The Hidden Issue Behind the Debate on Women Bishops

A new Trinitarian understanding is shaping the conversation of women bishops. Ian Paul discusses.

The Hidden Issue Behind the Debate on Women Bishops

by Ian Paul

The General Synod of the Church of England was again this month discussing a proposal for the introduction of legislation to allow the appointment of women bishops. (Yes, you have to say it that carefully…). There was much press coverage and publicity by all sides of the debate. But not many realised that there is a hidden issue obstinately preventing agreement which few understand or are aware of. It has nothing to do with how men and women relate, and nothing to do with the biblical texts on women and men.

The issue is ‘the eternal functional subordination of the Son within the Trinity.’ If that makes you think of debates about how many angels you can fit on the head of a pin, you are not alone. The argument goes like this: Scripture says that Jesus submitted to his heavenly Father; this submission was not just in his earthly life, but extends into eternity; there is therefore a hierarchical ordering of authority within the life of the Trinity, whose ‘persons’ are nevertheless ‘equal’; since humanity is made in the image of God, there is (rightly) a hierarchical ordering of authority in human relations; although equal, men and women are therefore to live in a similar hierarchical ordering, with men exercising authority over women. It is further argued that this is not only what Scripture says, but what all the ‘orthodox’ theologians have believed down the centuries. For this reason, the debate about women as bishops is not just a question of the ordering of the church but about the very nature of God, and therefore not ‘secondary’ but ‘primary.’

As you might imagine, this is rather controversial. Some contemporary critics have gone as far as to say that this is a revival of Arian heresy, suggesting that the Son is a lesser divinity than the Father, since the two are not ‘equal in power.’ But once one side has called the other heretical…well, you can see where this is going.

To get up to speed with this debate, over the weekend I read The New Evangelical Subordinationism? It is a collection of representative essays from a range of different views in this debate, so the essays often talk past each other, rather than engaging with each other. (This debate is currently raging amongst conservative evangelicals in US and Australia, so if that does not include you, you might well not have come across this discussion—and you might be quite pleased about that!)

The debate appears to centre around a small number of related issues. Does Scripture really suggest this? What is the relation between Jesus’ attitude to God in the gospels, and what we can say about the nature of the Trinity? What is the relation between the ‘economic’ Trinity (how we see God as Father, Son and Spirit at work), the ‘immanent’ Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit as they really are, so to speak) and the ‘social’ Trinity (how the ‘persons’ of the Trinity relate to one another)? And is there a connection between the relations within the Trinity and relations between people?

Reading the essays left me with a number of different thoughts:

1. Although in the past people have believed in a hierarchical ordering of society, and although there is consistent language of ‘order’ in the Trinity within the Church Fathers, the two have not been connected until recently. Kevin Giles suggests that the first person to make such a connection was George Knight III in 1977. Ironically, others have been make a connection between the Trinity and human relations elsewhere—but in exactly the opposite direction! Theologians such as Moltmann and Zizioulas have been arguing for a radical egalitarianism between humans on the basis of their theology of the ‘social Trinity’ which focusses on the equality amongst Father, Son and Spirit within the godhead.

2. Throughout the book, there seems to be a lot of mutual misunderstanding arising from a trading of terms. So one commentator critiques the writing of another, who has equated the terms ‘authority’ and ‘power’. These are not the same (he says) so it is possible for persons of the Trinity to be equal in power but not equal in authority—even though he has just cited a definition of ‘authority’ which includes ‘The power to…”

Similarly, there seems to be an unresolved difference of view about what St Augustine meant by ‘order’ within the Trinity. According to one view, this means (in effect) a hierarchy; but to others, this is just not presence in Augustine’s writing. The debate won’t move on without these issues being resolved, or at least clarified.

3. One of the things that struck me most forcibly is the differences in style and theological approach amongst the essays. Some read as rounded theological reflections, considering the data; others list a series of texts and offer individual comment on them. This is not just a debate about what Scripture says; it is a much more fundamental clash between different styles or cultures of theological approach.

4. But at certain moments in the debate, there do appear to be what I can only describe as points of genuine illogic. How can the Son be eternally ‘functionally’ subordinate to the Father, and for this authority structure to be ‘essential to their being’, and yet this is not a hierarchy of being but only of ‘function’? This does not make sense to me, just on the level of logic. How can one ‘person’ of the Trinity exercise authority over another, if they both have one will, being part of a unified godhead? This seems to me to be a contradiction. If a functional hierarchy of men and women is based on an eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father, surely the male-female hierarchy must also be eternal? None of those arguing for such a hierarchy believe it is eternal—but why not?

5. In the end, I believe that this whole discussion is based on a big mistake. Jesus prays in John 17 that his followers ‘may be one, even as you and I [Father and Son] are one. But in every other example I can think of, we are instructed to base human relations not on relations within the godhead, but on the relation between God and humanity. ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ ‘The love of God has been poured into our heart by the Holy Spirit.’ When Paul says ‘Imitate me as I imitate Christ’ he is not referring to Christ’s relationships within the godhead, but to his ministry and attitude to others, including Paul himself. The Trinity does not tell us how to relate to one another—but God’s relating to us does! So any use of the ‘social Trinity’, in either a hierarchical or egalitarian direction, is seriously mistaken.

But there are two other lasting impressions I had from the book. The first is to recognise that Christian faith is about believing in the Trinity, and not believing in a particular doctrine about the Trinity. This is the nub of the wider theological debate—we trust in God, not in doctrines about God.

