Continuing Down this Path, Complementarians Lose

Recently I saw an article at Jared Moore’s blog called “The Complementarians Win.” This is a review of a new book, One God in Three Persons, edited by Bruce Ware and John Starke. The book’s blurb on Amazon says:

Challenging feminist theologies that view the Trinity as a model for evangelical egalitarianism, One God in Three Persons turns to the Bible, church history, philosophy, and systematic theology to argue for the eternal submission of the Son to the Father.

Having read portions of the book, I believe that Moore’s review is an accurate summary of the book. Moore summarizes the book this way:

Complementarians believe that God has created men and woman as equal image-bearers of God, yet with differing roles in the church and home. Many, however, balk at this notion arguing that a hierarchy in the church or home necessarily means that one gender is less valuable than the other. But if complementarians can prove that there is a hierarchy in the immanent (ontological) Trinity, then they win, for if a hierarchy exists among the Three Persons of God, and these Three Persons are equally God, then surely God can create men and women equal yet with differing roles in the church and home. If God the Father leads the Son and Spirit infinitely, and if the Son submits infinitely to his Father, and these Three remain fully and equally God, then the hierarchy in the home and church, and the submission of women to men in the church and home does not necessarily mean that women are less valuable than men. Just as the Son and Spirit are not less valuable than the Father, women are not less valuable than men, though a hierarchy has been given by God based on gender in the home and church. In the new book, One God in Three Persons, the complementarians win. They have argued persuasively that there is a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity. (emphasis mine)

This is very, very interesting. Here’s what’s happening for those who might not be familiar. There are some theologians who teach a doctrine called “Eternal Subordination of the Son” (ESS). This includes Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, both of whom have chapters in the above linked book. Using the human relationship of father and son as a model for the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, ESS teaches that the Son, because he’s a son, submits to the Father from all eternity and for all eternity.

Proponents of ESS have been accused of teaching a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity, but they used to deny this. This book is the first time I’ve seen it clearly stated that they believe that the Son’s submission to the Father is ontological and not merely a function of the economic Trinity. At one point, the book claims that it is promoting functional subordination and equality of nature/essence. However, it goes on the make arguments for authority/submission as inherent in the nature of God as Father and Son.

Immanent or ontological Trinity refers to the nature, being, or essence of God. Economic Trinity refers to the way in which the persons of the Godhead relate to each other, for example in the work of creation and salvation. Basically the discussion is over who God is versus what God does and how He does it.

The term “complementarianism” was first coined as a response to feminist and egalitarian discussions of gender roles in the church and home. The basis is that men and women were created to complement each other and that men and women, while equal, have different roles in marriage and in the church. The challenge is maintaining equality given the differences in roles. Some complementarians have looked to ESS as a way to ground gender complementarity in the Trinity. The above quote explains the connection:

if complementarians can prove that there is a hierarchy in the immanent (ontological) Trinity, then they win, for if a hierarchy exists among the Three Persons of God, and these Three Persons are equally God, then surely God can create men and women equal yet with differing roles in the church and home.

There are several problems with this approach, however.

First, ESS is more the result of eisogesis, or reading into the text, than exegesis, or interpretation of the text. It’s always dangerous to use one’s presuppositions as a starting point when interpreting Scripture. The article (and book) accuse feminists and egalitarians of using their beliefs about gender roles as the guide for understanding the Trinity. Unfortunately, some complementarians are equally guilty on this count. They have started with a particular understanding of how men and women are meant to relate to each other, and from there, they have built a doctrine of the Trinity.

Second, it is extremely dangerous to tamper with the historic, orthodox formulations of the Trinity. The inner workings of the Trinity is a mystery. We have been given some small glimpses into understanding aspects of the Trinity. Our creeds and confessions, especially the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds, give evidence of the careful study and consideration that the early church fathers gave to the doctrine of the Trinity. Any departure from those formulations should be done with great caution.

