By Terran Williams

(To be published in Mutuality Magazine, 1 August 2022)

Years ago, my wife was commissioned to write something for fellow pastors’ wives in our group of complementarian churches that might be struggling to come to terms with male leadership in the home and church. The basic idea of complementarianism is, after all, a difficult one to grasp: how can one be qualitatively equal and yet at the same time permanently subordinate? My wife struggled with comprehending the reason behind our so-called different roles, until she read Kathy Keller’s analogy in Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles, which she then included as the high point in her own paper. According to Keller, the pastor’s wife who chooses submission to her husband in both home and church, is cast in the light of Jesus’s subordination to his Father:

Jesus in his submissive servanthood, taking on the role of a servant in order to secure our salvation (Philippians 2:5–11), shows that his submission to the Father was a gift, not something compelled from him. At no time is his equality with the Father ever called into question. . . . The Son’s [essential] equality with the Father, and yet his [functional] submission for the purpose of salvation in taking on the role of a servant, lead us into the heart of the mystery of the Trinity. How else can this even begin to be conveyed without human players who enact the same truths, the same roles? (emphasis added) (see Endnote 1) 

Having read this, my wife and many fellow pastors’ wives were happy to have settled the matter in their hearts. They resolved that by taking on the God-given role of submission to someone “equal” to them, they were showing the world the beautiful and mysterious life of the Trinity. 

Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage, which she co-authors with her husband Timothy, admits that though her “first encounter with the idea of [authority] and submission [in marriage] was both intellectually and morally traumatic,” when some “gifted teachers steered [her] to [see how] the Second Person of the Godhead [submitted] himself, and assumed the role of a servant,” she then accepted that she could play the “Jesus role” in her marriage. (2) 

For most of history, most people did not ask, “Why should the wife submit?” It made perfect sense to them: culture and church doctrine believed that women were inferior to men, and therefore needed to be led for their own good. But since the 1960s those ideas have been abandoned in the culture and the church. We all know many women who are more intelligent and decisive than their husbands. So it cannot be that they are inferior at making decisions. So why then? Tim and Kathy Keller brave an answer:

“the answer to that question is another question: ‘Why did Christ become the one to give up the authority to the Father?’” (3) 

Their point is that a wife’s submission to a husband’s authority is meant to mirror Christ’s relationship to the Father. 

But the analogy is fatally flawed. Nowhere does Scripture teach us to model our submission to any human (whether to pastor, king, spouse, or parent) on Jesus’s submission to the Father. The text Keller refers to in Phil 2, in which Christ, though equal with God, becomes a servant who dies on the cross, mainly describes Jesus’s humility and service of others, which is something all people can imitate as they relate to all people. (4) 

Keller’s statement about the Trinity being incomprehensible unless “human players enact the same roles” is dangerous. Despite recent, numerous attempts by people to read their ideal social relationships into the Trinity, there is no earthly relationship that can properly depict the relationships in the Trinity. Michael Bird suggests that, if we had to find one, it would be a three-person marriage between an older man, a younger man, and a eunuch. Bird’s point is that it is a serious mistake to correlate husband-wife roles with Father-Son roles. (5)

Eternal Functional Subordination

George Knight III, in 1977, first formulated the idea that the Trinity for all eternity represented a biblical example of genuine equality of personhood and a difference of roles, and used this to support his own conception of men and women being equal yet tiered. (6)  But it was Wayne Grudem who, in his 1994 Systematic Theology, first took Knight’s idea into the mainstream theological world. In reaction to those who argued that the Trinity served as an excellent example of the kind of mutual submission they envisioned between men and women, Grudem went all out in the opposite direction, arguing that distinctive roles are in fact at the heart of the eternal relationships within the Trinity. He introduced the term, Eternal Functional Subordination to argue that, aeons before the Son even embarked on his mission to earth, he was already subordinate to the Father. It was important for Grudem to show that the Son’s subordination to the Father was not temporary. He argued,

“Does the Son say to the Father, ‘It’s not fair for you to be in charge simply because you are the Father’? Does the Son say to the Father, ‘You’ve been in charge for fifteen billion years, and now it’s my turn for the next fifteen billion’? No! Absolutely not!” (7) 

The Kellers seem to stop short of believing in the Son’s eternal subordination, but nonetheless became the most popular promoters of the idea that the Trinity is a model of complementarian marriage, even arguing in The Meaning of Marriage that, 

