Eternal Subordination of the Son and Focus on the Family

For over four years now, I’ve been writing about a popular doctrine of the Trinity called the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS).  I’ve written several posts highlighting the various ways ESS is taught in the conservative Christian world. Today I ran across another example of ESS from a well-known conservative Christian resource.

Focus on the Family published an article, “Submission of Wives to Husbands,” answering a woman’s question about wives submitting to their husbands. Early in their answer, Focus on the Family compares the relationship between husbands and wives with the relationship between God the Father and God the Son:

As in marriage, so in the Godhead we find diversity within unity. But while all three Members of the Trinity are fully equal and mutually identified in the sense that all three are God, we can also detect a certain hierarchy or subordination of function in their relationships with one another. For example, though Jesus made several statements clearly making Himself equal with God (see John 5:18), He also said, “My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). As the Creeds express it, “The Son is begotten by the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The seeds of Paul’s doctrine of marital submission can be discerned in this statement. (emphasis added)

What’s interesting is the appeal to the “Creeds” to explain this hierarchy or subordination within the Trinity. First off, I’m not certain where the quotation they use comes from. The sentence,”the Son is begotten by the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son,” does not appear in any of the creeds as quoted. But beyond that,  the creeds which do discuss the Son being begotten by the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son do so for the express purpose of rejecting any hierarchy or subordination within the Trinity.

The Nicene creed was formulated, in part, as a response to the Arian heresy which taught that the Son was created and subordinate to the Father. The full statement was carefully written to emphasize the equality of God the Father and God the Son. The wording “begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” doesn’t suggest any hierarchy or subordination.

The section on the Holy Spirit, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified,” was also written to emphasize the unity and equality within the Trinity.

The Athanasian creed goes further in explaining the relationship within the Trinity:

The Father is made of none: neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together, and co-equal: so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped. He, therefore, that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity. (emphasis added)

Again, the creed emphasizes the unity and equality within the Trinity, and it specifically denies any hierarchy or subordination within the Trinity. The article by Focus on the Family also uses Jesus’s statement that “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28) as an example of the supposed subordination. However, the Athanasian creed addresses such statements and explains that Jesus, the God-man, is “equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.” All subordination and hierarchy within the Trinity is rejected by the orthodox creed and confessions.

We need to stop doing damage to the doctrine of the Trinity in our attempts to explain how submission works in marriage. ESS, while tempting, is not a viable answer to the question of marital submission. There is nothing to be gained by appealing to an eternal relationship of authority and submission within the Trinity, and plenty to lose. Hopefully, more conservative Christians will recognize the danger and stop promoting ESS.

5 thoughts on “Eternal Subordination of the Son and Focus on the Family

  1. Karen says:

    I am no academic, nor an intellectual. Yet your article resonated deeply within me. This is what I’ve always known about Almighty God. It is truth. The Holy Trinity is the one and only God. Equally composed of the Holy Spirit, the Son, and, the Father!

    Thank you.


  2. Kael Wallace says:

    I’ve always heard this doctrine referred to as the “Eternal Subordination of the Son”, not “Submission”.

    In any case, I do not see how this doctrine holds water.

    For there to be Subordination (or Submission), there would have to be a difference in mind. In order to submit to someone, you would have to be of a different mind than that other person as pertains to the issue at hand, just in order to submit.

    If both, or all parties are of exact equal mind on a matter, how is anyone to “submit?” If the Son’s thoughts are the exact thoughts of the Father, wither submission?

    While Jesus was incarnate on earth, he was not of exact, equal mind with the Father. Not in an inferior way, but in an incomplete way. His earthly mind did not know all that the mind of the Father knew (“But as for that day or hour, no man knows, not even the son; but only the Father…”). Having now ascended back to the right hand of the Father, he is in complete unity again with the mind of the father. So, again, how is there any possible way to “submit”?

    As the doctrine applies to marriage, then, yes, there is room for submission. And scripture is clear that wives are to submit to their husbands. Why? Because among men and women, there certainly can be a difference of mind.

    But God’s plan for marriage is UNITY, not agreement. Two people can be in disagreement, and yet still be in unity when following the rules God has given for marriage, and wives submit to the leadership of husbands. Even where disagreement exists, the man and his wife can, even then, maintain a unity before their children, so that the children learn about the unity of the Trinity by example.

    It is not a relationship of subordination, as in inferior to superior. It is a matter of submission to a difference of mind for the sake of maintaining marital unity.

    It is not necessary to have agreement in order to have unity, specifically because of what scripture tells us to do: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as you would to the Lord.” When we do that, we maintain the unity, even in the face of differences and disagreement. It is ultimately *unity* that is the goal of marriage.

    Unity is the central message of the Gospel, and Jesus paints it as a continual chain of Unity that begins with God, the Son, to the Holy Spirit, and from there to the church, and to each member in the body of Christ, all in unity with the Son and with each other. (“They in me, and I in you, and we ALL as ONE”, Jesus described it.)

    And, like Jesus to the Father, the submission of wives to husbands is a strictly earthly thing that will not be necessary in heaven, where we will all be of perfect unity in mind and spirit, making submission no longer possible (or, more specifically, necessary) in the same way that there is no submission possible (or necessary) between the Son and the Father, in the Trinity, in the fullness of heaven.


  3. Jennifer says:

    Does this attempt to conflate the relationship between a husband and a wife with the nature of the Godhead strike anyone else as just a little bit… desperate?


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