Christians for Biblical Equality

The Trinity Argument for woman's subordination.
Kevin Giles

George Knight III in his 1977 book, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women, invented the post Women’s Lib case for the subordination of women. He argued that the Bible teaches the “equality” of the sexes and their “role differentiation.” Who could disagree with this? However, when unpacked what we find he is arguing is that “equal” means spiritually equal and role differentiation means men have the “role” of leading and directing; women the “role” of submitting and obeying.

He argues this is what 1 Timothy 2:11-14 teaches grounding men and women’s “role differences” in creation before the fall. Thus women’s subordination is the transcultural and trans-temporal God-given ideal.

Then on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11:3 (the head passage) he argues that just as the divine three persons are ordered hierarchically, so too is the man-woman relationship is ordered hierarchically. Indeed, he argues the latter is predicated on the former. The Father is “head over” the Son, and men are “head over” women.  No higher basis for women’s subordination can be found; it is grounded in the life of God.

Knight’s Novel teaching was embraced with great enthusiasm by evangelical men who felt their God-given precedence was in jeopardy and by many women. As the argument from creation, predicated on a novel interpretation  and 1 Tim 2:11-12 failed to convince many Wayne Grudem in his 1994, Systematic Theology, revived the Trinity argument which then became the primary argument for the permanent subordination of women. Bruce Ware became his number one collaborator in this exercise. They were able to win over most of the evangelical world.

In Complementarian circles not one voice was raised in opposition to the Trinity argument and article after article and book after book put this case. From May 1st 2015 to May 30th 2016 no less than four major books put this case.


On June 1st 2016 it seemed the Trinity argument had triumphed.


Gilbert Bilezikian in 1997 in a short journal article was the first to point out that hierarchical ordering of the three divine persons was a denial of the creeds and confessions of the church and was thus heresy and making the divine three persons a model for the two fold male-female relationship made no sense. He was bitterly denounced by “complementarians” as heretical himself. I then took up the battle in my book, The Trinity and Subordinationism (2002) and Jesus and the Father (2006), in numerous journal articles and finally, in The Eternal Generation of the Son (2012). In 2009, Millard Erickson cautiously joined ranks in his book, Who’s tampering with the Trinity.

My case in opposition was twofold –

First, the proposed doctrine of the Trinity was heretical. Orthodoxy taught the divine three persons were “co-equal”; “one in being and power/authority”. It was reworded “Arianism”.

And second, it made no sense. Their argument was this; in eternity the Father rules over the Son and the Son must obey him. Likewise on earth men are to rule over women and they must obey. The problem is this correlation is arbitrary and impossible. There does not seem to be any necessary correlation between the doctrine of the Trinity and the man-woman relationship. The Trinity is a threefold relationship; the man-woman relationship is twofold one. If God’s threefoldness is affirmed, and it is believed that the Trinity is prescriptive of human relations, then threesomes would be the ideal! Furthermore, the Father-Son relationship is a picture of a male-male relationship, not a male-female relationship. Most evangelicals would not want a male-male relationship as the ideal! Finally, if the divine Father-Son relationship prescribes human relationships we would think it first applied to the human father-son relationship or the parent-child relationship. It seems the correlation between the Trinity and the man-woman relationship simply does not make sense. It looks like special pleading.

In reply, those who make this argument say, “But in 1 Corinthians 11:3 Paul has the Father “head over” the Son and men “head over” women. This proves our correlation is “biblical’. I think not. The Greek word kephalē  in the first instance literally refers to the top part of the body, the head, and in 1 Corinthians 11:3 virtually all commentators agree it could bear the metaphorical meaning of “head over” or “source”.  The context in which this verse is found is the best indicator of the right understanding of this word in this instance.  Because Paul immediately goes on to speak of men and women leading the church in prophecy and prayer (vv 4-5), the word in this context can hardly mean men are “head over” women. It seems rather that it carries the sense of “source” because later in this passage, alluding to Genesis chapter 2, Paul says woman came “from” man (vv 8, 12) – he is the source of woman. However this is just one problem for those who want to appeal to 1 Corinthians 11:3 to prove that their hierarchical understanding the Trinity prescribes the hierarchical ordering of the sexes. In 1 Corinthians 11:3 we do not have a fourfold hierarchy, God the Father- God the Son- man- woman, but a list of three related pairs, God the Son the kephalē of humankind, man the kephalē of women, and God the Father the kephalē of Christ, the Son of God. In this play on the word kephalē, Paul is saying little more than we human beings are “from” Christ, the co-creator, woman is “from” man (Genesis 2) and the Son is “from” the Father in his eternal generation or incarnation. Lastly, I point out that 1 Corinthians is not a trinitarian text. The Holy Spirit is not mentioned.