“since our assigned [marriage] roles are rooted in the nature of the relationships within the Trinity, tampering with [the authority-submission] God intends within marriage is surely not our prerogative.” (8) 

But, without Grudem’s overlaying argument that the Son’s subordination is eternal, the Kellers’ Trinity-marriage analogy does not hold. In the incarnation of the Son, one person in the Trinity becomes a human for about thirty-three years, and for that duration volunteers to take orders from the Father and the Spirit. When we hold this against the backdrop of their eternal equality and mutuality, we see the incarnation for what it is: an unrepeatable event in the history of all reality. It is neither responsible nor fitting to take this moment in God’s eternal existence as the permanent, unalterable norm for gender roles in a human marriage. Unlike the period the Son was on the earth while his Father was in heaven, both wife and husband have their feet on the same ground.

This is why Grudem bulked up the argument—not just in his incarnation, but before and after it, Jesus is subordinate. Following him, most complementarian theologians started to speak of the eternal relations within the Trinity as ones of equality and “roles.” Other complementarian theologians like John Starke, Bruce Ware, Rodrick Durst, Malcolm Yarnell, and Michael Ovey put forward models of the Trinity that stressed hierarchy rather than equality as its defining feature.

“The Father is the authority of Christ, and always has been. . . . There is no Trinity without the order of authority and submission.” (9) 

So says Owen Strachan in his 2016 book, The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them, which he dedicates “to Wayne Grudem . . . who showed us and so many others the grand design of God in Christ.” 

Power Relations Assigned at Birth

Why have complementarians clutched so tightly to this new conception of the Son’s present subordination to his equal Father? The answer is that it is the only analogy that justifies the new doctrine that tries to hold together the permanent subordination of a woman and her supposed, intrinsic equality. Let me explain.

Before the 1960s the millennia-long teaching of the church was that women, though equally saved, were intrinsically unequal to men. Based especially on a misreading of 1 Tim 2:14 (“Adam was not deceived, but Eve was and became a transgressor”) and 1 Cor 11:7 (“he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man”), the major figures of church history believed that women were made of “lesser stuff” than men—they were less intelligent and capable than men, and more prone to instability and deception. It was therefore assumed that men should lead women for their own good.

But when, in the 1960s-70s, the Catholic and Protestant church in the West rapidly abandoned its former belief about women, they had a new question to answer: why then are women to be automatically, unalterably subordinate to men? Some theologians re-examined Scripture and concluded that women were neither inferior nor subordinate, (10) while other theologians still contended for the subordination of women. This transition moment in theological evolution surfaced three views about women—the centuries-old one, historic hierarchism, which was abandoned as people went in one of two directions, revised hierarchism and evangelical egalitarianism.

 Female inferiority?Female subordination?
Historic hierarchism (100–1960s)YesYes, because females are inferior
Revised hierarchism (1960s onwards)No Yes, for new reasons
Evangelical egalitarianism (1960s onwards)NoNo

The true father of revised hierarchism (which John Piper would rename “complementarianism” a decade later) is George Knight III, whose 1977 book introduced the ingenious idea of “equal” but “different roles.” This language gained immediate traction with modern ears. But there are three problems with this phrase. 

The first problem is that “role” language does not accurately describe what is actually “a chain of command.” In most cases, its propagators do not even need to explain what those different roles are. Merely saying the words “equal but different roles” satisfies most people who hear the idea for the first time, especially if one adds the caveat that men and women, after all, are made differently by God. But the idea of “roles” is a modern sociological construct that only became popular in the 1960s as women’s expected spheres of activity rapidly began to change. It refers to a division of labour, where one person takes care of some things, and another takes care of other things. For instance, if I were to tell my children on chore day that I will allocate different roles, they will all expect that I will give them different responsibilities. However, in complementarianism, if you were to ask the question (that not many seem to ask), “What exactly are the different roles?” the answer (when reduced to its essence) will be that in the home and church men lead, and in both women submit and help out. But this is not a classical allocation of roles. Rather, it is a simple chain of command. The idea of “roles” carries with it the idea of reversibility. One child may clean the pool and another trim the garden, and the next week, these roles might be swapped, especially if one child is shown to be more adept at a certain role. In contrast, the complementarian “role” is a permanent, irreversible power relation based on one’s gender not one’s gifts.

The second problem is that “role” language does not describe what is actually an exclusion for some and not others. In complementarianism, women are excluded from certain roles in the church simply because they are women, while men are excluded from no roles simply because they are men. In fact, even in the home, where women are supposedly meant to focus their efforts, the husband is still in charge. There’s nothing “complementary” about this arrangement—it is a simple hierarchy that excludes some, not all, from certain roles.

