The Hidden Issue Behind the Debate on Women Bishops

p15_circleThe General Synod of the Church of England will again this month be discussing a proposal for the introduction of legislation to allow the appointment of women bishops. (Yes, you have to say it that carefully…). There will no doubt be much press coverage and publicity by all sides of the debate. But not many realise that there is a hidden issue obstinately preventing agreement which few understand or are aware of. It has nothing to do with how men and women relate, and nothing to do with the biblical texts on women and men.

The issue is ‘the eternal functional subordination of the Son within the Trinity.’ If that makes you think of debates about how many angels you can fit on the head of a pin, you are not alone. The argument goes like this: Scripture says that Jesus submitted to his heavenly Father; this submission was not just in his earthly life, but extends into eternity; there is therefore a hierarchical ordering of authority within the life of the Trinity, whose ‘persons’ are nevertheless ‘equal’; since humanity is made in the image of God, there is (rightly) a hierarchical ordering of authority in human relations; although equal, men and women are therefore to live in a similar hierarchical ordering, with men exercising authority over women. It is further argued that this is not only what Scripture says, but what all the ‘orthodox’ theologians have believed down the centuries. For this reason, the debate about women as bishops is not just a question of the ordering of the church but about the very nature of God, and therefore not ‘secondary’ but ‘primary.’

As you might imagine, this is rather controversial. Some contemporary critics have gone as far as to say that this is a revival of Arian heresy, suggesting that the Son is a lesser divinity than the Father, since the two are not ‘equal in power.’ But once one side has called the other heretical…well, you can see where this is going.

To get up to speed with this debate, over the weekend I read The New Evangelical Subordinationism? It is a collection of representative essays from a range of different views in this debate, so the essays often talk past each other, rather than engaging with each other. (This debate is currently raging amongst conservative evangelicals in US and Australia, so if that does not include you, you might well not have come across this discussion—and you might be quite pleased about that!)

The debate appears to centre around a small number of related issues. Does Scripture really suggest this? What is the relation between Jesus’ attitude to God in the gospels, and what we can say about the nature of the Trinity? What is the relation between the ‘economic’ Trinity (how we see God as Father, Son and Spirit at work), the ‘immanent’ Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit as they really are, so to speak) and the ‘social’ Trinity (how the ‘persons’ of the Trinity relate to one another)? And is there a connection between the relations within the Trinity and relations between people?

51jCx9FRU0L._Reading the essays left me with a number of different thoughts:

1. Although in the past people have believed in a hierarchical ordering of society, and although there is consistent language of ‘order’ in the Trinity within the Church Fathers, the two have not been connected until recently. Kevin Giles suggests that the first person to make such a connection was George Knight III in 1977. Ironically, others have been make a connection between the Trinity and human relations elsewhere—but in exactly the opposite direction! Theologians such as Moltmann and Zizioulas have been arguing for a radical egalitarianism between humans on the basis of their theology of the ‘social Trinity’ which focusses on the equality amongst Father, Son and Spirit within the godhead.

2. Throughout the book, there seems to be a lot of mutual misunderstanding arising from a trading of terms. So one commentator critiques the writing of another, who has equated the terms ‘authority’ and ‘power’. These are not the same (he says) so it is possible for persons of the Trinity to be equal in power but not equal in authority—even though he has just cited a definition of ‘authority’ which includes ‘The power to…”

Similarly, there seems to be an unresolved difference of view about what St Augustine meant by ‘order’ within the Trinity. According to one view, this means (in effect) a hierarchy; but to others, this is just not presence in Augustine’s writing. The debate won’t move on without these issues being resolved, or at least clarified.

3. One of the things that struck me most forcibly is the differences in style and theological approach amongst the essays. Some read as rounded theological reflections, considering the data; others list a series of texts and offer individual comment on them. This is not just a debate about what Scripture says; it is a much more fundamental clash between different styles or cultures of theological approach.

4. But at certain moments in the debate, there do appear to be what I can only describe as points of genuine illogic. How can the Son be eternally ‘functionally’ subordinate to the Father, and for this authority structure to be ‘essential to their being’, and yet this is not a hierarchy of being but only of ‘function’? This does not make sense to me, just on the level of logic. How can one ‘person’ of the Trinity exercise authority over another, if they both have one will, being part of a unified godhead? This seems to me to be a contradiction. If a functional hierarchy of men and women is based on an eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father, surely the male-female hierarchy must also be eternal? None of those arguing for such a hierarchy believe it is eternal—but why not?

