History and Analysis of Headship Theology—Part 2

Written by: 
January 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: In this two-part series for Spectrum, William C. DeMary examines the history and theological foundations of the headship doctrine. It summarized headship theology as it is understood by its supporters and discusses its origins, which can be traced to two 20th-century denominational conflicts over the issue of women's ordination. Read Part 1 here.

The Meaning of “Ontological Equality”

When Laurel Damsteegt and her allies promote the headship doctrine, they usually mitigate their emphasis on the hierarchical relationship between men and women by affirming the “ontological equality” of the sexes. For instance, in an essay for the July 2013 meeting of the General Conference’s Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC), Paul Ratsara and Daniel Bediako state, “The creation account shows that man and woman are equal in essence.” They explain:

That both “male” and “female” are created in God’s image underscores an ontological equality. There is no indication in the creation account of ontological superiority or inferiority between “male” and “female.” Man and woman as individual male and female human beings are equally God’s image. As a result of their being created in God’s image, both man and woman are charged with responsibility and dominion over the earth and the animal creation.[1]

According to Ratsara and Bediako, God’s use of the phrase “let us” in Genesis 1:26 suggests that his creation of the two sexes reflects his own divine plurality: “The ontological equality of ‘male’ and ‘female’ human beings is somehow comparable to that of the persons of the Godhead. As in the Godhead, the persons of the human family are equal in essence (nature/being).”[2] Quoting Ellen White, they state that the persons of the Godhead are essentially equal insofar as they are “one in nature, in character, in purpose.”[3] Likewise, Adam and Eve were created to have one joint purpose, namely, to exercise dominion over the earth. In this respect, they were created as equals. For Ratsara and Bediako, to be ontologically equal is to be equal “in nature/essence/being.” Importantly, however, this does not deny the “functional complementarity (i.e., difference in role/responsibility)” between the sexes, which they claim requires women to voluntarily submit to male headship.[4]

Like most proponents of headship theology, Ratsara and Bediako exert considerable effort in deriving their doctrine of the prelapsarian submission of Eve to Adam from a supposed hierarchical relationship between the Father and the Son. However, they fail to clearly explain what it means for women to be “ontologically equal” to men in their nature, essence, or being while still being functionally subordinate. It is true that men and women are both human beings, who have human essences and human natures, but this is hardly an astute observation. Complementarians argue that men and women are equal as human beings to distinguish themselves from those who believe that women are inferior to men. However, even those who believe that men are superior to women do not deny that the latter are still human (although they might suggest that they are less human than men). The main distinction between this “hard patriarchy” and the “soft patriarchy” of complementarianism is that the latter argues that both men and women were created in God’s image, while the former argues that only men were created in God’s image.

Complementarians have suggested at least two different interpretations of what it means for Adam and Eve to have been created as “ontologically equal.” The first interpretation hinges on their understanding of the imago Dei. In Calvinist theology, God is conceived primarily as a sovereign ruler. The entirety of Reformed theology is concerned with defending the idea of God’s absolute sovereignty, even to the point of denying that human choices can have any decisive influence on the outcome of history, which God has predetermined. This concern is foundational to all characteristic Calvinist teachings, including total depravity and double predestination. It is also central to complementarianism, which understands the image of God in terms of power and sovereignty.

According to this interpretation, when God created men and women in his image, he vested them equally with dominion over the earth. What makes men and women “ontologically equal”—what it means for them to have the same essence or nature—is that God intended that they work together to rule over creation. In other words, complementarians conceive of both God and those created in his image as constituted by a will to power.

There are at least two issues with this interpretation. The first is the monarchical conception of God that it involves. Although Western Christianity is accustomed to understanding God as though he were a monarchical figure, this sort of projection of anthropomorphic qualities onto God in fact diminishes rather than accentuates his power over creation. It does this by rendering God as a being within creation rather than the fundamental force, substance, or structure underlying creation itself. As the philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich notes, “a theology which does not dare to identify God and the power of being as the first step toward a doctrine of God relapses into monarchic monotheism, for if God is not being-itself, he is subordinate to it, just as Zeus is subordinate to fate in Greek religion.”[5]

The second issue with this complementarian interpretation of the creation account is that if men and women are constituted by a will to power, then the claims that they are ontologically equal but functionally different are mutually exclusive. Specifically, if Eve was intended to be functionally subordinate to Adam before the fall, then she had less power than him, because to be subordinate is to defer one’s power to another person. But if Eve had less power than Adam because she was subordinate to him, then this indicates that she was not ontologically equal to him, since what constituted her being or essence was her power to exercise dominion over the earth.

The second interpretation of the term “ontological equality” is suggested by Damsteegt, who states that men and women have equal worth before God. In this view, God has deemed that men and women are equally responsible for the choices they make concerning whether they will obey him. Damsteegt says that God created both sexes “to have individuality, to have a conscience, to have the power of choice—power to join together in righteousness, or to pull away if the other chooses evil.” Because men and women are independently accountable to God for choosing between right and wrong, God does not expect women to follow their husbands into sin.