The great danger in appealing to the Trinity to support any of our concerns on earth is projection. We first read our earthly agenda into the triune life of God and then appeal to the Trinity in support for what we already believe. This is what it seems evangelicals who want to uphold the subordination of women have done.

Slowly a few egalitarians began to support me but not one complementarian. The hostility was palpable.

Civil war breaks out 

On June 3, everything changed. Civil war broke in the evangelical community. A deep and sharp split among those who call themselves complementarians suddenly and unexpectedly appeared. The contestants were not divided over the gender question, but rather over the Trinity. The civil war began when a Dr Liam Goligher, a well-respected, confessional Presbyterian and complementarian made a blistering attack on complementarian teaching on the Trinity. He posted his denouncement on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals website, The Mortification of Spin. He begins by rejecting their petty brand of gender complementarianism He says,

I am an unashamed biblical complementarian. The original use of that word took its cue from the biblical teaching about the differences yet complementarity of human beings made in the image of God while not running away from the challenges of applying biblical exhortations for wives to submit to their own husbands in the Lord or the prohibition on ordination for women in the church. … But this new teaching [on the Trinity] is not limiting itself to that agenda. It now presumes to tell women what they can or cannot say to their husbands, and how many inches longer their hair should be than their husbands! They, like the Pharisees of old are going beyond Scripture and heaping up burdens to place on believers' backs, and their arguments are slowly descending into farce.

Then he comments on their grounding of the subordination of women in the supposed eternal subordination of the Son. He says,

They are building their case [for the subordination of women] by reinventing the doctrine of God, and are doing so without telling the Christian public what they are up to. What we have is in fact a departure from biblical Christianity as expressed in our creeds and confessions. …

This is to move into unorthodoxy. To speculate, suggest, or say, as some do, that there are three minds, three wills, and three powers with the Godhead is to move beyond orthodoxy (into neo–tritheism) and to verge on idolatry (since it posits a different God). It should certainly exclude such people from holding office in the church of God. On the other hand, to say, suggest, or speculate that God's life in heaven sets a social agenda for humans is to bring God down to our level.1

And he concludes:

The teaching is so wrong at so many levels that we must sound a blast against this insinuation of error into the body of Christ’s church. Before we jettison the classical, catholic, orthodox and Reformed understanding of God as he is we need to carefully weigh what is at stake – our own and our hearers” eternal destiny.2


Then on June 7th, Carl Trueman, professor of Church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, joined in. He fully endorsed what his friend, Liam Goligher, had said and named what they were both opposing as a “species of subordinationism,” and, “a position seriously out of step with the historic catholic faith and a likely staging post to Arianism.” 3

A week later, on June 14th he added,

Complementarianism as currently constructed would seem to be now in crisis. But this is a crisis of its own making – the direct result of the incorrect historical and theological arguments upon which the foremost advocates of the movement have chosen to build their case and which cannot actually bear the weight being placed upon them. …4

All Liam Goligher and I did was pull on a rope. The next thing we knew, the whole ceiling came crashing down around us. If that tells you anything at all, it is surely something about how well the [complementarian] ceiling was constructed in the first place.5

The complementarian doctrine of the Trinity is abandoned.

Within a few short weeks the complementarian forces fighting for a hierarchically ordered Trinity collapsed and surrendered.

On August 10th, 2016, Denny Burke the president of CBM, broke with his friends Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, saying I now “do not agree with all their Trinitarian views,”6 rather, “as a result of what has unfolded over the last two months. I believe in eternal generation, a single divine will, inseparable operations, and the whole Nicene package.”7 And he added, in putting the complementarian case, to appeal to “speculative, extra-biblical Trinitarian analogies. I think … is unhelpful and unwarranted in Scripture.”8 And furthermore, “I think it is good and right to leave behind the language of subordination” in reference to Jesus Christ.9

1Goligher, “Is it okay to teach complementarianism.”

2 Byrd, “Reinventing God.”

3 Trueman, “Fahrenheit 381.”

4 Ibid.

5 Trueman, “Motivated by feminism?”

6 Burke, “My Take Away from the Trinity Debate.”

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.