Question: What is subordinationism?
A few years ago, something strange happened in the Fundamentalist world. For a few decades, Wayne Grudem and a few others have been teaching that God the Son is eternally subordinate to God the Father, a position they call Eternal Functional Subordinationism. In the summer of 2016, the debate around this position reignited centuries-old arguments over Trinitarian theology and a heresy called subordinationism.
Things get weird (or weirder), though, when Grudem and his ilk try to make a parallel claim that women are subordinate to men the same way that Christ is subordinate to the Father.
So what is subordinationism, what is EFS, and what does this have to do with the role of women?
Short Answer: The belief dates back to an ancient heresy which claims that Christ is subordinate to, and therefore inferior to, God the Father. The modern version builds on the ancient heresy while also arguing that women should be submissive to men.
Long Answer: The ancient version of subordinationism is rooted in a few different heresies, most notably Arianism. Arius taught that Christ was neither eternally existent nor consubstantial (of one being) with the Father. The end result of this doctrine would imply that Christ is a creature of God (similar to angels or humans) rather than true God from true God, eternally begotten. Subordinationism, then, is the doctrine that Christ is somehow less than God the Father, an inferior deity.
Skip forward about 1,600 years, and you get a weird new version. Drawing from an understanding of earthly relationships between human fathers and human sons, a number of Fundamentalist theologians (predominantly Baptist with a Calvinist bent) began arguing that Christ was subordinate to the Father the same way that human sons are subordinate to human fathers.
Here, we need to draw a distinction, though. In theology, we talk about God economically and immanently. Speaking of God economically is to talk of God’s activity in history, or how God is moving in the world. To speak of God immanently is to talk of God’s activity outside of time.
Back to EFS. The argument follows as such:
- The Father begets the Son;
- The Son economically submits to the will of the Father;
- Therefore, the Son is immanently (eternally) subordinate/submissive to the Father.
The position is termed “eternal functional subordination,” or “EFS” for short, and for a time, it was coupled with the position that the Son did not exist from eternity, in contradiction of John 1:1 and the Nicene Creed. Its advocates also attempt to maintain that while despite such subordination, the Son is not less than the Father.
The major disconnect is that subordination is inherently inferiority. To say that the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father is to say that the Son is immanently less than the Father. It is true that the Father takes precedence in the order of being (that is to say, the Son and Holy Spirit are begotten and precede, respectively, from the Father). This so-called “monarchy of the Father,” (spelled out by the ELCA and Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in this document; cf. para. 4) though, does not relate to obedience and submission. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that somehow the Persons of the Trinity have different eternal intentions or goals that the Son must relinquish to obey the Father. Or, using the terminology of the Athanasian Creed, would be to suggest that the members of the Trinity are not co-equal in majesty and glory.
For whatever reason, this debate exploded onto the scene during the summer of 2016. I won’t go into the full details of the debate (there’s simply not enough time), but you can read some of the main arguments as summarized by Scot McKnight here, as well as a longer rebuttal published on “Mortification of Spin” here and a snarky post “guest written” by John Calvin. patron of so many EFS advocates, here.
The debate spread to the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting, where Bruce Ware (one of the EFS advocates) changed his position to admit that the Son is eternally begotten after all. (Here’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s article on the matter.)
There are a number of reasons to completely discount eternal functional subordination. I won’t go into them in detail (again, there really isn’t time — these are debates that have already raged and lasted for decades leading up to Nicea and later Chalcedon), but I will offer a brief summary:
1) The Creeds — As to the position that the son is not eternally begotten (now, thankfully, cast aside), it is one of the key elements of the Nicene Creed. To confess otherwise is to venture into the Arian heresy. As to EFS, in general: the Nicene Creed confesses that Father and Son are consubstantial. There is no lesser deity in the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed spells it out further:
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal….
….And in this Trinity none is afore, or none other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal.
The Athanasian Creed goes explains that the Son is only subordinate in the Incarnation — that is, economically. EFS, then, is right out.
2) The Difficulty with the Trinity — Discussing the Trinity is remarkably difficult. There’s a reason that councils were convened and otherwise noble theologians were deemed heretics. When it comes to the Triune God, a single iota makes a world of difference, and precise language is essential. It’s easy to get on the wrong track; as when traveling a great distance, changing your bearing by a few degrees can put you off course by hundreds of miles. Turn too far in one direction, accidentally end up becoming a tritheist or a unitarian. In over-emphasizing the distinction between the Father and Son (and, let’s be honest, ignoring the Holy Spirit through and through), the EFS advocates start down the shockingly short path to tritheism. If the Son is subordinate, and therefore lesser, then what we end up with is a set of three gods rather than one God who exists in Trinity. As it is, the EFS folks have already strayed into semi-Arianism.