Unfortunately, this conception of ontological equality also breaks down when one considers how complementarianism affects the meaning of faith. Faith is commonly confused with belief, or an intellectual affirmation of certain doctrines or moral imperatives. Most Adventists ostensibly reject this distortion of the meaning of faith, recognizing that merely affirming particular doctrines is meaningless unless those beliefs transform their characters. However, what many Adventists fail to recognize is that even a “will to obey” resulting from belief is not what constitutes faith.

Faith is neither an intellectual attitude of affirming certain beliefs nor the possession of good intentions. As the philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard emphasizes, faith is often unnecessary for obedience when a person is surrounded by other believers. Faith is not required for a person to conform to social norms because often the fear of retribution—of being penalized, ostracized, or punished in hell—is enough to keep their behaviors in check. But fear of retribution is not the same as faith.[6]

As Tillich states, faith is a state of “ultimate concern,” and when our ultimate concern is directed toward God, it is a gracious gift from him.[7] It comes to us in the form of inspiration through the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. Because this inspiration is experienced on an individual basis, faith is an entirely subjective phenomenon. Faith cannot be a collective experience because no one can be inspired on another’s behalf. Inspiration is not given to whole groups of people; even God’s self-revelation in Jesus must be subjectively appropriated by those who individually receive him as the Christ. As Kierkegaard argues, faith may even require a “teleological suspension of the ethical”—it may require an individual to violate the ethical norms of their social group to fulfill a higher calling that God has given them. This necessarily puts the person who has faith in a solitary position, since without the mediation of their society’s ethical values, it becomes impossible for them to defend their actions to others.[8] As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argues,

Religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never religious. Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches, rituals, bibles, codes of behaviour, are the trappings of religion, its passing forms. They may be useful, or harmful; they may be authoritatively ordained, or merely temporary expedients. But the end of religion is beyond all this.[9]

Consequently, faith does not necessarily entail our obedience to universal moral imperatives. Rather, it could require us to suspend our obedience to those rules in certain cases. Faith is not necessary for us to emulate the good behaviors of those around us; it is not required for us to obey the laws of our countries because our obedience could as equally be motivated by fear as by patriotism. Likewise, it does not require faith for a woman to be subordinate to the men in her life. Rather, she could be motivated by fear—and unfortunately, in too many instances within the church, this is the reason women are forced to submit to men.

According to many traditionalists, women have an ethical obligation to be homemakers. Complementarians deny that there can be any teleological suspension of these ethical obligations because they believe that a woman’s purpose is to care for her husband and to bear and raise children. But by equating a woman’s purpose (her telos) with her ethical obligations, these traditionalists are distorting the meaning of faith. They are conflating faith with ethical norms out of a fear that allowing women to exercise their faith will cause the destruction of family values. They refuse to acknowledge that women’s faith may require them to suspend their acceptance of the gender norms of conservative society to achieve a higher calling—namely, the construction of a new Christian order modeled on the egalitarian principle expressed in Galatians 3:28.

When the church prohibits women from being ordained as pastors, it precludes the possibility that their faith may call them to exercise spiritual authority over men. In doing so, headship theology denies that women, like men, are saved by faith as the personal, subjective reception of God’s grace. Even though Damsteegt affirms that men and women are ontologically equal in that God intends to save them both by their faith in him, she limits the possible expressions of women’s faith relative to those of men. And if a person’s potential for faith is what constitutes their essence, as Damsteegt suggests, then by limiting women’s faith relative to men’s, headship theologians effectively make women inferior in essence to men.

In short, there is no interpretation of the phrase “ontological equality” in complementarianism that does not make women inferior to men. Regardless of whether they conceive of ontological equality as the equal dominion of the sexes over Earth or as their equal ability to be saved by faith in God, complementarians’ conception of equality is undermined by their insistence on the subordination of women to men. Practically, it is therefore indistinguishable from other forms of patriarchy.

Essential Equality, Existential Alienation

A fundamental problem with complementarians’ understanding of equality is the ontological foundation of their views. Although they contend that men and women have the same human essence (being or nature), this claim is belied by their insistence that women ought to be subordinate to men, which would necessarily place them on a lower rung of the great chain of being than men. The result is confusion over the meaning of the term “essence,” which has a normative connotation. In other words, when we describe the essence of a thing, we are not only identifying what makes the thing what it is but we are implying that the thing ought to be this way—that unless the thing has these particular characteristics, then it is not really what it is. This may make sense when describing an inanimate object, but when applied to a person, it can deny them their potential for self-determination, to decide for themselves what their essence will be. This is the danger inherent in any foundationalist belief system that posits a particular human nature or essence, and it is what makes it absolutely necessary that any Christian theology should promote the most inclusive possible conception of human nature, one that accommodates every person on the basis of characteristics they all share in common. Unfortunately, complementarianism does not do this. By insisting that women should be subordinate to men, headship theologians are essentially implying that women are violating their own nature—which is to say that when they are insubordinate, women are not even fully human.

