationships bound by specific covenants.

In contrast to the belief that women are ontologically (and therefore eternally) subordinated to men, we believe with Paul in I Corinthians 11:3 that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” See these posts for clarification of what “head” means in Scripture.

Thomas Jefferson and Headship 
Male Privilege 
The Missing Head 

If we then let the Bible give commentary on itself, we see that in the New Creation, that middle category of I Corinthians 11:3 does not endure for humans in eternity. Jesus said it Himself in Matthew 28:29-30,

“You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

This is foundational to this discussion. While the categories of male and female endure into the New Creation, the earthly roles of being husbands and wives do not. Or to be more eschatologically accurate, these earthly roles are finally fulfilled. Our earthly marriages—and the submission that happens within them—are but mere shadows of the one great marriage between Christ and His bride that will exist for all eternity. As our roles shift from being individual husbands and wives so too will the submission that flows from our individual relationships. As the collective Bride of Christ, we will all submit to Jesus as our Bridegroom. Christ remains the head of both man and woman. His supremacy (which Philippians 2 tells us is the direct result of his obedience to the Father) will govern our relationships with each other, male and female alike.

In this life now, husbands and wives have an opportunity to give testimony, not to the subordination of women to men, but to the eternal truth that Jesus is a Bridegroom who loved His wife enough to leave His glory, descend to the earth, and fulfill His Father’s plan of Redemption. And this is what we celebrate when we celebrate the subordination of the Son. We do not celebrate authority. We celebrate sacrifice. We do not celebrate control. We celebrate the submission of our wills. It is this beautiful dynamic between the Father and Son, and eventually between the Bridegroom and Bride, that will set the world right.

Hannah Anderson and Wendy Alsup

73 Responses to The Eternal Subordination of the Son (and Women)

  1. Tamie June 14, 2016 at 5:16 am #

    Thanks ladies, a great contribution to the discussion and excellent clarity on why that police officer passage is so problematic.

    Also, this line gave me a little giggle: “But we would like to SUBMIT that the link is much worse than simply unhelpful.” 😉

  2. Wendy June 14, 2016 at 11:24 am #

    Ha ha ha. No pun intended.

  3. Eowyn Stoddard June 14, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    Thank you for a great, clear and much needed article on this subject!

  4. Cara Wieneke June 14, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

    Absolutely loved this article. My career often calls me into an authoritative position over men. I really struggled with Piper's police officer answer. I truly believe God called me to the career I am in (a true “vocation”). But I began to question that recently, based on this discussion.

    I am glad that you made this so easy to understand. It makes complete sense. I am submissive in my role as a wife but not as a woman in relation to all other men in society.

  5. Melissa A June 14, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    Thank you for your careful and helpful thoughts here. I've been following most of these articles and discussions. It's easy to get lost sometimes in the scholarly explanations, yet I greatly desire to gain understanding in this matter. I appreciate the way you were able to add some important clarity.

  6. Lynn Fleshman June 14, 2016 at 3:14 pm #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Lynn Fleshman June 14, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

    To clarify, do you believe in the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, but that it does not necessarily imply the eternal submission of women to men?

  8. Hannah Anderson June 14, 2016 at 3:41 pm #

    Hannah, here.

    I believe that ESS as it has been formulated by Ware and Grudem is fundamentally corrupted by their anthropological assumptions and therefore believe it falls outside realm of orthodox Trinitarian teaching.

    Other ESS advocates argue from different frames and have different definitions for same words. For example, one key point in question is the link between eternal generation and eternal submission. Some reject it (and dangerously so); while others accept it. For the most part, I have not been convinced by ESS arguments but I realize that there is a great variety between those holding ESS. Greater than they even realize perhaps. Here is a good piece that shows how this played out in the book, One God in Three Persons:
    Sanders makes point that even articles in same book are not arguing for the same understanding of ESS.

    The point of this article was not to enter the ESS debate, as neither Wendy or I feel competent to argue at that level of scholastic engagement. The point of this article is to show that Ware and Grudem, the most visible advocates of ESS outside the academy, are shifting categories and end up using ESS as an ontological argument. Their version of ESS is flawed, but unfortunately, their version of ESS is the most influential one, practically speaking at least. Their version of ESS is trickling down to laity.

    For me, the Son's willful obedience to the Father shows that submission as a wife, a citizen, a worker, or a church member is not demeaning. But you don't need ESS to get there. Christ's incarnation is more than enough. (And, of course, if an expression of ESS demands that Christ's essence was based on his subordination, then we've got a significant problem.)

    Hope that clarifies it a bit. If not, feel free to ask more questions.

  9. Wendy K. June 14, 2016 at 4:49 pm #

    It was my understanding that the recent rise of ESS has always been tied to gender roles, as if it was something created in attempt to bolster claims of the subordination of women, because Scripture itself does not make such claims (we already have the perfect example of Christ and His church in Ephesians for the roles of husbands and wives. As you point out, it seems Grudem and Ware wish to take this role relationship further to apply to all women submitting to all men). Thank you for so clearly defining the difference between roles and ontology.

    On the Trinitarian side, my understanding of ESS is that it is a borderline Arian heterodoxy and departure from the Athanasian Creed. (As a point of clarification, I have not seen many arguments for ESS that depart from Grudem and Ware’s faulty framework, though this may be oversight on my end. I will have to take a look at Hannah’s link.) I think it is cropping up again in spite of the lessons that we should have learned from history because the gender debate has gotten hot again, and patriarchists are reaching for some doctrine that sounds theologically smart to the layperson in order to push their agenda along. Perhaps I am wrong, but the two just seem too closely correlated.

    I keep wondering when the proverbial child (with a voice as loud as Grudem’s or Piper’s, so neo-Calvinist and evangelical circles will actually listen) will point out that the ESS emperor has no clothes. I am so thankful for voices like Wendy’s and Hannah’s, Carl Trueman’s, Aimee Byrd’s, and others.

  10. Lynn Fleshman June 14, 2016 at 7:28 pm #

    Thank you, Hannah and Wendy, for sharing your thoughts! (Fangirl sidetone: I've read Hannah's book several times (after hearing it recommended on the Mere Fidelity podcast) and been through it with some young women from church. Love it! And Wendy, I've been a longtime reader of your blog and enjoy hearing your perspective.)

    I’ve been following this debate over the past few weeks, and I lean toward affirming the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, but admittedly, I’m out of my scholarly depth here, too. I would differ from Wayne Grudem & Co, because I don’t think that ESS implies that women are eternally and unequivocally submitted to men. It would be a logical leap that has yet to be explained for one gender to uniformly, exclusively identify with one person of the Trinity, and I don’t think the doctrine of ESS needs that leg to stand on. I think if we are made in *their* image, our identity is connected to the whole of the Trinity, and that because we are made in their image, the Trinitarian community of love, holiness, cooperation, and mutual admiration presents a model for a variety of human relationships, often including humans of different genders. And I think you can say that without assuming specific correlations between members of the Trinity and certain genders.

    I agree that the analogy Scripture presents for husbands and wives is Christ and the Church, not the Father and the Son. I do however, think that the Son’s submission to the Father is a model for everyone who submits to God-given authority, which would include men, women, husbands, wives, children, citizens, employees, and others. But to me, that seems different from equating roles within the Trinity to gender.

    There are a couple things I’m trying to suss out from those who hold to the position that the Son was temporarily submitted to the Father, and I wonder if you could help me by sharing your thoughts? I currently hold a different view, but I like to listen to the strongest case I can find for views I disagree with. I think it honors that opinion and will either change my view or through further study, serve to strengthen it. Here are some of my questions: If the Son was not submitted to the Father before the incarnation, what do you think the Bible has to say about what the relationship between the Father and Son was like before then? How is it different now? What it will be like for the rest of eternity? Could you point me to Scriptures that mark those changes in the relationship? And how do you get around the nature of the relationship implied with titles such as Father and Son, where authority and obedience seem implicit?

    Oh, and I was also wondering, have either of you read “Delighting in the Trinity” by Michael Reeves, and if so, what did you think of it?

    Thanks again for engaging in conversation with me!

