Subordinationism . . . is that still a thing?

I grew up with the idea that women weren’t allowed to preach, but I didn’t really get exposure to teachings on why that was. I even went to churches that allowed women to be ordained, but those churches did not have women in Associate or Senior Pastor roles so they didn’t really challenge my immature understanding of things. Then I went to Fuller.

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In this picture I’m preaching and the fact that I’m a woman is not hindering God at all.

 

 

Is she creating a straw man just to knock him down?

By the time I graduated Fuller I knew with strong confidence that God didn’t tell anyone that women weren’t allowed to preach or teach or any of the things that Complementarians have as a foundational gospel belief. Eventually I got my hands on Good News For Women, by Rebecca Groothius, a fellow alumnus of Fuller. I loved the scholarship she put into the work, but I kept thinking she was being really hard on Complementarians. I know people get pet issues and see the enemy through harsh lenses. It’s a tendency we humans have. I would read her arguments on Egalitarianism and think she was spot on and made great points. I would read her statements about what Complementarians believed and cringe because I wondered, “Do they really believe and say that? Is she creating a straw man just to knock him down?”

In an effort to give everyone a chance to speak for themselves I picked up a copy of The Excellent Wife, and I was jaw dropping shocked! Not only had Groothius presented the Complementarian position accurately, it was worse than she had expressed. She had been incredibly gracious!

The thing that I remember being most bothered by in The Excellent Wife was the introduction to the book. It’s a book written by a woman, for women, and she essentially tells women that what she’s going to instruct them in really is Biblical, but it’s just too gosh darn complicated for the simple likes of them to understand, so she’s been taught what the truth is and she’s going to share what all that complicated truth means they are supposed to do so that they can do it. Of course I’m absolutely paraphrasing based on how belittled I felt by her words, but that’s the gist of her introduction. ‘Smart men have studied this out and rather than ask your simple girl brain to understand it, I let them teach me and now I’m going to teach you.’

I believe you are as capable as I am of understanding the theological background for what you’re being taught, so I went and did some reading in the writings of the theologians she referenced and I am going to share something with you. It’s the thing that had me walking straight away from Complementarian doctrine.  If, after you are done reading here you question whether this is what Complementarians really believe, I encourage you to do some searches and find articles like  “The Complementarians Win: A Review Of One God In Three Persons”. I don’t want to link to it from here, but you can read it in their own words.

Before we go farther, let me define a few terms that will help with understanding this topic.

A Complementarian is someone who believes that God created men and women to be equal in value but different in function – not only in the roles that relate to our sexuality, but in every possible function including what roles we are allowed – by God – to hold in the church. They believe men were created by God to be the bosses, the rulers, the preachers and teachers. From Creation, men are the only gender capable of holding power. They believe that women are instructed to always be submissive to men. (Some believe it is only to their own husbands in marriage, but they must always be submissive, others believe it is any man in the church, and others believe it is every man they encounter. Some allow for protection in the case of abuse, others do not.). The Church Father Thomas Aquinas went so far as to say that if a group of priests even attempted to ordain a woman that the ordination would flow through her for she cannot contain it – only a male is able to receive and hold it.

An Egalitarian is someone who believes that, except where biology and gender affect what one can do (for instance, men can’t be pregnant and birth babies), there is nothing inherently inferior about women that would prevent us from holding any position within society or the church. Egalitarians believe that the Holy Spirit distributes gifts and no mention at all is made of some gifts being reserved only for men and kept from women. They believe that women and men are instructed to submit to one another and roles in marriage and the church are best determined by gifts and skills.

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Me before a High Holy Day and once again God isn’t hindered by me being a woman.

Groothius is an Egalitarian; Martha Peace, the author of The Excellent Wife, is a Complementarian. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an Egalitarian.

But what is Subordinationism?

But what is Subordinationism? And what does it have to do with this topic?

Great question! Let’s dive into that theological concept that Peace believes is too complicated for we gals to wrap our brains around.

Subordinationism is the doctrinal idea that Complementarians hold as a foundation for their ideas about men and women and how we are to relate. It isn’t actually about men and women, though. Subordinationism is the belief that within the Trinity there is an eternal subordination of the Holy Spirit to Jesus, and Jesus to God. That’s what Peace doesn’t believe you need to try to understand. I would suggest the scholars who teach Complementarianism know that if you really knew what they were basing their teaching on you would cry foul and call them out!

Most of us have encountered the challenge of trying to explain the Trinity. I think some explanations are better than others but in almost every denomination I’ve encountered there is a deep respect for the mystery of the Trinity – the reality that God is One and that God is revealed to us in Scripture in three primary “persons.” God is plural One.

Wherever you are in the hierarchy you must answer to everyone over you in authority and you are in authority over everyone below you.

Subordinationism moves beyond that. Subordinationism says that God is One – and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the same in essence but different in function and that difference in function results in an eternal hierarchy within the Trinity. The Father, God, is always over Jesus in authority and Jesus must always be submissive to what the Father wants. The Holy Spirit is under Jesus in this hierarchy and therefore answers eternally to Jesus, and to God who is over them all. Rather than unity of purpose and Oneness of Being, Subordinationism says that God is eternally three separate persons who take orders from the one up their chain of command. It is in following this example in the Godhead that Complementarians believe that men are in authority over women who must always answer to them, and then women are in authority over children who must always answer to their mother and father. Wherever you are in the hierarchy you must answer to everyone over you in authority and you are in authority over everyone below you.

This is not Good News.