Third, there is considerable damage done both to our understanding of the Trinity and also to our understanding of men and women and how we relate to each other. ESS has a trickle down effect on doctrine in many areas. Despite it’s claims to the contrary, it makes the Son inferior to the Father and misinterprets aspects of the work of redemption.

It also creates an environment in which women are more likely to be mistreated, devalued, and abused. If men and women were created with an authority/submission structure, how does this get applied? Does it apply only to the church and the home? If women are by nature (ontologically) submissive, how does this not lead to all women should submit to all men? And, given that close to 90% of men will not be ordained leaders in the church and therefore must submit to the leaders in the church, how is being submissive uniquely feminine? What it means to be male/female must be more than authority/submission.

In this article, I want to answer several claims made in the article/book. My contention is that if complementarians choose to promote ESS and especially a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity, they will not win. In fact, they will lose.

As part of this article, I will use a couple of quotes from Matthew Henry and John Calvin to contrast the way in which proponents of ESS interpret Scripture. I will also have a second article that gives more comparison quotes with a discussion of the differences in interpretation and why it matters.

As a side note, the authors of the book are using a different acronym from ESS. They have termed the doctrine, “eternal relational authority-submission” (ERAS). As far as I can tell, the two are functionally the same.

Back to the article’s claims, contrary to what the article says:

  • A father/son relationship does not necessarily mean there is a hierarchy of authority and submission.
  • Arianism is not the only form of subordinationism denied by the Nicene Creed
  • A difference in roles in the Trinity does not necessarily mean there is a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity.
  • A hierarchy in the immanent Trinity is not the historic, orthodox teaching, and teaching that there is a difference between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity is not new or innovative.
  • Egalitarians are not the only ones who deny a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity.

Point one, the article claims that because God defines the relationship as Father and Son and because the Father sends the Son, then there must be a hierarchy of authority and submission:

The Son and Father are God, but there is an eternal hierarchal relationship, in that the Son submits to the Father according to John’s Gospel. The Father sends the Son, and the Son willing goes. The Son submits to his Father and is willingly obedient to him. The apostle John clearly uses Father and Son language to indicate a Father and Son relationship. At least, that is how his recipients would have understood his language.

Some have argued that the Father sending the Son highlights their unity not hierarchy, but that is only half the story concerning the background. In Jewish institution, the one sent has the authority of the sender, that is true, but according to Jewish agency, the sent one is subordinate to the sender.

Whatever was true of Jewish understanding and culture of the time, father/son relationships do not necessarily mean authority and submission. We are not talking about an adult father and his adolescent son. The Son of God is not an eternal child. Consider rather an adult father and his grown son. Should that relationship have the same authority/submission structure? Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 6: 1 might indicate otherwise.

Jesus is the Son of God. He is equal to God. He is the very image of God. He has a unique relationship with the Father different from created humanity. Colossians 2:9, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” He is God with us. His designation as “Son” speaks to His glory not to His being second in the hierarchy of the Trinity.

Second, Arianism is not the only form of subordinationism. Subordinationism is an old heresy that teaches that the Son and Holy Spirit are subordinate in nature and being to the Father. Arianism was one form of subordinationism that went so far as to say that the Son was created and not of the same substance as the Father.

All forms of subordinationism, or hierarchy in the ontological or immanent Trinity, were condemned by Athanasius and in the final form of the Nicene Creed. This is part of the split between the Eastern and Western church. The Eastern church taught a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity: Father-Son-Spirit. The Western church taught equality in nature and being: “very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

The authors of the book, One God in Three Persons, are not Arians. They do not believe the Son was created by the Father. They are, however, teaching subordinationism or hierarchy in the immanent Trinity. Despite what the article claims, this is not the historic, orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

From the Athanasian Creed:

And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.

But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.

So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

Third, a difference in the roles between the persons of the Trinity does not mean that there is a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity. This is the very reason why theologians discuss the “economic Trinity.” The economic Trinity and immanent Trinity are different in description.

