The Logic of Equality

On an Internet discussion in which I participated, one complementarian stated essentially that women should not be encouraged to preach, because by doing so they would “dishonor God.” Indeed, this conclusion is entailed by the complementarian position: according to God’s creational ordinance, a woman is forbidden the “role” whereby she might speak publicly and authoritatively, particularly to men, about the gospel of Christ and the truths set forth in God’s Word. This essay will question the validity of this view, and will argue for the conclusion that “complementarity without hierarchy” is the proper biblical interpretation.

No theology merely repeats the words of the Bible, for this would entail simply quoting Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Theology uses terms, phrases, and methods of organization other than the Bible’s own in order to communicate what is said in Scripture so that people may better understand its content and apply it to their lives. We engage in this project with certain philosophical presuppositions, including those pertaining to metaphysics, the human constitution, ethics, and logic. In this paper we will presuppose that (1) the laws of logic are universally and necessarily valid despite the fall[1] and (2) the Bible is true and logical and so rejects the possibility of a contradiction. This is a classic hermeneutical lens by which all inerrantists read and interpret the Bible. A literalist hermeneutic, on the other hand, does not pay attention to either (1) or (2) but opts to read biblical texts in a simple and “straightforward” fashion.[2] Reading the Scripture theologically, however, rules out interpretations that are logically incoherent.

Complementarians typically charge that the biblical equality position is not reasoned from Scripture, but from outside of it by the fallen culturally conditioned human intellect. A key egalitarian argument maintains that if men and women are intrinsically equal (as complementarians affirm), then this logically rules out the assignment of an intrinsically equal person to a role of permanent and comprehensive subordination based solely on an intrinsic quality (such as gender).[3] Yet this sound and solid argument does not impress the complementarian. Looking to Scripture, he may not find it stated anywhere, and so concludes that it is not a biblical argument. He then argues, by the analogy of the Trinity, that there can be an assignment of an intrinsically equal person to an eternally subordinate role based on an intrinsic quality.[4] In response, it must first be noted that the “equal in being, unequal in role” argument is not stated explicitly anywhere in Scripture either. Second, the logic of the egalitarian argument is not addressed or engaged but is, instead, triumphantly brushed aside as unbiblical. Thirdly, the complementarian reasoning is often circular in that it seeks to prove the conclusion (“equal in being, unequal in role” obtains for women) by appealing to claims of evidence (subordination of Son to Father) that presuppose the truth of the conclusion.[5] This simply begs the question and is no different from saying, “Women should not be pastors because pastors should be men.”

The Argument Set Forth
(1) The laws of logic are universally and necessarily valid despite the fall.
(2) The Bible is logical and rejects the possibility of a real contradiction.
(3) The Bible teaches that men and women are spiritually and ontologically equal.
(4) It is not logically possible for woman to be spiritually and ontologically equal to man and at the same time to be universally subordinate to man.
(5) Therefore, men and women share equality in being and in the essentially human functions.

Objections to the Argument
Those who object to this argument disagree with either (3) or (4). Aristotle, as well as most church leaders throughout its history (e.g., Augustine, Aquinas), rejected (3) and accepted (4). In this view women are not equal to men. Maleness is by nature superior to femaleness in the essentially human capacities, namely, reasoning, communicating, making decisions, holding responsibility, and discerning spiritual truth (all of which are essential properties of leadership). Therefore, it consistently follows that men, and only men, are fit to govern their homes and churches, make important decisions, teach the body of believers, and ascertain and determine the guiding will of God in particular situations. The rationale for this is simply that women cannot do these things as well as men. This objection is biblically false, yet internally coherent in that a woman’s inferior function follows her deficient being.

Those who agree with (3) but not (4) try to honor the biblical truth of equality (thank God!), but fail to be consistent. This is because the full humanity of the woman is not honored or recognized. Woman is subordinated to man solely by virtue of her femaleness; this is the decisive factor that assigns her to a place of subordination. Although woman is said to be equal in her essential being, she is considered subordinate (unequal) because of her essential being. This is incoherent and denies that the Bible is logical (2).