Secondly, on the specific issue at hand, the conflicting views on subordinationism will not be resolved soon, and not in the next few weeks—if ever. This in turn means that, as long as this is an issue, the debate in the Church of England about women as bishops will not be resolved—no satisfactory compromise position is possible.

The debate in Synod will need to take serious account of when it takes the legislation forward.

Revd Dr Ian Paul studied maths at Oxford and Southampton, worked in business, trained for ordination in Nottingham where he completed a PhD on Ricoeur, metaphor and the Book of Revelation. He was in church leadership in Poole for ten years before joining the staff of St John's, Nottingham, for nine years, for most of which he was Dean of Studies. He blogs at

5 thoughts on “The Hidden Issue Behind the Debate on Women Bishops”

  1. Kevin Giles on Bishop Pearson (The trinity and subordinationism, 2002) p. 65:

    Likewise John Pearson in his also widely read book The Exposition of the Creed says, “In respect of his nature, the Father is greater (than the Son) in reference to the communication of the Godhead.” [23]

    Giles’ reference is Pearson, The Exposition of the Creed, 1854, p.198. I don’t have access right now to this edition, but I found this in an 1845 edition, p. 171:

    “‘The Father is greater than I’: the Son equal in respect of his nature, the Father greater in reference to the communication of the Godhead.”

    This looks like one of the most extraordinary misquotes I have ever seen.


  2. With regard to the question of whether the bible teaches the eternal subordination of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, to the Father of all, I would suggest that we do need to start with what the bible teaches on the matter. On this matter, it seems to me, human reasoning is likely to be inadequate and we must rely greatly on revelation. The place to start, surely, is 1 Corinthians 15 vv 27-28:

    ‘For he has put everything in subjection under his feet. But when it says “everything” has been put in subjection, it is clear that this does not include the one who put everything in subjection to him. And when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.’

    That seems to teach the eternal subordination of the Son, does it not? Here is Henry Alford in his ‘Greek Testament’ (5th ed 1863) which Spurgeon described as ‘an invaluable aid’:

    ‘The interpretations, that subjection is only an hyperbolical expression for the entire harmony of Christ with the Father (Chrys., Theophyl., Œc[67]):—the limitation of it to His human nature (Theodoret, Aug[68], Jerome, Est., Wolf, al.), with the declarative explanation, that it will then become plain to all, that Christ even in regard of His kingship, is, on the side of His Humanity, dependent on the Father (Flatt)—and the addition, that Christ will then in His divine nature reign with the Father (Calv.:—‘regnum—ab humanitate sua ad gloriosam divinitatem quodammodo traducet’);—the interpretation (of αὐτὸς ὁ υἱός!) as referring to Christ’s mystical Body, i.e. the Church (Theodoret),—are idle subterfuges (leere Ausfluchte).” De Wette. The refutation of these and all other attempts to explain away the doctrine here plainly asserted, of the ultimate subordination of the Son, is contained in the three precise and unambiguous words, αὐτὸς ὁ υἱός.


  3. Ian, here is another example, which seems to me to disprove your contention that:

    ‘Although in the past people have believed in a hierarchical ordering of society, and although there is consistent language of ‘order’ in the Trinity within the Church Fathers, the two have not been connected until recently.’ (and you mention 1977 as a date that has been suggested by another)

    Thomas Charles Edwards was a leading preacher of his day (becoming Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Walesin 1887, according to Wikipedia). He was the first Principal of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3, he wrote:

    ‘though there is a difference between the headship of God and the headship of Christ, and between the headship of Christ and that of the man, still a common element is discernible in the three, and that is authority springing from union. .. This subordination of the woman to the man in Church order is perfectly consistent with the equality of the man and the woman in spiritual status. .. the Apostle maintains the perfect consistency of personal equality and social subordination..’


  4. Consider 1 Corinthians 11:3 ‘But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.’ (choosing the NET Bible translation, which is a good literal translation of θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς εἰδέναι ὅτι παντὸς ἀνδρὸς ἡ κεφαλὴ ὁ Χριστός ἐστιν, κεφαλὴ δὲ γυναικὸς ὁ ἀνήρ, κεφαλὴ δὲ τοῦ Χριστοῦ ὁ θεός.)

    It seems to me that it is almost impossible not to see from this that there is some sort of analogy or similarity between the three relationships in view: of Christ to man, of man to woman, and of God to Christ. It can hardly be that case that Knight was the first man to connect the second with the third of these. Thus, for example, Ellicott’s commentary on 1 Corinthians (1887):

    ‘The meaning of κεφαλὴ must not be unduly limited or extended. The general idea is that of supremacy or pre-eminence (compare Ephesians 5:23), but the particular character of that supremacy or pre-eminence must, in each case be determined by the context, and by the nature of the things specified. Thus, in the first member, the supremacy or pre-eminence is in regard of nature and of headship of the whole human family; in the second, in regard of divinely appointed order and authority (Genesis 2:22, 23, 3:16: see below, vv 8,9); in the third, in regard of priority and office, – the pre-eminence of the Father, as Bp. Pearson says, ‘undeniably consisting in this that He is God not of any other but of Himself, and that there is no other person who is God but is God of Him’ ..

    .. it is true biblical doctrine to ascribe this headship to the holy mystery of the eternal generation of the Son, and to the blessed truth, ‘that the Father has that essence [which is common to both] – of Himself; the Son, by communication from the Father’ (Pearson)..

    .. if the woman stood in a relation of subordination to man, and man to Christ, and Christ (in the sense above explained) to God, the ceremonial relation of the woman to God in the services of the Church might well be marked by some outward token which indicated her true position in regard to man..’


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