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A History and Analysis of Headship Theology—Part 1

A History and Analysis of Headship Theology—Part 1

In May 2022, the Adventist Review published an article in which the author, Laurel Damsteegt, argues that although God created men and women with “ontological equality,” he intended them to exercise functional differences in which men exercise “headship” over women. According to Damsteegt, even before the fall, Adam had a responsibility to protect Eve, and Eve had a responsibility to submit to her husband’s decisions. Rather than being a consequence of the fall, Adam’s headship over Eve was part of God’s original plan for the relations between the sexes. This teaching is called headship theology or complementarianism.

In this two-part series, I will examine the history and theological foundations of the headship doctrine. First, I will summarize headship theology as it is understood by its supporters, using Damsteegt’s article as a guide. Next, I will discuss its origins, which can be traced to two 20th-century denominational conflicts over the issue of women’s ordination. In Part 2, I will apply the insights of the theologians Søren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich to an evaluation of headship theology. I will also consider the related doctrines of the eternal subordination of the Son and the Reformed covenant theology. Finally, I will conclude with some remarks on the implications of these teachings for church governance and religious liberty.

Headship Theology

Damsteegt begins her article by stating that because the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, its teachings ought to be regarded as true for all people in all periods, even though it was written by and addressed to people in a particular historical and geographical context. She insinuates that those who try to extract the message of scripture from its historical context to apply it to the contemporary situation are distorting its meaning due to either ignorance or a willful disregard for what it plainly teaches. “We cannot ignore or dismiss parts or fictionalize scenarios about cultures of which we know little in order to rid the Bible of portions we don’t like or understand,” she states.

Damsteegt then turns to Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 12:12–26, in which he compares the church to a human body. Church members are symbolized by individual organs, each of which is necessary for the proper function of the whole organism. “Scripture uses the brain’s authority over the body, (‘the head’), as an analogy throughout Scripture for governing power,” Damsteegt states.

According to Damsteegt, this governing authority is precisely the role that Adam was intended to perform prior to the fall. Citing Ellen White, she states, “God designed Adam first, preeminent, the monarch of the world.” She adds in a footnote that “‘monarch’ by definition is ‘a sole and absolute ruler,’” indicating that he could not have shared his absolute rule with anyone else, including Eve.[1] But although Adam was to be the sole ruler, he was not created to be alone. To give him company, God created Eve from his rib, “symbolizing the shield and protection Adam was to be to his wife.” As Adam’s helper (Hebrew ’ezer), Eve was designed to complement him as his assistant. Damsteegt explains:

Man and woman were created equal in worth (sometimes called ontological equality) and are not interchangeable. Both male and female are necessary to family. God created man and woman to be complementary, not clones. This is basic to God’s design and architecture for family and government.

Although men and women were created to be ontologically equal, Damsteegt argues that there are nonetheless functional differences between the two sexes. These differences, she emphasizes, are not limited to the biological ones “necessary to family” or procreation. Additionally, they ought to apply to social roles. In her view, these differences reflect the intra-Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son.

Far from being identical, Each functions differently. God is Father and Supreme. Jesus is God the Son, who is “subject to Him who put all things under Him” (1 Cor 15:28) and was the active Agent in creation and redemption (Heb 1:2–3).

Likewise, Damsteegt argues, women ought to be subordinate to men. Citing 1 Corinthians 11:3,[2] she states, “With Adam’s family, he was head over the woman in a way similar to how God the Father is head of Christ. . . . Just as Jesus is equal to but voluntarily submits to the Father, Paul explains that woman is equal, but called to submit willingly to her husband in the family (Eph 5:22, Col 3:18, 1 Pet 3:1).”

According to Damsteegt, the subordination of women was designed as the proper relationship between the sexes and was normative even prior to the fall. In fact, it was Eve’s insubordination that was directly responsible for causing the fall. “Even before Eve was created, Adam as leader was warned, ‘but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’ (Gen 2:17).” The reason for the fall is that “Eve wandered, taking the lead in choosing to sin.” Sin entered the world because Eve usurped Adam’s role as the head or leader.

Damsteegt clarifies that because “God created humans with the power of choice,” both Adam and Eve could have chosen to obey God despite their partner’s actions. This means that “God never requires His people to submit to wickedness if one in authority goes bad.” But although God commands individual obedience, women are nonetheless supposed to submit to men as their leaders in both family and government. “To ‘submit’ means to ‘defer to another’s judgment’ or ‘yield,’ to ‘stop trying to fight,’” she states. “If two cannot reach agreement, as sometimes happens, the biblical way is for the wife to ‘submit.’” Although women are expected to submit directly to God when their husbands are not obeying God’s will, in all other cases, Damsteegt states that wives should defer to their husbands’ judgment.

The submission of women to men is also normative in an ecclesiastical context, according to Damsteegt. “The Spirit who calls men and women to their tasks of ministry is the same Spirit who instructed that the qualifications of elder or overseer (minister) should include being a male (Greek anēr, 1 Tim 3:2) of one wife (gynē, see also Titus 1:6).” Although “the Holy Spirit’s gifts are not restricted to any gender . . . the gifts of the Spirit that are given to bless the church do not supersede role distinctions God established at creation, namely, that males should exercise God-honoring leadership in both the home and church families.” The Holy Spirit, according to Damsteegt’s reasoning, would never bless a woman with a spiritual gift if it would involve exercising authority over a man.