  11. Wendy June 14, 2016 at 11:25 pm #

    Lynn, I will defer to Hannah's comment above. I don't want to speak into the debate around ESS any more than she already has because as she pointed out, it's complicated and the terms change meaning depending on whom you read. In general, I identify with the Nicene Creed and Westminster Confession of Faith. The primary point we want to make here is that arguing gendered submission in parallel with Jesus' submission as the Son messes up the categories between essence and role and interferes with progress in understanding one another in the ESS discussion.

  12. Unknown June 14, 2016 at 11:42 pm #

    Thank you, Hannah. Your last paragraph nails it for me. I'm still unclear on what “eternal generation” is exactly–and its implications–but this article was very helpful amidst the whole conversation; explanatory without condemnation. (Perhaps the link you gave will clear up the eternal generation thing for me…lol)

  13. Al June 15, 2016 at 1:05 am #

    I'm not sure that it is accurate to say that the ESS position arose from gender roles. The position has been around longer than recent heated debates about gender (Grudem's quotations from A.H. Strong, one of the most influential Baptist theologians within the last century give weight to his claim). The doctrine of the Trinity has also been connected with female subordination by theologians who weren't strongly pushing a complementarian viewpoint (see, for instance, Karl Barth's remarks in Church Dogmatics IV.1.202ff). It may be more accurate to say that the hairline fractures in a deficient and relatively neglected doctrine of the Trinity in primarily Reformed Baptist circles became apparent when that doctrine became a heavy-load bearing one in the gender debates after the 90s.

    Both Grudem and Ware have both written extensively on the doctrine of the Trinity, apart from gender debates. While gender roles may be tangled up with their doctrine of the Trinity in very unhelpful ways, I do not believe that it is at all fair to say suggest that it is a doctrine constructed to defend their view of gender roles. Much of the criticism of their genuine errors has struck me as rather intemperate and far too ready to assume motives. Greater charity seems to be needed here.

    I also think that claims that this is borderline Arian heresy are simply inaccurate. There is error present, but it isn't that error. Besides, when people firmly reject a given error, it seems appropriate to take them at their word. It also matters that Grudem and Ware clearly believe—and not altogether without justification—that they haven't departed from the orthodox tradition in their statements. As Mike Barnes observes, although Ware and Grudem misrepresent it, the tradition has always had some kind of subordinationism to it. 'Subordination' often functions as a scare word, but it is quite possible that the actual substance of a position speaking in terms of subordination may not be unorthodox.

    I would also suggest that anyone making such claims should be especially attentive to themselves. Grudem and Ware have both clearly shown a deep interest in the doctrine of the Trinity for its own sake, Ware especially. However, some of the people making the strongest criticisms of them are people who have not previously demonstrated any great knowledge of or interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. The fact that this doctrine has suddenly become such a matter of interest when it is politicized leads me to question whether the tail is wagging the dog for them. Even though they might be justified in their doctrinal criticisms of Ware, Grudem, et al, is their doctrine of the Trinity something arising from a deep knowledge of and interest in the doctrine for its own sake, or is it adopted in no small measure because it aligns with their interests in the fights in which it has recently become politicized?

    It should be borne in mind that, as Fred Sanders and others have observed, convictions about equality in the Trinity can cause no less of a problem than convictions about authority. Indeed, many of the criticisms presented against the ESS position apply equally to a wide range of Trinitarian theologies held by egalitarians and others (e.g. social Trinitarianism and careless use of Trinitarian analogies for human society). The truth of the relations of the Trinity is, as Mike Barnes points out, more interesting than either equality or subordination suggest.

  14. Bailey June 15, 2016 at 2:17 am #

    Thank you for this article!

  15. Barbara Roberts June 15, 2016 at 3:33 am #

    Yes! it IS the tail wagging the dog. Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem are pushing ESS because they determined to drive home the nail on male authority over women.

    And WHY are they so determined to do this? What is their agenda and why are they fixed on it with such intransigence that they become indignant when reputable theologians and church historians admonish them (RIGHTLY) for violating the orthodox understanding of the Trinity?

    When people are so determined to resist admonishment, and when they bring up abstruse and convoluted and dense intellectual arguments to steer the conversation, I usually ask myself: “What is their real agenda? What are they hiding? Have they a moral problem they don't want us to put the spotlight on?”

    I think the tail IS wagging the dog. Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem and the other members of their boy's club are pushing this ESS barrow because they are trying to shore up their male privileges. They expostulate that they are 'saving the culture: fighting the culture wars'. But what they are really trying to save is male privilege.

    I co-lead a blog which is trying to awaken the evangelical church to domestic abuse in its midst. We hear every day from victims of domestic abuse, mostly women but a few men, who are committed Christians and who report that their churches have treated them awfully. The injustice that churches are dealing out to abuse victims, particularly women victims, is horrendous. See this link for examples of the horrific pastoral guidance these women have been given:

    The women who come to our blog tell us that the submission/headship teaching in the church was a major (but not the only) component which kept them entrapped in the abuse for years, usually for decades.

    Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem and CBMW patently want to ignore what our readers are saying.

    In my opinion, people like Ware and Grudem are deliberately promoting ESS partly in order to create a giant diversion: a diversion which will keep the church from waking up to the way churches are unjustly treating victims of abuse.

    I believe Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem and their buddies have a moral problem. They adamantly and intransigently resist (fight against) giving full respect to women. They are pushing this ESS doctrine because simply refuse to give up their male privilege. They simply refuse to respect women as much as they respect men.

    The issue of domestic abuse in the church is NOT a red herring to the debate over ESS. It is the livid underbelly of it all: the thing that most people are not paying enough attention to yet.

    I believe that if men like Carl Truman, Todd Pruitt and Liam Goligher expand their thinking — specifically, if they realise that they need to pay a lot more attention to how the church is responding to domestic abuse (by heeding the testimony of victim/survivors), they will be much better able to call out and denounce the ESS camp. Because they will start to see where the ESS guys are really coming from — a resistance to giving up their male privilege.

    Carl Truman expressed some amazement recently that his contribution to this debate has received so much heated pushback. Carl, I say to you: come to our blog A Cry For Justice and learn about the livid underbelly of the complementarian movement and what it is doing to women.

    And by the way, I do not believe that complementarianism in and of itself is the core problem. The core problem is that the church is not wise about evil. Many evil people are hiding out in the church, passing themselves off as sheep, elders and pastors. And the church actively RESISTS becoming as wise as serpents.

    Ps Jeff Crippen has been preaching a series of sermons titled Wise as Serpents. He is a voice crying in the wilderness. Wake up, church!

  16. Hannah Anderson June 15, 2016 at 3:45 am #

    “It may be more accurate to say that the hairline fractures in a deficient and relatively neglected doctrine of the Trinity in primarily Reformed Baptist circles became apparent when that doctrine became a heavy-load bearing one in the gender debates after the 90s.”

    Seconding this. And would add that while Ware and Grudem may not have formulated their version of ESS to “prove” a position, they certainly led way in using it to prop up their views of gender. They actively piled brick upon brick. At the same time, tho, it strikes me as a bit compartmentalized for Ware and Grudem to argue that their handling of ESS is in no way affected by gender debate–if only because they must handle basic definitions of things like “authority” and “submission.” I suppose there's always the possibility that these definitions themselves are flawed and end up affecting both their understanding of gender and their understanding of Trinitarian relationships.

    As always, appreciate your insight, Alastair.

  17. Hannah Anderson June 15, 2016 at 3:46 am #

    “It may be more accurate to say that the hairline fractures in a deficient and relatively neglected doctrine of the Trinity in primarily Reformed Baptist circles became apparent when that doctrine became a heavy-load bearing one in the gender debates after the 90s.”

    Seconding this. And would add that while Ware and Grudem may not have formulated their version of ESS to “prove” a position, they certainly led way in using it to prop up their views of gender. They actively piled brick upon brick. At the same time, tho, it strikes me as a bit compartmentalized for Ware and Grudem to argue that their handling of ESS is in no way affected by gender debate–if only because they must handle basic definitions of things like “authority” and “submission.” I suppose there's always the possibility that these definitions themselves are flawed and end up affecting both their understanding of gender and their understanding of Trinitarian relationships.

