This article addresses the connection between the heresy of Subordinationism and Willow Creek Community Church.
What is Subordinationism?
Subordinationism is a contemporary heresy against the Christian theology of the Trinity. It is similar to the fourth century heresy of Arianism.
Arianism denies that Jesus Christ is God, either that he is not deity at all but a created being or that he is a lesser god. In both, Jesus Christ’s lower status is based on his subordination to God, or Father.
Subordinationism recognizes the equal deity status of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in essence or being but allocates subordination in function or role. The deceptive and ambiguous aspect of such differentiation is that essence and function are directly related. That is, if a person is subordinate in being then that person is also subordinate in role.
Early Christians rejected any form of subordination within the Trinity and recorded their assertion in the Athanasian Creed.
Most of us in the USA are familiar with the Segregationists’ motto, “separate but equal” that was used to justify segregation of colored people from whites in the South. In fact, most of us are aware of the deception of that motto:
Photo by Elliot Erwitt, North Carolina, 1950
The motto from the Subordinationists is similar and just as deceptive and ambiguous as the motto from the Segregationists, which is, “equal but different”. Wayne Grudem calls it, “ontological equality but economic subordination,” or equal in being but subordinate in role” (Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem, Zondervan, 1994, pg. 251).
The origin of the heresy of Subordinationism is traced to George W. Knight, III, “This chain of subordination [between Father and Son in the Trinity] with its implications is apparently given to help with the objection which some would bring to the headship of man in reference to woman.” (see page 6/86, second paragraph of the article from his book, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Male and Female with Special Reference to the Teaching/Ruling Functions in the Church.)
This statement from Knight also gives clarity as to the reason why the heresy was created, which was to give biblical support for the subordination of woman to man and husband. In order for Patriarchalists to strengthen their position to make women subordinate to men they infused subordination into the Godhead and unintentionally created a heresy. Subordinationists deny that they created a heresy. Egalitarians have been calling out the heresy and even some Patriarchalists oppose it as well. Not all Patriarchalists are Subordinationists, but all Subordinationists are Patriarchalists.
Scripture contains references of Jesus Christ’s equality with God and also references of his human humiliation and submission. His humiliation and submission is viewed as voluntary and temporal, meaning only while he was on earth. However, Subordinationists extrapolate Jesus Christ’s voluntary and temporal submission into the realm of eternity and simultaneously change the relationship into a relationship between Father, the ruler, master and decision-maker, and Jesus Christ, the obedient and sometimes ignorant subordinate—all within the realm of eternity. And here is where the heresy lies: subordination of Jesus Christ in eternity. A term Subordinationists use to describe their position is, “Eternal Son”. Meaning, Jesus Christ has always been subordinate as the Son, not just temporally but also eternally.
The term “eternal Son” is meant to reflects the deity, unity, and equality of the Son to the Father, consistent with the Nicene and Athanasian creeds. Under this connotation, the Son is viewed as an equal extension, or begotten, of the Father, unlike and in contrast to a slave or hired help. However, Subordinationists take the implied secondary and subordinate connotation of sonship and apply it to the Son and carry that subordination into eternity. Simply put, the term “eternal Son” has been sabotaged by the Subordinationists. A term meant to reflect the deity, unity, and equality of Son to Father is being used by Subordinationists to make Son subordinate to Father in eternity. When Subordinationists infuse subordination into the term that acknowledges and provides understanding of the Son’s deity status then they are unknowingly undoing and attacking the deity status of the Son.
Proponents of Eternal Son in Eternal Subordination
Proponents of Subordinationism are distinguished by three common traits. One or more of these traits are usually found in their churches’ or organizations’ statements of faith. Sometimes Subordinationism is even found in their sermons, see example of Andy Stanley below. The combination of the three traits gives a clearer picture of Subordinationism. The three traits are not always found together, but the Subordinationists listed below are linked to all, or most, of the three traits.