The third and most serious problem is that, while the idea of “roles” may be compatible with equality, the idea of permanent power relations assigned at birth is most certainly a statement of inequality. To be clear, equality can be compatible with subordination. For example, a congregant may choose to submit to a pastor who is her equal in Christ. However, the challenge for complementarians has always been to show how two people can be truly equal while, based on their chromosomes alone, immutably destined to either lead or follow. Complementarians offer analogies such as a pastor and a congregant, an officer and a private in an army, or a manager and a worker, or a president and a citizen. None of these imply inherent superiority, they argue, which is true. But they are not fair or fitting analogies (11) —in all cases, the roles can change, and the one with authority has that authority based on special competence or experience. Their leadership is not assigned at birth based on their bodies. A pastor, for example, may lead because of their special character, calling, training, and gifting—but it is possible that the pastor may step down one day, and the congregant may become a pastor.

It is almost impossible to find a single desirable analogy in society to show how authority or subordination is loaded into one’s chromosomes or body. The closest analogies are the Hindu caste system in which one’s power status is determined by which class or family one is born into, or Apartheid, in which one’s skin colour determined one’s political rights. Both of these systems of designating roles and rank at birth—as all complementarians would surely agree—are examples of inequality.

Since the earthly analogies fail, the solution for complementarians in the late 1970s was to correlate the supposed doctrine of a woman’s unalterable subordination to her equal with the supposed doctrine of the Son’s unalterable subordination to his equal. So crucial is the new Trinitarian analogy to the new doctrine of female equality-and-subordination that Grudem even bet the farm on it: in in his 1979 review of Knight’s creation of it, young Grudem overconfidently wrote that “a proper understanding of the Trinity may well turn out to be the most decisive factor in finally deciding” on the status and roles of women. (12)

A Tale of Three Heads

What was Grudem’s proof text for the Son’s alleged eternal subordination to his equal? It was his misinterpretation of 1 Cor 11:3. In this verse, Paul writes,

“the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (NIV).

Grudem takes this to mean that Paul correlates “a husband’s” “authority over” “his wife” with God’s “authority over” Christ—and treats this as a parallel that upholds equality and hierarchy in both cases. By linking marriage to a description of the inner life of a Triune God, he thus concludes that gender hierarchy must be universal and not merely cultural, or a result of the fall.

But this is based on three wrong assumptions. 

The first is that it overlooks the first of the three parallel lines. Complementarians who like to compare man as woman’s head with God as Christ’s head, seem to forget the first line: Christ is man’s head. One might be able to strain out some similarity between God and Christ, and man and woman (“equal in essence but subordinate in function” is the complementarian offering) but if that is what Paul was trying to teach, he would not have also added the first line about Christ and man, for no man is Christ’s equal.

The second wrong assumption is that Paul does not refer to “a husband” and “his wife” here, but to Adam and Eve as archetypes of men and women in general. Except for the ESV, with Grudem on its translation committee, and the NRSV (though not the 2021 updated edition of the NRSV), no major English Bible opts for this translation. Almost all scholars read it as a reference to men and women in general. (13) The reason Grudem translates v. 3 as “a husband” and “his wife” is that he is trying to limit the implications of his own insistence that Paul is teaching that the one has authority over the other. But if he is right about “authority over” then, indeed, all men have authority over all women, and no woman anywhere should lead a man or even co-lead with him. 

This brings us to the third wrong assumption: Grudem reads “head” (kephalē) to mean “authority over.” Read this way, it seems Paul equates God the Father’s authority over Christ with a man’s authority over women. 

But does kephalē mean “authority over” in this passage? In modern English, “head” is often used metaphorically to mean a boss, someone who is in charge. But was this how the metaphor of “head” would have inevitably been understood by native Greek speakers who received Paul’s letter? 