    As always, appreciate your insight, Alastair.

  18. Barbara Roberts June 15, 2016 at 4:35 am #

    Is there a way I can be notified of any further comments on this post?

  19. Barbara Roberts June 15, 2016 at 4:38 am #

    Ah, I just saw the box to tick (it was in the right hand corner so I missed it).
    I'm ticking it now. But the problem is, the notifications will be sent to an email address that I don't use any more, I only keep that address alive to keep my Google account open.

  20. Al June 15, 2016 at 10:29 am #

    Thanks, Hannah.

    Yes, I quite agree: in the theology of Ware, Grudem, and a number of others, the doctrine of the Trinity has become unhelpfully tangled up with the gender debate. The fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is also hopelessly bound up with the gender debates among some egalitarians doesn't help matters either, as both sides react to each other and mutually reinforce their unhelpful tendencies (see Grudem's essay in One God in Three Persons for an example of this).

    I think that your final suggestion is a particularly important one, though. The current debates are focused on and framed by categories that are seldom sufficiently questioned, rather than simply being opposed. On the conservative side there is a fixation upon authority/submission and on the progressive side there is a fixation upon equality/mutuality. I don't believe that either set of terms has as much to recommend them as their advocates believe, yet so many of our debates are held hostage by them.

    The framing of the relationship between man and woman or Father and Son primarily in terms of authority/submission strikes me as hopelessly reductive, while 'equality' may arguably be even more so. Egalitarians do not do justice to the differences between the sexes and their part in the shared human calling in Genesis 1-3, for instance. However, framing the differences depicted there in terms of authority/submission is quite a caricature of what we actually see, I think (similar things could be said about the terminology of 'headship'). The narrow focus upon authority/submission also helps to explain how the more expansive biblical witness concerning the relationship between men and women—which includes books such as Proverbs and Song of Solomon—is often under-explored by complementarians.

    Authority is a dimension of the adam's vocation: he is particularly charged with the priestly task of guarding the Garden sanctuary and upholding the law of the tree. He is also given the task of naming the animals. He is also especially given the task of taming and ordering the wider creation. He particularly symbolizes and enacts God's rule within the creation. Yet all of this authority precedes the creation of the woman and isn't focused directly upon his relationship with her, even though it indirectly impinges upon their relationship.

    The woman's task, for her part, while one of helping the man, isn't defined in terms of submission. Rather, the broader context suggests that her task finds its centre of gravity in the positive activities of bringing life into the world, fostering the promise, establishing the glory and fullness of the creation, establishing human communion, etc.

    She 'submits' to the adam, inasmuch as he plays the prominent and initiating part in the human vocation: the day 4-6 tasks depend upon and follow from the day 1-3 tasks. She must follow his lead in the human vocation. However, being required to follow someone's lead is really not quite the same as being under their authority. One can easily imagine two servants with equal dignity of status being appointed to a shared task, but with one of them told to follow the other's lead in doing their part of the task. It is noteworthy that, while women are told on a number of occasions to submit to their husbands, men are not generally told that they have authority over their wives (at least not in the sense that it is often understood).

    The relationship between man and woman in Genesis 1-3 isn't so much about relative priority and authority in their immediate relationship to each other, but their respective parts in an outward oriented shared vocation in the world. This is, I believe, extremely important.


  21. Al June 15, 2016 at 10:32 am #


    We should pay close attention to the relationships between Genesis 1 and 2 here. Genesis 1 is about the two-stage establishment of God's fruitful rule in the creation. Days 1-3 are about forming, naming, taming, dividing, and structuring. Days 4-6 are about filling, delegating, glorifying, generating, bringing life and communion. These are very distinct forms of creative acts, representing different modes of God's activity in the world: the first are primarily associated with the Son, and the second with the Spirit.

    In creating humanity, God creates a creature in his image and likeness. The image concept is primarily associated with dominion and rule, and with the sort of material authority and power demonstrated on the first three days, much as the image concept is especially associated with the Son. However, there is another dimension to humanity's task that more closely aligns with the glory, filling, generating, and the establishment of life and communion that is especially associated with the Spirit (note also the intense biblical association of the Spirit with themes of birth and rebirth).

    In the creation account of Genesis 2, we see correspondences with what has gone before, suggesting humanity's task within the world corresponds with and continues God's own creative work. The man's task and gifting finds its centre of gravity and realm of primary expression in 'day 1-3' activities; the woman's in 'day 4-6' activities (although both man and woman are deeply 'intervolved' with the other's tasks within their shared vocation). Man and woman, both in their distinctness and in their unity reflect something of God's own activity in the world.

    While we should be exceedingly wary of reading this back into the immanent Trinity, what this demonstrates is nonetheless important. First, there is an analogy between God's own creative work and the distinct callings and giftings of men and women. As there is also a mysterious correspondence between God's work ad extra and his own divine life, such an analogy suggests that this is part of how we reflect God in the world. Even though we cannot know exactly how this corresponds to God's own life and should beware of speculating, we can know that some sort of correspondence exists.

    Second, correspondence isn't just about knowledge, but about participation. What the correspondence I am describing highlights is that, in some manner, in our differentiated co-labouring, men and women can live out a pattern of life that mysteriously—though not immediately or univocally—finds its ultimate basis in God himself. We don't have to speculate about the precise nature of this basis to know that this profoundly dignifies our identities and callings and that the correspondence between God's ad extra creative activity and the sexed pattern of our human vocation suggests that God has peculiarly fashioned us to operate as his image-bearers and to operate with the grain of his own creative work.

    While authority/submission really caricatures this—flattening out the male calling and suppressing the female calling—there are, I believe, strong biblical grounds for saying that the differences and relationship between men and women are matters of revelatory and image-bearing import. If we were to be more attentive to the scriptural witness, I believe that we could discover the presence of more felicitous and richer categories for speaking of this. Although we need to prevent the sort of speculative traffic that occurs between the doctrine of the Trinity and accounts of gender relations, there is value in an account that recognizes the existence of a relationship between the two, while firmly resisting the temptation to draw our account of gender relations from our doctrine of the Trinity, or our doctrine of the Trinity from our account of gender relations.

    So, summing up, yes, the framework set by authority/submission is a very important dimension of the problem here.

  22. Wendy June 15, 2016 at 11:54 am #

    Ugh. Sorry, Barb. I don't know what to add to your comments. I continually want to give the benefit of the doubt to the guys in question. But there have been awful real world consequences for many women who have sat under such teaching — I experienced so much first hand at Mars Hill. I hope many will research the ways this influences both men and women in the church through the stories on your blog. It goes back to Calvin's statements. A knowledge of self and how men practically internalize a teaching reflects back on our knowledge of God.

  23. Lynn Fleshman June 15, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

    Alastair, I hope this lengthy comment is an indication that a Mere Fidelity podcast on this topic is coming soon! 🙂

  24. Lynn Fleshman June 15, 2016 at 2:06 pm #

    Aannnnd, I see that one is already up! Hooray

  25. Al June 15, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    Lol! 🙂

    I only touch upon this in passing in the podcast, as the focus is more directly upon Trinitarian theology. However, Lord-willing, I will address it more directly in a series of posts I am writing on the controversy for Reformation21.

    The categories that people are often working with in these discussions really distort our understanding. It may also be one of the reasons why complementarian positions often risk narrowly focusing upon 'legal' themes of rules and roles, to the neglect of more 'poetic' themes such as beauty, delight, creation, reflection of God, etc. It isn't as if legal themes are wrong. Rather, it is comparable to the difference between the way musical laws relate to the child commanded to practice their scales and the virtuoso who can create profound beauty out of their deep acquaintance with and mastery of the laws of music. Sadly, a constraining vision that overemphasizes laws and authority can trap us at that first stage.

  26. Jessica Watson June 15, 2016 at 3:46 pm #

    This is a very helpful post. I was talking to my dad on the phone the other night about this whole Trinitarian/gender debate and he said that it reminded him of the church we went to when I was growing up. The inspiration/inerrancy of the Bible came under attack in our culture and among Christians and a whole group of churches rightly defended it, but it soon morphed to a doctrine of defending one particular version of the Bible as inspired and inerrant, the KJV. These churches soon cut themselves off from the mainstream of evangelicalism and formed their own camps, which deviated from confessional, theologically-rich Protestantism in so many dangerous ways.