The Origins of Headship Theology

Damsteegt’s headship doctrine originated amid the internal conflicts of two American denominations over the issue of women’s ordination. The first was the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), which justified its traditional prohibition against women as leaders by appealing to a 19th-century Lutheran doctrine called the orders of creation. The second was the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which developed complementarianism by interpreting Paul’s remarks concerning the subordination of women through the lens of the Reformed covenant theology. It was this Reformed version of the headship doctrine that entered the Adventist Church in the late 1980s.

Both the Lutheran and the Reformed doctrines sought to prove that God expected Eve to be subordinate to Adam before the fall. Recognizing that if the subordination of women was a consequence of the fall, then Christians could reasonably argue that the hierarchical relationship between the sexes should be abolished under the Christian dispensation, they insist that the fall did not change the ideal hierarchical relationship between men and women. By stating that women were supposed to submit to men even in their prelapsarian perfection, the theologians who developed these positions argued that rather than abolishing the sexual hierarchy, Christianity intends to enforce the sexual hierarchy more faithfully. In some cases, these theologians even equated the fall with Adam’s abdication of his headship duty and Eve’s insubordination, suggesting that the violation of the sexual hierarchy is the original sin. This position is consistent with the negative valuation of sexuality by the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, in which guilt is transmitted from parents to their children at conception.

The LCMS and the Orders of Creation Doctrine

The doctrine of the orders of creation has a long history within the Lutheran tradition. Although the term itself originated in the 19th century with the theologian Adolf von Harless, its foundations can be traced back to Martin Luther. Edward H. Schroeder, a Lutheran historian and theologian, argues that “the substance of [Harless’s] position is parallel to what Luther designates with the terms ‘weltliche’ or ‘göttliche’ or ‘natürliche Ordnung’ [wordly, godly, or natural order].”[3]

To understand the orders of creation as articulated by Harless, it is first necessary to clarify what is meant by the word “order.” Schroeder distinguishes between three possible meanings of this word. First, order can convey “the notion of ‘rank.’” In this sense, order indicates that the elements of an order ought to exist in a particular hierarchical relationship, like the organization of employees in a corporation. This definition of order may be called the normative sense of the word. Second, order can designate “the factual placement of people and things in an actually existing configuration of relationships.” In this conception of order, “there is no ranking of the placements” or hierarchical relationship between its parts. This definition of order may be called the existential or descriptive sense of the word. It merely describes the way things are arranged in actuality. Finally, order can mean a command, as in the phrase “giving orders.” This definition may be called the imperative sense of the word.[4]

When Harless used the phrase “orders of creation” (German Schöpferordnung), he intended the word “orders” in the existential or descriptive rather than the normative sense. In other words, when he described the orders of creation, he meant the placement of an individual within their historical context, not an ideal arrangement of people within a hierarchical relationship to each other. As Schroeder states:

In Harless’s rhetoric it designated the present-tense ordering whereby God the Creator has created me. . . . In Harless’s Christliche Ethik [Christian Ethics] the orders of the Creator are designated as “the basis in reality for all human relationships in the world.” They are the factually present givens in which the Christian life achieves concretion. He calls them “the substantive qualifications in which a man finds himself existing. . . . They are bestowed in God’s creating of a man. It is not the law that first makes them realities, nor do they disappear with the coming of the Gospel.” In sum, Harless sees the Creator’s orders as the substantive givens that make up a person’s specific biography.[5]

Schroeder argues that Harless appropriated this descriptive sense of the word “order” (German Ordnung) from Luther, who used the term to mean that which has been ordained. Recognizing the relationship between the words “Ordnung” and ordination “makes it easier to get to the present-tense character of the notion of the Creator’s order” and to the particular physical, social, and economic factors that contribute to a person’s identity. The order of creation refers to the situation that God has ordained for a person to inhabit. “In Luther’s rhetoric, Ordnung, Stand [station], and even Beruf [calling] are interchangeable,” Schroeder states. A person’s station or calling is the existential situation in which God has placed them. Schroeder notes that it is impossible to speak of violating God’s order if it is understood in this way:

To talk about violating these orders of creation is senseless. Violation might come into the picture on the one hand in terms of attempts to destroy the larger web of relationships, and on the other, if one refuses to be God’s man in all of His ordainings. And that, of course, occurs day in and day out. But at this point order is not being understood as creaturely placement; it is rather the other notion of being under orders, God’s thou shalts, and not obeying them.[6]

The orders of creation were, in Luther’s understanding, dynamic and mutable.[7] Schroeder argues that it was not until the 17th century that certain orthodox theologians including Johann Gerhard and Johannes Andreas Quenstedt began to view the orders of creation as static states. These scholastics, influenced by Luther’s disciple Philip Melanchthon, shifted the meaning of the word “order” from its existential (descriptive) to its normative sense. “Perhaps these two theologians are the missing link for the Missouri Synod’s heritage of a notion of the orders of creation that makes them resemble the boxes in an organizational chart [i.e., that understands ‘orders’ in the normative sense], even though the technical term comes from Harless,” Schroeder suggests.[8]

Prior to the debate over women’s ordination, only a few Lutheran sources referred to the orders of creation in the context of the subordination of women. “In the synodical literature before the 1950s there is one reference to the term ‘order of creation’ in Francis Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics, namely, in the general issue of woman’s subordination in his treatment of theological anthropology,” