Learning in the Pastoral Epistles: Deception, Verbs and Wives in 1 Timothy 2

Paul & Thecla

No debate in evangelicalism has produced as much strife and heat as the debate on the ordination of women.[1] In the broad debate, much has been written concerning the infinitive αὐθεντέω,[2] the conjunction οὐδὲ in relation of "to teach" and "to control/assume authority,"[3] and the context of the Ephesian heresy.[4] What has not been sufficiently explored is Paul's only imperative in the pericope (μανθανέτω: 2:11) in relation to the broader materials in the Pastoral Epistles, in Paul's wider corpus, and even the LXX. This study will present evidence for Paul's inclusion of women as those worthy of being taught in the Pastoral Epistles, the wider Pauline corpus, and Paul's own Bible, the LXX in order to show that μανθανέτω is a contextually positive verb that illustrates Paul's inclusion of women in the learning of correct church doctrine.[5] This evidence, in turn, can best be explained as Paul's corrective to false teaching and vv.12-15 are to be understood in light of the imperative—wives[6] are to learn so that they may be included as the one's who will then be permitted to teach (διδασκαλία). More importantly, the Pastoral Epistles include the largest cluster of the verb; hence, this is an important term and deserves careful analysis.[7] Before that, I want to stress the limited nature of this study: entire dissertations have been written on specific phrases and even words within 1 Timothy 2:9-15, so I cannot possibly cover every angle or nuance within the passage. Secondly, I am assuming several disputable points of debate: I believe Paul is most likely the author of the Pastoral Epistles, and I believe the context of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 concerns a household rather than a church service, so this section mostly likely refers to husbands and wives (per Cynthia Westfall of McMaster Divinity College in her book Paul and Gender), and not men and women generally.

1. μανθάνω: A Lexical Survey

Before we can determine the nuances of the verb under question, we must survey the lexical data. Given the abundance of occurrences of the verb in the relevant literature we are in a good place to determine the nuances and nature of the imperative verb as opposed to a hapax legomena (c.f. αὐθεντέω; 1 Tim 2:12). If we are able to determine an appropriate understanding of the verb under exploration, the rest of the passage may indeed fall in line:

·      Friberg 17746: from a basic meaning learn, i.e. of directing one's mind to something and producing an external effect

·      Louw & Nida: 27.12 μανθάνω: to acquire information as the result of instruction, whether in an informal or formal context - 'to learn, to be instructed, to be taught

·      Liddel-Scott: 27160  μανθάνω:-to learn, esp. by inquiry; and in aor. to have learnt, i.e. to understand, know.

·      Danker: 4080  μανθάνω ‘acquire knowledge’, learn – a. through instruction or receipt of information– b. through example or experience

The wide range of sources from these lexicons strongly suggest that the verb is often used with a context of a learner and a teacher, with the additional elements of expanding the cognitive aspect of the learner with the intent on 'understanding.' The purpose being, then, for the human person to grow in understanding of the knowledge she is being given. Knowledge, then, leads to righteous living or a reorientation of the self. Stanley Porter, in his Idioms of the Greek New Testament, states that "the imperative form is normally used to direct someone's action…[and] any permissive sense [of the second and third person singular and plural] is a phenomenon of English translation, not Greek."[8] Paul's use of the singular in 1 Tim 2:11 fits with Porter's helpful description. In summation, the issue of women learning in the Pastoral Epistles can help us discover the expectation of Paul in the church in Ephesus, and determine the character of the prohibition, with implications for the modern debate over the ordination of women to Christian ministry.

2. Μανθάνω in the LXX[9]

In the Greek version of the Old Testament, we have a sufficient supply of the verb μανθάνω to determine the semantic range of 1 Timothy 2:11. In Exodus 2:4, Moses' mother, after putting her baby in the basket, stood "far off" (μακρόθεν) in order "to learn" or "discover" (μαθεῖν) what would happen to Moses. The infinitive here refers to the anticipation of witnessing an indefinite event, waiting to know what would happen to her baby in the tumultuous current of the river. God in Deuteronomy 4:10 orders an assembly to brought before him and he says, "and let them [Israel] all listen to my words, so that they may learn (μάθωσιν) to respect me all of the days that they live upon the land, and also their sons whom they should have taught (διδάξωσιν)." The use of υἱοὺς ("sons") should be taken in a gender-inclusive manner, as all are "sons of God" in Galatians 3:26-29 and Romans 8:14. The purpose of learning is so that the children may be instructed in the right things of God. One expects the living tradition of Israel's stories to be perpetuated by those who were being taught (διδάξωσιν). The language of learning and teaching follows logically, as the ones who learn can then, consequently, teach the others in the ways of the Lord. The gender distinctions of "teaching" and "learning" are not in view in Deuteronomy. Deut 5:1 also speaks of Moses calling "all Israel" (πάντα Ισραηλ) together and telling them that "they will learn" (μαθήσεσθε) the "ordinances of God," which implies subsequent obedience: at least, one would hope. The people of Israel are to "learn to respect the Lord" (μαθης φοβεισθαι κυριον) in Deut 14:23, 17:19, 31:12-13: the conceptual framework of "learning" in these four canonical verses confirms the idea of a person—or group of people—growing to understand a foreign concept, and with this learning comes the expectation of participating with a renewed understanding of said concept. Thus, the people of Israel—without reference to gender—are called to learn and participate in God's commandments. Israel is forbidden "to learn" or "understand" (οὐ μαθήσῃ) the "abominations" of other "nations" (ἐθνῶν) in Deut 18:9—which suggests that Israel is not to participate in the community of heresy and false teaching, which leads to utter destruction.

In 1 Chron 25:8, there is a direct contrast between the "perfected" or "learned one" (τελείων) and the "one learning" (μανθανόντων), offering a distinction between two people who are educated and uneducated, which suggests a necessary imputing of wisdom or experience to the other with the hope of increasing knowledge and therefore ethical praxis. The use of the infinitive μαθεῖν in Ester 4:5 is directly relevant: Ester (who is reported to be a woman!) orders Hathach to go and "to learn" what he can about Mordecai: as it turns out, women can tell men to learn as well![10] Ps 106:35 references Israel "learning" (ἔμαθον) amongst the nations, and living as they do, committing idolatry (v.36). The verb here refers to active participation and cognitive awareness of the people of God by partaking in a great evil, learning what it is to serve mammon over God. "Learning" (μεμαθηκέναι) the "judgments of God's righteousness"(τὰ κρίματα τῆς δικαιοσύνης) is not a reference to subjection, but of a person "worshipping God" (ἐξομολογήσομαί) when he or she grows to "learn" what God commands and desires (Ps 119:7, 71, 73). "Learning" in Ps 119 is always in reference to active participation, of knowing and praising God rightly. Prov 17:16, in reference to fools, speaks of them "learning to fall into evil" (μαθειν). Evil in this verse is a deadly force, and the people are excluded from "learning" the mind of God, excluded from wisdom. The LXX rendering of Prov 22:25 speaks of avoiding the angry ones (v.24), and not "learning" (μάθῃς) the lifestyle of the wicked. In each use, the gender of the person is not in view, and all people are encouraged to pursue God, or not encouraged if they are pursuing evil!


The beginning of Isaiah 1:17 is a prophetic injunction "to learn" (μάθετε) "to do what is good" (καλὸν ποιεῖν). In the midst of Isaiah's prophetic discourse on the "days to come" (2:2), the people of Israel will "not learn to wage war" (2:4: μὴ μάθωσιν ἔτι πολεμεῖν). The eschatological prophecy is focused on the concept of utter peace as a future reality of God's kingdom, and this requires Israel to forsake the wages of death and war. In the midst of the Assyrian invasion, Israel is "not learning" (μὴ μαθεῖν) the Law, and many have been taken away already (8:15). Isaiah 26:9-10 includes two dual uses of the verb in relation to "righteousness" (v.9: δικαιοσύνην μάθετε; v.10: μὴ μάθῃ δικαιοσύνην), and the first pairing includes "learning righteousness," and the "wicked ones not learning righteousness." In this pairing, the righteous ones are consciously aware of God's judgments, but the wicked ones have not learned righteousness, and "do not see the glory of the Lord." The prophet speaks in Isaiah 28:19 for the recipients to "learn to understand!" (μάθετε ἀκούειν). The infinitive "to hear" or "to understanding" complements the imperative "learn," and the interplay between the concepts of "understanding" and "learning" suggest a continuity between these cognates: "learn so that you will understand" or "comprehend." Isaiah 29:24 contains two uses of the future verb "will learn" (μαθήσονται), though both are used in different ways. First, the "grumbling ones will learn to obey"  (ὑπακούειν) and the "murmuring ones will learn to speak peace" (μαθήσονται λαλεῖν εἰρήνην).[11]

Isaiah 47:12 is focused upon the humiliation of Babylon. In mocking the great city, Isaiah speaks about "sorcery, which you learned from youth" (ἐμάνθανες). Far from being a positive force, Isaiah sees this "learning" as a great and humiliating evil, a force that corrupts and enslaves. Similarly in Jer 9:5 the prophet cries out about "no one is speaking the truth" (ἀλήθειαν οὐ μὴ λαλήσωσιν) and as a result the people "have taught their tongues to speak lies" (μεμάθηκεν ἡ γλῶσσα αὐτῶν λαλεῖν ψευδῆ). The 'teaching' of the self to engage in falsehoods reveals a mind clouded by the Spirit of lies, and not the Spirit of God, who demands that the people "not learn" (μὴ μανθάνετε) the "ways of the nations." The imperative here follows Stanley Porter's description: this is not a Divine permissive, but a Divine command for Israel to remain separate from the nations. In a prophetic proclamation, God speaks of having mercy if the people "learn" the ways of His people (μαθόντες μάθωσιν τὴν ὁδὸν τοῦ λαοῦ μου). Jer 13:23 speaks of a person changing their ways, even those who have been taught to do evil (μεμαθηκότες). Both uses of μανθάνω in Ezekiel 19:3 and 19:6 refer to a lion "learning" to catch his victims. The final usage in the LXX centers on Micah 4:3 where the prophet asserts "no longer will they learn to wage war" (καὶ οὐκέτι μὴ μάθωσιν πολεμεῖν). Violence is a pastime that must be unlearned, especially as revealed in the Sermon on the Mount, which suggests non-violence is a major hermeneutical continuum in Scripture.[12]

In summation, "learning" is a deeply malleable concept in the Greek Old Testament. Sometimes the verb under consideration is paired with "teach" (Deut 4:10) and "speaking" (perhaps Ps 119; Isaiah 29:24; Jer 9:5). In almost every instance the verb is used in a pietistic context: "learning" is a causal action that has an intended result. In the instances where it is not, it refers to a lion hunting, or a negative injunction for a person to not "learn" something evil (i.e. a prohibition of negative behavior), likely with the knowledge that the person will then fall into sin. In no explicit instance is a woman prohibited from learning something positive or ethically necessary, and all of Israel is enjoined to "learn" and pursue holiness in light of God's commands. Because of this, the Old Testament, like the New Testament, views women as agents of genuine cognitive virtue, capable of learning and freely acting in response to God's commands, with no condemnation of their gender or prohibition of their ability to teach and influence others in the ways of godliness.[13]

3. Μανθάνω in Second Temple Judaism

2 Maccabees 7:2 centers on the brutal torture and eventual butchering of Jewish martyrs. One of the brothers cries out: "what do you all expect to learn (μανθάνειν) by questioning us? For we are prepared to die instead of transgressing the laws of the fathers!" The author's use of the infinitive here is rhetorical, suggesting that the king now knew exactly what the Jewish men were prepared to endure. Similarly in 4 Macc 1:17 the author writes "This, in turn, is discipline by the law, by which we learn (μανθάνομεν) divine matters in a holy manner and human affairs to our advantage." Contextually the use of the verb with παιδεία ("discipline, education") strongly suggests that this learning has a practical outcome: the ignorant or the unlearned or the child even has the moral necessity to grow in knowledge in relation to "divine matters." Finally, perhaps the most relevant passage in relation to 1 Tim 2:11 is Sirach 18:19:

πρὶν ἢ λαλῆσαι μάνθανε καὶ πρὸ ἀρρωστίας θεραπεύου

"Before you speak, you must learn and before you become ill, take care of yourself."