5. In the end, I believe that this whole discussion is based on a big mistake. Jesus prays in John 17 that his followers ‘may be one, even as you and I [Father and Son] are one. But in every other example I can think of, we are instructed to base human relations not on relations within the godhead, but on the relation between God and humanity. ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ ‘The love of God has been poured into our heart by the Holy Spirit.’ When Paul says ‘Imitate me as I imitate Christ’ he is not referring to Christ’s relationships within the godhead, but to his ministry and attitude to others, including Paul himself. The Trinity does not tell us how to relate to one another—but God’s relating to us does!  So any use of the ‘social Trinity’, in either a hierarchical or egalitarian direction, is seriously mistaken.

But there are two other lasting impressions I had from the book. The first is to recognise that  Christian faith is about believing in the Trinity, and not believing in a particular doctrine about the Trinity. This is the nub of the wider theological debate—we trust in God, not in doctrines about God.

Secondly, on the specific issue at hand, the conflicting views on subordinationism will not be resolved soon, and not in the next few weeks—if ever. This in turn means that, as long as this is an issue, the debate in the Church of England about women as bishops will not be resolved—no satisfactory compromise position is possible.

The debate in Synod will need to take serious account of when it makes its decision this month.

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16 thoughts on “The Hidden Issue Behind the Debate on Women Bishops”

  1. Ian,

    A good analysis and I think that you are right about this. There are lots of people who view things through this lens and I agree I can’t see it being resolved anytime soon.

    The interesting thing in all this is that I have had a number of women now join deanery synod to get the right to vote for reps for General Synod. One of them I gave your excellent Grove booklet to to read. Obviously, their standing doesn’t prove a theological position but it shows that people now want to grapple with these issues and not just be “done unto”.

  2. Very helpful Ian, although the eternal subordination debate also has implications in terms of upping the anti- as it draws the debate into the realm of primary doctrine. Therefore organisations like the Gospel Coalition in the US and beyond have now made this a shibboleth of orthodoxy. What I struggle to understand is that eternal subordination does violence to the Athenasian Creed and the Ordinal as well as the 39 Articles (viii) are clear. One would therefore possibly wrongly assume that as an Anglican to subscribe to eternal subordination would be heterodox?

  3. Alasdair, I would agree with you on this–but this is also what makes the whole subject such a hot potato. I recently got shouted at by someone who thought I had called them a heretic. In fact, what I had said was that *some* in the debate believed that subordination was close to a heresy. From a logic point of view, if the ‘functional’ subordination of Son to the Father is an *essential* element of his nature, then this does look perilously like a version of Arianism. To say ‘but it is biblical–here are the texts’ isn’t much of a defense, seeing as Arius read the same scriptures…

  4. Point 5 is fascinating, but I’m not entirely convinced. Doesn’t the divine plural of the Genesis creation accounts (“Let us make man in our image…”) offer some support for the idea that the inner life of the Trinity finds some reflection in human relationships?

    Not that I’m arguing for subordinationism! I think the transition from Christ’s freely offered “submission” to the Father to the idea that there is a “hierarchy of authority” within the Trinity as quite some leap, and even more so if this is then linked to the concept of an “order”.

    David Cavanagh
    Major (The Salvation Army)

  5. Indeed–but the $64,000 question is ‘in what way is the image of God manifest’ in human relations? As Michael Bird points out in his chapter in the book, the inference about human inter-relations would only really work for someone living in an all-male love triangle!

    There appears to be no clear reason why relations in the Trinity are projected onto male-female gender differentiation, rather than other aspects of human relations. If there is any justification, I think it comes not from Genesis but from 1 Cor 11. I think this is problematic, as I have explored here.–16/

  6. Dear Ian,

    Your analysis doesn’t enter into an absolutely key text, it seems to me – as a woman of faith – which I see as crucial: by your fruits shall ye know them. Subordination, in human terms, has done nothing but cause excruciating misery wherever it is found as s structural – rather than an occasional incidental – element in human relationships. And, especially, between women and men. Subordination is, in patriarchal societies, a direct cause of rape, murder, and trafficking. That this occurs also between men of power and children, and men of power and men with little or no power, simply underscores the unGodly nature of subordination. Within all branches of the church, women and children have suffered through their lesser status, from rape to simply being denied access to parochial committees, or even to Communion. I don’t see how dressing up the fruits of inequity as theology, or pretending that separate-but-equal is OK for the church when it is not OK for society at large, reflects God’s relationship to us.

    God doesn’t give us permission to be beastly to each other in his name.

