Tag Archives: subordinationism


I'm finding that I don't like the word "subordinationism". There are better words to describe the belief that we're talking about. However...that appears to be the "word of the day".

Craig Keener (an egalitarian) wrote a rather long article: "Is subordination within the Trinity really heresy? A study of John 5:18 in context."
In the opening page he writes:

Nor, in fact, do Christological views coincide as closely with views on gender roles as some of the advocates of either position claim. Thus, for example, I frequently talk with Christians who espouse a complementarian view of gender roles while expressing surprise that anyone would deny the full equality in all respects of the Father and the Son. By contrast, I and some other scholars I know who support a very broad range of women's ministry affirm the Son's subordination to the Father. To be sure, that subordination may be voluntary, and we do not draw from it the same conclusions many of our complementarian colleagues do; but the fact remains that one's view on gender roles does not enable one to predict one's view of relations within the Trinity, or vice-versa. I do see evidence for the Son's subordination to the Father in rank; I also believe that evangelicals who differ on the matter should do so charitably. (emphasis mine)

The article begins at John 5:18

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (ESV) (emphasis mine)

(A) Does Jesus Claim "Equality"? (5:18)

Jesus is "God the Son", but He is also acting as an agent for the Father. Keener makes the point that when we say that Christ as claiming equality with the Father in this passage, we are following the logic of Christ's enemies, not the actual words of Christ. Yes...clearly Christ is communicating His deity in this passage, but equality of roles with the Father? Keener believes not:

But while Jesus claims deity at various points in this gospel (e.g., 8:58; 20:2829), he also denies equality of rank with his Father. This is particularly clear in his response to those who think he has claimed such equality (5:19-30). Jesus does this by calling attention to his role as Son and agent. (emphasis mine).

In verses 19-23 we see the following points

  • Jesus is following the example of His Father
  • Jesus is saying that He can do nothing of His own accord
  • Jesus has been given authority by His Father

Nowhere in this passage does Christ claim equality - He claims Sonship, with delegated authority and obedience.

(B) Jesus as God Son

Keener brings up a point that I had not heard of or thought of. Jesus was obediently following His Father's example. In the Jewish culture, how did a son learn his trade? By following his father's example - apprenticeship.

Nevertheless, this part of the discourse is framed with Jesus' claim not to act "from himself," or on his own initiative or authority (5:19, 30),25 fitting the Jewish conception of the agent who carries out his commission? Jesus elsewhere emphasizes that he does nothing "from himself" (5:30; 7:17-18, 28; 8:28, 42; 14:10), as the Spirit does not (16:13), and that the disciples cannot produce anything profitable from themselves (15:5).

(c) Jesus as God's Agent

In this section, Keener touches on the argument that yes-Christ was subordinate for the duration of His incarnation. But Keener points out that since Christ was "sent", that the submission started (at least) a little while before His birth.

Also, as a "representative agent" He carried the full authority of the Sender. This was in accordance with the time;

Agency represented commission and authorization, the sense of the concept which provides a broad conceptual background for early Christian agency. In many cases, at least in our later sources, the agent's own legal status was comparatively low. Indeed, under rabbinic rulings, even slaves were permitted to fill the position.32 Yet agents bore representative authority, because they acted on the authority of the one who sent them. Thus perhaps the most common rabbinic maxim concerning a person's agent is that "he is equivalent to the person himself."33 In the broader Mediterranean world envoys or messengers were backed by the full authority of those they represented. (...)

Even when one sent one's son (Mark 12:6), the messenger position was necessarily one of subordination to the sender. Although the concept of agency implies subordination, it also stresses Jesus' functional equality with the Father in terms of humanity's required response: he must be honored and believed in the same way as must be the Father whose representative he is (e.g., Tohn 5:23; 6:29).

(and I'm just a third of the way through the article...)

We have the framework for Christ's submission, obedience, subordination, and agency for the duration of His ministry while He walked this planet - and (at least a little) prior to.
Still...that does not provide proof that this submission is eternal.

Next up: section II: 1 Corinthians 15:28.


Q: What is "subordinationism"?