Sirach 18:19 appears axiomatic for any understanding of 1 Tim 2:11, given the close proximity of composition and the nature of 'learning' that appears consistent with the overall thrust of the LXX. The author of Sirach appears to be addressing a situation that has strong parallels, especially since Sirach is a work all about ethical conduct and was written some time before the Pastoral Epistles, an issue that many modern commentators on the Pastoral Epistles have missed.[14] The parallels between these two verses will be explored below in some detail.

Finally, a major purveyor of this term is Philo of Alexandria, who appears to use the verbal form over 140 times, according to Bibleworks.[15] Since an entire survey of Philo would require multiple dissertations, I am forced to limit myself to some key examples. In Legum allegoriarum 1:94 we have Philo writing, "just as the perfect grammarian or perfect musician has need of no instruction in the matters which belong to his art, but the man whose theories on such subjects are imperfect stands in need of certain rules, as it were, which contain in themselves commands and prohibitions, and he who is only learning the art requires instruction [i.e. "teaching"]" (τῷ δὲ ἄρτι μανθάνοντι διδασκαλίας). The person who is exercising a gift of "teaching" is excluded from the realm of learning, by implication of their being a teacher.[16] The use of μανθάνον in Legum allegoriarum 3:135 concerns the gifting of "knowledge" and how a person endures hardships: Philo writes, "Also, what is imperfect is inferior to that which is perfect (τοῦ τελείου), and that which learns (τὸ μανθάνον) anything to that which has knowledge spontaneously and naturally." Perfection in relation to knowledge is something that must be learned. In De sacrificiis Abelis et Caini 1:7 we have a dual use of "learning," which is seen in terms of "perfection" (ἐτελειώθησαν), the full maturation of an individual's mind: "As many, therefore, as through instruction and learning (μαθήσει καὶ διδασκαλίᾳ)..." and this is followed by Philo's use of the language of "comprehension" (ἀκοῆς) and in regards to Moses' people who have [or 'are'] "learned/ing" (μανθανόντων) guidance. Similarly to the stories in the Old Testament, the entire group of people are in the process of gaining knowledge and experience. The necessity of learning in Quod deterius potiori insidiari 1:12 centers on the stability of the person as the recipient of knowledge: "for the opinions of those who have only lately begun to learn (τῶν ἄρτι μανθάνειν) are unstable and without any firm foundation." This correlates nicely with Sirach's ethical admonition to "learn" before one speaks,[17] revealing a potential Jewish axiomatic tradition.[18] Having briefly surveyed the wide swath of ancient literature, we are now in a place to determine how Paul uses this verb.[19]

4. Paul's use of Μανθάνω outside of the Pastoral Epistles

Rom 16:17 speaks of Paul's urging the church to follow the "teaching" (διδαχὴν) that they previously "learned" (ἐμάθετε). While the context is not as dire at the heretical situation in 1 Timothy one can see a potential allusion to the Protevangelium in Gen 3:16 in Rom 16:20 and 1 Tim 2:15, if one adopts the "Childbirth" reading on v.15 (which I do).[20] Second, the use of the verb "fully deceived" (ἐξαπατῶσι; Rom 16:18) directly lines up with the deception of Eve in 1 Tim 2:14 and Adam in Rom 7:11. If you want to know more on Eve and 1 Timothy, head over to Allison Quient's paper presentation later! So Rom 16:17-20 suggests a similar heretical situation to that of the Pastoral Epistles, and given the close proximity to the numerous women mentioned earlier in chapter 16 (Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, passim), it is not difficult to imagine that they would be included in the "learning" and participation of important church "teachings," especially as recipients of Romans. Paul uses the subjunctive to admonish the Corinthians to "learn" (μάθητε) not to go beyond the Scriptures in 1 Cor 4:6, suggesting a coordinate meaning with the Prophets in the Old Testament (see above: Deut 18:9). Likewise, in 14:31[21] the entire church is told that prophecy is for the mutual benefit of all people, "so that all would learn" (ἵνα πάντες μανθάνωσιν).[22] The use of the verb here refers to teleological understanding by the power of the Holy Spirit, who gives forth the "teaching" (διδαχὴν: v.26) that "each" has received. 

Paul's remaining five uses of the verb are used in a wide array of contexts. The first use of the infinitive (μαθεῖν) in Gal 3:2 is clearly sarcastic, referring to Paul's interrogation of the Galatian church into telling him about the source of their knowledge of Christ. The aorist in Eph 4:20 (ἐμάθετε) is clarified as "hearing" (ἠκούσατε: v.21) which most probably refers to orthopraxic understanding and cognitive participation. Equally, the dual use in Phil 4:9 (ἐμάθετε) and 4:11 (ἔμαθον) are in a context of "obtaining and understanding" (παρελάβετε καὶ ἠκούσατε)[23] what is good and righteous (4:8). As we have seen, "understanding" is often used by Paul to clarify his intent: this is not a mere acquisition of knowledge, but an entire lifestyle[24] oriented towards God and holiness.[25] Paul's final use is found in Col 1:7, where he addresses the church concerning what they "learned" (ἐμάθετε) from a fellow co-worker of Paul. As has been seen above, Paul uses "understanding" (ἠκούσατε) in v.6 to preempt what he means by "learning" in v.7: this suggests a deep emotional, lexical and intellectual reservoir in Paul's mind, which we will now explore in the Pastoral Epistles. Learning of the things of God always leads to active participation in God's church. Learning is not static.

5a. Compare & Contrast, Learning & Teaching: The Necessity of 1 Tim 1:20


In considering the context of the ancient heresy in Ephesus, we know that the main perpetrators of this were most likely two men named in 1 Tim 1:20: Hymenaeus and Alexander. These two men (although perhaps there were more)[26] "have been fully handed over" (παρέδωκα) to Satan: a fate born out of "blasphemy" (βλασφημεῖν).[27] Their rather harsh expulsion from the church greatly contrasts with Paul's imperatival address to women in 2:11, suggesting deference to the deceived versus the deceivers; the victims versus the charlatans. The purpose clause in 1:20 also confirms the disciplinary nature of their exclusion, and elucidates a potential connection to the "teaching," as it uses the subjunctive παιδευθῶσι ("to provide instruction, with the intent of forming proper habits of behavior - 'to teach, to instruct, to train, teaching, instruction.'")[28] as per Louw-Nida and other Lexicons.[29] This forms a symmetrical relationship between a prohibition or expulsion and the resultant learning of the person. Scholarly attempts to overly-reconstruct or downplay the role of women in leading the heresy are unnecessary when we consider that Paul has likely already ousted his two main opponents, and is now dealing with the aftermath: the wives of Ephesus—whom he has not kicked out of the church or handed over to Satan, by the way. That's slightly important. You don't see much on that. Thus, we are now in a place to determine the nature of the "learning" in the Pastoral Epistles with new focus.

5b. Learning in the Pastoral Epistles: Deception and the Solution

In 1 Tim 5:4, we have another imperative: μανθανέτωσαν πρῶτον, and this time it is used in reference to the authority of a widowed mother over her children. The children must "learn first" what it means to be respectable in God's household. Similarly, in 5:13, we have a negative view of younger widows "learning idleness" (μανθάνουσιν ἀργαὶ) and other traits that are not respectable in the household—a use that is confirmed by our survey of the LXX. 2 Tim 3:7 seems to describe the women who are "always learning" or being "taught" by the false teachers, although this seems somewhat unclear[30] and 3:14 reminds Timothy to remain conscious of what he has previously "learned" (ἔμαθες) and who he obtained (λαβὼν) it from: perhaps Paul, or perhaps Timothy's grandmother Lois and mother Eunice in 2 Tim 1:5. This assumes that learned women were teaching with authority in households: after all, there is no one more authoritative than one's mother and especially one's grandmother, as I will testify.[31] Finally, Titus 3:14 is similar to the Old Testament injunctions for people to "learn" (μανθανέτωσαν) "good works," suggesting perhaps an economic sphere where poverty is met and charity is learned.

Therefore, we arrive at 1 Tim 2:11. If we begin with previous material, the axiomatic exhortation in Sirach 18:19 becomes quite relevant here. The purpose of the wives learning before they speak is confirmed by Paul's use of the prepositional phrase ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ ("in quietness") with "all obedience." Cynthia Westfall has provided us with a major hermeneutical clue in her book Paul and Gender. She writes: "a command to submit does not constitute a reversed mandate for the other to subjugate."[32] Paul's command for the women to learn directly follows the path set by Sirach 18:19: before the women are to speak and teach, they are to learn in quietness. Teaching is not a masculine virtue, as the entire body has the potential for the gift of teaching in Rom 12:1-8,[33] especially as it relates to being "wise" (σωφρονεῖν: Rom 12:3; 1 Tim 2:9, 15; 3:2). Wisdom and a teaching ability require a desire to learn the things of God, given to us by God. In essence, Paul's injunction here is entirely in line with the language of the gifts of God elsewhere in his discourses on the Spirit (1 Cor 12; Rom 12; Eph 4). The positive injunction helps clarify the nature of the Creation narrative in 1 Tim 2:13-14 as a historical situation where a deceived person acted in a manner that had incredibly destructive consequences.

In his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, complementarian William Mounce—who I will be using as representative—writes the following:

"the text [1 Tim 2:11] does not say that women should learn so that they can teach. Spencer asserts, 'if anyone is taught, eventually they will teach,' but this contradicts chap. 3, which sees authoritative instruction…as the prerogatives of the elders." He cites Deuteronomy 31:12, cites Craig Keener concerning the "learning leading to obedience" and concludes, "the authoritative act of teaching, the proclamation of the gospel truth and the refutation of error, is the responsibility not of any person who has learned but of the leadership (1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:2)."[34]

There is many critical responses one could make this line of argumentation,[35] but Mounce's favorable citation of Douglas Moo deserves the most attention. He writes, citing Moo: "All Jewish men were encouraged to study the law: did they all become rabbis?"[36] This is asking the wrong question: an injunction for all people to learn and to grow, but an injunction that simultaneously restricts a group of people from teaching because of their gender is absent in the LXX, and in the citation that Mounce cites. Ester tells a man to go and learn in Ester 4:5, and Deut 4:10 uses the verb in relation to people teaching their children, and even speaking (Is 29:24). One would expect more precision from the biblical writers on this point, if Mounce were correct: for instance, we might expect Paul or Moses or the Prophets to say, "everyone should learn in quietness, but only men are to learn with intent to teach." Scripture never says such things. Finally, Mounce's assertion about male leadership in 1 Tim 3:2 as negating the inference of "learning so that they may teach" is unsubstantiated.[37] An indefinite pronoun is different from a masculine pronoun.[38] The indefinite pronoun τις ("anyone, whoever;" 1 Tim 3:2) is unexplained by Mounce, and he assumes that an elder is to be a man. The lack of a masculine pronoun remains, and Mounce offers no reason for us to assume his interpretation with him. Thus, the best explanation of the women being told to learn in 1 Tim 2:11 is so that they will become educated, and will not fall into deception like Eve (1 Tim 2:13-14).[39] Learning has a causal outcome in any instance, and the force of "learning" before "speaking" or "teaching" is a basic axiomatic component of human life. Paul's command for the women to learn removes their present deception, and emphasizes their "mental soundness" (σωφροσύνης: v.15) in opposition to their (Eve's) deception.[40] The present tense of ἐπιτρέπω ("I am not permitting") in v.12 fits well with the imperative μανθανέτω in v.11. Rather than v.12 restricting the meaning of v.11, ἐπιτρέπω is functioning as a present reality of the deceived women—hence the present tense: while they learn, they are not permitted to be a controlling authoritarian with their husbands.[41]

Since Alexander and Hymenaeus were excluded from the church, and their return is conditioned on their own "instruction," one can safely assume that if Alexander and Hymenaeus repent and return with humbleness and a sound mind that they would perhaps be admitted back into the church, and in time, given positions of teaching power. Perhaps. However, if the wives learn humbly and participate in the attributes of faithfulness, love, and holiness with the soundness of mind that should characterize all people, they will be saved and, perhaps, find themselves among the "faithful one's who are able to teach" (1 Tim 3:2: διδακτικόν). Indeed, in 2 Tim 2:2—a text Mounce cited earlier as excluding women from eldership—perhaps some of the women were already at work there, teaching with learned authority (πιστοῖς ἀνθρώποις οἵτινες ἱκανοὶ ἔσονται καὶ ἑτέρους διδάξαι). The NRSV captures the Greek well: "and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people [not exclusively men] who will be able to teach others as well." Given that Paul is quite capable of using specific gendered terms to refer to men (as he does in 1 Tim 2:8, for instance), one is forced to ask why he uses a more generic anthropological term in 2 Tim 2:2. It seems best to conclude that Paul does not have men exclusively in mind as teachers in every capacity, and that women must be included in this sphere of teaching as a result of their learning. Thus, the best reason for their "learning" is for their positive influence in the community, whether through teaching or preaching, and not their subservience or ontological exclusion from exercising the gifts God has given them. Discipleship in a community of mutual deference and love is principal to Paul's ethics, and the Pastoral Epistles are no exception to this principle.

6. Conclusion

In summation, I offer three preliminary observations that, I hope, will help us solve this debate in evangelicalism. First, in demanding that the wives learn in 2:11, Paul is affirming their cognitive capacity to receive Christian tradition, as he did with Timothy and Eunice and Lois. We see Paul's same assumption of virtue in 1 Cor 7. In that entire chapter, neither husband nor wife has preeminence over the other nor are they to "deprive one another" sexually, and we see mutual submission being the guiding principle in Ephesians 5:21 for what follows there. By stating these things, Paul is affirming both the sexual agency of wives, and the necessity of women as agents of virtue. Thus, Paul is consistent in how he treats husbands and wives. Second, Paul's treatment of men and women regarding deception reveals that neither gender carries with it an ontology that renders them more easily deceived: indeed Paul tells the entire church in Corinth to not be deceived (1 Cor 3:18; c.f. 2 Cor 11:3; 2 Thess 2:3).

Deception is an unfortunate human trait, but fortunately it does not affect one gender more than the other—according to Paul. Third and finally, Paul assumes the participatory necessity of women in the body of Christ. Whether a Junia, a Phoebe, a Deborah, a Lydia, a Euodia, or the unnamed woman in the Gospels who anointed Jesus, God has anointed gifted women with the distinct capacity to learn, to grow, to mature, and to teach with authority. Indeed, I would not be here if I had not studied under learned women. Our greatest challenge in evangelicalism is to provide places where the gifts of God manifest themselves in our sisters, for the glory of all people for the purpose of teaching and instructing us all in righteousness. Places where they can learn, and teach, and participate fully in Christ's mission of reconciliation.

We evangelicals cannot say to women, we have no need of you, because Paul certainly didn't.


A form of this article was read at the Canadian-American Theological Association conference in New York, 2017. If you notice certain colloquialisms or misspellings, please forgive them.

[1] For a survey of the relevant literature see Jamin Hübner, "A New Case for Female Elders: A Reformed-Evangelical Approach" (Th.D. dtss., The University of South Africa, 2013), 22-105.

[2] C.f. Westfall, Paul and Gender, 290-293 and her "The Meaning of αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12," Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 10 (2014): 138-173; Jamin Hübner, "Revisiting αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12: What do the Extant Data Really Show?" Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters 5.1 (2015), 41-71; Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 361-397.

[3] Payne, Man and Woman, 337-361; Andreas Köstenberger, "A Complex Sentence: The Syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12," in Women in the Church: An Interpretation & Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Third edition: ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger & Thomas R. Schreiner: Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 117-162.

[4] S.M. Baugh, "A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century," in Women in the Church: An Interpretation & Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Third edition: ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger & Thomas R. Schreiner: Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 25-64.

[5] The similar use of the verb in 1 Cor 14:34-35 may be set aside for the purposes of this paper, given it's textual instability. Payne, Man and Woman, 217-267 and "Vaticanus Distigme-obelos Symbols Marking Added Text, Including 1 Corinthians 14.34-35," New Testament Studies 63 (2017): 604-625—my thanks to Dr. Payne for sending me his important article. See also Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 699-709 and Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 245-249.

[6] For the argument that Paul is addressing a husband and wife relationship, see Westfall. It can be argued that the majority of Paul's uses of γυνή refer to a husband/wife relationship (1 Cor 7:1-40; 1 Cor 5:1; 9:5; 14:34-35, if original, which I doubt; Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:18-19) or to a woman in a generic fashion (Gal 4:4; perhaps 1 Cor 11:2-16). It seems more likely that Paul is being specific rather than exclusive in 1 Tim 2:9-15, but one cannot be dogmatic on this point.

[7] The noun μαθητής does not occur in the Pastoral Epistles, and so it will be excluded from our study. The noun also does not seem to occur in the LXX either, although there is a wealth of uses in the Synoptic Gospels.

[8] Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield University Press, 1994), 53, 55.

[9] All translations of the LXX are my own unless noted otherwise.

[10] One wonders if this one example is decisive in determining the 'gender' of certain prohibitions or admonitions in Scripture. Was Hathach forgoing his 'male headship' in obeying Ester? Was Ester subverting Hathach's 'male headship' by ordering him to do something?

[11] Similarly, Isaiah 32:4 uses the exact same phrase: μαθήσονται λαλεῖν εἰρήνην.

[12] C.f. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: Harper One, 1996), 317-347.

[13] One is forced to ask, if Paul believed that women were more easily deceived than men, then why women were included in these injunctions throughout the Old Testament. A more easily deceived person, if such a person exists in an ontological sense at all, requires an entire different code of ethics, and we find no such code in Holy Scripture.

[14] In order: Raymond F. Collins, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 68-70; George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 139-140; Jerome D. Quinn and William C. Wacker, The First and Second Letters to Timothy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 199. The others include Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol. 1 (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 226; Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 212-216; Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), 47; Aida Besançon Spencer, 1 Timothy (Eugene: Cascade, 2013), 58-59; I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles (London: T&T Clark, 1999), 452-454. Similarly, the major complementarian works noted above (edited by Köstenberger and Schreiner) and the egalitarian works (Payne, Keener) do not mention or cite this text.

[15] Given the complexities of Philo's Greek, I happily concede that I am indebted to Yonge's translation, even if I correct him or continue to be mystified by his translation.

[16] Similarly in Legum allegoriarum 3:122, Philo continues: "no doubt, a man who said this might speak clearly and distinctly, but he would not be speaking truly, but by such assertions he would be implanting wickedness in language. But when he joins both distinctness and truth, then he makes his language profitable to him who is seeking [i.e. learning: μανθάνοντι] information…" The fundamental nature of this argument is bound up with the assumption that the pursuit of the logos (τὸν λόγον) is to be desired and that it is attainable.

[17] The Reverend Graham Ware pointed this out to me in an earlier draft of this work, so I credit him here with this insight. De posteritate Caini 1:131, 138, 140, 150; Quis rerum divinarum heres sit 1:102; 121; De congressu eruditionis gratia 1:69-70, 122, 126.

[18] Finally, De posteritate Caini 1:140 speaks of a woman being a potential teacher, even serving her student: " For "she made haste," he says, "and took down the pitcher on her arm." Her alacrity to serve the man was displayed by her making haste, and such alacrity is seated in the mind, beyond which envy is cast away. But by the expression, "taking down the pitcher on her arm," we see intimated the prompt and eager attention [lit. "The one learning by the teacher:" τὸν μανθάνοντα τοῦ διδάσκοντος] of the teacher to the pupil." This text may reveal Philo's ease with women (as a human being or as a typological referent) exercising some sort of "teaching" (διδάσκω) role, although this is not entirely clear. Judith Gundry-Volf has shown that Philo exhibits what is clearly the ancient patriarchal standard. C.f. Judith Gundry-Volf, "Paul on Women and Gender: A Comparison with Early Jewish Views," in The Road from Damascus: The Impact of Paul's Conversion on his Life, Thought, and Ministry (ed. Richard N. Longenecker: Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1997), 184-212, 195-200.

[19] The Synoptic Gospels include four uses of this verb, and all of them are in the imperative form. In Matt 9:13, after Jesus has characteristically eaten with tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees challenge him on his ethical conduct. He responds with the imperative μάθετε,[19] which illustrates a demand (not a permission) to go inform themselves about God's desire for mercy and not sacrifice. Similarly, in Matt 11:29, in Christ's prayer to the Father includes the use of the imperative μάθετε in reference to the "taking" of Christ's yoke upon themselves: this is something that the cities must learn from Jesus. The nuances of this imperative likely refer to an offering of rest as well as a command for them to respond and take what is freely offered to them. It also may indicate Jesus' identification of himself with Torah.[19] In the apocalyptic discourse of Mark 13:28 (par. Matt 24:32), Jesus commands his listeners to "learn from the parable of the fig tree" (Ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς συκῆς μάθετε τὴν παραβολήν), reinforcing the idea of Isa 1:17, where Israel is commanded to "learn to do good!" The two uses of the verb in the Gospel of John refer first to instruction by God (6:45a) by his prophets and the subsequent learning (μαθὼν) that results in a person "coming to Jesus" (6:45b).[19] Similarly, the Jewish people remark with amazement at Jesus' learnedness (μεμαθηκώς) and teaching ability (7:15). The Book of Acts records a saying of a centurion who observes that he rescued Paul on the basis of "learning" (μαθὼν) of his Greco-Roman citizenry. Each of the Gospel uses of this verb refers to a person obtaining revelation or information they previously lacked, and in correlation to this is the notion of "understanding." In one of the most important Christological texts in the New Testament, Jesus is said to have "learned" (ἔμαθεν) "obedience from what he suffered" (Heb 5:8). The Eternal Son experienced the depths of the human experience, defined subsequently as "suffering"—a previously unknown state or condition.

[20] C.f. Payne, Man and Woman, 417-442.

[21] As mentioned above, 14:34-35 has been tabled due to its textual indeterminism.

[22] I believe the use of ἵνα confirms the purpose of the admonition: so that all would be able to grasp, comprehend, and subsequently participate.

[23] The full force of the verbs should be felt: the recipients are not passive about what they received, but they accepted it, lived it out, and are currently living it as Paul writes to them. Thus, they are active agents, active recipients of the gift of Christ.

[24] Or as Paul calls it in 4:11, "self-sufficiency:" αὐτάρκης.