The three traits of Subordinationism are:
Trait 1: Father is uniquely described with commandeering words such as “orders“, “disposes“, and/or “Ruler“, and his fatherhood is included within the Trinity, meaning he “Ruler“s and commands the other two persons of the Trinity. Correspondingly, Son’s obedience is described in eternity, not [just] temporally from eternity. Again, this term has been sabotaged by Subordinationists, a term meant to reflect the deity, unity, and equality of Son to Father is used by Subordinationists to apply subordination to Son in eternity. The term with the infused connotation of subordination becomes the venue thru which subordinationist traits 1 and 3 are applied to the Son in eternity. (John MacArthur, James MacDonald, The Gospel Coalition, Andy Stanley, Bryan Lorrits, Albert Tate)
Trait 2: Son is described as having been Son eternally, not [just] temporally. Subordinationists use the term “eternal Son” to reflect this claim. Subordinationists describe that Son was “begotten” within eternity. Again, this term has been sabotaged by Subordinationists, a term meant to reflect the deity, unity, and equality of Son to Father is used by Subordinationists to apply subordination to Son in eternity. The term with the infused connotation of subordination becomes the venue thru which subordinationist traits 1 and 3 are applied to the Son in eternity. (John Piper, John MacArthur, James MacDonald, The Gospel Coalition, Crawford Lorrits, Andy Stanley, Bryan Lorrits, Albert Tate)
Trait 3: “Distinct” “office” or “function” is mentioned within the Trinity. This mention is in reference to the economic or functional difference or subordination in Grudem’s definition “ontological equality but economic subordination,” in other words, “equal in being but subordinate in role.” Note: Egalitarians subscribe to the distinction of the three “persons” of the Trinity consistent with traditional and orthodox Trinitarian theology. However, Subordinationists apply distinction to the “office” or “function” of the three persons of the Trinity for the purpose of ascribing subordination between the members of the Trinity. (John Piper’s former church Bethlehem Baptist Church, John MacArthur, James MacDonald, Crawford Lorrits, Andy Stanley, Bryan Lorrits, Albert Tate)
Trait 2, “eternal Son”, and trait 3, “distinct”, by themselves are not necessarily reflective of Subordinationism. However, the combination of all three traits are used to undergird Subordinationism. Combining all three traits among the members of the Trinity leads to the understanding that Father and Son are equal in being but different in function—specifically, that the Son is subordinate. That is, Father functions as ruler so he commands and directs the Son and the Son functions as the subordinate or helper and obeys and assists the Father in all eternity, not just in the temporal. The parallel between husband and wife, or man and woman, is that husband and wife are equal in being but different in function—specifically, that the wife is subordinate. That is, the husband functions as ruler so he commands and directs the wife and household and has ultimate decision-making authority and the wife functions as the subordinate or helper and obeys and assists the husband, perpetually. A similar relationship is applied to men and women in community.
The leading proponents of Subordinationism are listed below with links to references noting the subordinationist traits or defending or promoting their position of Subordinationism, Wayne Grudem and George W. Knight, III have already been mentioned above. Note that all, if not most, of these Subordinationists are linked to all three traits and the combination of the three traits gives the clearest picture of Subordinationism:
Wayne Grudem, Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
George W. Knight, Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, “The Subordination of Christ and the Subordination of Women” (founders and council members include: Wayne Grudem, John Piper, C.J. Mahaney, George W. Knight, III, Mary Kassian, Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, among others)
Southern Baptists, Albert Mohler, Mary Kassian: “gender equality with male headship”; SBC Voices: “The Eternal Subordination of the Son Is the Historic Doctrine of the Church.”
John MacArthur, Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ (Trait 2, Trait 3)
John MacArthur’s church: Grace Church, What We Teach, (Trait 1)
John MacArthur’s college: The Master’s College, Doctrinal Statement, (Trait 1)
John Piper’s former church, Bethlehem Baptist Church: Congregational Affirmation of Faith (Trait 3)
John Piper’s ministry: Desiring God, Affirmation of Faith, (Trait 2)
John Piper’s college: Bethlehem College and Seminary, Affirmation of Faith, (Trait 2)
The Gospel Coalition: Confessional Statement, (Trait 1, Trait 2) (founders and council members include: John Piper, Timothy Keller, Don Carson from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, Crawford Lorrits, Albert Mohler, among others)
Crawford Lorrits, Speaker at The Gospel Coalition and father of Bryan Lorrits, Fellowship Bible Church, Doctrinal Statement, (Trait 2, Trait 3)
James MacDonald, Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, Illinois, Doctrinal Statement (Trait 1, Trait 2, Trait 3)
James MacDonald, Walk in the Word, Doctrinal Statement (Trait 1, Trait 2, Trait 3)
Many other Christian groups and denominations are adopting the eternal subordination of the Son, in the comment box below this article feel free to comment on groups you know who hold to Subordinationism. I look forward to your comments to find out who also is a proponent of the eternal subordination of the son.
