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Published Date: November 18, 2016

Published Date: November 18, 2016

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Who’s In Charge?: Trinity, Male and Female, and the Current Debate Over Authority

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a two-part of a series by Dr. Bob Rakestraw on the relationship between complementarian theology and subordination in the Trinity. See Part 1.

How is male-female authority involved in the controversy over subordination in the Trinity?

As alluded to in Part 1, there are two main groups within evangelicalism debating the issues of subordination (lesser authority) among the members of the Trinity and subordination among male-female relationships. Complementarians believe, among other things, that women should be under the authority of male leaders in their churches, and wives should be under the authority of male leaders (their husbands) in their marriages. Their main organization is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Two major scholars supporting their views are Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem.

Egalitarians believe, among other things, that women are to share leadership authority equally with men, in mutual submission, in the responsibilities of church and marriage. Their main organization is Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). Two major scholars supporting their views are Philip Barton Payne and Kevin Giles.

Both CBMW and CBE are led by serious Bible-believing evangelical Christians, and have fully orthodox statements of faith. Even though they disagree quite strongly on male-female issues, each believes they are basing their teachings on the Bible. (It is only right for me to state here that I am a member and supporter of CBE, and have been since their beginning in 1988. Before that, I had been a member of a similar organization for years.)

Following the emergence of the secular feminist movement in the 1960’s, some evangelical Christians began to rethink the traditional ideas of male-only leadership in churches and marriages, to see if these positions really were taught in the Bible. Such questioning in itself was, and is, a good thing, since current controversies often provide opportunities to examine one’s doctrines and practices to see if they are well-grounded.

When John Wesley, John Newton, and William Wilberforce challenged the prevailing practice of slavery (which was strongly supported from the Bible by many Christians), this led eventually to the abolition of slavery. Years ago, God’s people searched the Bible to see if the word of God supports such practices as putting the American flag on the church platform along with the Christian flag (should “for God and country” be the motto of Christ followers?) and the excluding of certain charismatic practices that were present in the first-century churches.

So also, many of God’s people are re-examining the issue of women’s subordination to men in churches and marriages. Some of these believers—actually many—are looking at the issues in full submission to the authority of the scriptures. They are not casting the Bible aside to follow the culture, as many others seem to be doing. Some are focusing more on women and church issues and some more on women and marriage issues, even though all know that both areas need careful thought and prayer to avoid the serious abuses of authority by men who have severely damaged many women over the years.


There are different opinions on the above matters among the people of God, just as there are on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, predestination, and the second coming of Christ. Controversies often develop, however, when those on one side of an issue (or those on both sides of an issue) go beyond the Bible.

In this regard it is not wrong, for example, to think about what God’s “omnipresence” actually means in detail, or what God was “doing” before this universe was created. If we do such thinking, however, we need to be aware that we are entering into some “speculation,” which means that we are going beyond plain biblical revelation. This is not necessarily wrong, but it is good for us to acknowledge that we cannot speak with finality on these and many similar matters. God did not give us his word in the form of a systematic theology textbook. If he did, we would probably argue about that “Bible” just as much as we do now, even if it were a 20-volume set, with every conceivable question answered by God himself!

When we, as mere specks in the universe in ourselves, delve into the mysteries of the eternal Trinitarian Creator and Sustainer of all—why and how God thinks and plans and lives—we must always be aware of when we go beyond the Bible. If we do go beyond the actual words of Scripture, as we all do at times to develop and express our theology (our set of ideas about God), let us recognize when, how, and why we are doing this, and be careful not to put our doctrinal formulations—as helpful as they may be—on the level of Scripture.   

In all these matters, the responsibility of each believer is to consider prayerfully the issues from the word of God as fully as our energy and ability allow, to listen respectfully to all viewpoints, and to move forward in our service for Christ, looking to him for ongoing knowledge, wisdom, and grace. If we must disagree, let us do so charitably and humbly, admitting that we still have much to learn. The overall goal of all who belong to Christ must be—with unity on the essentials, with unselfish neighbor love, and with zeal for the honor of God—to make faithful disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).

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