[25] The use of "thinking" in Philippians confirms this: c.f. the consistent use of φρονέω: 1:7, 2:2, 5; 3:15, 4:2, 10. I am indebted to Dr. Love Sechrest at Fuller Theological Seminary for pointing this out to me.

[26] The continued presence of heresy in the Pastoral Epistles may attest to this, but it is an unknown. Perhaps Paul has to deal with the lingering effects of heresy as well as the victims of the heretical teaching.

[27] The large cluster of this word group in the Pastoral Epistles strongly confirms the lingering impact made by these two men (c.f. 1 Tim 6:1, which uses "teaching;" Titus 2:5; 3:2.

[28] While one can safely say that being handed over to Satan is indeed a harsh act, the positive injunction that they learn mitigates the harshness.

[29] Johannes E. Louw and Eugene A. Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. 2 vols. 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies), 1989. BibleWorks, v.10. See Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Edited by Frederick W. Danker. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). BibleWorks. v.10.

[30] Given Paul's positive emphasis on women learning elsewhere, one is forced to ask if there is a contextual reason for this displacement, or if the verb refers to the false teachers. Also, the reference to two named men as example of dissent against Moses in v.8 may suggest that the referent is the deceptive men, not the deceived women. Perhaps it refers to both the deceived and the deceivers (3:13: πλανῶντες καὶ πλανώμενοι). However, this is a subsidiary point and I raise it only as such.

[31] The active emphasis of the verb stresses something Timothy "obtained" from his grandmother and mother, that is, "genuine faithfulness" (ἀνυποκρίτου πίστεως).

[32] Westfall, Paul and Gender, 76.

[33] Rom 12:7 uses διδάσκων in reference to a person (or people) who have been given the gift—gender is not mentioned as a prerequisite of a person's call to teach or preach. See Westfall's incisive analysis in Paul and Gender, 208-219.

[34] William D. Mounce, The Pastoral Epistles (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 118.

[35] First, the issue of "obedience" is irrelevant, as v.11 makes clear that the women are to learn in a quiet spirit, but this does not tell us what or why they are to learn. Mounce has not asked the correct question at this point. Spencer, while she may or may not be correct, offers a reasonable inference, while Mounce offers a negation that still leaves the question unanswered. What and why are the women to learn? Second, Mounce's interpretation of this verse is fundamentally unpersuasive regarding apologetics, theological discourse, teaching (c.f. Rom 12 above) and the gifts of the Spirit. In writing that the proclamation of the gospel is for men, one is forced to ask if Paul should have removed the women entirely from the equation as Apostles and Deacons (Rom 16), and fellow co-workers (Phil 4:2-3), and if Jesus made an error in appearing to women who "announced" (ἀπαγγέλλω) the good news of Christ's resurrection (Luke 24:10). One is also forced to wonder, based on Mounce's interpretation, if there is a place for women in any aspect of church life or academia.

[36] Mounce, The Pastoral Epistles, 118.

[37] One is also forced to ask if this list if intended to be an eternal case for us, given that women—perspectivally at that time—were unable to be elders because of their lack of learning. Thus, the questions are not answered and we are left wondering if the presupposition of male headship is still in play.

[38] See Payne, Man and Woman, 445-449.

[39] Paul's imperative of v.11 demands that any eternal prohibition of women exercising what they are told to learn be immediately suspect; hence, he cannot be logically consistent in demanding that the women actively exercise their cognitive virtue in learning proper church doctrine and then eternal prohibit them from the implications of their doing so.

[40] Paul's application of this noun to himself in Acts 26:25 removes the possibility that women were mentally deficient, unless one is will to place Paul himself in such a category.

[41] While I am not entirely sold on the translation "assuming authority over" (c.f. Payne, Man and Woman, 361-399), the negative connotations of the word αὐθεντέω are to be taken with the utmost seriousness. For instance, why would Paul prohibit a positive exercise of learned teaching? It seems quite clear that one only prohibits a person from doing something if that person believes it to be a negative event. Hence, the issue of "controlling" a husband seems more preferable as a contextual gloss, but the matter is difficult to settle—but the point is clear: control over another person is antithetical to the Gospel, and that is what Paul appears to be prohibiting.

The "Headship" of the Apocalyptic Son: Exploring Paul's use of κεφαλή in Col 2:8-23


"It is widely understood by linguists, lexicographers, and philosophers that words do not have one and only one meaning; they have several meanings, some of them quite distinct. Words have a variety of denotations (things they represent) as well as connotations (implied or associated meanings)."[1] This is demonstrably true given the vast ocean of literature surrounding the Greek word κεφαλή, especially as it relates to the evangelical debate about women's ordination. I will argue that Paul's primary emphasis in his use of the term κεφαλή is best understood in terms of "source" or "originating power." In order to illustrate this point, I will survey Paul's "prepositional" Christology in Colossians 1:15-20 as an interpretive lynchpin for the rest of the passage, as it is directly related to Paul's discourse in 2:8-23. Then, once this has all been established, I will build upon this foundation by exploring Paul's use of the noun κεφαλή within Col 2:8-23.[2]

1. Paul's Prepositional Christology: A Brief Analysis of Col 1:13-20

Col 1:15-20 is considered the highlight of Paul's epistle, especially as it relates to any analysis of Paul's prepositional Christology. Chief among my analysis is Paul's use of the preposition ἐν[3] ("in, on, among")[4] throughout Colossians 1:13-20. Paul's use of the preposition often corresponds to a spatial or participatory element: brothers and sisters are ἐν Χριστῷ (1:2), that is, within the sphere or locale of Christ, who represents a positional nexus in a way similar to those who live within a city (c.f. ἐν Κολοσσαῖς 1:2a). Similar to this is Christ being described as the 'object' of faith (ἀκούσαντες τὴν πίστιν ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ: 1:4), where it is the realm of Christ that is emphasized.[5] However, in 1:14 we have a potential shift of usage (ἐν ᾧ ἔχομεν τὴν ἀπολύτρωσιν), where the preposition does not emphasize the locality of Christ, but the activity of God in Christ. The verb ἔχομεν[6] (1:14) speaks of something achieved or gained in terms of active agency, as God is the one who "liberates"[7] (1:13a) us from bondage and transfers us into Christ's Kingdom.

This does not exclude the locative nature of Christ, but liberation is enacted by the action of God in Christ, so there is potentially a dual meaning at play in Paul's rhetoric here.[8] Redemption, whether from Egypt or Rome is a God-in-Christ act. As Porter has already noted, "temporal location can and often does imply the idea of accompaniment, control, agency, cause and even means (price)."[9]

Crucial to a notion of Christ's self-agency is how one understands the preposition ἐν in 1.16; whatever conclusions one derives from this verse will have an impact on one's exegetical conceptualization of how Paul uses κεφαλή in 2:10 and 2:19. The text reads as follows: First, I will survey Paul's "prepositional" Christology in Colossians 1:15-20 as an interpretive lynchpin for the rest of the passage, as it is directly related to Paul's discourse in 2:8-23. Then, once this has all been established, I will build upon this foundation by exploring Paul's use of the term κεφαλή within Col 2:8-23

ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθη τὰ πάντα ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, τὰ ὁρατὰ καὶ τὰ ἀόρατα, εἴτε θρόνοι εἴτε κυριότητες εἴτε ἀρχαὶ εἴτε ἐξουσίαι[10]· τὰ πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰς αὐτὸν ἔκτισται·

"For by him all things were created in the heavens and on the earth, seen and unseen, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or sovereignties: all things have been created through him and for him" (AT).

Paul uses the preposition ἐν twice in this verse, with one clear case of it being used in a spatial manner, i.e. "in" or "among the heavens" (ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς) and "over" (ἐπὶ) the "earth." That much is clear. However, whether ἐν αὐτῷ is exclusively instrumental or locative is debated. The reticence of the instrumentality argument concerns Paul's concluding use of διά, which could be seen as redundant,[11] and for some the "locative…is preferable."[12] Two points may be said in response to this. First, in the dominant usage of Paul's "in Christ" language, the Son is seen as the direct object of the person's faith/fullness (c.f. 1:2 and elsewhere);[13] however, in 1:16a, there is no such referent. Christ is πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως (1:15b), the "firstborn." God is not the one who is active; rather it is Christ in 1:15b, suggesting a continual agency on the part of Christ, and cannot be limited to locality—without the action of the preexistent Son, creation is not created (δι᾽ αὐτοῦ: 1:16b). Agency is required for creation, a point that is bookended in 1:16b. Robert Wilson, following Peake, concurs: "it is probably safest to say that the act of creation depended causally on the Son."[14]

Thus, it seems best to see Christ as the Son who "creates" whatever is in heaven and on the earth: this would include thrones, dominions, rulers, and sovereignties—human and demonic.[15] Christ—as King, Creator, and Lord[16]—is best seen in 1:16 as a principal actor on the stage of creation, and this includes his role in creating the Powers and his own locative presence as being directly involved in God's plan. Christ, therefore, is the locative agent by which the Powers come into being as "created" beings.[17] The question now turns to the relationship between Christ, the Powers and the Church in 2:8-23 and how we are to interpret Paul's language of "headship."

2a. Lexical Perspectives on Kephalē

Despite the fact that a majority of the evangelical gender debate has centered on what has been called the "battle of the lexicons,"[18] one can quickly notice that all of the major English lexicons offer the primary gloss in terms of physiology and not primarily on authority relationships. For instance:

BDAG 3675:

head – a. as anatomical term Mt 5:36; 10:30; 27:39; Mk 6:24f, 27f; Lk 7:38; J 13:9; Ac 21:24; Ro 12:20; 1 Cor 11:4f; 12:21; Rv 1:14 and oft. in Rv. – b. in transf. sense of a, as architectural extremity Mt 21:42 and par. – c. in transf. sense of a, as directing agent within a ranking system 1 Cor 11:3; Eph 1:22; 5:23; Col 1:18. – d. in ref. to political significance Ac 16:12 v.l. 

Friberg 15975:

κεφαλή, ῆς, ἡ head; (1) literally, of a human or animal head (MT 6.17); (2) figuratively; (a) metaphorically, of Christ as the head of which the church is the body (EP 1.22); (b) of persons, designating first or superior rank[19] head (1C 11.3); (c) of things uppermost part, extremity, end point; of buildings keystone, capstone (MT 21.42); (d) leading city, capital (AC 16.12)

Liddel-Scott-Jones 24124 Abridged:

the head of man or beast, Hom., etc.; κατὰ κεφαλῆς, Ep. κὰκ κεφαλῆς, over the head, Id.; κὰκκεφαλήν on the head, Il.:- ἐς πόδας ἐκ κεφαλῆς from head to foot, Ib.:- ἐπὶ κεφαλήν head foremost, head downwards, headlong, Hdt., Plat., etc.

2. the head, put for the whole person, Hom.; ἶσον ἐμῇ κεφαλῇ like myself, Il.; φίλη κ., Lat. carum caput, Ib.: in bad sense, ὦ κακαὶ κεφαλαί Hdt.; ὦ μιαρὰ κ. Ar.

3. the head, i.e. the life, παρθέμενοι κεφαλάς setting their heads on the cast, Od.:-in imprecations, ἐς κεφαλὴν τρέποιτ᾽ ἐμοί on my head be it! Ar., etc.

II. generally, κ. σκορόδου a head of garlic, Id.: the top or brim of a vessel, Theocr.: the coping of a wall, Xen.:-in pl. the head or source of a river, Hdt.