Subordinationist Guest Speakers at Willow Creek
The following Subordinationists have spoken at Willow Creek Community church and/or Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit (GLS) in the last two years. The traits of Subordinationism are reflected in either their churches’ statements of faith or sermons.
Andy Stanley, North Point Church, What We Believe, (Trait 1, Trait 2)
Andy Stanley, 2013 GLS message, (Trait 1, Trait 2, Trait 3, from time 18:45 to 23:05)
Bryan Lorrits, Fellowship Memphis, What We Believe, (Trait 1, Trait 2, Trait 3, Bryan is son of Crawford Lorrits who is council member of The Gospel Coalition)
Albert Tate, Fellowship Monrovia, What We Believe, (Trait 1, Trait 2, Trait 3, statement of faith is identical to statement of faith of Bryan Lorrits’ church)
First Connection: Calling out Subordinationism
The first connection between Subordinationism and Willow Creek is Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, Willow’s founding elder and an Egalitarian, who was the first person to recognize and oppose the heresy by writing against it. Bilezikian includes in his book, Beyond Sex Roles, the essay, “Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination in the Godhead.”
Bilezikian compares Subordinationism to the Arian Controversy, “an ontologically stratified, split-level Trinity leads him [Letham] straight into the trap of Arianism. In a vain attempt to rescue himself from this danger he gives lip service to the coequality of the members of the Trinity while, astoundingly, denying this equality in the same breath….The confusion is flagrant: “coequality” in the form of an “order of subsistence”—which means an ontologically structured hierarchy. It should be either equality and no hierarchy, or hierarchy and no equality.” (pg 8/64).
Additionally, Bilezikian states, “The Scriptures qualify his subjection in the following manner.
“Christ did not take upon himself the task of world redemption because he was number two in the Trinity and his boss told him to do so or because he was demoted to a subordinate rank so that he could accomplish a job that no one else wanted to touch. He volunteered his life out of sacrificial love. Being born in the likeness of man, he also took the form of a servant and as such became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Scripture describes this process in these words: “He humbled himself ” (Phil 2:8). He was not forced to become a servant; he was not compelled to be obedient; he was not dragged to his death against his will. The Bible puts it tersely: “He humbled himself.” Therefore it is much more appropriate, and theologically accurate, to speak of Christ’s self-humiliation rather than of his subordination. Nobody subordinated him, and he was originally subordinated to no one. He humbled himself
“A second qualification pertains to Christ’s humiliation. The Bible also teaches that the humiliation of the Son was an interim or temporary state. It was not, nor shall it be, an eternal condition. Christ’s humiliation was essentially a phase of ministry coincidental with the need of his creatures. From all eternity, and in the beginning, Christ was with God, and Christ was God, and he was in the form of God. He was equal with God, but the time came when he did not consider his equality with God a privilege to clutch as his own. Rather, he let go of it and took the form of a servant. It was something new for him. Being in the form of a servant was not an eternal condition. He took it up. He became obedient unto death. Prior to the incarnation there had been no need for him to be obedient since he was equal with God. But despite the fact that he had the dignity of sonship he learned obedience through what he suffered (Heb 5:8). Obedience was a new experience for him, something he had to learn. It was not an eternal state. When Christ came into the world he said, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God” (10:5, 7).
“The frame of reference for every term that is found in Scripture to describe Christ’s humiliation pertains to his ministry and not to his eternal state.” (pages 3-4/59-60)
Subordinationism was birthed and is propagated among Patriarchalists and Egalitarians have been the leading opponents in order to preserve historical Trinitarian theology within evangelicalism. Kevin Giles is also an Egalitarian and currently the leading scholar debating and correcting Subordinationists’ claims. Even thought Subordinationists, such as Grudem, claim equality in essence in the Godhead, Giles points out in “The Eternal Subordination of the Son of God and the Permanent Subordination of Women” that, “The problem arises with the word “eternal.” If the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father, and cannot be otherwise, then he does not just function subordinately, he is the subordinated Son. His subordination defines his person or being. Eternal functional subordination implies by necessity ontological subordination. Blustering denials cannot avoid this fact.”
The eternal subordination of the Son is considered heretical in that it changes Christian understating of the Trinity and dismantles the Christian understanding of the process of reconciliation and redemption. In other words, the understanding and process of salvation thru the saving work of Christ is altered and dismantled by Subordinationists.