    CBMW started with addressing a serious issue in culture and in Christianity, but when you go beyond the bounds of what the Bible says itself about gender and speculate(I'm thinking of Piper and the police officer, Grudem and his list of 80 + ways in which a women can/cannot serve in the church, and the ESS position), you end up finding yourself in an untenable position, you sink into legalism, and you cut yourself off from the creeds and confessions, and in the long run you do more harm than good.

    We all have a lot of work to do in reflecting on this issue and figuring it out. We are responsible to pass on the faith to the next generation and as a mom of a 16 year old, that is a serious charge to me. I know the damage I am still recovering from by belonging to a legalistic, fundametalist church for so many years…God forbid I leave my son with a similar legacy.

  27. Wendy June 15, 2016 at 4:35 pm #

    That's a good analogy, Jessica.

  28. Lynn Fleshman June 15, 2016 at 6:29 pm #

    Fair enough. Thanks! 🙂

  29. Lynn Fleshman June 15, 2016 at 6:37 pm #

    Looking forward to reading more!

  30. Wendy K. June 15, 2016 at 7:24 pm #

    “It may be more accurate to say that the hairline fractures in a deficient and relatively neglected doctrine of the Trinity in primarily Reformed Baptist circles became apparent when that doctrine became a heavy-load bearing one in the gender debates after the 90s.”

    Seconding this as well; this is well put and I can see how this is true, thank you, Al.

    “And would add that while Ware and Grudem may not have formulated their version of ESS to “prove” a position, they certainly led way in using it to prop up their views of gender. They actively piled brick upon brick. At the same time, tho, it strikes me as a bit compartmentalized for Ware and Grudem to argue that their handling of ESS is in no way affected by gender debate–if only because they must handle basic definitions of things like “authority” and “submission.” I suppose there's always the possibility that these definitions themselves are flawed and end up affecting both their understanding of gender and their understanding of Trinitarian relationships.”

    Also seconding Hannah on this. I really appreciate the insight of everyone here.

    I am still of the mind that Grudem and Ware's ESS is borderline Arianism, and I am careful to say “borderline” because I recognize that of course it is not full Arianism. I see similarities in their conclusions, however, and I take these very seriously. Thank you, though, for the gentle reminder for charity; perhaps they are not aware of the danger of their conclusions. However, because Grudem and Ware seem to be arguing that Jesus Himself is ontologically subordinate, this seems to put a subtle divide between Him and the other two Persons of the Godhead, thus He appears to not be fully God. I am very concerned with this, even ignoring for a moment the further connection that is made to gender definitions.

    Dr. Goligher and Carl Truemann put this in better words than I can (sorry for the lengthy links).

    For now I will educate myself further on ESS. I just desire that everyone be very wary of it, for what I presently understand of it is quite troubling.

  31. Al June 15, 2016 at 8:26 pm #

    Thanks, Wendy.

    If Ware and Grudem were indeed arguing that the Son—not to be conflated with Jesus as the God-man, whose human nature is ontologically subordinate to God's—is so subordinate, that would be a grave error indeed. However, both Grudem and Ware repeatedly and vehemently oppose ontological subordination. Even if their position may be incoherent and unsustainable, I think it unfair to accuse them of a heresy that they have rejected so explicitly.

    I read Goligher and Trueman's posts when they were first published. While I also disagree with the positions they were challenging, I found the manner in which they challenged them quite unfortunate (I say this as someone who has a great appreciation for both men). Goligher made some incredibly bold—and I thought rather uncharitable—judgments about motives. Trueman politicized the discussion in some other potentially unhelpful ways.

    Putting motives and politics to one side, though, my happy experience in this particular discussion is that, when handled graciously, people are surprisingly willing to adjust their doctrine in the direction of greater orthodoxy. People's motives—on all sides—are seldom as bad as assumed and large tracts of common ground can be found. Eternal subordination of the Son is, while undoubtedly popular in certain mainstream complementarian circles, far from a consensus position and is also held in many quite contrasting ways, some of which are technically orthodox and others not of which aren't. Even those who hold technically unorthodox forms are often prepared to change when the deficiency of their positions is demonstrated to them and more appropriate positions that nonetheless do justice to their concerns are offered them. Making a less aggressive argument in such cases saves people from our natural instinct to dig in our heels when so directly challenged.

    Even were Arianism being taught here—and I don't believe it is—a distinction between formal and material heresy is valuable when handling such cases. Formal heresy is witting and willing opposition to the orthodox teaching of the Church. Material heresy is objectively in conflict with the orthodox teaching of the Church, but the person holding it does not realize or believe it to be so. The way that we handle formal and material heresy should be quite different.

    I highly commend the work of Fred Sanders on this subject. He addresses people on all sides with grace, good humour, insight, care, and clarity and outlines the issues in a balanced manner. In the process, he is able to affirm the good motives that exist on all sides, while correcting the errors. See this piece, for example:

  32. The Music Student June 16, 2016 at 12:32 am #

    Very well said, Hannah and Wendy! I do not think ESS is an accurate portrayal of the relationship between the Father and the Son; but to extrapolate what the relationship between men and women in general should be from the ordering of the Trinity is to draw an analogy that Scripture never tells us to draw. It seems presumptuous to say the least to set up such a strident rule for human beings from the silences of Scripture, and brings to mind Christ's excoriation of the Pharisees for adding to the law with their traditions.

    In regards to the historical view of the Trinity, I would observe that the early church writers, so far as I have read them (I'm going through Ireneaus currently) had a far more robust understanding of Christ's role in the Trinity than most modern Christians. Justin Martyr, for example, in his 'Dialogue with Trypho' points out the work of Christ in the Old Testament as being far more extensive than had hitherto occurred to me – Christ was the pillar of cloud and fire by night, the Commander of the army of the Lord. For the first time, I had a clear idea what Christ was teaching his disciples on the road to Emmaus. In focusing mainly Christ's submission to the will of His Father – a submission which I view as relating to His Incarnation as the Son of man – advocates of ESS run the danger of missing the full role of Christ as revealed in the Scripture.

    By the way, that CBMW article on the New Creation is disturbing. In insisting that some kind of semblance of marriage will last in the Resurrection totally misses the context of Christ's statement that there would be no marriage. The Sadducees were putting the case to Him of a woman who died, having been the widow of seven brothers, and wanted to know how she could be their wife in the resurrection. Christ cut straight the through the problem by eliminating marriage altogether, but now CBMW says there will still be some semblance of marriage? The mind boggles.

  33. Barbara Roberts June 16, 2016 at 2:59 am #

    Thanks Wendy, and btw, I am now getting email notifications of comments. 🙂

  34. Barbara Roberts June 16, 2016 at 3:33 am #

    Al thank you for this:
    “It may be more accurate to say that the hairline fractures in a deficient and relatively neglected doctrine of the Trinity in primarily Reformed Baptist circles became apparent when that doctrine became a heavy-load bearing one in the gender debates after the 90s.”

    And Hannah, thank you for this statement with which I fully agree:
    “while Ware and Grudem may not have formulated their version of ESS to “prove” a position, they certainly led way in using it to prop up their views of gender. They actively piled brick upon brick. At the same time, tho, it strikes me as a bit compartmentalized for Ware and Grudem to argue that their handling of ESS is in no way affected by gender debate–if only because they must handle basic definitions of things like “authority” and “submission.” “

  35. Barbara Roberts June 16, 2016 at 3:57 am #

    Here is why I am concerned about Wayne Grudem being motivated an unwillingness to accord full respect to women and an unwillingness to give up his male privilege.

    Approximately 18 months to 2 years ago, one of the people who was at that time writing guest posts for our blog A Cry For Justice, informed Ps Jeff Crippen and myself that he (the guest poster) had been in email contact with Wayne Grudem and Grudem had told him that he, Grudem, was reading some of our blog.

    Grudem read our blog. He is aware of our work, our efforts to awaken the evangelical church to domestic violence and abuse in its midst.
    He is a key figure in CBMW. And years ago I was in email contact with the then Director of CBMW (Randy someone) and I was expressing my concerns about CBMW's “Statement on Abuse”.