III. metaph., like κεφάλαιον, the crown, completion of a thing, Plat.

Louw-Nida 8.10:

κεφαλή, ῆς f - 'head.' θέλω ἵνα ἐξαυτῆς δῳσ μοι ἐπὶ πίνακι τὴν κεφαλὴν Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ 'I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a plate' Mk 6.25. In some languages it may be necessary to distinguish clearly between the head which is still a part of a body and a severed head. It is this latter meaning which is obviously involved in Mk 6.25 .In rendering 1 Cor 11.4, πᾶς ἀνὴρ προσευχόμενος ἢ προφητεύων κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων 'any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered,' it may be important to indicate that the covering is not one which is designed to cover the entire head including the face, but only the top of the head. The same applies, of course, to 1 Cor 11.5 and 7.

In each instance, the lexicon is prone to interpreting the various occurrences of κεφαλή, with little justification as to the various interpretive placements. While one cannot dismiss glosses out of hand, a proper methodology ought to focus on the individual occurrences within a specific corpus before turning to the various lexicons.[20] Lexicons are summaries of data that cannot replace commentaries or monographs on specific subjects.[21] Context decides the meaning of a particular lexeme, and now we turn to that specific and vexatious word: κεφαλή.

2b. Kephalē and the Necessity of Contextual Distinctives in Paul

The Greek word κεφαλή occurs 67 times in the New Testament, with a majority of occurrences coming in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (37 times)[22] and the Book of Revelation (16 times).[23] Paul uses the noun a mere 13 times in his surviving epistles.  Some of these instances clearly fall under the physiological category[24] (c.f. Rom 12:20: τοῦτο γὰρ ποιῶν ἄνθρακας πυρὸς σωρεύσεις ἐπὶ τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ)[25] with no specific denotation or connotation of 'authority' or 'source.' It must be said that there are at least two separate categories for "head" in Paul when he uses the term in a metaphorical or mixed (metaphor and literal) manner. One category concerns conduct within the ekklesia (Rom 12:20; 1 Cor 11:2-16, 12:21; Col 2:19; Eph 4:15-16, 5:23), and the other category concerns Christ's relationship with the Powers (Eph 1:22; Col 2:10). While there is some blurring between these categories given the household nature of the ancient church,[26] interpreters ought to exercise caution in assuming and consequently conflating the two categories together. Christ's relationship to the Church is different than his relationship to the various Sovereignties—one is reconciled to God, the other is ultimately destroyed (1 Cor 15:24-28)

2c. Kephalē and the Discourse of Col 2:8-23

The epistolary context of Col 2:8-23 shows a great deal of continued linguistic correspondence with Col 1:15-20. What defines κεφαλὴ in the pericope that follows is determined by authorial application and by the epistolary context of Colossians, and not by a narrow lexical category.[27]

Col 2:10

The use of ἐν αὐτῷ occurs significantly in both chapters (1:14, 16, 17, 19; 2:9, 10) in Paul's Christology of creation, where Christ's actions as creator are stressed, and 1:15, 18 and 2:10a have similar syntax:

1:15: ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ

1:18: αὐτός ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλὴ

2:10b: ὅς ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλὴ[28]

The correspondence language between the Christ-Hymn, Christ's role as Creator, and Paul's language of the Powers in 2:10 strongly suggests a thematic and linguistic relationship.[29]

καὶ ἐστὲ ἐν αὐτῷ πεπληρωμένοι, ὅς ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλὴ πάσης ἀρχῆς καὶ ἐξουσίας: ("and you have been filled in/by him, who is the head of all rule and authority"). For Wayne Grudem, this verse "emphasizes that Christ is the authority over[30] not only the church, but over all rulers and authorities, over all powers in the universe."[31] To be the "head" is to be in authority over the powers. Cervin argues

The notion of authority may be present [in Col 2:10], but so are prominence and preeminence. Again, the question is which notion, if any, is primary? It is unlikely that "source" is applicable in this context because that would make Christ the source of "every ruler and authority" and that does not make much sense in this context.[32]

Proponents of κεφαλή as meaning generally "source" like Philip Payne suggest, "the meaning 'top or crown' fits" Col 2:10 better than 'source.'"[33] However, both Grudem, Cervin and Payne miss a crucial element: Paul specifically speaks of Christ being the "creator" (ἐκτίσθη; ἔκτισται) in Col 1:16 and Paul specifically includes the various Sovereignties and Empires as created entities:[34] indeed, 1:16a begins with the aorist ἐκτίσθη and bookends with v.16b with the perfect ἔκτισται, showing that Christ bookends the creation of the totality of the hostile powers (τὰ πάντα …εἴτε θρόνοι εἴτε κυριότητες εἴτε ἀρχαὶ εἴτε ἐξουσίαι… τὰ πάντα), who are subsequently reconciled to God (vv.19-20).[35] "Source," seen as the preexistent Son's power to create even the hostile Powers that have enslaved humanity (1:13), shows his own preeminence over them as a subsidiary—not primary—meaning.[36]

The primary connotation for this lexeme, therefore, not "authority" or "top/crown," but "source" or "origination" in terms of Christ being the agent of creation. Christ, as Creator, is preeminent over the Sovereignties by nature of being their Creator. However, Joseph Fitzmyer claims, "those who have claimed than[37] "source" is the meaning intended by Paul have offered no other argument than their claim that kephalē would not have meant "ruler, leader, one having authority over" in Paul's day."[38] As one can see, Fitzmyer is simply mistaken: I have offered contextual and theological reasons for seeing Paul's intended use in terms of "originator" or "source" without once appealing to the paucity of evidence that kephalē might mean "authority over"[39]—it certainly might.[40] Given Christ's role as "creator" in 1:16 in relation to the Sovereignties, the best understanding of 2:10 should be seen primarily in terms of "source" or "origination" and not in terms of "rulership."[41]

Col 2:18-19

καὶ οὐ κρατῶν τὴν κεφαλήν, ἐξ οὗ πᾶν τὸ σῶμα διὰ τῶν ἁφῶν καὶ συνδέσμων ἐπιχορηγούμενον καὶ συμβιβαζόμενον αὔξει τὴν αὔξησιν τοῦ θεοῦ: "and not holding onto the head, from which the entire body—through the ligaments and sinews being supplied and instructed together—grows in the growth of God." Wayne Grudem asserts: "the idea of allegiance to Christ instead of to angels makes the mention of Christ as “authority over” the church an appropriate one in this context. Especially when we realize that the image of head involves not just authority but leadership, direction, guidance, and control, then the following idea of the whole body being knit together and growing together is appropriate."[42] However, this interpretation is most unlikely for two reasons. First, the preposition ἐξ, which is used in both a locative and instrumental sense, suggests "source" or "movement" from τὴν κεφαλήν to the rest of the body.[43] The life of the body and the production of its faculties are derived exclusively from its head—Christ. Hence, Christ is the cause of the Body in the first place (c.f. 1:17-18), so we have a 'head-body' image here. Second, the somatic imagery used in Col 1:6 and 1:10[44] forces us to prefer the organic nature of τὴν κεφαλήν instead of the "ruling" component.[45] Given the explicit language of growth and somatic imagery at play, we have the additional language of avoiding the cosmic elements of bodily abuse (2:20-23), where Christ is not present.

Grudem writes, "whether the idea of “nourishing” carries an image of food that is transported through the mouth (a part of the head) to the rest of the body is not made clear here."[46] It is worth noting, however, that Paul does speak about the Colossian church "eating" and "drinking" in 2:16 and 2:21, where the church is not to worry about being judged for their feasting habits.[47] In summation of this point, the intra-participatory nature of Paul's somatic image is fully in line with his thought elsewhere (1 Cor 12:12-27) and suggests a united harmony between Christ and his Body; the focus in Col 2:19 is not on the authority relationship between Christ and the Body in any explicit manner, despite Grudem's claims.[48] Rather, Paul's focus is on Christ as the preeminent creator and sustainer of our lives, the one who takes a hold of our very lives (3:3), so that we in the Son who will be apocalyptically manifested (3:4), the only hope of our future glory (1:27).


Paul's prepositional Christology is both locative and instrumental, revealing a complex and intricate relationship between God and the Powers. In our study, we have seen that—in Colossians—Christ is the agent of creation, the preexistent creator who has been manifested in glory for us. As a consequence, Christ's active and locative relationship with the Sovereignties reveals two facets of the Christian life. First, Christ is preeminent over creation for the benefit of the church, as our protector; in stripping the Sovereignties of their power, God in Christ has triumphed over all evil and death, nailing such tyrants to the cross. Second, Christ's relationship to his Body—the Church—is one of generosity, where God-in-Christ relates to us not as a sovereign, but as a beloved father (Col 1:2). As the source of our existence, and as the sustainer and holder of our lives, where a new humanity can grow, thrive and flourish in the Kingdom of God's beloved Son (Col 3:10-11).


[1] Richard S. Cervin, "On the Significance of Kephalē ("Head"): A Study of the Abuse of One Greek Word," Priscilla Papers 30.2 (2016): 8-20, 8.

[2] Since the noun under question does not occur in the Colossian Haustafel, my arguments are independent of the debate concerning the ordination of women—although it must be said that I am in support of the ordination of women. For the various understandings of κεφαλὴ in the literature, perhaps representative is Anthony Thisleton's First Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 812-822 ["preeminence"]. Other helpful—and diverse—works include Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 117-137 ["source"]; Joseph Fitzmyer, "Kephalē in I Corinthians 11:3," Interpretation 47 (1993): 52-59 [mixed, leans toward "authority" or "ruler"]; Fred D. Layman, "Male Headship in Paul's Thought," Wesleyan Theological Journal 15.1 (1980): 46-76 [broadly "source"]; Wayne Grudem, "Does Κεφαλή ("Head") Mean "Source" or "Authority Over" in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples," Trinity Journal 6.1 (1985): 38-59 ["authority over" or "ruler"] and Andrew Perriman, "The Head of a Woman: The Meaning of κεφαλὴ in 1 Cor. 11:3," Journal of Theological Studies 45.2 (1994): 602-622 ["preeminent"]. For a major survey of the literature until 2008, see Alan F. Johnson, "A Review of the Scholarly Debate on the Meaning of "Head" (κεφαλὴ) in Paul's Writings," Ashland Theological Journal (2009): 35-57, who leans toward "preeminence."

[3] BDAG 2196 states: "generally functioning as marker of position within, but used to govern numerous other categories, such as means, agency, cause, and associated aspects." Stanley E. Porter notes the following concerning agency and ἐν: "the label 'instrumental' is given to a range of metaphorical extensions of the locative sense of ἐν. Temporal location can and often does imply the idea of accompaniment, control, agency, cause and even means (price)." See Idioms of the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.: Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 158. If am I understanding Porter correctly, the notion of realm/locality is not to be entirely removed from the actions of a particular agent.

[4] While there is a textual variant concerning Κολοσσαῖς, the earliest disruptive witness is Codex Claromontanus in the 6th century; Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Vaticanus support the standard reading.

[5] Murray J. Harris, Colossians & Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 16, believes this phrase refers to the "realm" of the faith exercised by the Colossians.

[6] The present tense-form ἔχω most likely refers to an achieved and enduring consequence of a previous act: the liberation and transference of a people from one state to another in v.13.

[7] Liberation is from slavery and bondage (Ex 6:6 LXX: καὶ ῥύσομαι ὑμᾶς ἐκ τῆς δουλείας καὶ λυτρώσομαι ὑμᾶς ἐν βραχίονι ὑψηλῷ καὶ κρίσει μεγάλῃ), a people group leaving an oppressive empire for the Kingdom of God. This is where my final paper for MMT at Fuller is centered.

