Subordination in the Trinity? - a guest post from Zack Hunt

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

This is the fifth post in a weeklong series entitled  “Submit One To Another: Christ and the Household Codes,” which will focus on those frequently-cited passages of Scripture that instruct wives to submit to their husbands, slaves to obey their masters, children to obey their parents, and Christians to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:12-4:6; 1 Peter 2:11-3:22). You are welcome to join in the conversation via the comment section or by contributing to the synchroblog. Use #onetoanother on Twitter.  Check out the previous posts: "4 Interpretive Pitfalls Around the New Testament Household Codes" and "The Letter to Nympha’s Church" and "Aristotle vs. Jesus: What Makes the New Testament Household Codes Different" and "'The Grace of Good Love"' A Guest Post from Sarah Bessey."

Today's post comes to us from another one of my favorite bloggers, Zack Hunt. Zack is a writer, blogger, and speaker living in Bristol, Connecticut with his wife, Kim. Currently a graduate student studying the history of Christianity at Yale Divinity, he also blogs at The American Jesus, and will be releasing his first book, The Scandal of Holiness, in the very near future. You can find him on Facebook here or follow him on Twitter.

I asked Zack to respond to the notion that the Trinity functions as a hierarchy because Zack has a way of taking complex theological ideas and not only making them understandable but also applicable, which is exactly what he's done here. Enjoy!  



When Rachel first asked me to write about the Trinity being used to maintain patriarchal household codes, I was like, “That’s a thing?”

Pages and pages and pages of blog posts and articles later I’ve discovered to my great bewilderment that, yes, it is indeed a thing.

If you too were unfamiliar with this repurposing of the Trinity, it goes something like this: Some pastors and theologians hailing from the more conservative side of the Reformed spectrum have argued that classifying women as subordinate to men is justified because the Trinity also operates as a hierarchy, with Christ functioning as eternally subordinate to the Father. 

To be honest, their theological maneuvering is kind of genius. Or at the very least incredibly bold. Taking an ancient heresy of the church and transforming it into the ultimate theological trump card for the subordination of women?  – genius. Un-Christlike and heretical since 325 CE? - absolutely. But taking the most glaring weakness in your case for divinely sanctioned inequality and transforming it into your biggest strength? Genius.

As I said, advocates of this position hold that Jesus is eternally subordinate to the Father, but that that role has nothing to do with his being, who he is or his ontology, because according to them a person’s eternal condition is irrelevant to their existence. From what I have read, the argument for this apparent inconsistency is that Jesus’ subordination to the Father relates to his role in the Godhead, not his ontological status; meaning the Father and Son (and presumably the Spirit) are one and equal because Jesus’ subordination somehow doesn’t affect his being even though it is a position he takes and has taken and will take for all eternity and can do no other.

But there is a difference between a theological paradox and an outright contradiction. 

Either “these three are one,” that is to say equal, or they are not. One cannot be simultaneously subordinate with no choice in the matter, therefore unequal, and yet also equal to the one above them.

Now, to their credit, these purveyors of patriarchy correctly recognize that despite its reputation, the doctrine of the Trinity has profound practical implications for everyday life. Yes, there is a lot of abstract, esoteric speculation going on there about the nature of God, but if we believe we are people made in the image of God, and especially if we also believe we are called to incarnate that image to the world, then that incarnated life will be, or at least should be, defined by the life of the God we claim to image.

In other words, when we talk about the life of God, we’re also talking about how we should live our own lives

So, if the Trinitarian life of God is one of a hierarchy, and we are people whose lives should model the divine life as a light to the world, then we too should live hierarchical lives in which some people are of greater importance than others and should thus be treated accordingly. On the other hand, if God is three different but equal persons in one being, then we should model a life of equality to the world.

If you’re familiar with church history, you know that the latter Trinitarian formula of equality was defined as orthodoxy in the fourth century in what has come to be known as the Nicene Creed. This important confession of the Church rejected as heresy the subordinationist teachings of a man named Arius and defined as orthodox the notion that God is one ousia in three hypostases, fancy Greek words for declaring that God’s nature is one unified essence that has three ways of being in the world or in the universe or wherever God decides to hangout. 