To avoid this problem, it is necessary to distinguish between existential being, which describes how things are in actuality, and essential being, which prescribes how things ought to be. Since the 20th century, existentialism has emphasized this distinction in its claim that “existence precedes essence”—that is, that a person’s actions (existence) are what constitutes their identity (essence).[10]

Although existentialism has a reputation for melancholy, and although the term has been applied to moments in literary and cultural history as well as to philosophy, it is important to note that the problem of the relationship between the essential and existential conceptions of being has long been a topic of debate within Western philosophy. Prior to the Enlightenment, most Western philosophers, including the Christian scholastics, followed Plato in distinguishing between a “true” or essential world of Forms and the existential world we actually inhabit, which was considered but a shadow of the world of Forms. By contrast, during the Enlightenment, philosophers like G. W. F. Hegel sought to close this gap between essence and existence. Rather than regarding human existence as a “fall” away from human essence, Hegel regarded existence as the place in which the actualization and fulfillment of one’s essential potentialities became possible. Although he acknowledged that people could be unreasonable, he thought that “the rational or essential structure of being is providentially actualized in the process of the universe. The world is the self-realization of the divine mind; existence is the expression of essence and not the fall away from it.”[11]

Existentialism emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries as a revolt against Hegel’s essentialism, which did not account for the alienation that characterizes the human condition. As Tillich explains, “The common point in all existentialist attacks is that man’s existential situation is a state of estrangement from his essential nature.” The existentialists recognized that “the world is not reconciled, either in the individual—as Kierkegaard shows—or in society—as Marx shows—or in life as such—as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche show. Existence is estrangement and not reconciliation; it is dehumanization and not the expression of essential humanity.”[12] Although Marx and Nietzsche were antagonistic toward religion, their belief that humanity was characterized by estrangement recovered the Christian understanding of the human condition lost during the Enlightenment (albeit in a secularized form).

Tillich emphasizes that existentialism is not a rival to Christianity but is rather an analytical tool available to theology for understanding the human condition:

Existentialism gives an analysis of what it means to exist . . . . It develops the question implied in existence, but it does not try to give the answer, either in atheistic or theistic terms. Whenever existentialists give answers, they do so in terms of religious or quasi-religious traditions which are not derived from their existentialist analysis. Pascal derives his answers from the Augustinian tradition, Kierkegaard from the Lutheran, Marcel from the Thomist, Dostoevski from the Greek Orthodox. Or the answers are derived from humanistic traditions, as with Marx, Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Jaspers. . . . The answers of the humanists come from hidden religious sources. They are matters of ultimate concern or faith, although garbed in a secular gown.[13]

Because of the existentialist nature of religious thought,[14] it is not inappropriate for Christians to utilize the distinction between essence and existence in analyzing the human condition. Rather, this distinction can help theologians avoid conflating normative and descriptive modes of explanation and therefore suggest that the way things are in actuality—that is, in humanity’s sinful condition—are the way things ought to be.

It is important to note that Tillich does not completely reject essentialism in favor of existentialism. To reject essentialism completely would be to perpetuate the Platonic and gnostic devaluation of the physical world that the Enlightenment sought to overcome: “Theology must see both sides, man’s essential nature, wonderfully and symbolically expressed in the paradise story, and man’s existential condition, under sin, guilt, and death.”[15]

Tillich’s doctrine of the Trinity has some strong essentialist (and even Hegelian) elements, particularly in its understanding of the Spirit’s self-revelation in history. However, Tillich’s theology may be distinguished from Hegelianism in that he does not believe that the Spirit is embodied in the ethical norms of society and the institution of the state. History does not contain within itself its own teleological end; rather, it is through the intervening activity of the Spirit that history is directed toward its end. Like Kierkegaard, Tillich maintains that the Spirit can only be received by faith, which may involve the teleological suspension of the ethical.[16]

Contrary to atheist existentialism, Tillich insists that although “existence precedes essence,” existentialist theology should affirm that a transition from essence to existence (a fall from essential goodness to existential estrangement) has symbolically occurred. Only by affirming that essential goodness can theology offer a constructive vision for humanity’s future. This vision looks beyond the conflicting expressions of humanity’s ethical duties, embodied in national laws and cultural norms incapable of being reconciled through the dialectical process of history, to a transcendent picture of human unity that supersedes all differences between gentiles and Jews, masters and slaves, and men and women.

Complementarians affirm that men and women are “ontologically equal” or equal in essence, but they are not precise in explaining what this means. This affirmation should not be an abstract philosophical sentiment but a concrete affirmation of the egalitarian relationship that ought to exist between men and women. Christians should strive for the restoration of the essential equality that we have lost because of the fall. The proper expression of the ontological relationship between men and women is that they are essentially equal but existentially alienated. In their essential goodness, symbolized by Adam and Eve before the fall, men and women are equal. This does not simply mean that men and women are equally endowed with dominion over Earth as members of the human species or that they are individually responsible before God. Rather, it is a normative prescription for the egalitarian relationship to which they should aspire.