[8] The dual activity of God and Christ here (God liberates, and Christ gives us ἀπολύτρωσιν or "redemption") suggests a high view of Christ's work and appears to assume a form of preexistence—a view that is largely evident in the Christ-Hymn to come.

[9] Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 158.

[10] A very late scribe interpolated εἴτε δυνάμεις after εἴτε ἐξουσίαι. The sole evidence for this reading comes from 14th c., "a paper ms. of Acts, General Epistles and 1 Peter-Hebrews, located at St. Catherine’s Monastery, classified as an Aland category II text." Per Bibleworks Apparatus. The significance of this variant is that a scribe sought to include a universal element of the various powers and sovereignties in the cosmos, and the lack of δυνάμεις by Paul was intended to expand upon Paul's cosmological statement.

[11] James D.G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 91 n.20. This seems to downplay the nuances of both prepositions. See Porter, Idioms, 156-159 and 148-151 for a discussion on the differences.

[12] Harris, Colossians & Philemon, 44.

[13] C.f. 2 Cor 5:17: ὥστε εἴ τις ἐν Χριστῷ, καινὴ κτίσις: "if anyone is in Christ, new creation." This verse and grammatical sequence suggest a clear locative element to the "in Christ" motif, in a way that is distinct from Paul's own language in Col 1:16a.

[14] Robert McL. Wilson, Colossians and Philemon (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 137-138.

[15] Marva J. Dawn, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), esp. ch1.

[16]  There are numerous terms and images used by Paul to describe the Cosmic Christ. The inference of 1:13 is that Jesus is God's Son and the present King over the kingdom of God (τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ); Christ is "Lord" (κύριος: 1:3, 10; 2:6; 3:13, 17-4:1, 7, 17), and Messiah (Χριστός). Jesus is also described as "the hope of glory" (ἡ ἐλπὶς τῆς δόξης: 1:27b), and as "creator" (v.16; ἐκτίσθη, ἔκτισται) and "beginning" (ἀρχή:v.18), which stresses his creative causal power. Christ is also called the "head" (κεφαλὴ) of his own "body" defined epexegetically as the "church" (τοῦ σώματος τῆς ἐκκλησίας), twice in relation to his own σῶμα (1:18; 2:19). Finally, but not exhaustively, Christ is "revealed" or "made manifest" to us (ἐφανερώθη: 1:26; 3:4; 4:4) as God's final bodily incarnational manifestation.

[17] The middle ἐκτίσθη probably stresses the actual creation of the universe, which suggests both locality and agency on the part of the preexistent Son.

[18] A phrase coined by Christianity Today, January 16, 1987. Cited by John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (4th ed: Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 357 n.45.

[19] Friberg's conflation of "first" and "superior" in relation is unhelpful, as both terms convey distinct meanings. For instance, one could say, "I hit my head first and then I fell down." A notion of "superiority" is absent from the context, and so Friberg's non-descript gloss is unhelpful for those who rely solely on lexicons to determine theology. It is also worth noting that "first" is not the same as "superior." Temporality does not equate to a value judgment, which Friberg seems to infer.

[20] For instance, Friberg's gloss "as directing agent within a ranking system" is misleading, as arguably several of the occurrences are within a political context (c.f. Eph 1:22 and the "Powers").

[21] A lexeme also does not necessarily derive a meaning simply from its philology either: rather, context is the decisive factor in determining a preferential gloss over and against others.

[22] Matt 5:36; 6:17; 8:20; 10:30; 14:8, 11: 21:42; 26:7; 27:29; 27:30, 37, 39. Mark 6:24-28; 12:10; 14:3; 15:19, 29. Luke 7:38, 46; 9:58; 12:7; 20:17; 21:18, 28. John 13:9; 19:2, 30; 20:7, 12. Acts 4:11; 18:6, 18; 21:24; 27:34. See also the language of Jesus in reference to the "cornerstone" (Matt 21:42 par Mark 12:10/ Luke 20:17 and Acts 4:11)

[23] Rev 1:14; 4:4; 9:7, 17, 19; 10:1; 12:1, 3; 13:1, 3; 14:14; 17:3, 7, 9; 18:19; 19:12. We see a mix of apocalyptic metaphorical imagery here, but no specific instance of a person being directly referred to as "authority" or "ruler."

[24] As Cervin states rather dryly: "What then does kephalē mean? The answer is easy: the literal head." "On the Significance," 18.

[25] Paul's direct citation of Prov 25:22 LXX reveals that this lexeme is not concerned with 'head' as a metaphor, but rather in a physiological sense. See also 1 Cor 12:21: ἢ πάλιν ἡ κεφαλὴ τοῖς ποσίν: Χρείαν ὑμῶν οὐκ ἔχω, where the function of the lexeme is for the physiological aspect to be given primacy as it relates to the various parts of the "body" are interdependent.

[26] C.f. Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald with Janet H. Tulloch, A Woman's Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006) and Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009).

[27] This is not to say that Plutarch or Philo is irrelevant to this conversation; rather it is to say Paul is permitted to use an admittedly polysemous word in any way he wants to.

[28] Specifically 1:15 and 2:10b: relative pronoun + εἰμί + object in the nominative.

[29] C.f. also the close relationship between "fullness" (πλήρωμα; πληρόω) in 1:19 and 2:9-10.

[30] Paul does not include a spatial preposition like ὑπέρ here, so the addition of "over" in Grudem's gloss is misleading. Paul's only specific uses of a spatial preposition in reference to κεφαλή is in 1 Cor 11:10 (διὰ τοῦτο ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς), which refers to a woman's authority to prophesy and not to her subordination (c.f. Payne, Man and Woman, 181-187; Westfall, Paul and Gender, 35-36), and in Eph 1:22, where Christ is exalted "over" the Powers for the sake of the church (καὶ αὐτὸν ἔδωκεν κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ πάντα τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ: taking the dative in terms of benefit: τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ as "to the church"). Harris makes the same mistake as Grudem. Murray J. Harris, Colossians & Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 100.

[31] Grudem, "Does Κεφαλή ("Head") Mean "Source" or "Authority Over" in Greek Literature?," 57. It is worth noting that while Grudem emphatically states his thoughts on this verse, he does not provide any specific reason as to why we must favor his gloss within this specific verse—what may be obvious to him is not immediately obvious to other interpreters. In light of Christ's role as creator, it seems unlikely that "ruler" is a lexeme of primacy.

[32] Cervin, "On the Significance," 18.

[33] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 128 n.72.

[34] A point also noted by Marianne Meye Thompson, Colossians & Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 54.

[35] Paul's similar use of bookended prepositional phrases confirms that Christ is the active agent of creation: "by him" (ἐν αὐτῷ) and "through him" (δι᾽ αὐτοῦ). Paul's theology of Christ and creation, it seems, is prepositional rather than propositional. See James D.G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 91.

[36] This brings up a lingering question that Paul does not answer: if Christ is the creator of the Powers, what does this say about theodicy and instances of severe evil in our world that are beyond our control?

[37] This is how they original spelled the word.

[38] Fitzmyer, "Kephalē in I Corinthians 11:3," 59.

[39] Indeed, I have never asserted anything that would lead a proponent of the "authority" reading to think otherwise, nor have I seen any such scholar do so. Fitzmyer does not offer a footnote to elucidate his claim, so one is left wondering exactly who Fitzmyer has in mind.

[40] C.f. perhaps Ephesians 5:22-24, but even within the concept of marital hierarchy, one seems mutual submission in v.21 as a guiding light that illuminates the rest of the passage. C.f. Cynthia Long Westfall, "This is a Great Metaphor!" Reciprocity in the Ephesians Household Code," in Christian Origins and Greco-Roman Culture: Social and Literary Context for the New Testament, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Andrew Pitts (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 561-598.

[41] Even if one wanted to see some sort of preeminence or prominence (per Perriman and Cervin), and I admit this is possible, 'rulership' is a highly limited word to understand Paul's contextual uses of the noun under dispute.

[42] Grudem, "Does Κεφαλή ("Head") Mean "Source" or "Authority Over" in Greek Literature?" 58.

[43] Porter, Idioms, 154-156. Specifically, "if something is the origin or source of something, it may often be possible to say that it is the instrument, cause or agent by which something comes about." 155.

[44] καρποφορούμενον καὶ αὐξανόμενον, 1:6; καρποφοροῦντες καὶ αὐξανόμενοι, 1:10.

[45] For instance, Col 1:10 speaks of us "walking/living in a manner worthy of God" (περιπατῆσαι ἀξίως τοῦ κυρίου), showing a relationship where God in Christ is the source of our ethical lives, and we grow through the work of God in Christ.

[46] Grudem, "Does Κεφαλή ("Head") Mean "Source" or "Authority Over" in Greek Literature?" 58.

[47] Dunn, Colossians and Philemon, 173.

[48] The language of subordination or hierarchy is not immediately present in the relationship between Christ and the Body, so Grudem has assumed a narrow lexical range without sufficient justification. There is also a forced and selective hermeneutic at play here: Grudem accepts that Paul was not a patriarchalist—as was the standard in the ancient world, so even in Grudem's complementarian schema, Paul has changed the nature of marital hierarchy to where the headship of the husband "must be exercised in love, in gentleness, and with consideration for one's wife above one's self." P.57. This is an arbitrary hermeneutic that gives preference to an area where Paul developed his thought above the ancient world, but refuses to allow Paul to nuance his own lexical framework.

The Trinity in Our Image? Reconsidering an Evangelical Social Agenda for the Trinity Pt.2

For part one of Allison's series, click here.

Earlier it became evident that although Grudem and Ware appeal to the creeds and early church fathers as though they proclaimed Ware and Grudem's view of authority relations within the Trinity, they don't in actuality. Grudem and Ware's position is far from the orthodox position. Nowhere in their citations of either Augustine or the creed is there an explicit connection made for the sending or originating relationship being an authoritative relationship based in the nature of the Trinity. This is at best an implication that Grudem and Ware arrive at on their own, though they appear not to be saying this is an implication (which is never worked out), but a direct communication of the idea in Augustine and the Creed.  However, the actual position of the early church, differing origination (the mere language of which Grudem and Ware appeal to), is not actually held by either of them. They hold to a different view.

In sum, we saw that they were lacking clear reasoning for why “sending” had to only mean differing authority relations, and the novelty of their view demands better argumentation.


 Having briefly over viewed the particular way Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware conceive of eternal differences within the Trinity, it is time to consider some of the view’s more serious problems. My basic claim is as follows: Although Grudem and Ware intend to uphold an orthodox view of the Trinity, their view is at best incoherent and at worst entails a heterodox position.


The eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father should be rejected because, as it is currently expressed, it is incoherent. That is, there is a lack of cohesion in Grudem and Ware’s argument between the Son being eternally subordinate to the Father and trinitarian orthodoxy. I suspect they simply want to have it both ways yet are unable to provide an argument allowing for both. Worse yet, they do not seem cognizant of it. This is more than evident in the written back and forth between Ware and Thomas McCall.

In Which Trinity? Whose Montheism? McCall takes one chapter to critique eternal functional subordination.[1] Specifically, he wants to critique those who would make eternal functional subordination what God is ad intra. McCall allows for positions that teach the Son is always subordinate in his work in redemption as the incarnation in this possible world, indicating subordination itself is not what functions as the eternal distinguisher within the Trinity. McCall brings in the question of whether the Son is subordinate in all possible worlds in order to tease out the nature of the Son’s subordination. If one answers that the Son is subordinate in all possible worlds, this means it is an essential property of the Son since it is necessary to the inner life of God and not just something that happens in relation to creation. If subordination ends up being something that is an essential property then it means there is something essentially different between the Father, Son and Spirit meaning they have difference essences.