    That gentleman from CBMW told me that CBMW would be reviewing their Statement on Abuse.

    They have NEVER reviewed or modified that Statement in any way.

    Now, Wayne Grudem is aware of our work and likely aware of my expressed concerns about CBMW's approach to domestic abuse…. yet he does nothing about it. He sits on his hands. He is not doing what the Bible calls believers to do:
    “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit [help, support, assist] orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:27

    “He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
    but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

    Wayne Grudem appears to prefer arguing for ESS / ERAS than listening to and believing the victims of the toxic state of the church.

    He seems to prefer to listen to men, particularly the bunkered down men in CBMW cosy-land, where they all pat each other on the back, refuse to let the laity comment on their posts, and generally turn a deaf ear to the oppressed in the church — who are mostly women and children.

    If they decided they had to accord as much respect to women as they give to men, they would have to listen to people like us, and heed what we have to say. As it is, we cry out into the wind … but the victim/survivors are flocking to us, and supporting each other at our blog.

    Here is documentary evidence of my attempts to get CBWM to review their Statement on Abuse:

  36. Barbara Roberts June 16, 2016 at 3:59 am #

    I just remember the full name of the man at CBWM who told me that CBMW would be reviewing their Statement on Abuse.
    It was Randy Stinson.
    I no longer have that email trail of our conversation, as when I switched from Microsoft to Apple I didn't keep my old emails (sigh!)

  37. Barbara Roberts June 16, 2016 at 4:55 am #

    And for those who might want more stuff to research on what's been said about Bruce Ware's views on the Trinity:

  38. Wendy K. June 18, 2016 at 1:08 am #

    Unfortunately, Al, my understanding is that this is exactly what Grudem and Ware are arguing: that the Son (not during His incarnation, which we all agree did involve His subordinating of will) is at all times ontologically subordinate to the Father. This is illustrated in the name alone, -eternal- subordination, and evidence is seen throughout Ware’s teachings. Ware states repeatedly and explicitly states that the Son is in eternal submission under the supreme authority of the Father in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (2005, p. 71 and throughout). On p. 87, he denies that the Father and Son are functional equals. This is a denial of the co-equality of the Trinity, hence why I initially brought up the Athanasian Creed. It is also an explicit denial of the Nicene Creed (“His only Son, Jesus Christ…very God of very God…being of one substance with the Father”) and ultimately our all-sufficient guide of Scripture (John 10:30 comes to mind; On the subject of prayer, Ware’s position is that “the Father has absolute and uncontested supremacy, including authority over the Son and the Spirit, so we pray to the Father” (p. 153) (you may read this and the context here: Moreover, it appears that Ware has clarified that he does not think we should pray to Jesus, as such prayers will go unanswered; his responses to such passages as John 14:14 are quite alarming to me ( [this is an indirect source, so take it with a grain of salt; regardless, the other direct quotes provided above should be enough to demonstrate that Ware does not see the Son as co-equal with the Father]). Additionally, if, as Hannah and Wendy illustrate above, Ware and Grudem are attempting to use the Son’s eternal relationship to the Father as a way to redefine the ontological understanding of women, they cannot link this logically unless they argue that the Son Himself is eternally ontologically separate from the Father. This is why I cannot let the statement rest that the conclusions of such a radical redefinition of the Son (again, not even considering for a moment the further tie made to human gender definitions) smacks of Arianism and is extremely dangerous.

    Grudem and Ware may insist that they are not departing from orthodoxy, but does this mean anything when their repeated statements to this effect are not matching up with their continued teachings? I certainly have no desire to be uncharitable. I am not judging their salvation before God, and perhaps their right hand does not know what the left is doing; however, it is still clear to me that they are advancing a false teaching on the nature of Jesus, and are directly tying this to a particular extrabiblical stance on gender. I do not see Goligher and Trueman as being unfortunately uncharitable in their motive judgments, as they make no claims that are surprising, unsupported, or stronger than what Hannah and Wendy have said in this post, and, again, Ware and Grudem themselves are not shy about directly tying their version of ESS to a redefinition of gender categories that they are attempting to advance.

    While I believe there is a time and place for good humor and non-aggressive tactics when confronting an alternative viewpoint (indeed, this is true for the vast majority of instances), there is also a time and place for swiftly and seriously responding to a false teaching that reaches dangerous conclusions and has the potential to deceive many (and while I agree that there is not a consensus among ESS positions, Ware and Grudem’s position is still becoming popular in mainstream evangelical circles and therefore still has the potential to mislead many). I see this as one of those rare instances.

  39. Al June 18, 2016 at 1:26 am #

    Ware's position may not be the most coherent at times, but he is explicit that he does not teach ontological subordination. See this recent article (, for instance. He writes:

    “There is no hint of Arian subordinationism or of tri-theism in what is being proposed by advocates of this intra-Trinitarian relationship of authority and submission. One may, if one chooses, level the charge that our view entails a denial of homoousios, or that it implies tri-theism, or the like. But be clear, such supposed entailments or implications are not only denied but are strongly refuted by advocates of our view. We stand fully with the early ecumenical councils in embracing all that they say about the eternal deity of the Son and the full unity and co-eternality of the one God who is three. And we reject all forms of ontological subordinationism in affirming the full, unqualified, co-eternal deity of the Son, with the Father and the Spirit.”

    Within this debate the terms ontological and functional are used to clarify the eternal subordination of the Son position. Ontological subordination (subordination in being) is absolutely denied, while functional subordination (the Son's eternal submission to the Father) is asserted.

    The position is definitely a highly problematic one and I am currently writing a lengthy series unpacking exactly why (I can send you a copy of what has been written so far, if you are interested). However, both Grudem and Ware strenuously deny ontological subordination.

  40. Ruth in NZ June 18, 2016 at 4:42 am #

    Hi Wendy (and Hannah), Your post has sent me on a rabbit trail of articles and and comment reading today. I appreciate those like the two of you, who recognise your limtations when it comes to the deeper theological “arguments” but also recognise the need to address the implications in a way that others in the same boat can understand. I find myself thinking that discussions like these are so often framed in terms of what the male/female or husband/wife relationship is NOT, so I loved your final paragraph which turned our eyes back to what it should look like and what we can strive for. Blessings in your work.

  41. Anonymous June 19, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

    There are so many different issues here, and it would appear a host of competing agendas. But have we really come to the point where we can't assert that there has been some differences in the roles of the Trinity throughout eternity without being accused of Arianism? If the reply is that no, that's not what's being said, then how much further does one need to go beyond that before they are believed to have crossed the line into heresy?

  42. Al June 19, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

    This is a difficult conversation in many ways. First of all, there is Trinitarian error on most sides of the conversation. For instance, a number of the egalitarians in the conversation have a seriously distorted doctrine of the Trinity, without a robust account of Trinitarian taxis, with a strong tendency towards the error of social Trinitarianism, and a tendency to read social ideals into and out from their doctrine of the Trinity. The problems are not just on one side.

    Second, the people we are talking about here clearly believe that they are teaching in line with the Church's historic teaching. If they are heretics they aren't formal heretics, only material ones.

    Third, the people in question all explicitly, repeatedly, and vehemently deny the charge of Arianism and, more particularly, denounce the specific claims of Arianism as heresy. Either we believe that they are speaking in bad faith, are unwittingly inconsistent, or that they do not in fact teach a position that amounts to Arianism. In the third case, the charge doesn't stick. In the second case, the charge needs to be more carefully formulated, as they would be both rejecting and affirming the heretical position.

    Fourth, most of the charges of Arianism have involved misrepresentations of what has actually been said. The case that they are Arians is plagued by such false—even if unwittingly so—witness.

    Fifth, many of those who are most strongly accusing Grudem, Ware, et al of heresy don't strike me as the types who generally show much interest in or manifest a deep knowledge of the doctrine of the Trinity. I fear that people are jumping on the bandwagon of heresy accusations, not because the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is something they have studied or understand in much depth, but because it is a popular online argument in certain circles right now, which just happens to align with some of the key political fault lines they care about. Also, and more to the point, it happens to be popular way to attack and stigmatize people who are disliked for other reasons, on account of their strict complementarian position and what that stands for. I doubt that many of those bringing such an accusation would like their Trinitarian theology to be held to similar standards. Nor do they seem to be as loud in their criticisms of the egalitarians who also hold such a position (Craig Keener, for instance).