Objections To (4) By Way Of Analogy
Complementarians have attempted to discredit (4) by way of analogy. For example, President Bush is in a role of authority and I am in a role of subordination to him; yet we both share basic human equality. However, this analogy monumentally fails to do the work assigned to it. While there are many instances of functional subordination (such as a teacher and a student, or an academic dean and a professor), these relationships do not illustrate the concept being communicated in (4). The kind of subordination at issue here is that which is personally necessary, comprehensive in its scope, and permanent in its duration. In other words, it is universal and never contingent.

Take the analogy of academic leaders, which complementarians have used to explain the nature of the difference between male and female roles. If this analogy were to depict the sense of male/female role differences accurately, it would have to say, for example, that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler Jr. has been assigned a role of authority by virtue of his “Mohlerhood,” and Professor Thomas Schreiner has been assigned a subordinate role by virtue of his “Schreinerhood.”[6] Therefore, as long as Schreiner is Schreiner and Mohler is Mohler, Schreiner cannot exercise administrative authority over Mohler without violating the essential “differences” between Mohlerhood and Schreinerhood. The function always follows being. Even so, the difference between man’s “role” of authority and woman’s “role” of subordination is, precisely, the difference between manhood and womanhood. Woman’s “role” is a necessary condition of womanhood; man’s “role” is a necessary condition of manhood. Thus the “differences” at issue are about being, not mere roles and functions.

Another analogy often given is that of a parent and child. Yet this doesn’t illustrate the universality addressed in (4) any more than does the President Bush analogy. It is a false analogy because children are not permanently under the authority of their parents. Children are subordinate to their parents for a specific amount of time because, as children, they are not equal in human capacities (reasoning, communication, etc.). Children, however, are able to grow up into those capacities and therefore into a position of authority that is equal to, and in some cases greater than, their parents. However, women never “grow up” into a position of authority equal to a man.

Another approach is to use instances in the Bible where God prefers one people group over another. One such analogy is that of the Levites having priestly authority over the other twelve tribes of Israel. However, this is also flawed, because in female subordination, as Groothuis puts it, “The male is consistently advantaged with respect to the female, and the female is consistently disadvantaged with respect to the male. The Levites, however, were not consistently disadvantaged with respect to the people; they were denied the right of the other tribes to own and inherit the land.”[7] This means that the Levites were consigned to the same subordinate place in patriarchal society as women and slaves: people who could not own land.

This analogy also fails to illustrate the permanence of female subordination. As we all know (and are thankful for) the Levitical priesthood was not a permanent ordinance, but was provisional, and ended when Christ instituted the new covenant concept of the priesthood of all believers, both male and female. Using the analogy of the Levites is about as effective as pouring new wine into old wine skins.

The Trinity and Eternal Subordination
After the failure of all these analogies, one is left standing, and it is by far the most complex and commanding: the analogy from the Trinity. If the Father and the Son are equal in being yet in everything for all eternity relate according to a hierarchal order of authority and subordination, then is not the logic of “equal in being, unequal in role” vindicated and (4) is shown to be either incoherent or irrelevant? Thus the doctrine of God can be used to illustrate woman’s equality with, and universal subordination to men. Such a doctrine is supported by an impressive list of Scripture references (Proverbs 8:22, Mark 13:32, John 5:30, 14:28, 14:30, 17:3, Acts 2:36, 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, Colossians 1:15, Romans 8:26, and Hebrews 3:2). The thesis of “equal in being, unequal in role” allegedly stands or falls on whether or not this is a valid and coherent analogy.

On the surface the argument seems convincing. However, on a closer look it is striking that such a list of proof texts parallels that of the Arian and semi-Arian exegesis that reduced the Word to a demigod.[8] This requires us to examine and test the logic that lies behind this view of the Trinity with the utmost theological care, and it is my contention that this analogy is incoherent. Moreover, even if it were a true picture of Trinitarian relations, it would still fail to serve as a valid analogy to that of female subordination. I have eight reasons to support this.