A: Very simply put (and there are many nuances), subordinationism is the belief that there is a hierarchy within the Godhead (Trinity) that has the Father as the head, with the Son and the Spirit flowing from the Father and in an equal, but submissive role. The main reason for this little series of posts is the way that it relates to the conversation on gender roles - I'm not sure that it plays a huge part, but the conversation did spark my curiosity.

Q: Is this the heresy of "Arianism"?

A: No. What was defined as heresy at the Council of Nicea

  • Arianism taught that Christ is a created being - of "like substance", but not the "same substance" - sort of a "lesser god" or "created god".
  • Arianism denied the full deity of Christ.
  • Ariansim denies that the Son is of one essence, nature, or substance with God; He is not consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity, or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity.

Q: What is different about the two?

A: Subordinationism declares that each member of the Trinity are individual persons, yet fully unified in will and purpose; each member of the Trinity is fully God.  James White, in "The Forgotten Trinity" puts in this way: There is One "WHAT" (the Godhead/Trinity).  Within that one WHAT, there are three "WHOS" (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit).  To deny that the persons of the Trinity are indeed three persons, is a denial of the Trinity that is known as "modalism" - held to by "Oneness" churches.
The Son and the Spirit are "generated" from the Father, yet all three are eternal and fully God and fully equal in person, dignity and deity. Are we confused yet? This is why the Trinity is called a "mystery".

Other helpful terms:


"The monarchy of the Father"


"Eternal Sonship"

It is a mistake to confuse the belief of eternal submission with the heresy of Arianism.


First, the basic definition of "heresy", since this is a word that has been used in connection with "subordinationism".


From merriam-webster:

  • a: adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma
  • b: denial of a revealed truth by a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church
  • c: an opinion or doctrine contrary to church dogma
  • a: dissent or deviation from a dominant theory, opinion, or practice
  • b: an opinion, doctrine, or practice contrary to the truth or to generally accepted beliefs or standards

I think it is important to understand that in order to have a "heresy", you have to have an authority to proclaim it OR to have an absolute, definitive theory, opinion, practice or doctrine to which to adhere (and be contrary to).

POINT: If you choose to level an accusation of "heresy", you should have an authoritative church body that represents "the Church" as a whole. If you cannot do this, you are choosing, either as a single person or small body, to proclaim orthodoxy and/or heresy outside of the "body" as a whole.

Accusations of heresy are serious business. False accusations are more serious yet. We should be very cautious when using such words as "heresy" or "blasphemy", lest we bear false witness against brothers and sisters in Christ.

I have little trouble examining doctrine against "historical proclamations" of heresy.  There was a time that was much closer to the cross and the apostles then we are now.  There was a time when the church was united; before the church in Rome and the Eastern Church separated.  Before that time, the young church had several councils that gathered together, examined Scripture and proclaimed "orthodoxy".

So...who decides?

A Church Council is an official ad hoc gathering of representatives to settle Church business. Such Councils are called rarely and are not the same as the regular gatherings of church leaders (synods, etc). An ecumenical council is one at which the whole Church is represented. The three major branches of the Church (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) recognize seven ecumenical councils: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), Nicea II (787). Further ecumenical councils were rendered impossible by the widening split between Eastern (Orthodox, Greek-speaking) and Western (Catholic, Latin-speaking) Churches, a split that was rendered official in 1054 and has not yet been healed. (from PBCC.org)

I'll let folks do their own search for the "seven ecumenical councils" - because which of the three major branches will cite different sources, yet all three branches recognize a group of seven councils on which all agree.

In short...if these seven councils agree that a doctrine is "heresy", all three major branches of Christianity today (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) will agree.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils:

  • The Council of Nicea, 325
  • The Council of Constantinople, 381
  • The Council of Ephesus, 431
  • The Council of Chalcedon, 451
  • The Council of Constantinople II, 553
  • The Council of Constantinople III, 680
  • The Council of Nicea II, 787

To wrap it up, these seven ecumenical councils of the early church met to BOTH unite the church on essential doctrine and to separate those who teach heresy from those who teach truth.

I believe that if a teaching is not found (or condemned) in these seven councils, it becomes more difficult to level an accusation of "heresy". Again, we should be very careful when doing so.