    Sixth, it is important to name heresies and errors correctly. Arianism doesn't seem to be the right term here, but that doesn't mean it isn't serious error, or perhaps even heresy.

    Finally, 'heresy' isn't the only category that we have. It is also possible to speak of error of different degrees. Something can be badly wrong without being heresy. I think such an approach is more appropriate here. Heresy is generally a term best adopted as one of last resort.

  43. Anonymous June 19, 2016 at 10:50 pm #

    Thanks for the reply and interaction. While some are charging that Grudem and Ware are bringing their complementarian views to their theology of the Trinity, it would seem to me that there is just as much warrant to suggest that the other side is doing the same.

    It appears I have a lot of reading to do on this subject, because I thought it was settled doctrine that the Father has always been the Father, and the Son has always been the Son. If the names themselves don't portend some kind of distinction in role then what are they for?

  44. Barbara Roberts June 19, 2016 at 10:50 pm #

    Thank you, Al. I appreciate your cautions and your suggestions. 🙂

    I am not one who is accusing Grudem and Ware etc of heresy in regards to their ERAS teaching. However, I do accuse them of serious error in that teaching. I think their ERAS teaching is dangerous and very unhealthy for the church.

    I believe that ERAS (Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission in the Trinity) is dangerous doctrine.

    I am not egal. I am am not comp. I am interested in JUSTICE more than anything else. Justice for the victims of abuse — domestic abuse, child abuse, spiritual abuse, psychological abuse. The whole male-authority teaching as propounded by Grudem, Ware, CMBW etc has done IMMENSE harm to victims of domestic abuse (and spiritual abuse). It has compounded the entrapment of the victims. It has empowered and enabled the abusive mindset: the abuser's belief in his entitlement to power and control.

    Yes, not all abusers are male. Yes, some abusers are female. But the fact is: most of the Christian victims of domestic abuse are women and children who are being abused by men — by husbands, fathers, pastors, elders. Many of these men a passing themselves off as Christians. I believe they are hypocrites.

    The folk at CBMW block my voice. They studiously ignore me and my colleagues at A Cry For Justice. But we will keep crying out for justice and calling on to the church to wake up to domestic abuse in its midst. And correct the erroneous doctrines which are fueling all this oppression.

    I deplore ERAS because it is a doctrine which is being used to de-voice and suppress and oppress women. That's the main point, for me.

    And I don't take a position on women's ordination. I simply want the church to listen to and respect victims of abuse, and give them justice. That's what motivates me.

  45. Barbara Roberts June 19, 2016 at 10:54 pm #

    Thank you Wendy for allowing people to give links in their comments. 🙂

    At A Cry For Justice, I posted this today:
    It's Vital to Talk About Motivation in the Debate about 'Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission'

  46. Anonymous June 19, 2016 at 11:14 pm #

    Whether or not one believes the submission of the Son started at the incarnation or has to some degree always existed,one could still favorably argue that 1 Cor. 11:3 is an example of how there can be a difference in roles within a relationship and still maintain ontological equality.

    And simply teaching the difference between the roles of men and women in marriage cannot be linked to abuse, no more than teaching the distinction in roles between elder and church-member leads to ecclesiastical abuse, or that teaching the difference between the roles of government and citizen leads to persecution.

  47. Al June 19, 2016 at 11:28 pm #

    Anonymous, thanks for the response.

    Even if the other side is bringing their view of the sexes to their doctrine of the Trinity we still shouldn't do it.

    You are right: the Father has always been the Father and the Son always the Son. This is what the Church has taught. Father, Son, and Spirit aren't masks behind which a God who isn't Father, Son, and Spirit hides. Nevertheless, what we encounter in the work of Father and Son in Scripture is distinct in key ways from the life of the 'immanent Trinity'—of God as he is in himself, without reference to the creation. The Trinity, seen in relation to God's work and word in the world is the 'economic Trinity'. These aren't two different Trinities, but two angles from which the one God can be spoken of.

    This difference is especially pronounced when we talk about the work of Christ in his humiliation, becoming flesh and dying for us. We truly see the Father-Son relationship, but we see it refracted by time, creation, sin, and Christ's taking of human flesh. Consequently, we cannot simply conflate immanent and economic Trinity.

    Strictly speaking, the names aren't distinctions of 'role'. The one God doesn't have 'roles', as all of his actions are inseparable. However, it is appropriate to say that God's action is from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit: there is undivided action, but each person performs the single action in a particular way. There is no 'division of labour', though.

    Also, the language of 'role' suggests that what is done is distinct from the person. However, it is incorrect to say that the first person of the Trinity 'is a father', as if being Father was a 'role'. Rather, the first person of the Trinity is the Father: he is distinguished solely by his relation and by the internal divine mode of action that is proper to him.

    As for 1 Corinthians 11:3, yes, a case could be made that there can be a 'difference in roles within a relationship' without jeopardizing ontological equality. It would need to be carefully handled, but I suspect it could be done.

    However, a couple of things should be borne in mind. 1. 'Head' does not necessarily have the narrow and restrictive meaning that some such as Grudem ascribe to it; 2. 'Difference in role' is not usually the same as 'subordination in role'. Some egalitarians would accept the former, while firmly resisting the latter.


    I too have far-reaching concerns, both with the Trinitarian doctrine of ERAS/ESS/EFS and with the way that it tends to be used. Whether or not it is intended, it has been tangled up with teaching on gender in profoundly unhelpful ways.

    I have a multi-part (7+) series being published on Reformation21 ( at the point, which unpacks the debate and some of the issues involved. The first two parts have already been published, but there is quite a lot yet to come. It gets into the Trinitarian questions. Within my next post, I challenge the language of 'subordination'.

  48. Anonymous June 19, 2016 at 11:46 pm #

    It would seem there are many hairs that could be split in this discussion, and I wonder if the gender issues weren't being linked, if anyone would even care.

    My view of the Trinity is not changed at all by whether or not the submission of the Son to the Father began at the incarnation or before. And quite honestly I don't think it has any real implications in the comp vs. egal debate. Both sides can argue their views irrespective of that issue.

    The one theological hair that I would split with you would be your statement that the names “Father” and “Son” don't denote difference in roles. I can't make a Biblical argument for my position simply because there is no Scripture that fleshes out the differences between Father and Son until we get to the incarnation. However different names could have been chosen to denote the relationship between the First and Second person of the Trinity. Choosing names that by their very inference denote some kind of ranking would seem to suggest something.

    P.S. I am not Anonymous because I don't want to publish my name, but because my only online footprint right now is Facebook, and that isn't an option to identify myself here.

  49. Anonymous June 20, 2016 at 5:14 am #

    One more quick question for Al or anyone. Is there a consensus on John 5:26 being pre-incarnation?

  50. Al June 20, 2016 at 8:34 am #

    No, there isn't a consensus.

  51. Carmon Friedrich June 20, 2016 at 4:14 pm #

    In the Ware book that Wendy mentions above (2005), he says, “An authority-submission structure marks the very nature of the eternal Being of the one who is three. In this authority-submission structure, the three Persons understand the rightful place each has. The Father possesses the place of supreme authority…the Son submits to the Father just as the Father…exercises authority over the Son. And the Spirit submits to both the Father and the Son.” (p. 21)

    “Marks the very nature of the eternal Being…” Ontological submission. My friend skimmed the actual book yesterday and pulled over a dozen similar quotes as representative. She said there are many more. Maybe reading the book rather than just listening to strenuous denials will give more insight into his views. If he has changed them since 2005, hopefully he will make it clear. And hopefully CBMW will answer Aimee Byrd's question about whether ERAS is their formal position.