3) “God is not ‘man’ said in a loud voice.” — The basis for EFS is the assumption that because human sons should submit to human fathers, therefore the Son submits to the Father. Fundamentalist spend a lot of time emphasizing God’s holiness and arguing that God is so much further above humanity (rhetoric that, while taken in weird directions, is at least rooted in sound theological thinking). How strange it is then that EFS advocates are attempting to take a model for human relationships and read it into the inner workings of the Holy Trinity, that blessed mystery which exists beyond human understanding.
The position becomes even more convoluted because EFS advocates then take this bewildering attempt at Trinitarian theology and try to apply it to human gender relations. It has become a long and mind-boggling way of arguing that women should submit to men while also trying to maintain that women are not inherently inferior to men.
Eternal functional subordination implies divine inferiority. Just so, the claim that women must submit to men is to say that women are inherently inferior to men. Of course, the claim is always just under the surface of Fundamentalist complementarian writing, but they refuse to acknowledge it.
The Son is eternally begotten by the Father, and is consubstantial (“of one being”) with the Father. In a lesser way, according to Genesis 2, Eve is made after Adam from a part of Adam’s body; she is made of the same stuff. In Genesis 2 — and notably, not in Genesis 1 — Adam takes precedence in the order of Creation, but there is no reason to believe that Eve is therefore inferior to or must be submissive to Adam. Substance matters far more than order. And in Genesis 1, the difference is less stark: God creates male and female simultaneously and in the common image of God.
It is worth noting that both complementarians and egalitarians sided against the EFS advocates. This is a minority position, even within the Fundamentalist camp.
So…why does this matter? Why spend time giving arguing about an esoteric point of theology within the Fundamentalist world? By and large, the Mainline and Progressives have ignored this debate. A few have pointed to it as an entertaining side show, but few bloggers have actually weighed in — as though Mainline and Progressive Christians don’t really care.
A few things.
First: Fundamentalists, including EFS advocates, spend so much time calling progressives heretics, claiming that we are not truly Christians for our openness to the findings of modern science, for the ordination of women and an egalitarian understanding of Church and family, for a willingness to discuss, let alone affirm, the role of LGBT+ persons in the Church. And yet when Grudem, Ware, and others leaders in the Fundamentalist world accept an outright heretical opinion, Albert Mohler does mental gymnastics to explain why they are not heretics. Mohler is one of the men who led the crusade against moderates in the SBC. At SBTS, he is venerated as the patron saint of Baptist fidelity, the champion of orthodoxy, and yet he is unwilling to turn his inquisition upon his friends. Rampant hypocrisy matters, and we should be prepared to call it out while defending our position in the Church.
Second, but more importantly, bad theology leads to pain and suffering. In the years since the EFS debate, we’ve seen how the Southern Baptist Convention’s position on women has led to abuse. Paige Patterson, architect of the Fundamentalist takeover within the SBC, has objectified women, dismissed domestic violence, and covered up allegations of rape. Albert Mohler, who spends so much time wagging his finger at mainline Christians, can’t even be bothered to address the specific allegations against Patterson in his sparse writings on the matter.
Orthodoxy and orthopraxy, right praise and right practice, are intimately linked. We shouldn’t be surprised by the link between heresy and abuse. We’ve seen it time and time again, throughout history as people twist theology to excuse atrocities.
Let me end on a note of confession and call to action: Progressives have been far too quick to say that the only thing that matters is loving, but we have been unwilling to do lay theological groundwork about what Christ means when he commands us to love God, neighbor, enemy, and each other. Theology, for all of its complications, is vital to the Church. We cannot claim we are willing to ask difficult questions if we are unwilling to wrestle with how these questions might shape our theology. Otherwise, what’s the point? If all we care about is a general sense of love and community — noble goals, certainly — but without a clear theological framework for what they look like, why not become secular humanists? It’d certainly be easier to preach on Steinbeck than Job. It’d be simpler to preach that the key to community is emotional vulnerability rather than Christ crucified and risen. This means, though, that we must be prepared to enter into debates over points of theology, to interpret Sacred Scripture and the Tradition and make arguments rather than “I feel…” statements. The EFS position is an attack on orthodoxy and women’s rights
If progressive Christians want to have a voice in the Church, we must be prepared to but forward an orthodox theology.