Most complementarians say yes. To be fair, however, not all do. For example, when the complementarian theologians in the Village Church study this passage as a part of their survey of texts about gender, they do so in a way that does not support any teaching about male authority. (14) Rightly so—the highest-rated commentaries on 1 Corinthians do not see male authority in 1 Cor 11. The user-generated website,, rates the commentaries on 1 Corinthians by Gordon Fee (NICNT), Anthony Thiselton (NIGTC), and David Garland (BECNT) as the best ones, respectively scoring them 4.91, 4.88, and 4.88 out of 5.0. Here’s what these leading scholars say:

  • The metaphor in 11:3 is often understood to be setting up structures of authority. But nothing in the passages suggests as much. (Fee) 
  • . . . it does not seem to denote a relation of “subordination” or “authority over.” (Thiselton) 
  • Paul is not attempting to establish a gender hierarchy that places women in a subordinate role. (Garland)

Although Fee’s, Thiselton’s, and Garland’s interpretations of 1 Cor 11:3 differ, they all agree that Grudem gets this passage wrong. 

So, what does kephalē mean here? In Paul’s time, the idea that kephalē meant authority would be very rare, if present at all. (15) Since kephalē as a metaphor has a varied range of meanings, we should look to the context to determine Paul’s intended meaning. In reading the passage that follows, kephalē appears to mean something like honoured life-source—the person from which another derives their life or identity. 

I side with Fee’s approach: the key to understand these three lines correctly lies in the sequence Paul states them in. At first glance, one might think that Paul should have put the last line first so that it read, “God is the head of Christ, is the head of man, is the head of woman.” But he does not. Why this order then? The answer is that Paul is not following a chain of command, he is following a timeline: 

The clause, “the kephalē of every man is Christ,” picks up on Paul’s theology of Christ as the means and source of all creation. In this sense, in Gen 2, God through Christ created Adam, and in a derivative sense, every subsequent male thereafter.

The next clause, “the kephalē of woman is man” refers to what happened next in the Garden of Eden: from Adam’s side, God made Eve. We know that Paul is referring to Adam and Eve because he uses the singular “woman” not “women,” and “man” not “men,” then returns in v. 8 and again in v. 12a to mention that Eve (whom he calls “woman”) came from Adam (“man”). Confirming the interpretation that v. 3 speaks of Adam as Eve’s source, Paul finally mentions that in another sense each of Adam’s sons came by birth from a daughter of Eve, the mother of all the living (v. 12b), and in yet another sense everyone came from their Creator (v. 12c).

 “The kephalē of Christ is God” most likely refers to Christ’s incarnation. In his earthly ministry, he was “the image of the invisible God,” representing to a watching world the Father as his source. (16)

We might ask why Paul does not say that Christ is also the kephalē of every woman? The answer lies in another question: why does Paul pull together these strange and seemingly disjointed theological statements to begin with? Verses 4–5 provide some compelling answers: using a creative teaching device, Paul is connecting a woman and a man’s treatment of their respective physical heads with the way they each treat their respective metaphoric heads. In other words, in v. 3, Paul establishes the premise that everyone has a metaphoric head in order to argue in vv. 4–5 that what men and women do to their physical heads in worship reflects on their metaphoric kephalē mentioned in v. 3—for “every man” (v. 4) it is “Christ” (v. 3); for “every woman” (v. 5) it is “man” (v. 3). 

He guides each gender to honour someone as their source or origin. We know this because following on from saying “man is the kephalē of woman” (v. 3), Paul paraphrases the same point twice more—by saying, “woman was made from man” (v. 8) and then “woman came from man” (v. 12). This is a triple reference to the fact that Eve was made from Adam’s side. (17)  Also, shifting from talking about Christ as Creator (“the kephalē of every man is Christ” [v. 3]), Paul then talks about God as Creator (“all things [or all persons] come from God” [v. 12])—here again, Paul refers to God specifically as the source of those he creates. (18)

Most crucially however, the language of “God is the kephalē of Christ,” as a matter of orthodoxy has been taken to mean that the Father is the source, not the authority, of Christ. As I will show shortly, orthodox descriptions of the Son-Father relationship, even while the Son was on earth, do not describe the Father asserting his “authority” over the Son as much as they speak of the Son, in self-giving love, submitting to the Father’s will, which in fact is his own. (19)

Now, we understand why Paul selects fairly obscure language that designates Adam as Eve’s kephalē (which he, thankfully, explains in vv. 8 and 12): he is setting up a play on words, so that he will be able to switch between a literal and metaphoric use of the word kephalē. Eve honoured Adam as her kephalē, and so each daughter of Eve should honour the sons of Adam by honouring her physical head (demonstrated by wearing a head covering). Likewise, Adam honoured Christ as his kephalē, so each son of Adam should honour Christ by honouring his physical head (demonstrated by keeping his hair short). Potent as the three statements of v. 3 are, vv. 4–5 is evidently not sophisticated theology. This is Paul as a genius original thinker making connections to add strength to his argument. He is not mainly trying to teach them (nor us) a developed theology of gender, nor anything about universal gender hierarchy. Rather he is adding support to his argument that women should use proper head attire in worship. 