Grudem’s and Subordinationists’ claim of the eternal subordination of the Son is widely popular in the US and other parts of the world and has “taken over the more conservative side of evangelicalism” (Giles). However, many Christians around the world are baffled as to why a group of evangelicals in the USA are tampering with the Trinity.
According to Giles, “The issue is not really the Trinity at all. What has generated this novel and dangerous doctrine of the Trinity is “a great cause,” the permanent subordination of women. For some evangelicals “the woman question” is the apocalyptic battle of our age. They are convinced that the Bible gives “headship” (“leadership,” in plain speak) to men. If this principle were abandoned because of cultural change the authority of the Bible would be overthrown and the door would be opened to homosexual marriages, the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and believe it or not, the obliteration of sexual differentiation. To bolster support for this “great cause” the doctrine of the Trinity has been redefined and reworded to give the weightiest theological support possible to the permanent subordination of women. Every evangelical who has written in support of the eternal subordination of the Son is committed to the permanent subordination of women in the church and the home. This agenda is what drives them to advocate the eternal subordination of the Son.”
Second Connection: Subordinationists Speaking at Willow Creek
In the last few years several Subordinationists have spoken at Willow Creek Association’s (WCA) Global Leadership Summit (GLS) such as Andy Stanley, Bryan Lorrits, and Albert Tate who is scheduled to speak at the 2015 GLS. A Modalist spoke at the 2010 GLS, T. D. Jakes, The Potter’s House, Belief Statement. Modalism is also a heresy that denies the traditional and orthodox theology of the Trinity.
Technically, WCA is not a church but it is associated with Willow Creek Community Church and serves primarily Christian churches around the world. So its non-church status is not an acceptable explanation for its frequent invitation of heretical Christian preachers. Andy Stanley, at the 2013 GLS, gave a horrific portrayal of Subordinationism. In short, he portrayed Jesus Christ, in the realm of eternity after his Ascension, as an ignorant son who needed Father to correct his mistakes and shortfalls when selecting the “guys,” that is men, not women, to establish the church. (from time 18:45 to 23:05). Stanley’s subordinationist portrayal has been one of the most demeaning and degrading and heretical portrayals of Jesus Christ known in evangelicalism. And this heretical portrayal of Jesus Christ took place on the stage of Willow Creek Community Church where the GLS takes place.
Subordinationist guest preachers are moving from the GLS into Willow Creek Community Church. Albert Tate is scheduled to speak at the 2015 GLS and he recently spoke at the church, Willow Creek Midweek message, March 25, 2015. Tate gave a horrific portrayal of the Samaritan woman, describing and mocking her as a woman who had a “ministry for men” and as a “lady of the night.” Equally disturbing, the audience of Willow Creek Community Church laughed at his degrading jokes. Tate on a few occasions mentioned the importance of cultural context for understanding the passage, specifically regarding the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. Yet, he reflected ignorance on the cultural context of women in patriarchal communities and the effects of patriarchy on women and their livelihood. Tate portrayed the Samaritan woman from the typical patriarchal perspective as a “prostitute,” and completely ignored the cultural context that made her a subordinate and sexual subject in a patriarchal community. The Samaritan woman had one of the longest theological conversations with Jesus recorded in Scripture. She reflected theological knowledge and she was a witness and preacher of the gospel—which is the highest calling given to believers. But to Tate, she was just a prostitute to mock.
The Willow Creek audience showed lack of understating for the severity of Tate’s message and portrayal of the Samaritan woman. This observation points to the need for Willow’s leaders to take on the responsibility of discernment and prudence in whom they invite as guest speakers.
Steve Carter, Teaching Pastor, is the overseer of the Midweek bible study at Willow Creek South Barrington campus. Due to the recent history of Patriarchal and Subordinationist (heretical) guest speakers at Midweek, Steve is not aware of the problem of Subordinationism and its implications, doesn’t view Subordinationists as threats to sound doctrine and biblical community, and/or he agrees with Patriarchalists and Subordinationists (heretics). In the past I have written articles in this blog detailing Steve’s patriarchal tendencies, see “Steve Carter and Patriarchal Gender Essentialism at Willow Creek“, and also “The Great Compromise – Is Willow Creek Community Church Still Egalitarian?” Steve, in the recent past, has made degrading statements about women in the form of patronization. In the three years that he has been overseer of Midweek he has not invited any female preachers or teachers, neither female outside guests or female leaders and church members from within Willow Creek. If Willow Creek’s Teaching Pastor, Steve Carter, who is second only to Bill Hybels in theological oversight and the one who most likely will take on the senior pastorate when Bill retires, is a Patriarchalist and sympathetic to Subordinationists, then Willow Creek is not only compromising with Patriarchalists but is also compromising with Subordinationists.