Fourth, the orthodox creeds and confessions illustrate these differences. God: Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in being and nature. One God, not three. One being, not three. One essence, not three. But there are distinctions and differences in the tasks they perform. To claim that the distinctions require a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity is to run contrary to the historic, orthodox formulations of the immanent and economic Trinity.

Making a distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity is not new or innovative. You can see these distinctions in the commentaries Matthew Henry and John Calvin wrote on the Bible. Here is an example of the difference in interpretation between a proponent of ESS (Wayne Grudem) and those who hold to a distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity (Henry and Calvin).

First are two quotes from the commentary in Wayne Grudem’s ESV Study Bible. Notice the emphasis he makes on the supreme authority of the Father within the Trinity:

John 12:49 (6809, ebook)
Not … on my own authority indicates again that supreme authority in the Trinity belongs to the Father, and delegated authority to the Son, though they are equal in deity.

1 Corinthians 11:3 (7365-7366, ebook)
The head of Christ is God indicates that within the Trinity the Father has a role of authority or leadership with respect to the Son, though they are equal in deity and attributes.

Here are excerpts from Matthew Henry’s commentary on the same passages. Notice that Henry makes it clear that Christ, in his role as mediator, submits to God:

John 12:49

Christ, as Son of man, did not speak that which was of human contrivance or composure; as Son of God, he did not act separately, or by himself alone, but what he said was the result of the counsels of peace; as Mediator, his coming into the world was voluntary, and with his full consent, but not arbitrary, and of his own head. (emphasis mine)

1 Corinthians 11:3

Christ, in his mediatorial character and glorified humanity, is at the head of mankind. He is not only first of the kind, but Lord and Sovereign. He has a name above every name: though in this high office and authority he has a superior, God being his head. (emphasis mine)

Lastly, here is John Calvin on the same passages. Calvin also makes a distinction between the Son’s equality of essence with the Father and His submission to the Father in His role as mediator:

John 12:49

For I do not speak from myself. That the outward appearance of man may not lessen the majesty of God, Christ frequently sends us to the Father. This is the reason why he so often mentions the Father; and, indeed, since it would be unlawful to transfer to another a single spark of the Divine glory, the word, to which judgment is ascribed, must have proceeded from God. Now Christ here distinguishes himself from the Father, not simply as to his Divine Person, but rather as to his flesh; lest the doctrine should be judged after the manner of men, and, therefore, should have less weight. (emphasis mine)

1 Corinthians 11:3

God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, that he might be the first-born among many brethren. (emphasis mine)

Both Matthew Henry and John Calvin repeatedly interpret the passages that refer to Christ’s submission or subjection to be speaking of Christ’s role as mediator. This is a consistent application of the orthodox understanding of the economic Trinity.

Lastly, contrary to the article, egalitarians are not the only ones who deny a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity. Many complementarians make a distinction between the economic and immanent when discussing the Trinity. Not all complementarians agree with Grudem and Ware that there is a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity.

In conclusion, I’m not convinced that the authors have proven their point. They claim that a hierarchy in the immanent Trinity does not mean inequality:

If there is hierarchy and equality in the immanent Trinity, then the complementarians win, for it means that men and women can be equal even with an order of authority.

A hierarchy in the immanent Trinity will always lead to inequality. It is more than a difference in roles. It is about the nature or essence of God. I can’t help but conclude that their argument is the biblical, trinitarian equivalent of “separate, but equal.” No matter their intention, the result is the same. It’s not equal.

As for the desire to ground complementarity of men and women in the Trinity, there is good Scriptural support for the main claims of complementarianism without changing the historic, orthodox teaching on the Trinity. While egalitarians and feminists may disagree with the complementarian interpretation of those passages, there is clear, Biblical evidence for teaching the following:

  • Men and women are made in the image of God and equal before God in Christ.
  • Husbands are the spiritual leaders of the home.
  • Wives should submit to their own husbands.
  • Ordained leadership in churches should be male.
  • Christ, in His role as mediator, submitted to His Father, and He is our example in all of life.