  52. Al June 20, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

    That isn't the way that the terminology 'ontological submission/subordination' is functioning within this debate. I wonder whether you are confusing the 'ontological/functional' distinction as it operates in the ESS position with the traditional distinctions between immanent and economic (or ad extra and ad intra). Also, I have read Ware carefully (books and articles), rather than just 'skimming' him. I think that I have a fairly good handle upon what he is arguing for, rather than just what he is denying. Quote-mining is not a great way to do theology. If one can't learn this from elsewhere, one can definitely learn that lesson from the quotations from the Church Fathers than supposedly 'support' the ESS position (but, when read in wider context, don't at all).

    I also think that it is worth noting that, with recognition of both the inseparable operations and appropriations of the Triune persons, there is warrant within orthodoxy for a differentiated account of divine authority. Although it may not be that assumed by ESS types, it also pushes against the flattening out of the Triune persons that one often encounters among egalitarians.

    The account of divine authority is at least incipiently Trinitarian in Scripture, it seems to me. The Father is the source of authority and the authorizing One—authority comes from him. The Son is the entirely authorized One, the One through God's authority is effected (indeed, perhaps we could say that the Son is the authority of the Father). The Spirit is the One in whom authority is given and perfected. The authority is singular, eminently assigned to the Father, yet the work of the undivided Godhead.

  53. Anonymous June 20, 2016 at 10:33 pm #

    Hi once again Al, I was responding to you below under the heading of Anonymous. I will try to interact with you on your own blog once you get Part 3 up, and I can formally introduce myself there.

    Re-reading your comment above, it appears that you are allowing for a certain amount of distinction among the members of the Trinity, and your distinctions do include the issues of authority.

    I don't know how everyone else fleshes out their views of ESS, but I have a simple definition that there is indeed some distinction where the Father has the role as the one who initiates, sends, gives, etc., and the Son responds. If the opponents of ESS are arguing against certain inferences and projections of these distinctions then I can understand that, but if they are completely denying these distinctions, then it would appear to me that they've got a lot of Scripture to deal with. And trying to cast all of the relevant Scriptures as only applying to the Incarnate Son, doesn't seem to work in my opinion.

    What I'd like to see is a discussion on whether or not any distinction at all exists and go from the easiest to agree on and understand to the more controversial and complicated.

  54. Al June 20, 2016 at 11:12 pm #

    I'm not sure when it will go online, but I deal with some of the Trinitarian problems with the ESS position in more depth in part four of my series.

    The distinctions that I mentioned rest upon a few key theological claims: 1. God only has one authority, which belongs to his nature; 2. Each person of the Trinity has the singular authority of God; 3. God's operations are inseparable (something Grudem seems to challenge); 4. Although this one authority does not belong more to one person than the others, each person performs the one operation differently; 5. Although each person performs the authority of God differently, this is different from an authority-submission framework.

  55. Barbara Roberts June 21, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

    To the Anonymous who, on June 19, 2016 at 4:14 PM, said:

    “… simply teaching the difference between the roles of men and women in marriage cannot be linked to abuse, no more than teaching the distinction in roles between elder and church-member leads to ecclesiastical abuse, or that teaching the difference between the roles of government and citizen leads to persecution.”

    I wish to tell you, Anonymous, that you clearly have very little understanding or insight into the experience of Christian victims of domestic abuse, to have said that.

    I urge you to learn more. Here is a good place to start:

  56. Barbara Roberts June 21, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

    Thanks Al, for the heads up about your series of articles over at Reformation 21 on this topic. I hope I can find them. Your name 'Al' doesn't give me much to go on, in searching for them…. there are a LOT of posts there about the ESS/ERAS/EFS debate.

  57. Al June 21, 2016 at 3:59 pm #

    My articles will all be here.

  58. Anonymous June 21, 2016 at 5:44 pm #


    My heart goes out to anyone that has been abused under any circumstances. But your post (whether you intend it to or not) leaves the impression that any teaching that involves distinct gender roles in marriage leads to abuse.

    I'm new to this blog, but I appreciate how the owners here are trying to arrive at a balanced perspective of complementarianism, and I like how they challenge some of the misconceptions that sometimes accompany complementerian teaching. But this blog does in fact refer to some distinction in the roles of men and women in marriage and uses terms such as “leader,” “headship,” and “submission.” So does that mean reading this blog could lead to abuse? I suspect your answer will be no, and if that's the case, then I'd suggest that we all join with the spirit of their efforts to see that complementarian teaching is rightly taught so that it used to elevate women instead of tearing them down.

  59. Barbara Roberts June 21, 2016 at 6:44 pm #

    Anonymous, your reply suggests to me that you didn't even bother looking at the article I suggested you read. So that in turn suggests you are not so much interested in learning as in simply confronting and pushing back at me. That is disappointing. It also indicates to me that when you say “My heart goes out to anyone that has been abused under any circumstances,” your words are hollow. If your heart really went out to anyone who is abused, wouldn't you be interested in learning more about their experiences, and their complaints, so that you would be better able to understand and support them?

    I believe that, generally speaking (and this blog is one of the wonderful exceptions) the way headship and submission has been taught in the conservative church HAS helped to enabled and abusive husbands.

    The article I linked to above gives examples of how wives who are suffering domestic abuse are being counselled by pastors. It is scandalous how such women are often being treated by conservative evangelical leaders.

    Anything that can be perceived to promulgate domestic violence is unacceptable.

    The doctrines of Headship and submission, as they is being taught in most conservative evangelical churches, books, marriage seminars, etc, DO this. They are perceived by some (by the abusers) to endorse and enable male privilege and the male disrespect of women. The women, in turn, are perceiving that they must submit to their husbands and their pastors no matter how they men treat them. If the women object, they are blamed for not being submissive enough, or for useing the wrong tone in the way they expressed their grievance.. etc etc etc.

    Please instead of just pushing back at me, read the article I linked to.

  60. Anonymous June 21, 2016 at 7:24 pm #


    While I didn't read that specific article you linked to, it would be a mistake to assume I hadn't read other articles or listened to the stories of other abuse victims. But, out of respect for your taking the time to engage me, I did just read the article you posted.

    I most certainly agree that your article contains examples of some bad advice being given by Pastors and leaders. It's similar to other things I've heard as well.

    I'm all for correcting these wrong ways of teaching and giving advice. I also agree that Complementarianism could use its own reform movement to correct some of the problems that have been associated with it.

    However, there are two things that you say that give me pause.

    “Anything that can be perceived to promulgate domestic violence is unacceptable.”

    If we take this statement to its logical conclusion then we can't teach anything regarding headship and submission because there's always the chance that someone will only hear what they want to hear out of that message.

    Your 2nd statement:

    “The doctrines of Headship and submission, as they is being taught in most conservative evangelical churches, books, marriage seminars, etc, DO this.”

    I don't presume to have read or heard everything on this topic, but I honestly believe that most people who believe and teach complementarianism are trying to get it right and aren't using it as a vehicle to suppress women.

    To slightly bring this back on topic, if ESS is being used in such a way as to teach the overall headship of men to all women, then that is not helpful at all.

  61. Wendy June 22, 2016 at 12:18 am #

    Anonymous, as to your last sentence, that is EXACTLY what CBMW and Ware and Grudem through them are doing. Not kind of doing. But exactly doing. I strongly believe it is more than unhelpful. It is harmful. Harmful to Trinitarian doctrine and harmful to women.

  62. Barbara Roberts June 22, 2016 at 12:58 am #

    I second what Wendy just said about Anonymous's last sentence.

    The notion of Eternal Subordination of the Son IS being used in such a way as to teach the overall headship of men to all women. And it IS harmful to Trinitarian doctrine. And it IS harmful to women.

  63. Barbara Roberts June 22, 2016 at 12:59 am #

    Also Anonymous, you said:
    “I honestly believe that most people who believe and teach complementarianism are trying to get it right and aren't using it as a vehicle to suppress women.”

    Well, if you think that I can only say you are still pretty naive about the state of things in the church.

    Some of these people teaching complementarianism may be trying to 'get it right' and are not wittingly or intentionally using it to a vehicle to suppress women. But here's the thing:

    The big shots, the most influential leaders who have been teaching complementarianism for years have been REFUSING to listen to the victims of abuse.

    They have been blocking their ears to what we can tell them about how the doctrine so easily becomes toxic.