Contra the complementarian accusation that taking kephalē to mean life-source is a recent innovation in word studies, the Greek-speaking church fathers such as Theodore of Mopsuestia, Athanasius, and Eusebius all took kephalē here to mean source. (20) For example, Cyril of Alexandria (who died in AD 444) wrote, 

Luke [3:38, “Adam from God”] . . . explains the source of man, the Creator God. Thus we say that “the head (kephalē) of every man is Christ,” for man was made through him and brought into existence. . . . “And the head (kephalē) of woman is the man,” because she was taken out of his flesh and so indeed has him as her source. Similarly, “the head (kephalē) of Christ is God,” because he is from him according to nature: for the Word was begotten out of God the Father.

It is no surprise therefore that so many scholars conclude that Paul does not mean authority in 1 Cor 11:3. (21) 

Even if 1 Cor 11:3 did teach male authority (which it does not), it is an error to read human relations into the Trinity. Theology starts with God and works down to humanity. It is a reversal of the correct theological order to read a human analogy upwards into the life of God. 

Yet Kathy Keller writes:

“In 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul says . . . that the relationship of the Father and the Son is a pattern for the relationship of husband to wife” [notice her strange translation of “husband” and “wife” rather than “man” and “woman”] in which “male and female are invited to mirror and reflect . . . loving authority and loving submission.”(22) 

Unfortunately, brilliant as most of the Kellers’ bestselling book on marriage is, it has helped to spread not only a misinterpretation but also a misapplication of 1 Cor 11:3 that makes wives think they are specially tasked with mirroring the Son’s submission to the Father through their submission to their husband.

Complementarians sometimes reach for a second text—“the Son himself will be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28)—to corroborate their misreading of 1 Cor 11:3. (23) But this passage actually refutes belief in Jesus’s eternal subordination to the Father, because Jesus is evidently not subject to the Father in the present moment, rather he one day will be. What exactly this future “subjection” will be at the end of the age divides scholars. I suggest that when we consider the context in vv. 24-27, in which Ps 8 is quoted, it refers to Jesus in his unique role as the true Adam, not to his nature as the eternal Son of God. As the God-man, divinity taking up humanity into himself, he will finally achieve the eschatological unity of all things. Then, the redeemed humanity he represents will fully take their place as the kings and queens of renewed creation in submission to, and no longer in rebellion against, their God—a Triune God who will, at this point, wonderfully make himself known across all human affairs and also the universe without being obstructed by sin, Satan, or death.

What we discover in all this is that no verse roots our “assigned roles” in the Trinity, certainly not 1 Cor 11:3. Lacking a viable and orthodox exegesis of its key proof text and proposing the eternal subordination of the Son as the basis for female subordination, Grudem’s doctrine was bound to run into trouble. 

That trouble came in 2016. 

The Fall of Subordinationism

In 2016, other trusted complementarian theologians joined forces to confront the serious pitfalls in Grudem’s version of the Trinity. Though earlier theologians critiqued it, such as Kevin Giles in his 2002 work, The Trinity and Subordinationism, (24) it was only when enough complementarian theologians challenged this heterodox teaching about God via a series of blogs and ensuing online debates in 2016, that the doctrine finally and decisively fell. This led to a widespread repentance from the unorthodox idea the complementarians had wrongly relied on for all these years in defence of their position on gender hierarchy. 

It certainly did require repentance: Grudem’s Eternal Functional Subordination veers in a similar direction to, though not going as far as, the ancient heresy of Arianism in which the Son is in eternal essence less than the Father. (25) This heresy was first repudiated by the early church in a council that affirmed the essential unity and equality in the eternal relations of the Trinity. As Liam Goligher said in a post during the debate:

“To say that there is a real primacy of the Father or subordination of the Son within the eternal Trinity is to have moved out of Christian orthodoxy.” (26)

Even The Gospel Coalition then published an article that revisited Augustine’s teaching about the Trinity and showed his denial of authority-submission as a feature of the eternal relations within the Trinity. (27) In November 2016, Kevin Giles addressed the Evangelical Theological Society and said,

“I believe what Dr. Grudem . . . [teaches] on the Trinity . . . contradicts what the Nicene creed, the Reformation and post-Reformation Protestant confessions and the Evangelical Theological Society doctrinal statement teach.” (28)