The essential equality of the sexes is contrasted with the existential alienation of women, symbolized by God’s statement to Eve in Genesis 3:16: “I will make your pangs in childbirth exceedingly great; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The existential situation of women is that they are subject to the biological pains of menstruation and childbirth and to the sociological conditions of a patriarchal society in which men dominate over them. This is not an expression of how things ought to be but rather an expression of how things unfortunately are. These existential conditions place restrictions on the exercise of women’s freedom, that is, on the actualization of their essential being. Rather than being a source of liberation, as complementarians claim, the subordination of women to men is a component of the existential situation that has prevented them from being truly free.

At his incarnation, Christ bridged the gap between essence and existence, making it possible for humanity to actualize its freedom without falling into the universal situation of estrangement (sin) caused by the existential limitations on their freedom.[17] The conditions that Christ overcame are not merely the inclination to sin but the factors that contribute to that inclination, including the biological and sociological elements of our destiny. For both men and women, this includes the sociological conditions that frustrate their ability to follow their convictions.

Insofar as complementarians in the Adventist Church continue to impede women’s ordination, they are perpetrating the alienation of those women whom God has ordained to be pastors. They are impeding Christ’s work by imposing the same limitations on women’s freedom from which Christ wants to save them, and in so doing, they are contributing to women’s estrangement from their essential calling.

Adventism must recognize that its theological task is to respond to the needs of contemporary society by demonstrating how the Christian message can answer those needs. Because patriarchal norms continue to alienate women from their essential calling, apologetic theology must respond to this problem by affirming that Christ overcame the gap between essential equality and existential alienation. The Adventist Church fails in its mission when it insists on the preservation of patriarchal norms. Moreover, by doing so, it corrupts Christian theology: First, by interpreting the creation order as a symbol of the normative subordination, rather than the existential situation, of women; second, by misinterpreting the Fall account as a mere disruption of the sexual hierarchy; third, by distorting the essence of the Christian teaching that Christ has overcome the gap between human essence and existence; and, finally, by projecting the existential gender hierarchy onto the relationship between the Father and the Son, thereby undermining God’s unity. I will now examine the meaning of the orders of creation as understood from an existentialist perspective. I will then address the problems with the Reformed doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son.

Existential Orders of Creation

As noted in Part 1 of this series, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod misinterpreted the orders of creation doctrine to justify its rejection of women’s ordination. When Adolf von Harless introduced this doctrine in the 19th century, he did not intend for “orders” to be understood in an essentialist or normative sense. In other words, he did not understand the orders of creation to mean that God had ordained humanity, in its prelapsarian perfection, to be organized in a particular hierarchy or ranking. Rather, when Harless discussed the orders of creation, he understood the orders in an existential, descriptive, postlapsarian sense: they described the actual political, economic, and social orders in which God had placed people to carry out their lives. God is not concerned with the form of these orders—he does not ordain, for instance, that some states should be constituted as monarchies and others as republics—but rather with the conduct of the individuals who inhabit them.

As the Lutheran theologian Edward Schroeder explains, the original orders of creation doctrine teaches that God places us into our existential situations for two reasons. First, by doing so, God continues his activity as the Creator. “God does not merely preserve the first creation He sponsored in Genesis 1, but continues to be the Creator who . . . has ‘made me and all creatures’ now existing,” Schroeder writes. Second, God situates us within a framework in which we may be tested and evaluated: “These creaturely placements and the larger webs of relatedness become the vehicles for God’s evaluation of me. The orders are the places and the vehicles for God’s critical judgment of my existence in His placements.”[18] Importantly, God does not evaluate us on the basis of our conformity to the norms of the orders in which he places us. These are historical contingencies that have no relevance to transcendent principles of how we ought to act.

God recognizes that humanity cannot be perfect in its existential situation, in which he has placed us not because the orders we inhabit are the perfect expressions of his will but because only by living in them may we recognize our inadequacy before God’s law. God does not expect us to leave the orders unchanged; rather, we are called to transform them by leaving them better than they were before we arrived on the scene—or even by replacing them entirely. This is the activity of faith.

Although Schroeder notes that “the call to faith in the Gospel in no way calls a person to escape the localized placements in which the Creator has positioned him,” he adds that “the primary orders of one’s life are inviolable in the first place—his parentage, race, historical location, and so forth.” It is impossible, he states, to “‘violate’ the physical facticity of these orders.” Schroeder argues that biological sex is one such inviolable order of creation, and this is the basis of his view that it is impossible for women to violate the order of creation to which they belong by being ordained as pastors.

We might extend this analysis to the social construct of gender as well as the biological fact of sex. Gender, like sex, is an order of creation that it is impossible to violate, inasmuch as one’s gender belongs to the existential condition in which they find themselves. Gender, like race (which Schroeder identifies as an order of creation), despite being a social rather than a biological phenomenon, is, in some interpretations, not something that people choose for themselves.[19] Consequently, unless a person is compelled to behave in ways contrary to their gender identity, it is impossible for a person to “violate” this order of creation. (This means, of course, that the church has no right to coerce a transgender individual to behave as though they were cisgender, given the order of creation in which God has placed them.) Therefore, regardless of whether the term “woman” refers to biological sex or to social gender, I do not believe that women can violate the orders of creation, especially not by being ordained as pastors.

