Answering Four Common Laymen Objections to ESS Critics

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[This post was originally published nearly 2 years ago on a different blog site, but has since been removed. So that my readers may still have access to this article, I have republished here under a different title.]

As the layman class, of which I am a member, begins to come to terms with the possibility that their Sunday School teacher may have led them astray by teaching that the Son of God has been subordinate to the Father for all eternity, recurring questions and rejoinders are nevertheless heard in small groups and church foyers across the reformed-ish world.  They may have already come to terms with, for example, the multiple wills objection[1] and have become thoroughly convinced of the historical novelty of ESS/EFS/ERAS[2], even rightly concluding that the Council of Nicea and Athanasian Creed roundly contradict the teaching.  But, being students of the Scripture, submitting admirably to its authority, and seeking peace within the Church of God and charity towards those who may err, I have in my experience heard the following responses to ESS/EFS/ERAS critics over and over, and have read very little direct response to these rejoinders at the popular, accessible level:

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“The head of Christ is God”: ESS, Complementarianism, and the History of Interpretation

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In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul writes, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (v. 3). In this verse, the word “head” refers to one who is in a position of authority over the other, as this Greek word (kephale) uniformly does whenever it is used in ancient literature to say that one person is “head of” another person or group. So Paul is here referring to a relationship of authority between God the Father and God the Son, and he is making a parallel between that relationship in the Trinity and the relationship between the husband and wife in marriage. This is an important parallel because it shows that there can be equality and differences between persons at the same time. […]

Just as the Father and Son are equal in deity and are equal in all their attributes, but different in role, so husband and wife are equal in personhood and value, but are different in the roles that God has given them. Just as God the Son is eternally subject to the authority of God the Father, so God has planned that wives would be subject to the authority of their own husbands. (Wayne Grudem, Biblical Foundations of Manhood and Womanhood, pp. 48-49)

1 Corinthians 11:3 is a/the linchpin passage in the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS)-meets-Complementarianism argument. Denny Burk, the current President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, has said as much himself (see, e.g., HERE).  Three premises are required for the ESS/Complementarian argument to succeed.

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Reset: Some Questions on Gender and “Authority”

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Since posting “Complementarity Without Subordination” and “’And he shall rule over you’: A Collaborative Response to Aimee Byrd and Barbara Roberts”, I have been told by one side that my proposals are anti-authority, feminist, and egalitarian and by the other side that they suggest misogyny and endorse ungodly authority (I should note the all-around good will and kindness of the latter respondents).  Given the polarity of these responses, I believe much of this must be due to misunderstanding and my own lack of clarity. But since I have from the beginning intended these posts to be collaborative contributions and not primarily polemics against those I most appreciate and learn from, I believe the best course of action is to reset the table.  Rather than continue to iterate and push down paths that have already been potentially misleading, and therefore not conducive to framing clear and common consent, I propose a fresh start. I am in no wise abandoning the proposals set forth in the previous two posts, but rather believe that there are unresolved tensions, potential inconsistencies, and even some cake eating and having in the critiques I’ve received thus far.

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“And he shall rule over you”: A Collaborative Response to Aimee Byrd and Barbara Roberts

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A couple weeks back I posted “ESS, Slavery, and the Metaphysic of Oppression”. After push back from various folks, it became clear that I needed to defend my claim that I am not an egalitarian while also demonstrating that Complementarianism can and should be divorced from the blasphemy of ESS. So I posted “Complementarity Without Subordination”. Aimee Byrd and Barbara Roberts were kind enough to read and even post fantastic and instructive responses: “Hierarchy and Subordination vs. Headship and Household Mission” and “Complementarity Without Subordination: What Does it Look Like?”  I also received very helpful and constructive comments from Rev. Sam Powell and Rachel Miller. I am more than honored to have received feedback from those that I have learned so much from. I’m even more honored to be considered part of the process of ironing out these important issues.

Along with many very generous and gracious words about the piece, the common critique from them all was of my insistence that the phrase “and he shall rule over you” in Genesis 3:16 is to be understood as the delegation of rightful authority rather than a description of oppressive authority. (Both Sam Powell and Rachel Miller had also written great pieces on different aspects of this subject: “Headship Is Not Hierarchy” and “The Desire of the Woman: A Response to Susan Foh’s Interpretation”.) So against my better judgement, I thought I ought to further defend/explain my position.  Yes, that’s right, take the one narrow band that all of them disagreed with and make it my whole next post; proof that I am not very intelligent.

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Complementarity Without Subordination

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Adam and Eve Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862–1918) 1917-1918 Oil on canvas *Belvedere, Vienna * © Belvedere, Vienna *Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some Background and Statement of the Question

In my previous post, “ESS, Slavery, and the Metaphysic of Oppression,” I first rejected the simple metaphysic of “unequal in nature, therefore unequal in authority” as Biblically inapplicable to human relations.  I next noted that with the failure of the simple metaphysic, defenders of slavery within the Church turned to a metaphysic of “equal in nature, yet subordinate in subsistence”, or a metaphysic of the inequality of equals.  I next noted that Complementarians in modern evangelicalism have also turned to the metaphysic of “equal in nature, yet subordinate in subsistence” to rescue male headship from the feminist onslaught, but with a much more robust footing supplied by the supposed Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) teaching.  I rejected this position as well as a metaphysic of oppression, grounded as it is in Trinitarian error and the subordination of persons as to their very subsistence.

Of course the questions/push back from evangelicals has been to question how one could still believe in male headship in the home, as I do, yet reject both of the above metaphysical principles.  It is a good question and warrants more than a brief answer. If the metaphysic grounded in the ESS view of the Trinity is a metaphysic of oppression, then one must believe in the inequality of nature to maintain male headship, right?  And if one rejects both, then aren’t we left with egalitarianism as the only remaining option? I, of course, have no newfangled answer, nor my own special way of treating the subject; it has been treated better and more extensively by others.  Rather, I believe that the very asking of this question just shows how much subordinationist thought has infiltrated evangelicalism, so I hope only to point the reader in a different direction and perspective to continue studying the issue.

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