    They have been refusing to correct their teaching in ways that would better restrain abusive men from using the doctrine for their own selfish ends.

    They are not reading the stuff we have been writing about how to detect the phoney repentance of abusers and how to recognise and resist the abusive man's attempt to recruit allies in the church.

    They have been pridefully thinking that they 'Get It' about domestic abuse already, so they don't need to learn, they don't need to humble themselves and listen to the victims, they don't need to recalibrate any of their thinking and practices.

    This is a scandal.
    It is far more widespread than you can imagine, Anonymous.

    And because the big shots have most control of the christian internet, and they don't allow comments on most of their posts, and they publish so many books and run conferences as infinitum spreading their concept of complementarianism, and they teach it in seminaries so it's being passed down to the new generation of pastors, and all the older pastors and leaders have been absorbing it for years, they all think it is true and correct.

    And they don't listen to what we have to tell them. They don't listen to us because they have already typecast us as marriage wreckers, culture destroyers, unbiblical twisters of scripture etc.

    But it is THEIR twisting of the scriptures which is the problem. They are selectively emphasising some scritpures and intentionally ignoring or de-emphasising others.

    Hence, their teaching so easily becomes toxic: the abusive men and abusive pastors and elders love it — because they know that it empowers them. And because it can so easily be used to oppress women. The abused women are intimidated and falsely blamed for their husband's conduct. The abused sheep are falsely blamed when they express grievances about the bullying, LORDING IT OVER conduct of their pastors and elders.

    I suggest you keep reading our blog and really immerse yourself in all our resources and archived posts for a while, and be prepared to humble yourself and reconfigure your assumptions.

  64. Barbara Roberts June 22, 2016 at 1:00 am #

    And btw, Anonymous, the ESS doctrine is just the latest configuration of the Ware, Grudem, et al to keep arguing that complementarianism is correct. Their other arguments for complementarianism have increasingly shown to be weak and dubious, so they are now resorting to ESS. That's my opinion.

    But it's not just my opinion: it's the opinion of Steve Holmes:

    “If I wished to defend ‘complementarianism’, I would abandon the Trinitarian argument completely; there is a potential Christological argument available in Eph. 5; I do not think this works, for reasons I have explored elsewhere, but it is less obviously wrong than the Trinitarian position explored in this book.
    “I reflect, however, that these continually-shifting arguments to defend the same conclusion start to look suspicious: by the time someone has offered four different defences of the same position, one has to wonder whether their commitment is fundamentally to the position, not to faithful theology. Judging by his essay in this book, Grudem is ready to throw the Nicene faith overboard, if only he can keep his ‘complementarianism’; other writers here are less blunt, but the same challenge may be presented.”

    The above two paragraphs are from Holmes's article Reflections on a New Defence of Complementarianism.

  65. Barbara Roberts June 22, 2016 at 1:00 am #

    Thanks Al! Found them!

  66. Anonymous June 22, 2016 at 2:08 am #


    If that's the case, then I would register my concerns right along with yours. I have heard it taught that 1 Cor. 11:3 has wider implications than just husbands and wives, but only to the extent of the church. In other words since Paul is addressing conduct within the church then he is saying that men are the head of women in the sense that they are the ones who are charged with being ruling elders within the church. But I've never heard it taught beyond that scope. I'm not saying I agree with the wider interpretation of 1 Cor. 11:3 that I've outlined above because I'd have to give it more thought, but at least that interpretation is in line with what Paul teaches in other places in the NT. Nowhere can you get the concept that men in general are the head of women in general, and trying to squeeze that from 1 Cor. 11:3 is very problematic.


    I've disagreed with many of the leaders of the CBMAW on different issues for years, and I don't think I'm alone from the conversations I've had with others. In fact I have a host of disagreements with the recognized “Establishment” leaders in Christianity today. I don't want to get specific, but I sense that there is a grass roots movement that is boiling up on a number of issues, but it's going to take time. I don't want to sound conspiratorial, but right now a small number of people have control over what gets published, who is invited to various conferences, and who is recognized as a leader in Christianity today. I firmly believe that will change, but again, it will take some time.

  67. Anonymous June 22, 2016 at 2:20 am #

    I don't think Complementarianism stands or falls based on ESS. Thousands and thousands of Christian men and women believe in some form of male headship in marriage, and they've never heard of ESS and likely never will. I think most believe that a careful reading of Ephesians 5 will do the trick 🙂

  68. Anonymous June 22, 2016 at 2:38 am #

    It seems that there are really two debates going on (or should I say, at least two) with respect to ESS. Is it a valid doctrine at all, and if so what are the implications with regards to gender. I really think those need to be separated out.

    Wayne Grudem has a post on Reformation 21 outlining 13 Theologians who affirm some form of CSS. There's pushback on some of the names who occur earlier in history, but still it's worth noting that this teaching is certainly not new or original with Grudem/Ware, and at a minimum it would seem to kill the conspiracy theory that ESS was cooked up to prop up Complementarianism.

    I know Al and I will disagree on this, but I agree with Grudem that the weight of Biblical evidence is firmly on the side of ESS in some form or another. I saw a debate between Grudem/Ware on one side and McCall/Yandell on the other concerning this issue. At one point Yandell shows a certain amount of consternation at the perception that ESS is the Biblical argument, and the rebuttal is a philosophical argument. But as I watched the debate, I heard Grudem/Ware give Scripture after Scripture, and Yandell/McCall give philosophical counter after philosophical counter. From what I've been reading over the past few days that paradigm seems to still be firmly in place.

  69. Barbara Roberts June 22, 2016 at 5:18 am #

    Hi Anonymous, thank you VERY much for what you said here. It gives me hope that we might be somewhat on the same page. 🙂

    I do hope there IS a grass roots movement in the complementarian continent that is coming to a boil to challenge the power-and-control exercised by some in that movement. I hear you, that it might take some time.

    I completely agree with you that right now a small number of people have control over what gets published, who is invited to various conferences, and who is recognized as a leader in Christianity today.

    May those who are concerned about this be brave and speak up more. And may they come to realise that to effect changes, they will have to drop their 'canons of niceness'.

    Jesus didn't observe 'canons of niceness' when he interacted with the Pharisees. Paul didn't observe 'canons of niceness' when he instructed the Corinthians how to deal with the pervert in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul named names. He publicly named and denounced the hypocrites and evildoers in the religious community. He rightly charged them with sin. He told the church to avoid such people, to put them out of the church. To have nothing to do with them.

    We need to start doing the same to the Pharisees and hypocrites who have gained power and influence in the church.

    You might like to read this post:

    And I highly recommend Ps Jeff Crippen's sermon series Wise As Serpents. You can find it on our blog.

    Many thanks once again, Anonymous, for being brave enough (even if anonymously) to state you perceptions of the complementarian landscape here.

  70. Lucy June 23, 2016 at 9:38 pm #

    Thank you for writing this! I have been trying (emphasis on trying!) to follow some of the ESS debate. I won't pretend to understand it all, but I've been so frustrated over why the male-female dynamic was being brought into it. It made NO sense to me — it seemed like it was coming from out of left field. Thanks for shedding some light, and without all those 20-dollar-words, too! 🙂

  71. Nancy Vander Ark June 25, 2016 at 8:51 pm #

    So appreciate the comments of the above women. Leaving a church of 40 years because of some of the above concerns about “misguided complimentarianism” I am encouraged that there are other women in ministry that are saying ” something is wrong here.” Thank you. I will continue to follow your blog.

  72. Wendy K. July 15, 2016 at 3:53 pm #

    To those who have not read Ware's “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (2005), I've found a good resource that quotes many excerpts that make strong ontological statements about the nature of the Son and Father. Of course, reading the entire book is better, but the sheer frequency of these quotes and their cohesive message should be sufficiently demonstrative of Ware's stance.

    Much of the book can be read at, so you may see that these quotes are not taken out of context.

    Rachel Miller has also made similar observations about Grudem's ontological statements regarding the Son here:

    You'll notice a troubling footnote from Ware at the bottom of the page from the first link. Ware, for his insistence that he has not departed from orthodoxy, nevertheless challenges the Nicene Creed. Rachel Miller also tackles this here:


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