Moreover, as Schroeder compellingly argues, the essence of the Christian message is that God has chosen to violate his own orders of creation:

It is the Creator’s order that sinners are criticized and retributed for their sinfulness in the very locations where they live out their sinner-existence. But it is precisely at this point in the Creator’s order that the violation par excellence occurs. This order of the Creator is “violated” by the Christian Gospel. The redemptive work of Jesus Christ “violates” . . . the valid critical order of God that sinners should get their condemning come-uppance. It is the work of Christ that He took upon Himself our sinner’s come-uppance, and we are forgiven sinners . . . . It is that surprising violation of God’s own order with sinners which constitutes St. Paul’s marvel at the “mystery” of the Gospel and the incredible surprise that God was performing in Christ. (Rom. 8, 11; 2 Cor. 5; Eph. 1–3)[20]

Schroeder concludes that ordaining women as pastors does not violate “the order of womanly subordination, for if we take our cue from Luther, then in our time and place God Himself has already brought about equalizing changes in the . . . placement of the sexes toward one another. If the current order of the Creator is already changed—and changing . . . then women are not ‘violating’ their creaturely placement in the exercise of the pastoral office.”[21]

Covenant Theology and the Distortion of Trinitarianism

When Fritz Zerbst first used the orders of creation doctrine to oppose women’s ordination, he distorted its meaning by arguing that the orders expressed God’s intention for the organization of human society—its essential or normative condition—rather than humanity’s existential situation. Samuele Bacchiocchi and the Calvinist theologians at the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) perpetuated this distortion in developing headship theology. Of course, in itself, this distorted version of the orders of creation doctrine is not a compelling argument in favor of the subordination of women. It is easily subjected to the criticism that not all existential orders should be considered immutable. For instance, the Reformed theologian Karl Barth rejected the orders of creation doctrine because some Lutheran theologians used it to defend the racist ideology of the Nazi regime.

Due to this objection, complementarians have been compelled to identify a transcendent order on which to model their doctrine of the subordination of women. They have located this order not within creation but in the intra-Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son. By developing the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS), complementarians have created a pretext for arguing that the subordination of women reflects the Son’s voluntary submission to the Father.

It is important to note that the main Bible passages on which complementarians have based the ESS doctrine are deliberately construed to support a meaning that is not evident in the original Greek texts. This is especially the case with 1 Corinthians 11, which is usually cited in support of the view that a hierarchical relationship between the Father and the Son is normative for human sexual relationships. Although a detailed examination of 1 Corinthians 11 is beyond my scope here, it is worth noting that a fair analysis of Paul’s argument in the original Greek text shows that Paul does not fully commit to the hierarchical relationship he begins to outline at the start of the chapter. In other words, by verses 10–11, he begins to back away from the argument that a hierarchical relationship between the Father and the Son is normative for the relationship between men and women, arguing that “nevertheless,” despite the preceding argument, men and women ought to affirm their mutual interdependence.[22]

A significant problem with complementarians’ argument that the Son’s subordination to the Father is the model for female subordination is that it undermines the doctrine of God’s unity by regarding each of the persons of the Godhead as separate entities, capable of exercising distinct wills. The Godhead is not a pantheon of three gods whose wills are coincidentally aligned because they share common interests. God is One: he has a single will, and the persons of the Godhead are expressions of that single will. Neither in potentiality (essence) nor in actuality (existence) can they contradict each other. Moreover, it is meaningless to suggest that the will of any one person of the Godhead (such as the Son) can be subordinate to that of any other person (such as the Father), since this merely indicates that God’s will is subordinate to itself.[23]

The distortion of Trinitarianism that is present in the ESS doctrine has its roots in Calvinist covenant (or federal) theology, on which headship theology is based. According to Calvinism, when God created Adam and Eve, he established a covenant with them. This covenant, which Calvinists call the “covenant of works,” stipulated that in exchange for Adam and Eve’s obedience to his command to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge, God would give them eternal life. Adam and Eve violated this covenant of works by disobeying God’s command. However, in his mercy, God decided to establish a new covenant, the “covenant of grace,” with the elect (those whom he predestined to be saved), offering them redemption although he had no sovereign obligation to do so. To enact the covenant of grace, the Father established an intra-Trinitarian covenant with the Son, called the “covenant of redemption,” in which the Son agreed to become incarnate and die as the “federal” (from the Latin word foedus, meaning covenant) head of humanity, under the condition that the Father would resurrect him.