Third Connection: Willow’s Statement of Faith
The third connection to consider between Subordinationism and Willow Creek is the church’s statement of faith, Willow Creek Community Church: What Willow Believes: Our Core Beliefs. The statement of faith contains one sentence that is similar to one of the traits of Subordinationism, which is the use of the term “eternal Son” (Trait 2). This is what Willow’s statement of faith contains:
God: “We believe there is one true, holy God, eternally existing in three equal persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit….”
Jesus Christ: “Jesus Christ, the eternal second person of the Trinity, was fully united with a human nature by a miraculous conception and virgin birth. He lived in perfect obedience to the Father, voluntarily paid the price for the sins of all people by dying on the cross as their substitute….”
The Christian Life (The Holy Spirit): “People in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ are to live in holiness and obedience as they submit to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity….”
Instead of stating “eternal Son”, the term has been changed to “eternal second person.” An important distinction, maybe, but an unnecessary and redundant mention since the eternity of the three persons is already mentioned in an earlier paragraph. Why the redundancy? Under the paragraph of the Holy Spirit there is no redundancy of the Spirit’s eternal nature. So why the redundancy and similarity to the term “eternal Son” under the section of “Jesus Christ” which is a trait of Subordinationists? Again, the term has been sabotaged by Subordinationists, “eternal Son” is meant to reflect Son’s deity, unity, and equality with Father, but to Subordinationists this term contains the connotation of subordination of Son in eternity.
References to Father, Son and Holy Spirit as first, second, and third person have traditionally not contained a hierarchical connotation. In light of the redundancy of the term “eternal” applied to the “second person” in Willow’s statement of faith, does Willow Creek ascribe a hierarchy or secondary connotation or role, specifically in eternity, to Jesus Christ?
Is Willow Creek trying to appeal to and compromise with Subordinationists without completely giving in to the term and theology of “eternal Son”? Has Willow Creek given into Subordinationism and is including its own subordinationist language into their statement of faith with the term “eternal second person”?
Willow has already made known to be willing to compromise with Patriarchalists by having a male-only core leadership to have doctrinal and theological oversight of the church, see my article, “The Great Compromise.” As mentioned above, Willow Creek is inviting Subordinationists to speak at both GLS and the church and seems to be willing to be open to Subordinationism with the redundant and unnecessary [and possibly hierarchical] term “eternal second person”. Maybe, Willow Creek has already given into Subordinationism?
Willow Creek has Patriarchalists among our church members, staff, and senior leadership. From those Patriarchalists, we have church members who clearly articulate Subordinationism by quoting Grudem’s “ontological equality but economic subordination” as part of their Trinitarian theology. Our senior leadership is sympathetic to Subordinationists as reflected by the consistent invitation of Subordinationists to the GLS and now also to the church. Who among the Patriarchalists at Willow who are in senior leadership are also Subordinationists?
To what extent is Willow Creek Community Church willing to appeal to and compromise with Subordinationists and how will that appeal and compromise affect Willow’s leadership, staff, community, evangelism, doctrine, and theology?
Recently, an egalitarian at Willow described the Son as “submissive” to the Father in eternity. Submission and obedience are not synonymous. But, they do overlap and Patriarchalists and Subordinationists do not distinguish between the two terms. I strongly advise fellow egalitarians to guard themselves from being dragged by the Subordinationists in conversation to describe or delineate the submission of Son in eternity. Discussion about the submission of the Son in eternity is dangerous talk because to Patriarchalists and Subordinationists submission is equivalent to obedience….and obedience of Son in eternity is the heresy of Subordinationism. Instead, I urge egalitarians to remain anchored to the heart and purpose found in the early Christian creeds (Nicene and Athanasian) which is to emphasize the deity, unity, and equality of the Tri-une God.
Update: August 10, 2015: Added clarifying statements on the term “eternal Son” and how it is used by Subordinationists to carry subordination of Son into eternally. Added examples of Subordinationism found at Willow Creek.