Post–2016, a collective of leading biblical scholars from all over the world explained in Trinity without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical Theology that Eternal Functional Subordination “resembles a species of semi-Arianism, called ‘homoianism,’ by virtue of three things: 1) an overreliance on the economic Trinity in Scripture for formulating immanent Trinitarian relationships, 2) leading to a robust subordinationism characterized by a hierarchy within the Godhead, 3) consequently identifying the Son as possessing a lesser glory and majesty than the Father.” (29) Others named the error “neo-subordinationism.” (30)

So radical and abrupt has the swing of opinion in the theological world been that it is now widely accepted even in conservative complementarian circles that specific social relationships, including marriage, should not be read into the inner life of the Trinity. (31) Having been taken off course by Knight and Grudem, many evangelical scholars have clarified their rejection of “the complementarian narrative [of the Trinity] grafted by a small cohort of theologians in order to buttress their claims about gender roles” and renewed their pledge to “the apostolic and evangelical faith that confesses one God and three equal persons, [not] distinguished . . . by degrees of authority.” (32)  

To subordinate the Son in eternity is to make him qualitatively other, and less, than the Father. Rebecca Groothuis observes:

“If Christ’s subordination is not limited to a specific function [such as his incarnation] but characterizes his eternal relationship with God, then Christ is not merely functionally subordinate; he is by nature subordinate. Subordination is what he is, what he always has been, what he always will be. It is a matter of ontology (i.e., being), not merely of function.” (33) 

And if the Father has the nature of authority while the Son has the nature of subordination, then they do not share the same nature. This is a far cry from the Trinitarian formula, so rigorously defended by the church fathers, of God as “one nature, three persons,” meaning that the Godhead is composed of one divine essence/substance/being in which three divine hypostases or persons share equally and have one will. To speak of eternal submission in God violates the ancient theological articulations that affirm that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God. 

What a wonderful breakthrough to return to the Trinitarian theology the church long ago fought for and clarified for us. 

The only legitimate application of the Trinitarian relationships to a human community may be the one Jesus referred to in his prayer that his followers would be one with each other in the same way he and the Father are one. (34) When we experience the overflow of the Father’s and the Son’s boundless delight in, honouring of, and love for one other, (35) we realize that the best way to depict the relationship between the Father and the Son in our earthly communities (and marriages) is not through chains of command but through bonds of mutual joy, honour and love. (36)  


While I applaud the scholars and church leaders who have publicly acknowledged their mistakes, much damage has already been done by this recent distortion of the Trinity. Many ordinary folk, including my wife and I, and so many leaders and churches I know, were illegitimately persuaded toward complementarianism through Grudem’s and the Kellers’ pre-2016 books that espoused a dubious Trinity-marriage parallel. (37) To believe that Jesus is “less than” even in the smallest of gradations shrinks our confidence in everything else he is—Saviour and Lord—to the same degree. In the history of Christianity, there is no more serious error than to reduce Jesus’s glory by even the tiniest fraction.

But this error does more than diminish Jesus and our salvation. It diminishes women, too. Ever since the Western church in the 1960s embraced the doctrine of a woman’s intrinsic, qualitative equality to a man, the question has been how to logically reconcile this with a teaching that a woman, still, is to be permanently, immutably subordinate to a man. Starting with George Knight in 1977, complementarians have turned to the Trinity to demonstrate that it is possible to be qualitatively equal yet permanently, immutably subordinate to one’s equal. But by doing so, they have jumped out of the frying pan into the fire—they have sought to defend a new, illogical theory about gender equality-and-hierarchy with a resurrected, heterodox doctrine of the Trinity.

Once a complementarian abandons their Trinitarian heterodoxy, the question is how to deal with the self-standing, evidently illogical idea of a woman’s purported equality-and-subordination. I propose one of three ways:

1) Admit that they hold to a new doctrine that has no analogy on earth or in heaven to help us grasp it.

2) Revert to the church’s historical position that a woman’s subordination is based on her intrinsic, qualitative inferiority.

3) Go back to the drawing board and see if the Bible, soundly interpreted, really does teach the subordination of women as a universal ideal. 