Subordinationism is a different God than the One presented in Scripture. This is not Good News. And if there is not an eternal hierarchy in the Trinity, there is no doctrinal foundation for the eternal submission of women to men in any or all areas of life and worship.

Instead, Paul tells us in Galatians that there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. There is a restoration of the relationship in the Garden that Paul, in Ephesians, says reveals the mystery of the relationship between Messiah and the Bride – where Messiah gave his life for his church and those of us who make up the church devote our lives to him. Who offers the greatest submission? The one who devotes their life or the one who gives their life and embraces death on the others’ behalf?

they rob men of the experience of learning what it means to lay down their life on behalf of the one they love

This is the crux of the problem – Jesus modeled the ultimate sacrifice – the greatest submission! He offered it on behalf of and for the church. This would suggest that men are being called to lay down their earthly power and privilege and sacrifice on behalf of their wife, engaging in the ultimate submission of laying down his life for her. Yet Complementarians would have men believe that they should never submit to their wife – that doing so is weakness. By teaching this false doctrine they rob men of the experience of learning what it means to lay down their life on behalf of the one they love. Complementarianism feeds the pride and ego of men – telling them that God created them to have all of the power and position – while Scripture tells us that we are not to be like the Gentiles who strive for power and lord it over others.

Complementarianism is in opposition to what is really taught in Scripture.

-Complementarianism teaches that God is Three and that eternal hierarchy exists within the Trinity.

-Scripture teaches us that God is One – revealed in three primary ways – God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

-Complementarian authors teach us that in marriage the man is in the role of Jesus in that he answers only to God, and that the woman is to be in the role of the Holy Spirit in that the Spirit answers to and does the bidding of Jesus out of obedience.

-Paul teaches that in marriage the man is to be a picture of Jesus who laid down his life for his Bride, the Church, and that women are to be a picture of the Church who is the Ambassador to the world in service of Messiah and accomplishing his purposes to take his message of love and freedom from captivity to sin to the world.

There is an idea in the Greek word translated “submit” that there is a lining up under authority and carrying out orders, but only in the military usage of the word. God is not at war, and my husband and I are not at war, so there is no need to embrace the military usage of the word. Outside of the military setting the word speaks to voluntarily laying down ones life for the other – operating out of service to their needs and their goals.

Often in these discussions people will point to all of the healthy Complementation marriages they know and I would argue that healthy marriages function more like Egalitarian marriages, and they are many! My greatest concern with this doctrine is with what it does in marriages that are not healthy. Complementarianism goes so far as to say the husband answers to God not only for himself but also for his wife, and that God holds him accountable for her choices. If the husband has to answer to God for his wife’s actions then the wife’s actions reflect on the husband. In less than healthy marriage dynamics this results in power struggles and control issues that are part of the abuse dynamic. This has left Complementarian pastors and churches at a disadvantage in trying to address the issues of abuse. I have spoken to too many women who have attempted to go to their Complementarian pastor about abuse going on in their marriage and been told if they would only submit more their husband would stop:

drinking
cheating
beating them
fill in the blank . . .

As is always the case when people believe that control is about others and not given to us for ourselves, men are trying to control their wives because they fear God holding them accountable for another person and the wives are attempting to control their husbands because they are told that how their husband behaves is directly related to how well they submit.

My husband and I seek unity, and oneness of purpose.

The Godhead, as revealed in the Trinity, is One. God exists in plural unity and oneness of purpose. This is what Egalitarian teachings say that marriage is intended to be. My husband and I seek unity, and oneness of purpose. We see disunity as chaos and God is not the author of chaos – rather, He stands in the midst of it and brings order! So when we have chaos we invite God to stand in the midst of it and bring order. We know we have unity when we are in agreement and until we have unity we do not want to do either of our ideas because we acknowledge that we are both human and need to be led by the Lord if we want the best for our marriage and family.

Subordinationism was one of the heresies addressed at the Counsel of Nicea

Subordinationism was one of the heresies addressed at the Counsel of Nicea but it influenced many theologians before and after that point. If no one wants to tell you what it means, you can’t see the influence on modern theologians. When authors like Peace want to spare you the burden of trying to understand such complicated things it puts you at a disadvantage in trying to identify and avoid heresies.

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Even here, blowing a shofar, I’m able to do what I’m doing. I’m still a woman.

I reject Complimentarian teaching about women and marriage and the roles we may have in the church because I reject Subordinationism. I believe that Subordinationism teaches a different God from the One found in Scripture. I refuse to embrace ideas that put back together what Jesus took apart. If to Jesus there is neither male nor female, then I reject doctrinal ideas that argue that because I am female God will not use me in the same ways he uses others. If the Holy Spirit gives gifts as the Spirit sees fit then I reject doctrinal ideas that say the Spirit can’t, or won’t, give me a particular gift because I’m a woman.

This is why I don’t let teachers tell me that they’re going to sum up those big theological ideas for me without digging into those big theological ideas for myself. And this is why I am insulted as a woman and a believer when it turns out those big theological ideas are in opposition to the entirety of Scripture. Just because some men have taken power in the church and don’t want to share it with women doesn’t mean I need to have a false idea of who God is or a broken idea of who he has called me to be.

Scripture challenges us to decide if we will fear God or men

 

Scripture challenges us to decide if we will fear God or men – with a reminder that men can only make our lives miserable this side of eternity, they can only threaten the body. I will hold fast to fearing God who saves us and calls us to his service – and I will serve where and how he calls me even though there are men who think I shouldn’t. Because there is no Subordinationism, I don’t need to fear them.

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