  7. ‘We trust in God, not in doctrines about God’. Ian, this is the most important statement you have made in this article. If evangelicals really took this seriously, the whole face of modern evangelicalism would change radically. So many, many theologians and preachers speak as if we are saved by doctrine, not by grace. This stems from a misunderstanding of the idea that we are saved by faith, defining faith wrongly as ‘what we believe’, rather than as ‘trust in God’. Yes, we are saved by grace ‘through faith’, but faith is only a response to prevenient grace. We are not saved by the believing we do, but by the forgiving and transforming God does. This is crucial, in every sense of the word.

  8. Ian, I entirely agree about the way in which the life of the Trinity could model human interactions. It’s not really about the male-female divide, but about wider social interaction (and in my view, following Moltmann, Zizoulas and Ephesians 5:22, it’s always about mutual submission in love – at least on the human level).

    Not sure Michael Bird’s comment about an all-male triangle is sound. Surely that assumes God has gender and is as such based on a faulty premise?

  9. But the problem is how ungendered ‘persons’ in the Trinity (though note they are NOT persons in the human sense) can offer a distinct model for human gender relations. Bird’s point is, I think, right: if you are looking for a model for *particular* human relations, you need to look at engender-differentiated ones. Relations between non-gendered, ontologically unified ‘persona’ are an odd place to look for specific patterns of relating between gender-differentiated, ontologically distinct, human persons.

    There are better ways of thinking about it!

  10. “The Trinity does not tell us how to relate to one another — but God’s relating to us does! So any use of the ‘social Trinity’, in either a hierarchical or egalitarian direction, is seriously mistaken.” This is for me the money shot — thanks, Ian. It implies we do not, indeed cannot, model ourselves on God, but as God lives in us there will be outworking…

  11. Thanks, Alan. I think this still does sit in some tension with Paul’s injunction to ‘imitate me, as I imitate Christ.’ But we need the humility to remember that we are not God!

  12. Ian,

    ‘So any use of the ‘social Trinity’, in either a hierarchical or egalitarian direction, is seriously mistaken.’

    Although Paul enjoins it upon the whole church, surely Phillipians 2:5 demonstrates how the Son can be eternally ‘functionally’ subordinate to the Father, and for this authority structure to be ‘essential to their being’, and yet this is not a hierarchy of being but only of ‘function’.

    It was the greater joy of ‘bringing many sons to glory’ that caused Christ to ‘endure the cross despising the shame’. Yet, Paul establishes that Christ, in pursuit of this greater good, doffed the discernible robes of deity to participate in our humanity to the point of being treated as the worst of human criminals.

    ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ (Philippians 2:5 – 8)

    This hymn of submission of Christ at greatest personal loss to the will of the Father to the benefit of those we count as brothers is the model of all Christian servant-leadership and fellowship.

  13. I should add that the submission of Christ to the Father in our redemption is eternal. He is indeed ‘the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world’.

    ‘ If a functional hierarchy of men and women is based on an eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father, surely the male-female hierarchy must also be eternal? None of those arguing for such a hierarchy believe it is eternal—but why not?’

    Does the fact that Christian model of marriage is based on the eternal marriage of Christ to His church mean that the man and wife relationship is eternal? Why should the existence of any model (philosophical or theological) be used to demand that adherents achieve perfect replication? While the reasoning elsewhere is cogently presented, it appears to falter here.

  14. Quoting from your article:
    “But in every other example I can think of, we are instructed to base human relations not on relations within the godhead, but on the relation between God and humanity”

    Rom 8:29
    “He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son”
    God is conforming me to the image of Christ – Christ was in full submission to the Father – and so am i supposed to learn to be in full submission to the Father

    John 5:19
    “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.”
    John 10:17
    “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. 18 No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.
    This command I have received from My Father.”
    Mat 16:25
    “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

    “This command i have received from my Father”
    Christ gave His life based upon the will of the Father.
    And so is His will for me to give up my life for Him.
    2 Cor 5:15
    ” and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.”

    God wants me to give up my life just as He Himself gave up His life for me.
    He gave up his life for me based on the will of the Father.
    And the will of the Father is His will

    Jesus was in full submission to the Father
    At the same time he was ONE with the Father

    The Father wants me to be like christ – to be in submission to His will
    At the same time i am part of the body of Christ – i am A PART OF GOD
    because i have been baptised into His body!
    “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (gal 3:27)
    Christ – GOD HIMSELF now lives in me but i am still in submission to the Father

    [email protected]

  15. Dear Mi77ael, thanks very much for reinforcing my point! In every example you quote, YOU have to supply the idea in your comment, since it is not present in the text you cite.

    And I am fascinated to see that you adopt the Greek Orthodox idea of ‘theosis’, deification, as you understanding of human destiny (‘i am A PART OF GOD’) which fell out of favour in the West at about the time of the Reformation.


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