First, Christ did not take up the task of redemption because He was Number Two to the Father—as if He were an employee fulfilling the duty his boss assigned him to do. The Bible teaches that the Son was subordinate to no one—yet He humbled Himself, gave up his equality with God, took on the form of a servant, and became obedient to death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11).[9]

Second, the Son’s form of self-humiliation was temporal, not eternal. Christ’s humiliation was temporal because it coincided with the needs of and status of His creatures. It did not coincide with an eternally subordinate status. Before the Incarnation the Son was not subject to obedience. We learn from Hebrews 5:8 that during the Incarnation obedience was a new experience for him—something he learned. Gilbert Bilezikian makes these illuminating comments:

Three remarks must be made about this text. (1) The fact that he learned obedience “although” he was a Son indicates that the nature of his Sonship excluded the necessity of obedience. He learned obedience despite the fact that he was a Son. (2) The fact that he “learned” obedience indicates that it was something new in his experience as Son. Obedience was not a mark of his eternal relation to the Father. He learned it for the purpose of ministry. (3) The fact that he learned obedience “through” what he suffered indicates that obedience was required in relation to his suffering and that it was not an eternal condition. Christ’s experience of obedience was confined to his redemptive ministry as suffering servant.[10]

Third, the self-humiliation of the Son in the Incarnation is the grounds and model for the servanthood of all believers living in community (Philippians 2:1-11). With respect to the structure of our relationships, this should be the ethical conclusion we draw from the Incarnation, not “roles” of authority and subordination decided solely on the basis of gender.

Fourth, this temporal humiliation does not indicate eternal subordination. To make such an inference from the Incarnation is a textbook example of a non sequitur: the conclusion does not follow the premise. Looking at the language of the Creeds and Confessions of ancient Christianity one cannot furnish evidence that “begotten” and “begotten before all worlds” means “eternal subordination of the Son to the Father” or “eternal authority of the Father over the Son,” especially in light of the wording “God of very God” and “one being with the Father.” In fact, the Creeds testify that Christ “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven,” showing that for the accomplishment of redemption he humbled himself to a temporal subordination. Yet, somehow, many complementarians insist that this understanding of the Incarnation deviates from these historic testimonies of the faith.

Fifth, the terms “Father” and “Son” designate a distinction in personhood that should not warrant simplistic anthropomorphisms. God is Father, but he doesn’t have a wife. Jesus is God the Son, but he doesn’t have a divine mother.[11] “Father” and “Son” are masculine terms, but God is not male (God is spirit, John 4:24). In childhood a father governs and is responsible for the son, but the Father and the Son are equal in power and glory. Fathers are older than their sons, but the Father and the Son are co-eternal.

Sixth, subordination that extends into eternity cannot be merely functional if it is based on something that is ontological. God’s authority is a quality that inheres with the attribute of his lordship. Authority, applied to God, means he has the right to govern all things, as well as the ability to control all things. If we choose to use the term “authority” as a quality of God’s lordship we must apply it to both Father and Son, for both share in the divine attribute of lordship. Yet this principle conflicts with eternal subordination’s insistence that the Son’s “sonship” subordinates him to a status lower than the Father. If this is the case, it stands to reason that the Father has a divine attribute that the Son does not have, namely that of authority. And since authority is an intrinsic quality of God’s existence it logically follows that what the Son lacks in deity subordinates him not only in function but also in being. If the Son is eternally subordinate in function by virtue of what he is, then he is eternally subordinate in being.

Seventh, sitting at the “right hand” of God is not a position of subordination (how does anyone arrive at that conclusion?). Biblical texts that speak of Christ at God’s right hand are telling of Christ’s authority, nothis subordination (e.g., Ps 110:1, Acts 2:32, Eph 1:20-21, Phil 2:9, Col 3:1, Heb 1:3, 1 Pet 3:22). Revelation 5:13 speaks of all the creatures in all creation praising the Father and the Son: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power for ever and ever.” This glorious declaration of praise makes it clear that God and Christ are not separable from one another—with one person above and the other below—because both are equal in power and in glory!