The doctrine of these three covenants is the central narrative around which the entirety of Calvinist theology is constructed. It emphasizes the sovereignty of God by insisting that God established the covenants of works and grace with humanity only out of his mercy, because as mere creatures, humans deserve neither eternal life nor salvation. It also forms the basis of the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, since the covenant of grace is only established with those whom God elects to receive his grace; according to the doctrine of irresistible grace, because humanity is totally depraved (due to original sin), we cannot accept God’s grace in our own power. The elect only accept God’s grace because they cannot resist his sovereign will. Additionally, covenant theology is foundational to headship theology because God established the covenant of works with humanity’s federal head, Adam. In this view, Eve was supposed to submit to Adam because he had been created first to serve as the representative with whom God would establish the covenant. When Adam chose to sin, he not only violated the covenant but abdicated his role as humanity’s representative. Consequently, God mercifully appointed Christ as the new representative for the elect.

Calvinist covenant theology raises two significant problems. First, its concept of the covenant of redemption portrays the Father and the Son as separate deities with distinct wills, an understanding of the Godhead that treads “dangerously close” to tritheism, as Karl Barth also recognized.[24] Covenant theology’s distortion of Trinitarianism was carried over into the ESS doctrine. This is evident in a blog post by Denny Burk, the president of the CBMW, who connected the ESS doctrine with covenant theology by identifying the Son’s submission to the Father as a condition of the pactum salutis, or covenant of redemption.

Second, covenant theology raises the issue of God’s justice. The covenant of works seems one-sided because Adam was in no position to negotiate its terms due to the asymmetry between the two parties. Moreover, the covenant of grace makes God’s mercy seem arbitrary, since he only predestines some, and not others, to be recipients of his grace. Is God just if he imposes his will asymmetrically on humanity and then selects those to whom he shows mercy arbitrarily? The standard Calvinist response to this question is inadequate. The Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul, who served on the CBMW’s board of references, argues, “It is the question of God’s fairness that federalism seeks to answer. Federalism assumes that we were in fact represented by Adam and that such representation was both fair and accurate. It holds that Adam perfectly represented us.[25]

How can it be said that Adam perfectly represented us if we did not elect him? Sproul answers that the fact that a representative is elected does not mean their decisions reflect the will of their constituents. Because we can always object that the decisions made by our representatives do not reflect our own will, Sproul explains, God took it upon himself to choose our representative for us:

When God chooses our representative, he does so perfectly. His choice is an infallible choice. When I choose my own representatives, I do so fallibly. Sometimes I select the wrong person and am then inaccurately represented. Adam represented me infallibly, not because he was infallible, but because God is infallible. Given God’s infallibility, I can never argue that Adam was a poor choice to represent me.[26]

Sproul is therefore able to contend that anyone who rejects the idea that Adam was a perfect head of humanity is implying that God himself is fallible. “Such sentiments only confirm the radical degree of our fallenness,” he says. “When we think like this, we are thinking like Adam’s children. Such blasphemous thoughts only underline in red how accurately we were represented by Adam.”[27] In other words, we can be assured that we were accurately represented by Adam when he chose to violate the covenant of works precisely because we also find the idea of the covenant of works repugnant.

But is Sproul right to suggest that Adam’s accurate representation of us demonstrates God’s fairness? It is not enough for Sproul to engage in the ad hominem attack of calling those who question God’s fairness blasphemers. The question that confronts us is whether it was just, as a matter of principle, for God to unilaterally set the terms of the covenant of works and to choose a federal head to represent us on our behalf. The potential injustice is that God, being infinitely more powerful than us, leveraged his power to dictate the terms of a covenant without allowing fair negotiation, in part because he appointed the very representative who might have negotiated with him on our behalf. I do not believe it is blasphemous to suggest there is a problem with this theology; in fact, I believe it is precisely this problem that the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation intends to resolve, by maintaining that Christ came to our level to establish a new covenant with us. If either of these covenants should be interpreted as normative of the proper relationship between men and women, then we are more justified in believing that the egalitarianism established by the new covenant under Christ is the model we should follow—and not any sort of hierarchy presupposed under a covenant of works.

During the debate over women’s ordination prior to the 2015 General Conference Session, some Adventist proponents of complementarianism acknowledged the Calvinist theological foundations of the headship doctrine and promoted covenant theology on conservative blogs.[28] The introduction of covenant theology, with its distortion of Trinitarianism and its problematic conception of God’s character, has exacerbated theological issues confronting the Adventist Church. Apart from denying women full participation in the church, it has contributed to the anti-Trinitarian impulse among some conservative members of the church who also endorse Last Generation Theology, as discussed in Part 1.

Justice and Religious Liberty

The political consequences of complementarianism are as severe as its theological ones. When Sproul and other Calvinists condemn those who criticize the sense of justice implicit in the monarchical conception of God as blasphemers, that condemnation applies by extension to any democratic conception of justice that threatens those who claim to act under God’s delegated authority. The political values of freedom and egalitarianism are incompatible with the Calvinist view of a God whose unilateral decisions cannot be questioned.