While I understand the reason these theologians want to find support for complementarity in the doctrine of the Trinity, I believe, on the whole, that we are safer when we hold fast to what the Bible teaches and stick close to the creeds and confessions. The Trinity is a mystery and should be handled with great care. Departing from the historic, orthodox formulations of the Trinity is not a winning move, no matter what the motivation.

22 thoughts on “Continuing Down this Path, Complementarians Lose

  1. Sam Powell says:

    Good work, Rachel. Thank you for your faithfulness. Just when you think that the doctrine of the Trinity is settled, Satan finds a new way to attack the deity of Christ. Continue sounding the trumpet.


  2. Still Reforming says:

    Disappointed to hear this about Grudem. I have his Systematic Theology. Didn’t he co-author “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” with John Piper? (Sigh. I gave away all my Piper books. Now I’m wondering about Grudem too. Macarthur isn’t much better, I don’t think, but I haven’t given away my collection of his or Grudem’s ST – yet.)


    • Still Reforming says:

      Thank you, Barbara. I am still in “early days” of this deliverance from my abuser as you know and as you yourself once were. In fervently wanting to dissociate myself from all who share the view that had I submitted more, forgiven more, loved more, anything fill-in-the-blank more, my (so-called) marriage would also have been more (fill in the blank), I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I don’t regret giving my John Piper books to the library (inc the jointly penned “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” with Grudem). I’m still holding onto my MacArthur books, but wondering about them. Thanks to your encouragement, I won’t get rid of the Grudem’s ST; I’ve used it more for reference than actual reading. Thanks to Rachel’s mention here on this blog, I did add Michael Horton’s ST (The Christian Faith) into my amazon cart for when I have a few extra drachmas to spare.


  3. jilldomschot says:

    For the record, I shared this post on Facebook, but chose not to comment because I think it gets old when I always say something akin to “couldn’t agree more!” 🙂


  4. evan773 says:

    Nice work.

    The views espoused by Ware are not merely damaging to women, but are also damaging to men who don’t conform as readily to “biblical manhood.” After all, the focus of ex-gay therapy was directed toward teaching gender-role non-conformists how to force themselves to conform…as a condition of maintaining fellowship in the church. Growing up in a CBMW-influenced subculture, I long thought that I was gay because I didn’t have a desire to conform to the prevailing view of “biblical manhood.” I eventually left that subculture for an egalitarian evangelical church, and found that my attraction to the opposite sex emerged. I didn’t need ex-gay therapy; I just needed to leave the land of gender-role madness (Presbyterian Church in America).

    Besides, even if complementarians are right (which they’re not), is it merely accidental that the resulting “biblical” gender roles look remarkable similar to the neo-Freudian gender roles that prevailed among middle-class Americans in the 1950s? Ironic, isn’t it, how John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and D.A. Carson were born just 10-15 years before the culture disposed of “biblical” gender roles?


  5. Still Reforming says:

    That last quote left me gobsmacked. I’m going to share on social media to let others know, because I think that view may be more prevalent than not.


  6. Persis says:

    Finally got around to reading this. Great job, Rachel! I am beginning to dig into ESS, and your post is so helpful.

    Also thanks to Barbara for the additional info.

    I also agree with the above comment re: the connection with Freud. I’d be interested to know how successful CBMW/ESS are outside of the West. Going back to the “good ole days” is only possible if there are good days to return to. I don’t think you would find the same pull of nostalgia in the majority world. Also the past would only be attractive if you were a member of the privileged ruling class.

    Off to read your next installment…


  7. Kyle says:


    I wrote Chapter 3 in the book under consideration. It is the chapter on 1 Corinthians 11:3. If you take the time to read that chapter, you might be surprised that I interpret 1 Cor 11:3 in the same way as Calvin and M. Henry with respect to the Father’s headship referring to the incarnational mission of the Son as Mediator. I also argue from classical Trinitarian formulations (like the creed of Athanasius and the Niceness Creed). You should give chapter three a read since your post here focuses on 1 Cor 11:3 but does not represent the interpretation of that verse given in the book’s most sustained treatment of that verse.