Eighth, even if, despite the evidence to the contrary, Trinitarian hierarchy is accepted as true and coherent, it still fails as an analogy to male/female roles. Orthodoxy teaches that the Father and the Son are one being; there are no differences in the divine nature/substance/being. Human nature is not analogous to divine nature because God is a unified being while humanity in church and marriage is unified only relationally, not ontologically. The oneness of the Trinity in being/nature/substance is not shared in male and female relationships no matter how intimate. Therefore, as Groothuis states,

Any subordination of Christ to God would necessarily be fundamentally dissimilar to the subordination of woman to man, which is decided by and deemed essential to the “deeper differences” of manhood and womanhood. Unlike woman’s subordination to man, the Son’s subordination to the Father cannot be grounded in or determined by his “different nature.”[12]

Further, man’s authority over woman is said to be necessary in order to determine who will make final decisions regarding faith and practice (decision making is an essential human capacity), yet the Father and Son are of one will! Therefore any “subordination” in the Godhead would have to be wholly different from the subordination required of women. In Christ’s earthly ministry the Father entrusts all judgment to the Son. Yet the complementarian doctrine of male authority would never permit a man to entrust all judgment to a woman, either in the church or within marriage![13]

Isn’t This Really All About God’s Will?
Now we come to the last and perhaps the most significant objection: The doctrine of male authority and female subordination is not about gender differences; it is about obeying God’s will. This objection—offered by some (but not all) complementarians—is unique, because it tries to reconcile (3) and (4) without questioning the validity of either of them. Therefore, a woman is just as capable as a man in her essential human capacities, yet she resigns herself to a God-ordained “role” where these capacities are largely prohibited from use. Hence, the two sexes simply obey their prescribed roles as ordained by God according to his mysterious will.
Yet if this decree of God is to be accepted, then the truth behind it must be accepted. God’s decrees always teach us something about his nature and his creation. If God has decreed that women are to be universally and perpetually subordinate to men in all cultures in all times, then He has decreed this rank according to the criterion of gender. This then tells us that, on the basis of the essential being of a female, she is to be considered subordinate. This also teaches us that God is partial to men (God is sexist), in that he respects the full use and application of the essential human capacities in men, yet denies and/or restricts their full use in women.

God decrees the creation of the woman with the ability to use such capacities (reasoning, communicating, making decisions, holding responsibility, and discerning spiritual truth) to full human potential, yet at the same time God allegedly decrees that, in woman, they are not to be used to their full human potential. Therefore, not using these capacities to their fullness allegedly glorifies God more, while using them to their fullness does not glorify, nay, dishonors God. Somehow passages like Matthew 25:14-23 and 1 Peter 4:10-11, which teach one should use all one’s Spirit-given gifts to God’s glory, don’t apply to women. Hence the question: Is God’s will at odds with the nature of his created order?

Surely this cannot be. Because God has banned homosexual practices, we know something about the nature and meaning of sexuality within the created order. Similarly, if God has banned women from preaching, teaching, leading, decision-making, and holding responsibility (all of which are derived from essential human capacities), then this teaches us something about the intrinsic quality of female human nature: that it is less than that of male human nature.[14]

Concluding Remarks
This debate is about hermeneutics and the presuppositions we bring to the biblical text. I have argued for the lens that reads the Scriptures as recognizing complementarity without hierarchy. I realize I have gone about this, not by means of exegetical argument, but by logical argument, and that this may be disconcerting to those looking for an inductive study based on particular proof texts, but my purpose has been to evaluate the product of such a study, namely, the hermeneutic of “equal in being, unequal in role.” Thus I have reasoned from the whole to the parts (deductive reasoning), rather than from the parts to the whole (inductive reasoning).

