I thank Suzanne McCarthy and John Hobbins for a two link chain leading me to Jeremy Pierce’s interesting post Ontological Equality and Functional Subordination. Here Jeremy examines the argument that both in the Trinity and in relationships between men and women eternal functional subordination, in either case a controversial doctrine, implies ontological or essential inequality, which in either case could be seen as heretical.
In his post Jeremy discusses a point made by Philip Payne, who wrote:
I believe that ontological equality is perfectly compatible with functional subordination as long as that subordination is voluntary and temporary, as was Christ’s voluntary and temporary subordination to the Father in the incarnation (e.g. Phil 2:6-11). It seems to me that if subordination in necessary and eternal, it is then an aspect of one’s essence.
Jeremy looks at this issue primarily from the perspective of the Trinity, which I will not consider in detail here. In his last paragraph he comes back to what for me is the more relevant issue, relationships between men and women. He points out that
Marriage relationships end in death, and there’s no reason to think elder-congregation relationships continue with any authoritative relationship post-death.
Therefore these relationships are not eternal, and so the argument that eternal subordination implies essential inequality, even if it is valid, does not apply here.
However, Jeremy had earlier argued that in the case of the Trinity the distinguishing issue which might make functional subordination ontological or essential is not that it is eternal, in the strict temporal sense of lasting for ever past and future. For indeed
Something’s being true at every time certainly does not imply that it had to be true.
Rather, as Jeremy suggests but does not explain in detail, what would make a particular type of subordination essential is that it is true in every possible world.
Is this true of the subordination of women, as taught by complementarians? Would they say that women are functionally subordinate in every possible world? That is an interesting question, and not an easy one to answer.
Now clearly God could have created a world in which women are not subordinate to men – in fact I believe that he did! He is able to do such things because he is able to create separate families of women and men who are ontologically different from our own human family. But the real issue has to be about whether subordination of women is an essential attribute of our own species, the notional descendants of Adam and Eve. The question is not about separately created species – any more than it is about animals, some of which naturally change their gender implying that for them gender is not an essential characteristic.
So the question really is this: are there, in the complementarian world view, possible worlds in which human women, related to us, are not functionally subordinate to human men?
Now I am sure that complementarians would hold that their rules on subordination of women would apply in any human colony in any other part of the universe which humans might in future be able to travel to. Indeed they probably already want to apply them on the International Space Station. So this subordination applies, on their view, in any world to which the descendants of Adam and Eve can travel by their own power.
But how about any world to which God might want to move them, or from where he might have moved them in the past? I know that complementarians generally hold that Eve was already subordinate to Adam in the Garden of Eden, basing this view on a misunderstanding of “helper” in Genesis 2:18,20. Do they hold that women will remain functionally subordinate to men in God’s eternal kingdom, or in the lake of fire? I guess I would accept that there is subordination of women in the place of eternal punishment, where the curse of the fall may apply with its fullest force. But in the new heavenly Jerusalem?
So, complementarians, if you want to show that women are essentially, ontologically equal to men, and that this equality is not compromised by the functional subordination you teach, then you need to tell us about a possible world in which truly human women, daughters of Eve, are not subordinate to their men, the sons of Adam. If it is indeed part of your future hope that in the coming kingdom women will fully enjoy their essential equality with men, then please tell us that openly. But if it is not, if you hold that women will remain subordinate in God’s eternal kingdom, then you are left with no possible world in which women are not functionally subordinate. And that, by Jeremy’s argument which seems convincing, implies that women are not essentially equal to men. If that’s what you really believe, admit it!