There are two interlocking reasons for the fundamental disagreement between the democratic and Calvinist conceptions of justice. One is that Calvinists, in contrast to Arminians and other liberal Christians, do not believe that people possess free will. From the Calvinist perspective, if people were capable of freely choosing whether to sin, this would place a limit on God’s providence, since then the outcome of history would be contingent on human choices. They maintain that this would necessarily undermine God’s sovereign authority. For this reason, they believe that God has predestined some to be saved and others to be lost.

However, it is not necessarily the case that a person who denies the existence of absolute free will is antidemocratic, provided that they either accept the doctrine of universal reconciliation or regard God as ambivalent toward human choices. In other words, it is possible for a person like Tillich, who argues that human choices are largely conditioned by social or environmental factors, to affirm a democratic sense of justice because he also supports the idea of universal reconciliation. By contrast, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza maintained that salvation was possible (in the form of democratic freedom), although he denied the possibility of absolute free will, because he also denied a teleology in which God promised rewards or punishments to people for their behaviors.

If one accepts the doctrines of free will or universal reconciliation, they have no use for the covenant theology promoted by Calvinism. In either case, they reject the doctrine of double predestination, and hence they do not need to explain the sense of justice involved in the doctrine that God has predestined some people to eternal damnation. By contrast, those who implicitly accept covenant theology by endorsing the headship doctrine must explain how their monarchical conception of God is just, and how it is compatible with democratic ideals of religious liberty.

As we have already seen, Kierkegaard argued that faith is meaningless without the possibility that individuals may be called to suspend their obedience to social norms to fulfill their higher responsibility to God. Moreover, he considered it an important indication of faith that the motives of a person who engages in such a “teleological suspension of the ethical” will be unintelligible to others because they cannot explain their motives using the concepts furnished by their culture’s ethical norms.

Kierkegaard’s understanding of faith has important political implications. First, it raises the possibility that a person may be called to engage in political acts of conscientious refusal or civil disobedience—acts that would be unconscionable in the sort of theocratic society implicit in Calvinism. Second, faith entails a sense of duty to God that cannot be explained within the context of existing social norms. Although Kierkegaard has been criticized on this point for allowing the possibility that a person could justify all their actions by appealing to a private revelation from God, this idea is not incompatible with a democratic sense of justice. The political theorist John Rawls argues, for instance, that because each individual within a political community “is responsible for his interpretation of the principles of justice . . . there can be no legal or socially approved rendering of these principles that we are always bound to accept, not even when it is given by a supreme court or legislature.”[29] As faith requires the possibility of a teleological suspension of the ethical, so democracy requires the possibility of its citizens determining in good faith that a state’s laws are unjust and engaging in acts of civil disobedience (within the limits of fidelity to the rule of law).

The ecclesiastical implications of the democratic sense of justice are clear. When women are called by God to serve as pastors, they are theologically justified in receiving ordination despite the official policies of the church, which does not act faithfully or justly in refusing to ordain them. Of course, there are several conditions that must apply before this sort of ecclesiastical disobedience becomes justifiable. First, such an act must be addressed to a common sense of justice among church members. This might not be the case if, for instance, most church members regard the decisions of the General Conference or lower conferences as just simply because they were instituted in accordance with ecclesiastical procedure. Second, such an act is only justifiable if normal appeals to the majority in a church have been made in good faith, but have failed.[30]

Of course, an appeal to the sense of justice of the church community is only possible if most church members accept that the church should be regulated by democratic principles of justice. Although the supporters of women’s ordination might appeal to church members’ sense of justice, such an appeal would be ineffective if the majority of church members consider the Bible, and not democratic principles, to be the final source of authority in the church. In this situation, the problem becomes a matter of determining which method of scriptural interpretation ought to be used in resolving the debate over women’s ordination.

However, hermeneutics is still a political problem. Contrary to what the various parties in the debate over women’s ordination might claim about their particular method of interpretation, these positions are not usually impartial. People will often choose the method of biblical interpretation that is most likely to yield the particular results they desire. Moreover, even those who seek to identify impartial principles of scriptural interpretation cannot escape the historical conditions that limit their individual perspectives. This means that debates over methods of interpretation are ultimately resolved not through an appeal to universal or super-historical principles of interpretation. Rather, they can only be resolved through the political process of church governance. At this point, the question of the principles which ought to regulate church governance returns. Before any debate over hermeneutical principles can be resolved, the members of a church must decide on the principles of justice that ought to be operative in its resolution.

Why should the church adopt a pluralistic conception of justice that permits dissenting views on doctrinal issues? I would argue that if the Adventist Church expects that those in society at large should respect their religious liberty, it should exemplify religious liberty by protecting it within the denomination itself. Religious liberty begins at the congregational level within the denomination and propagates upward and outward; that is, if religious liberty does not exist at the congregational level, then it also cannot exist at higher levels within the denomination. This means that unless the possibility of dissent—without which no religious liberty is possible—is permitted at lower levels within the denomination’s government, then the church as a whole does not protect religious liberty internally. If the church does not protect religious liberty within its own ranks, how can it expect those outside the church to acknowledge religious liberty as valuable?