Without getting into a lengthy, technical, and...let’s just be honest..boring to most of us discussion of Trinitarian metaphysics, the important point here is that a hierarchy in the Trinity has been denounced by the church as heresy for centuries. 


Because unity and equality are core principles of the Christian faith and subordinationism and hierarchy teach just the opposite.

That’s not to say that you couldn’t find biblical or theological grounds for arguing for a hierarchy in the Trinity. You can. In fact, you can even find some early church fathers who seem to have supported subordinationism before the Nicene Creed was affirmed. But good theology isn’t done by cutting and pasting verses (or quotes) together to support your theological paradigm. That’s proof-texting and if you go that route you can just as easily find biblical support for genocide.

Good biblical theology takes into account the various voices of scripture (and the church) in an attempt to understand the broader trajectory of the biblical narrative. In other words, what is the point of the Bible? What is it trying to tell us? Where is it trying to take us?

As Christians, conservative, liberal, and everything in between, we all agree that the point of the Bible and the story it is trying to tell us is the story of God’s redemptive work in the world in and through the person of Jesus. We also all agree that as part of that story, the Bible gives us a glimpse at how that work will ultimately culminate at the end of all things.

If through the biblical narrative God is trying to reveal God’s self as a hierarchy, then the trajectory of the Bible, our lives, and eternity itself is towards divinely sanctioned more of the same. And in that case, the writer of Revelation was lying when he declared, “the old order of things has passed away…[God is] making all things new.”

But assuming John’s Revelation is not a book of lies, it is this trajectory of the old giving way to the new which must inform both our understanding of the Trinity and ourselves.

Which is why in order to understand the Trinity and household codes we need to talk about the sunrise.


You know how when get up to watch the sunrise, there are those first beams of light that break across the horizon bringing just a bit of light to the darkness before the sun fully rises and pushes back the night? 

No? Me either. I’m not a morning person, so that’s not something I would ever do, but people I trust tell me that’s what happens.

Anyway, that rising of the sun in the morning is a lot like how the church believes the kingdom of God is breaking into the world around us even though the Son has not yet returned to finally rid the world of darkness.

In theology we call that the eschatological horizon.

It’s the belief that the kingdom of God is a present but not yet fully realized reality. It’s what Paul was talking about in his second letter to the church in Corinth when he said, “…the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

As the Church, we believe we live at the edge of the eschatological horizon, meaning we are a people who live in a tension between what we preach and the broken world around us. One thing is sure about the eschatological horizon - one day that tension will be resolved. 

One day the morning will fully dawn. 

You can fight it all you want. You can try as you might to keep things the way they are. You can even do that in the name of God.

But it’s a losing battle.

In the end, the morning will dawn, the old order of things will pass away and all things will be made new.

That is, if you believe God was serious about all those promises God made in the Bible.

As the people of God we are called to embody that future reality in the here and now. We are called to live as if the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, that it actually had transformative power, and that the process of all things being made new actually did begin when Jesus walked out of the tomb that first Easter morning. As the people of God living with one eye on the horizon and one eye on the here and now, we are called to live as if there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. We are called to live as if the last are now the first, and the least the greatest.

We are called to help usher in the dawn.

Which means as long as we continue living as if the old order is not passing away, as if nothing is being made new, as if the resurrection of Jesus had no transforming power and the hierarchical structures of this world still reign, then we proclaim with our lives that the gospel is anything but good news.

It’s a lie.

So, to my brothers and sisters in the faith who insist on finding new and, frankly, outlandish ways to justify maintaining the old order of things, I say this.

Stop fighting the transforming power of resurrection.

A new morning is coming and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

In fact, it’s already beginning to dawn.

So start living like it.


Be sure to visit Zack's blog, The American Jesus.  

If you're interested in learning more about the theory of the eternal subordination of the Son, Ben Witherington has written a very nice summary here.  Fred Sanders also wrote a post for Christianity Today recently, which is related to the topic, and you can see that here. 

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