About the Author

After a decade of leading the theological training, preaching team, and sermon content of a vibrant church in Cape Town, South Africa, as it grew into the thousands, TERRAN WILLIAMS has now taken to writing books that serve the wider church and its mission. He has authored the Reach4Life Youth Bible (with a print of three million in thirty languages), What’s So Amazing About Scripture? How to Read it Right and Tap into its Power, and How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy (buy it here) which Dr. Kevin Giles opines to be “the best book on the complementarian / evangelical egalitarian debate.” Terran is an avid surfer, father of five, and coffee-lover. 


[1] Kathy Keller, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry (Zondervan, 2014) ch. 2.

[2] Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (Dutton, 2011) ch. 6.

[3] Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, Appendix.

[4] This is explicit in its leading statement, which declares: “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. . .” (Phil 2:3–5 NIV).

[5] See this short video for more:

[6] George Knight III, in his short 1977 book, The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (Baker) 32­–33, 55–56.

[7] Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More than 100 Disputed Questions (Crossway, 2004) ch. 1.

[8] Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, ch. 6. 

[9] Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock, The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them, rev. ed. (Christian Focus, 2016).

[10] This idea was not completely new—see for example Margaret Fell’s 1666 argument for this:

[11] Thanks to Kevin Giles, What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women (Cascade, 2018) ch. 3, for the counterarguments that follow.

[12] Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, 411 n.12.

[13] The reason is that v. 12 posits “man” as a son and “woman” as his mother. It would not make sense to say that “the husband is born of his wife.”

[14] See pp. 33–37.

[15] How was the Greek word kephalē used before and during the first century in the Greco-Roman world? Almost always, it referred to a literal physical head, though sometimes it was used figuratively. The best scholars divide on the figurative usages of the word, mainly because the metaphor seems to be used in many different ways: 1) Most commonly in the first century, it referred to the one who is most prominent and plays a representative role (in the same way a person’s head is the public representative of the whole body). In this sense, it means “most prominent.” 2) More seldom, it referred to one who is in authority (in the same way a brain directs a body). 3) Also seldom, it referred to one who provides nourishment or existence (in the same way a mouth feeds a body, or in the way a head without a body dies). In this sense it means “source.” But how did Paul use it? Up until the 1970s most biblical scholars assumed Paul meant “authority”—but this can be attributed to 1) the fact that in Latin, German, and English (the primary languages in which historical theology has been recorded) the word for head refers to one in authority, and 2) the fact that the church, like society, up until the 1960s believed in female inferiority, and thus female subordination was assumed without question. Epitomized in Gordon Fee’s leading commentary on 1 Corinthians (NICNT, Eerdmans, 1987, 2014), there was a major scholarly opinion-shift in the last quarter of the last century toward the meaning “source.” But scholarly opinion has shifted once again toward the meaning “prominent one”—evidenced by the equally magisterial commentary on 1 Corinthians by Anthony Thiselton (NIGTC, Eerdmans, 2000). Though Thiselton is as convinced as Fee that Paul does not mean “authority,” he selects “prominent one” over “source,” but admits that he and his team of co-researchers made this choice by a “bare” margin. As I have studied all the arguments, I agree with Fee and Thiselton that in 1 Cor 11:3 it does not mean “authority,” and I sympathize with Thiselton’s observation that, outside of Paul’s writing, in the first century it was seldom used to mean “source.” However, aided by Cynthia Westfall’s book, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Baker Academic, 2016), and the many examples of Paul using kephalē in precisely this way (see Col 2:19 and Eph 4:15, for example) I agree with Fee that Paul means “source” in 1 Cor 11:3, as in “one from whom another derives their existence or supply.” Paul’s metaphoric usage of the word was evidently novel especially because, unlike all other ancient Greek writers, he uniquely applied it to the relationship of men and women, and to a husband and his wife. Also, “source” in both 1 Cor 11:3 and Eph 5:23 makes good sense of the passages that follow. First Corinthians 11:3 may include the nuance of “prominent one” because Paul in the verses that follow emphasizes the honour due to one’s literal and figurative heads. In Eph 5:25 Paul refers to the ancient Greco-Roman husband as a kephalē, and indeed these ancient husbands were in charge of their wives, but we must not confuse the word itself with the person referred to—for more, see “View 4: The Husband as Redeemed Paterfamilias” in ch. 8 of my book, How God Sees Women.