    I am a complementarian, and I am appalled at some of the accusations being made about the complementarian position here. I happen to know firsthand that Bruce Ware (a friend and mentor) does not believe that spousal abuse is the fault of women or that somehow men are not culpable for their horrible actions when women are abused. Wate’s comments at Denton Bible Church have been taken out of context and used to misrepresent complementarianism. It is a classic case of straw-man argumentation. I think complementarian theology is being flattened out here. There are certainly some harmful iterations of complementarianism, but it does not follow that all iterations are harmful or chauvinistic or irresponsible. In the same way, this post flattens out the book by Ware and Starke. I think Fred Sanders – widely respected Trinitarian theologian – has represented well the book’s depth and the variety of approaches taken by the authors. Sanders observes that the book is bigger on the inside than the outside.

    Anyone reading up on the debates represented here should read both sides carefully. This book, like many others, should not be judged by its cover – or by a blogger’s review.


    • Rachel Miller says:

      Kyle~ I have actually read your essay. I read it again today before responding here. To be clear, I am not an egalitarian. Many complementarians (and those who would be considered complementarians, but don’t like the label) disagree with ESS. I don’t believe that Ware or Grudem represent the majority of those who consider themselves complementarians. As for whether or not Ware has been misunderstood, the links are there for anyone to read and make up their own minds.

      From your chapter, you say that you agree with Calvin and Henry on their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:3. You do, at first, and then you move farther and make a claim for eternal submission in the immanent Trinity. That is NOT consistent with Calvin or Henry on any interpretation of the Son’s submission to the Father. You appeal to Augustine, but in a way that I don’t think he would accept.

      And while we’re making review suggestions, please check out both of these as well:


      • Kyle Claunch says:

        Thanks for the reply, Rachel. I do appreciate you taking the time, not only to read but re-read the essay. I realize that I am saying more in my essay than Calvin or Henry said about 1 Cor 11:3, in large part because they were not addressing the same questions. The recent debate about ESS has generated new questions about old topics, to be sure.

        That said, I am consistent with the interpretation of both Henry and Calvin. Also, I do NOT “make a claim for eternal submission in the immanent Trinity.” Rather, I explicitly reject the terminology of “submission” in the immanent Trinity, opting rather for a thoroughly pro-Nicene account of one divine will in the Godhead, which is triunely ordered. I then argue that the order of the one divine will finds analogical expression in created relationships of authority and submission. In other words, the “submission” of the Son is strictly economic, but the economic Trinity reveals the immanent Trinity in meaningful analogical ways. In short, gender complementarity is not directly grounded in immanent Trinitarian relations, but Paul’s logic in 1 Cor 11:3, when read in light of historic orthodox Trinitarian categories, does imply an indirect, analogical relationship.

        This way of framing things is thoroughly consistent with Augustinian Trinitarian theology, as articulated in his famous De Trinitate. Again, Augustine is not answering the same questions, but the answer I have proposed is consistent with his Trinitarian theology in every respect.

        My position is rather different than Ware and Grudem, who argue for actual immanent submission. Others in the book also develop rather nuanced arguments for the connection between the immanent Father/Son relationship and gender relations.

        I did not intend to launch a debate with you, Rachel. I suspect you and I hold precious nearly all of the same glorious truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the orthodox (biblical and Nicene) formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, and I wish you well in continuing to hold high those precious truths! I just thought that both the post and the comments ran the risk of flattening out the positions in the book and the complementarian position in general.

        BTW… I have read both of the reviews you posted. In fact, I think my argument is remarkably similar to the constructive portion of the second post by Rick Wright. And, while I disagree with much of Holmes’ review of the book, I have tremendous respect for Holmes as a scholar and theologian and have learned much from his work.

        God bless you, Rachel!


  8. Christina R says:

    I’m a little late to the party (this would have gone way over my head in 2015) but I just wanted to thank you for the thoughtfulness and time you’ve put into this topic. I’ll be making my way through your posts and recommended resources.


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