How can Grudem or Ware get distinction within the Trinity if distinction must be necessary and yet not compromise the divine essence? If McCall is right they end up with a personal essence and generic essence of “kind” (i.e. divine) so that each trinitarian person has his own personal essence but also shares a divine essence with the others.[2] Whether or not they opt for having a second essence, their options from here are to base the personal essences in “origination relationship” (also known in terms of “generation” and “spiration”) or functional personal essences (i.e. having authority over). Since the latter (they do not subscribe to the former), they have articulated a Son who is in personal essence subordinate to the Father because of the argument summarized in the last paragraph necessitates that they are indeed speaking of essence or ontology whether or not they want to say the word “essence.”[3] According to Grudem, admitting the Son is not of the same essence as the Father is not an option because “If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God.”[4] Of course, this statement of Grudem’s does not anticipate a member of the Trinity with two essences! Grudem is trying to protect his view against Arianism rather than tritheism and so the risk stemming from two essences is entirely missed. McCall ends his critique wondering, “How someone might coherently affirm both homoousios and Hard EFS is far from obvious, and to say that such a position is internally strained is to put it rather mildly.”[5] How will Grudem and Ware reveal that they actually can coherently affirm homoousios and keep the authority-submission relationship?

Ware has recently given a direct response to McCall in the last chapter of One God in Three Persons. Still thinking in terms of there being only one essence in each divine person, he immediately defends against the notion that his view entails a denial of the homoousios. His first defense is simply to claim that if he has fallen into this error, then Athanasius and the Nicene fathers have too because they believe the essential personal distinguisher is being “begotten” and the conditions for this distinguisher are the same as subordination. They are both necessary personal properties and so if Ware’s position entails a denial of homoousios then so does Nicene orthodoxy.[6] Of course, he is not escaping from McCall’s argument; he is merely attaching his position to Nicene orthodoxy as a sort of theological trump card so that he cannot fail despite what is logically entailed by each stage of acceptance.[7]

If considered from the vantage point of one shared divine essence, submission-authority relationships already have by their very makeup a key difference from origination differences. Rather than being “strongly internally-related properties,” Ware and Grudem’s position has what amounts to a difference in omnipotence. [8]   McCall refers specifically to the Father being unable to do an action that is logically and morally possible such as becoming incarnate. It should be further noted that there is a difference in power-relationships between members of the Trinity in such a way that does not merely remain functional as much as Grudem and Ware would like it to.

Ware’s next rebuttal unfortunately only amounts to asserting that he is talking about “a property of the person of the Son, not a property of the essence or nature which the Son shares fully with the Father and the Spirit” and he is not referring to an attribute.[9] He does not seem to realize that McCall is claiming Ware’s understanding entails that he is actually talking about essence or nature ending in a different essence between the Son and the Father—Ware has to argue otherwise.[10] Ware is in a position where he can decide to posit two natures for each person of the Trinity or, say there is only one divine nature demonstrating how the Son can have the necessary subordinate personal property without it being essential and without it becoming a different essence from the Father. Instead, Ware gets angry with McCall for not providing this “solution” that it is really a personal property and insinuates McCall is trying to be deceptive when instead Ware has gravely misunderstood the force of McCall’s objection.[11]

Lastly, Ware accuses McCall of getting confused between adjectives and nouns. Ware clarifies he is talking about something “essential” not “essence.”[12] Of course, earlier he had also claimed:

Clearly, the distinction of persons requires that there are distinguishing properties of each person as opposed to being merely contingent or accidental, are true of them in every possible world, are held with a de re kind of necessity, and hence are essential to the distinctive personhood of each Trinitarian person.[13]

If he had followed McCall’s argument he would have realized that by reasserting that the Son is subordinate in all possible worlds he was committing himself to subordination being necessarily and if subordination is a necessary property (de re), then he has this essentially, and if the Son has this essentially and the Father does not then he is of a difference essence than the Father. “Thus, the Son is heteroousios rather than homoousios.”[14] There is no confusion of terms in McCall’s work, just a progression of argument that Ware does not follow or answer for. Instead, his attempt at a defense amounts to saying other people are also guilty and crossly re-asserting his position again.

There is a final point of incoherence that is unresolved in Grudem and Ware’s trinitarian theology. Since their theology necessitates a difference that is hierarchically based, the Holy Spirit serves as a disruption to their all-encompassing categories of authority and submission. [15] In their scheme, the Father is no longer the Father if he is not in authority and the Son is not the Son if he is not subordinate to the Father and the Spirit it similarly not the Spirit if he is not subordinate to both the Father and the Son in the economy and for all eternity. Grudem explains:

So we may say that the role of the Father in creation and redemption has been to plan and direct and send the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is not surprising, for it shows that the Father and the Son relate to one another as a father and son relate to one another in a human family: the father directs and has authority over the son, and the son obeys and is responsive to the directions of the father. The Holy Spirit is obedient to the directives of both the Father and the Son...These roles could not have been reversed or the Father would have ceased to be the Father and the Son would have ceased to be the Son. And by analogy from that relationship, we may conclude that the role of the Holy Spirit is similarly one that was appropriate to the relationship he had with the Father and the Son before the world was created.[16]

Similarly, Ware states:

This view holds that God reveals himself in Scripture as one God in three persons…the Father is revealed as having the highest authority among the Trinitarian persons, such that the Son, as agent of the Father, eternally implements the will of the Father and is under the Father’s authority, and the Holy Spirit likewise serves to advance the Father’s purposes fulfilled through the Son, under the authority of the Father and also of the Son.[17]

The Holy Spirit’s distinctiveness is construed as doubly subordinate, just as a child is submissive to both her father and mother. The Spirit’s role, like the Father and Son is an eternal one perceived in the economy. The authority-submission relationship cannot be otherwise because it would mean that what makes each distinct is actually interchangeable. Curiously, Ware breaks these absolute categories he and Grudem have built up in admitting that in the biblical testimony the Son submits to the Holy Spirit. Uh oh.

Even though the Spirit is given authority over the incarnate Son, so that the Son follows the lead of the Spirit and performs his miracles in the power of the Spirit, nevertheless the Spirit knows that this authority is not permanent. And he knows that this authority is not over the eternal Son of the Father, but only over the Son incarnate.[18]

Rather than perceiving this move of the Holy Spirit as undermining his absolute authority-based understanding of trinitarian distinctions, Ware decides this is a special instance that only applies to the Spirit’s authority over Jesus’s humanity. Of course, he is not willing to allow this in the case of the Father exercising authority over Jesus, because such would undermine what makes each of the trinitarian persons distinct. This is inconsistent and instead of trying provide resolution, Ware arrives at an unusual practical lesson of not being bitter when one’s delegated authority comes to an end and for women to be happy working behind the scenes at church.[19] However, if the Holy Spirit serves as an exception to authority-submission relationships, then this is not an absolute distinction and the door is open for other possibilities. In sum, the Holy Spirit’s authority over the Son when he should be always submissive to the Son (lest he cease to be the Holy Spirit) derails their entire, mostly binary project.

Next time we will look more closely into potential entailments of Grudem and Ware's views. I say "potential" because on the whole their view appears incoherent. The point is that if it is not incoherent and thus should not be dismissed outright, depending on the direction they take we are left with some disturbing options. Do we end up with a partative God (the Holy Spirit is part of God, the Son another part...etc not the Holy Spirit is wholly God...etc) which threatens divine simplicity? Do we have a form of tritheism (one divinity composed of 3 distinct gods or individuals each with separate domains) or Arianism (Jesus is not truly "God" in the way we understand God, he is a lesser god with a different essence) entailed?



[1] Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI.,: Eerdmans, 2010), 175-188.

[2] Ibid., 95-97, 180, 201-202.

[3] Ibid., 181.

[4] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 251.

[5]McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?,188.

[6] Ware, One God in Three Persons, 241.

[7] In the backdrop is the problem of having two essences: a divine and a personal one. Does this entail heterodoxy? However, McCall and Ware are still assuming one essence is being discussed.

[8] McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?,180, 182.

[9] Ware, One God in Three Persons, 243.

[10] Ware does something similar in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 79. When describing the authority-submission relationship between the Father and Son he recognizes he cannot (or rather should not) be describing essence or nature so he simply asserts, “Since this priority cannot rightly be understood in terms of essence or nature (lest one fall into Arian subordinationism), it must be understood in terms of relationship.” Rather than get upset over other theologians, philosophers and historians saying his view entails Arianism, it behoves Ware to actually demonstrate why his view does not end up describing a difference in essence and with it Arianism rather than offering complaints. 

[11] Ware, One God in Three Persons., 243-244.

[12] Ibid., 246-247.

[13] Ibid., 246.

[14] McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?,179-180.

[15] Although there is not enough evidence compiled in her short book on the destabilizing impact of the Holy Spirit on theology, Sarah Coakley’s at least provides a starting point for further research into this tendency. Cf. God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 249-250.

[17] Ware, One God in Three Persons, 237-238.

[18] Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 128.

[19] Ibid., 129-130.


The Trinity in Our Image? Reconsidering an Evangelical Social Agenda for the Trinity Pt.1

Inspired by Oliver's class on the Trinity where he put up the Trinity from the Matrix as his course picture on Moodle.

Inspired by Oliver's class on the Trinity where he put up the Trinity from the Matrix as his course picture on Moodle.

Using the Trinity to promote a social agenda is nothing new and often it seems there are more than enough ideologies to go around. If only we could all see the connection and enact whatever implication being promoted, then our society, government, church or family would be better off. It is not unusual to hear of appeals to the Father and Son relationship as a template for homosexual relationships[1] nor is it unexpected to hear the doctrine of the Trinity is being used to promote a particular type of egalitarian society within the church or at large, as is the case with Jürgen Moltmann.[2] In commenting on this broader tendency to use the Trinity to promote a social agenda Keith Johnson satirically remarks:

But why not argue that the threeness of God constitutes the blueprint for governmental structures with three “equal” yet “distinct” branches of authority: an executive branch (corresponding to the Father), a legislative branch (corresponding to the Word) and a judicial branch (corresponding to the Spirit, who is described in John’s Gospel as “Counselor”)? On this basis we could claim that the American government is an image of the Trinity![3]

It is not difficult to see why one might make a connection between the Trinity and whatever social program is in vogue or happens to align with an individual or group’s existing sentiments. Doing so not only provides another layer of authority for a social agenda otherwise lacking, it can on a less sinister level simply serve to make the Trinity relevant for one’s everyday life—the sentiment behind Karl Rahner’s project.[4] Not surprisingly, some evangelicals are rightly suspicious of groups that perceive a connection between the Trinity and another agenda they are passionate about.  For example, Michael Bird and Robert Shillaker, both subordinationists in regards to the Trinity, helpfully share their concerns regarding the often-perceived link between subordination in the Trinity and gender:

We are suspicious of the fact that, generally speaking, most complementarians are functional subordinationists while, generally speaking, most egalitarians are in favor of co-equality in function…This partisan perspective leads us to infer that prior theological commitments on both sides have influenced the debate and discussion is not really about trying to describe the ineffable mystery of inter-personal relations within the Trinity as much as it is about trying to advance or obstruct a certain view of women.[5]

These sorts of tendencies to make improper connections between the Trinity and other aspects of life we wish to change should be firmly resisted. If not, at the very least such a link should inspire reservation if a precise link cannot be clearly demonstrated from Scripture or if it entails a rejection of the historic faith.