[16] Col 1:15 and Heb 1:3. To understand this third line, we must understand that the three lines in v. 3 are roughly parallel analogies. They are not precise equivalents. In Gen 2, God literally created Adam. Adam can be said to “come from” God. Eve also “comes from” Adam, but not in the same way Adam came from God. Finally, the Son “came from” (or “comes from”) the Father. As Paul says earlier in his letter to the Corinthians, “Christ has become for us wisdom from God . . . our redemption” (1 Cor 1:30). But this does not refer at all to his being created by the Father—rather it likely refers to the way he draws his life and identity from the Father. Jesus declared, “as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26 NIV). Scholars who believe Paul’s final line may be a reference to the Son’s eternal relationship with the Father, not merely his incarnational one, may be correct. But taken either way, kephalē applied to the Father-Son relationship does not denote authority. To provide an analogy, whether in eternity or in the incarnation, the Father is the kephalē of the Son—in the same way that the sun is the kephalē of a sunbeam. There has never been a sun without a sunbeam, nor has there been a sunbeam without a sun. Christ (the sunbeam) may be functionally differentiated from God (the sun) but this does not mean he is eternally subordinated to the Father.

[17] Says Westfall, Paul and Gender, ch. 1: “The references to the creation account in the passage, and particularly as in 11:8, are used by Paul to resume, explain, and expand his theological statement in 11:3. In the near context, the statement that woman came from man and woman was created for the sake of man suggests that the origin of man’s and woman’s life is in view in 11:3.”

[18] Comparing 1 Cor 8:6 with 1 Cor 11:12 confirms this: “there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came . . . and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came. . . .” (1 Cor 8:6 NIV). “For as woman came from man . . . But everything comes from God” (1 Cor 11:12 NIV). In the former, God is the ultimate-Creator and Jesus is the one through whom God creates everything. In the latter, God is the ultimate-Creator and Adam is the one through whom God creates Eve. In this sense, both God and the one through whom God creates may be called a kephalē.Both act as a source, though different in kind: God is the ultimate source while Jesus or Adam are a mediate source. Both kinds of source are worthy of honour.

[19] The church father, John Chrysostom refuted the subordinationist view of the Trinity in this passage by saying: “The Father begat the Son, not as slave under his command, but as free, yielding obedience. [The Son] is no slave, he has the same honour as the one who begat him.” The Trinity, traditionally understood, emphasises relations of mutual love, not relations of authority. The early Eastern theologians talk of the Father as “the fountainhead of deity.” The Father eternally begets the Son and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Western theologians prefer the language of the Logos whom the Father begets, and the Holy Spirit as the mutual love that proceeds from both Father and Son.

[20] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Zondervan Academic, 2009) ch. 7.

[21] Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, ch. 7, n.7, lists forty scholarly works that argue that kephalē means “source” in 1 Cor 11:3. This book was published in 2009; the list is now far longer. This list excludes the many other scholars that take yet other meanings for the word—such as “prominent one.”

[22] Tim and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, ch. 6.

[23] For example, Grudem relies on it in Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, 414.

[24] Kevin Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate (IVP Academic, 2002).

[25] See Phillip Carey, “The New Evangelical Subordinationism: Reading Inequality into the Trinity,” Priscilla Papers 20/4 (Autumn 2006) 42-45.

[26] Source: It is true that the Father is at the forefront of planning redemption, while Jesus is at the forefront of achieving salvation and the Spirit is at the forefront of applying salvation. Yet these different “roles” do not speak to hierarchy even if they speak to order. While Jesus was on earth, he took orders from the Father and the Spirit. When Jesus returned to heaven, the Spirit was sent by the Father and the Son. But this “submission” of one to the others is necessitated by their utterly unique missional collaboration; it is not a sign of eternal hierarchy in the relations of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Though the Father directs the operations, the Father is at the same time—because God is simultaneously Father, Son and Spirit sharing one will—enacting his own operations in the Son and in the Spirit. 

[27] See

[28] See for example, the transcript of Kevin Giles’ message: Giles’ lecture was published in Priscilla Papers 31/3 (Summer 2017) 3-8.

[29] Michael F. Bird and Scott Harrower, eds., Trinity without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical Theology (Kregel, 2019), ch. 1.

[30] See Matthew Tinkham at

[31] See Wyatt Graham’s summary of five reasons the doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son was rejected at this time:

[32] Bird and Harrower, Trinity without Hierarchy, chs. 1, 2. 

[33] Rebecca Groothuis, Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Baker, 1997) 57.

[34] John 17:21–23.

[35] Matt 3:16–17, John 14:31, Luke 10:21, Rom 5:5.

[36] John 13:34.

[37] Like Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan Academic, 1994, 2020) and the Kellers’ books, The Meaning of Marriage and Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles.

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