This is analogous to the reasoning that I would use in establishing biblical inerrancy. Since God is entirely truthful and has perfect knowledge, whatever he inspires (Scripture) retains his perfect knowledge and trustworthy character. Scripture is therefore inerrant. However, this does not, as Millard Erickson puts it, “spell out for us the nature of biblical inerrancy. Just as the knowledge that God has revealed himself cannot tell us the content of his message, the Bible’s implication that it is free from error does not tell us just what such errorlessness implies.”[15]

Similarly, the deductive argument for complementarity without hierarchy does not tell us exactly what complementarity without hierarchy entails. To say that the biblical principle of human equality (3) disallows the universal subordination of woman to man is not to say exactly how men and women rightly complement one another or how their respective roles and behaviors should differ within a particular culture. What we do do know is that a theological study of this issue points to complementarity without hierarchy as the lens through which the biblical text should be read. And as we all know, the Bible has much to say on how believers should relate to one another in order for the church to be effective (Mic 6:8, Mat 7:12, Mat 20:20-28, Luke 22:25-26, Rom 12:3, Eph 5:21, Phil 2:1-3).

Although I do not like controversy and find it embittering, emotionally taxing, and debilitating to fellowship, I am passionate about truth. And I believe truth is injured when people in the body of Christ believe that it is good to forbid women to preach, because if allowed to do so they would dishonor God.[16]


[1] The question is not whether logic is fallible, but whether one’s use of it is.
[2] Millard Erickson, for example, criticizes open theism’s “literal” reading of the Bible’s description of God’s actions and knowledge as reducing to the absurd. If applied consistently, the open theist hermeneutic would infer that God did not genuinely know the whereabouts of Adam after he sinned (Gen. 3:9). Millard Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?: The Current Controversy Over Divine Foreknowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 62-65.
[3] Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, “Equal In Being, Unequal In Role,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy (eds. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordon D. Fee: Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity, 2004), 301-33. Adam Omelianchuk, “The ‘Difference’ Between ‘A and Not A’: An analysis of Alleged ‘Word-Tricks’ and Obfuscations,” Priscilla Papers (2006): 20–1.
[4] In this case, the intrinsic quality is the Son’s “sonship.” Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 116, 202.
[5] The question is begged only if the complementarian believes that the role-subordination within the Trinity obtains the same kind of subordination between woman and man, and that is precisely the issue under scrutiny. If it is not the same, the analogy, like others before it, is useless.
[6] I want to be clear here that no disrespect is intended to either of these men, for I have benefited from both in their respective ministries. It is simply my playful attempt to illustrate what I am saying.
[7] Groothuis, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role,” Discovering Biblical Equality, 327.
[8] Kevin Giles, The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Contemporary Doctrine of God & the Gender Debate (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2002), 63.
[9] I am indebted to Gilbert Bilezikian for the following points. See Gilbert Bilezikian, “Hermeneutical Bungee Jumping: Subordination in the Godhead” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (1997): 40–1, 57-68.
[10] Bilezikian, “Hermeneutical Bungee Jumping,” 65.
[11] Bilezikian, “Hermeneutical Bungee Jumping,” 62.
[12] Groothuis, “Equal In Being, Unequal In Role,” 329.
[13] Groothuis, “Equal In Being, Unequal In Role,” 330-31.
[14] Groothuis, “Equal In Being, Unequal In Role,” 323.
[15] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology: Second Edition, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 255.
[16] I owe a special thanks to Rebecca Merrill Groothuis for her many helpful suggestions and countless edits in the composition of this paper. I highly recommend her essay in the wonderfully helpful book Discovering Biblical Equality Equality that she co-edited with Ronald Pierce and Gordon Fee. Also her book Good News For Women is an expanded version of the project undertaken in her essay with many detailed arguments buttressing her thesis. Doug Groothuis as well is deserving of my gratitude. Also, if you have followed the footnotes, I borrowed many insights from Gilbert Bilezikian’s article on the Trinity, “Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping,” as well as from Kevin Giles’ comprehensive book The Trinity & Subordinationism both of which I highly recommend.

3 Responses

  1. […] The Logic of Equality […]

  2. […] read my blog…an excellent essay has just been posted today at Equality Press, entitled “The Logic of Equality.” Do give it a read, do some thinking, do some writing. Do you agree with it? Do you not […]

  3. […] Here is a very helpful and thoughtful essay by Adam Omelianchuk, which addresses the patriarchal-complementarian (PC) argument that women and men are equal in being but unequal or different in roles. It includes a discussion of subordination in the the Trinity. Below are some excerpts of this article to whet your appetite. […]

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