And if the church intends to demonstrate the value of religious liberty, it must permit dissent within its ranks, provided that dissenters act within the limits of fidelity to the principles of justice underlying church governance.[31] The fact that the most vehement proponents of headship theology are unlikely to tolerate dissenting views makes the possibility of ecclesiastical disobedience even more important. If those who support women’s ordination cannot convince those who oppose it that the Bible does not prohibit women from serving as pastors, then they must appeal to those members’ sense of justice. And if the supporters of headship theology are still unwilling to make concessions, then ecclesiastical disobedience becomes justifiable, especially if it is informed by church members’ responsible and careful consideration of the principles underlying the governance of the church and the interpretation of the Bible.[32]

Moreover, those who support women’s ordination should oppose any attempts by advocates of headship theology to impose any approved method of interpreting the Bible, regardless of whether that method accords with their particular views on doctrinal issues. Just as each individual within a political community “is responsible for his interpretation of the principles of justice” such that “there can be no legal or socially approved rendering of these principles that we are always bound to accept, not even when it is given by a supreme court or legislature,”[33] each individual within the church is responsible for their own interpretation of the Bible. The General Conference should not dictate how members ought to carry out this hermeneutical responsibility.


Read Part 1 here.

Notes and References:

[1] Daniel Bediako and Paul Ratsara, “Man and Woman in Genesis 1–3: Ontological Equality and Role Differentiation” (Theology of Ordination Study Committee, July 23, 2013), https://www.adventistarchives.org/man-and-woman-in-genesis-one-thru-three.pdf, 11–2.

[2] Bediako and Ratsara, 13.

[3] Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 34; quoted by Bediako and Ratsara, 47.

[4] Bediako and Ratsara, 6.

[5] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (volume 1) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 236.

[6] See Søren Kierkegaard (tr. Bruce H. Kirmmse), Fear and Trembling (New York: Liveright, 2022), 66, where he states, “If the ethical—i.e., social morality—is what is highest, and nothing incommensurable remains in a person in any other way than this incommensurability being what is evil (i.e., the singularity of the individual who must be expressed in the universal), then we need no categories other than what Greek philosophy had or what can be logically derived from those categories.” In other words, if the entirety of our moral responsibilities are expressed in society’s ethical norms, then there is no need for the religious category of faith.

[7] Tillich (1951), 12.

[8] Kierkegaard, 68–9.

[9] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Meridian, 1974 [1926]), 16–7.

[10] Thomas R. Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 8.

[11] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (volume 2) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 24.

[12] Tillich (1957), 25.

[13] Tillich (1957), 25–6.

[14] The philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote that “religion has always been existentialist: it has always insisted that mere schools of thought and bodies of belief are not enough, that too much of our thinking is remote from that which truly matters, and that we must change our lives” (Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre [revised edition] [New York: Penguin, 1975], 49–50).

[15] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 541.

[16] See Alexander McKelway, The Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich: A Review and Analysis (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1964), 222.

[17] See my article “Faith, Salvation, and Adventist Identity Pt. 3,” Spectrum (December 10, 2022), https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2022/faith-salvation-and-adventist-identity-pt-3.

[18] Edward H. Schroeder, “The Orders of Creation—Some Reflections on the History and Place of the Term in Systematic Theology,” Concordia Theological Monthly 43:3 (1972), 173. Available online at http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/SchroederOrdersCreationReflections.pdf.

[19] For reference, see §2.1, “Gender socialisation,” in Mari Mikkola, “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender,” in Edward N. Zalta and Uri Nodelman (eds.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (winter 2022 ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2022/entries/feminism-gender/.

[20] Schroeder, 175–6.

[21] Schroeder, 176.

[22] For an analysis of this passage, see Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2019), 122–5.

[23] For an excellent introduction to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which promotes the “eternal generation of the Son” rather than the “eternal subordination of the Son,” see Kevin Giles, “The Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity,” Priscilla Papers 26:3 (summer 2012), 12–23. Available online at https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/orthodox-doctrine-trinity.

[24] Michael S. Horton, “Covenant,” in Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 442.

[25] R.C. Sproul, “Adam’s Fall and Mine,” from Chosen by God (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986). Available online at https://www.the-highway.com/fall_Sproul.html.

[26] Sproul (1986).

[27] Sproul (1986).

[28] See, for example, Brent Shakespeare, “Federal Headship,” AdVindicate (September 3, 2014), http://advindicate.com/articles/2014/9/3/federal-headship. In attempting to defend headship theology from Gerry Chudleigh’s criticism of its Calvinist origins, Shakespeare cited Calvinist theologians to argue that the covenant theology was the traditional teaching of the Adventist Church, thereby confirming Chudleigh’s argument.

[29] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), 390.

[30] These principles of ecclesiastical disobedience are inspired by the principles of civil disobedience outlined in Rawls, 372–3.

[31] Cf. Rawls, 366.

[32] Cf. Rawls, 389.

[33] Rawls, 390.

William C. DeMary is a software engineer living in Texas.

Image Credit: Sigmund on Unsplash

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email