Film and Book Reviews

Subordination of women has no theological basis

BookKevin Giles, 'The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity' (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2017. $22.74) reviewed.

By Scott Cowdell

September 1 2017This is a book about Trinitarian doctrine, but don’t be put off. It is also a book about gender equality and its denial in mainstream Evangelicalism. It addresses how Evangelicals do theology, too, and the question of how Scripture should relate to theology.

Giles’ book opens up a strange and unfamiliar world to those of us from other parts of the Church. It is an international world of opposed Evangelical blocks, riven by the politics of factions and theological schools, with carnivorous ideological giants roaming the land. Into this fray strides our own Australian Evangelical giant-slayer, Kevin Giles, who has become a key figure in the international rout of so-called complementarian theology.

The turning point came in front of hundreds of Evangelical theologians gathered in San Antonio last November, when Giles gave a keynote address that helped cement a change of heart that had been brewing.

I was in Texas at the time, attending another conference event in the same hotel, and regret that I didn’t feel the tremors and rush over to Giles’ lecture.

For forty years the “complementarian” school had been proclaiming the subordination of women in family and Church based on male headship. Women were seen as equal, though their roles were expressed in terms of complementarity and subordination. Yet this dominant movement had begun to question one of its key premises.

Inspired chiefly by the hugely-influential works of Wayne Grudem – a scion of Evangelical theological education worldwide – the Son had been declared as eternally subordinate to the Father. This Trinitarian argument, which supported a linked biblical case for male headship, is now widely seen to be wrong-headed. It is being abandoned as a matter of orthodox principle.

Giles and his fellow “Evangelical Egalitarians” are the opposing minority, widely denounced by their opponents as liberals and (worse) as feminists. But now they have begun to carry the day on the Trinity, with a new openness in Evangelical circles to the creeds, the Fathers, and the Reformation Confessions. They have rediscovered the eternal co-equality of the three divine persons in the one life of God.

In a helpful historical and hermeneutical discussion, Giles sets out how the often-conflicting texts of Scripture are harmonised and their logic is drawn out.

He explains how major scriptural knots, which proved difficult during the ancient subordinationist debate, were untied by the greats of theological orthodoxy. Giles thus shows that being biblical involves much more than proof texting.

For instance, some texts talk about Jesus on earth and others about the Son in eternity, with subordination to the Father allowable in the former though not to be inferred from the latter. Giles shows how such rules of interpretation were discovered and applied, becoming universal and authoritative.

There is also some recent doctrinal history: how this contest has played out, how the key personalities have shifted, and how hard the battle is fought. Giles’ book is startlingly polemical, as is the whole field. This is theology as a contact sport, and those who prefer their doctrine diffuse and optional will find it both intriguing and challenging.

I am most interested in Giles’ discussion of how a version of the Arian heresy has emerged to prominence in world Evangelicalism. His reasons include Evangelical ignorance about Trinitarian doctrine, pressure to conform within the Evangelical academy, and fear that breaking ranks on subordination in the Trinity would look anti-biblical. These reasons are of course plainly related.

Giles is very critical of liberals – i.e. those who bring a social agenda to their reading of the Trinity, and the Bible. He even calls the great Karl Rahner a liberal, who strove to overcome an unfortunate Roman Catholic scholastic disjoining of De Deo Uno from De Deo Trino.

Giles makes the sharp observation that the “liberal” tendency to impose social equality onto God and make the “Social Trinity” a template for non-hierarchical egalitarianism is no different from complementarians imposing their hierarchical notions on the Trinity and then inferring male headship, in a similarly circular argument.

Here he seems to be acknowledging an obvious feminist concern about self-justifying patriarchalism lying at the root of complementarianism, with the Bible interpreted and weaponised accordingly.

To close, let me pay tribute to Kevin Giles for his decades of persistent attention to this issue. He is pro-equality of women, pro-women’s ordination, pro-Nicene orthodoxy, and a very pro-ecclesia Anglican Evangelical. He regards tradition and reason in the hands of a faithful Church as reliable friends, which help Christians as they live and struggle with the whole Bible.

“For his contribution to the Anglican Church, as a theologian of international impact, and for advancing equality for women”, I suggest that someone from the readership of TMA should nominate Kevin Giles for an AM.


Professor Scott Cowdell is Research Professor in Public and Contextual Theology at Charles Sturt University, Canberra, and Canon Theologian of the Canberra-Goulburn Diocese.

The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity is to be launched at St Thomas’ Anglican Church Burwood on 11 September at 7.30pm.