For years there has been a debate within evangelical circles concerning the nature of the Son’s obedience to the Father.[6] One perspective claims the Son’s submission to the Father is to be understood in terms of his incarnation, a role he enacts as a representative of humanity in the economic Trinity. The other position alleges the submission of the Son characterizes the Son as the Son in the immanent Trinity, meaning the Son is eternally subordinate—though merely in a functional manner. What is relatively new in this longer debate is that a movement comprised of gender “complementarians” has commandeered the latter of these positions in order to promote their own social agenda, in turn attracting responses from evangelical egalitarians.[7] As a result, it has become difficult to separate the initial discussion from various gender biases and yet such a connection is now prevalent and cannot be ignored. For this reason a multifaceted approach to the issue is needed, one that still focuses on the initial question concerning the nature of the submission of the Son, but also considers the new landscape of the discussion without reducing one position to the other.

Through several blog series adapted from a class paper it will be argued that although many evangelicals utilize the idea of an eternal functional hierarchy within the Trinity to legitimate a similar role-relationship between men and women, such a position entails an improper understanding of the Trinity. In this case, an improper understanding of the Trinity is conceived of as one that is wrongly construed to include gender, is incoherent, or at worst one that entails a heterodox understanding of the Trinity. Since it is the very connection being made between the Trinity and gender that will also be under consideration, I will be focusing primarily on the works of two main proponents of this connection: Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware. The goal of the above thesis will be accomplished by first reviewing their positions on the Trinity, briefly highlighting some areas where I believe Ware and Grudem do not give a basis for their view. Second, I will be arguing against the affirmation that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father based off of four main concerns: 1) at best, the position as expressed is incoherent, 2) at worst it entails a rejection of God as simple, 3) and a different essence between the members of the Trinity in the form of what amounts to the Son not being homoousion with the Father or a slip into tritheism with two essences: personal and divine. Lastly, I will consider intuitions giving rise to an embrace of the eternal subordination of the Son, which are a version of Rahner’s rule and their position on gender.

Eternal Functional Submission: A Summary with Considerations

How do evangelicals such as Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem articulate their understanding of the eternal functional submission of the Son to the Father? Ware refers to his view as, “eternal relational authority-submission” and offers the following description:

God reveals himself in Scripture as one God in three persons, such that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully equal in their deity as each possesses fully and eternally the one and undivided divine nature; yet the Father is revealed as having the highest authority among the Trinitarian persons, such that the Son, as agent of the Father, eternally implements the will of the Father and is under the Father’s authority, and the Holy Spirit likewise serves to advance the Father’s purposes fulfilled through the Son, under the authority of the Father and also of the Son.[8]

Ware is clear that he affirms basic Trinitarian orthodoxy. Each of the members of the Trinity shares only the one divine nature, meaning there is one God, not three. Further, this nature is undivided. He clarifies this further:

So we cannot say, for example, that the Father has the attribute of omnipotence, and that’s what distinguishes him from the Son and the Spirit. No, the Son and the Spirit each possesses fully the attribute of omnipotence by possessing fully the undivided nature.[9]

For Ware, if one of the Trinitarian persons did not fully have the attribute of omnipotence for example, then he would not fully possess the divine nature. Still, not only must there be one God, this God must exist in three distinct persons without compromising divine unity or personal difference within the Godhead. Historically, the church has understood this distinction in terms of a specific type of relation: differing origination or eternal generation.[10] Where Grudem and Ware differ from this understanding is that they choose what they perceive to be a different type of relation to establish the distinctions between the persons of the Trinity. When it comes to the Father and Son relationship, this amounts to “replacing eternal generation with obedience as the Son’s distinguishing personal property.”[11]

It is common for the different type of relationship characterized as a personal property to be articulated as a difference in “role” or function. It is crucial to note that role is not being used, to describe every day changeable jobs or functions, but rather something that is unchangeable and basic to personal identity. In the case of Grudem and Ware it is the distinguisher of the Son from the Father and women from men. Consider Grudem’s following explanation:  

Therefore the different functions that we see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit performing are simply out workings of an external relationship between the three persons, one that has always existed and will exist for eternity. God has always existed as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These distinctions are essential to the very nature of God himself, and they could not be otherwise...This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase 'ontological equality but economic subordination,' where the word ontological means 'being.' Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say 'equal in being but subordinate in role.'...If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity[12].

For Grudem then, distinction is based exclusively in authority-submission relationships that are particular to each person of the Trinity. The Father could not be subordinate to the Son otherwise he would no longer be the Father and the Son could not be in authority over the Father, otherwise he would not be the Son. If this relationship were removed, then for Grudem there would be absolutely no inherent difference between the members of the Trinity and so there could be no Trinity.

Curiously, even though historically differences between the members of the Trinity have been based in differing origination, and not at least explicitly, in authority-submission relationships, Grudem and Ware strongly insist anyone who does not share their version of what distinguishes the members of the Trinity is deviating from orthodoxy. For example, under the lengthy heading “Arguments That Deviate from the Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity: Denying the Trinity by Denying Any Eternal Distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” Grudem singles out Kevin Giles as an example[13] because he denies the Father always has authority over the Son even though Giles bases trinitarian distinction in eternal generation.[14] For a reason unstated, Giles is strongly disqualified from believing in eternal distinctions within the Trinity even though he does—a small detail even noted by Robert Letham in his forward to The Eternal Generation of the Son.[15] They are clearly at an impasse and Giles’ frustration is evident:

The Nicene fathers insisted that differing origination was the one safe way to indelibly differentiate the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit) because this alone did not call into question divine oneness and equality or allow the subordination of the Son in the eternal life of God in any way. It is because the Son is eternally begotten of the Father that he is, as the Nicene Creed says, ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,  … one in being with the Father.’  Differentiating the Father and the Son on the basis of differing authority, all the pro-Nicene fathers clearly saw, entailed the sub-ordering of the Son, the essence of the Arian error.[16]

It is indeed difficult to miss that differing origination is how the early fathers perceived distinction within the Trinity and that it served as their trump card against heresy (as evident in the Nicene creed).[17] Interestingly, Grudem and Ware see differing authority as what is actually being presented in the Nicene Creed through the sending language. Grudem asserts:

This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church's doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son was 'begotten of the Father before all ages' and that the Holy Spirit 'proceeds from the Father and the Son.' Surprisingly, some recent evangelical writings have denied an eternal subordination in role among the members of the Trinity, but it has clearly been part of the church's doctrine of the Trinity (in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox expressions), at least since Nicaea (A.D. 325).[18]

Similarly, Ware claims Augustine is actually endorsing his view after citing The Trinity, IV.27:

Notice two observations from Augustine’s statement. First, Augustine sees no disparity between affirming, on the one hand, the full equality of the Son to the Father, and on the other hand, the Son’s eternal position as from the Father, with the responsibility of carrying out the will of the Father. The claim of some egalitarians[19] that the functional subordination of the Son would entail his essential inferiority to the Father is here denied by Augustine. Second, notice that Augustine denies the egalitarian claim that all subordination of the Son to the Father rests fully in the Son’s incarnate state. To the contrary, Augustine affirms that ‘the Son is not just said to have been sent because the Word became flesh, but that he was sent in order for the Word to become flesh.” In other words, the sending of the Son occurred in eternity past in order that the eternal Word, sent from on high from the Father, might make take on human flesh and then continue his role of carrying out the will of his Father.[20]

By appealing to the creeds and fathers as though they proclaimed their view of authority relations, Grudem and Ware give the appearance of having their specific position being the orthodox position. Oddly, nowhere in the creed nor in Augustine is the explicit connection made by them for us that the sending or originating relationship is an authoritative relationship based in the nature of the Trinity. This is an interpretation Grudem and Ware arrive at on their own, an additional step other theologians or scholars may not necessarily be willing to take.

Stranger is that the actual position of the early church—differing origination— the language of which Grudem and Ware appeal to—is not held by either of them.[21] Perhaps even though they are saying the creeds are expressing their view they mean to say that their view is entailed by the creed or Augustine’s appeal to differing origination? Or, are they merely ignoring the whole early understanding of origination and are instead entirely assuming the sending language only means the Father’s authority or priority is being demonstrated? At the very least it would seem they believe only their position is the truly orthodox position regarding distinction among members of the Trinity, but on what concrete basis? In sum, they are lacking clear reasoning on why “sending” has to only mean differing authority relations, and the novelty of their view demands better argumentation.

In the next post I will consider some of the more serious problems with Grudem and Ware's understanding of the Trinity. I will be arguing that although they intend to uphold an orthodox view of the Trinity, their view is at best incoherent and at worst entails a heterodox position. Note that this is different from saying that they are heretics. Someone can hold to a view that entails more than what they actually hold. Still, if a view entails heresy, give it up immediately!


[1] Cf: Eugene F. Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 201-203 and David McCarthy Matzko, “Homosexuality and the Practices of Marriage,” Modern Theology 13:3 (1997) 394-395.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 197-202.

[3] Keith E. Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity & Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 2011), 201.

[4] Kark Rahner, The Trinity (NY.: Crossroad, 1967), 10-15.

[5] Michael Bird and Robert Shillaker, “Subordination in the Trinity and Gender Roles: A Response to Recent Discussion,” in The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son eds., Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House, (Eugene, OR.: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 305.

[6] Documented in: M. J. Erickson, Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapids, MI.: Kregel, 2009).

[7] Initially it was George Knight III who first introduced the link between gender hierarchy and the Trinity in his book New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Woman (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1977), 33, 55-56. He argued that since the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father and yet still equal in essence, women can also be said to be equal in being yet functionally subordinate. A similar argument is frequently made by various complementarians (to be discussed in this paper). Although evangelical egalitarians are also known for responding to complementarian arguments, they are not on the whole basing their gender theology in the Trinity. They are not saying

that because the members of the Trinity are functionally and ontologically equal, women are too. It is not a position found in Christians for Biblical Equality’s statement http://www.cbeinternational.org/content/statement-men-women-and-biblical-equality, nor does it appear in the book Discovering Biblical Equality except though there is a response to complementarians using the Trinity towards the back of the book by Kevin Giles.


[8] Bruce A. Ware “Does Affirming an Eternal Authority-Submission Relationship in the Trinity Entail a Denial of Homoousios? A Response to Millard Erickson and Tom McCall” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life eds., Bruce A. Ware and John Starke (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2015), 237-238.

[9] Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles and Relevance (Wheaton IL.: Crossway, 2005), 45.

[10] Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP, 2012).

[11] Swain and Allen, “The Obedience of Eternal Son,” in Christology Ancient and Modern eds., Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids, MI.: 2013), 75.

[12] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1994), 251.

[13] This is an especially deceptive characterization because Kevin Giles has a whole book dedicated to defending “the doctrine of the eternal begetting or generation of the Son, so central to the doctrine of the Trinity.” He continues, “indeed, this is what the entire book is about...This doctrine sheds light on how the One God is self-differentiated for all eternity.” Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 2012), 17.

[14] Wayne Grudem, “Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminists Arguments about the Trinity,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life eds., Bruce A. Ware and John Starke (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2015), 18-19.

[15] Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, 9-10.

[16] Kevin Giles, An extended review of One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life eds., Bruce Ware and John Starke, Pending Publication, 18.

[17] Even Wayne Grudem is at least aware that the early church had eternal generation in mind in the specific context of eternal relations and the creed. Cf: Systematic Theology, 246-245, 1233-1234. Ware also shows some knowledge that the early church thought of difference in terms of being begotten. One God in Three Persons, 241.

[18] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 251-252.

[19] A reference to “egalitarians” is yet another reminder that Ware constantly has his mind set on gender as he discusses the Trinity, revealing a bias guiding his theology.

[20] Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 80-81.

[21] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1233-34; Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 162 n. 3.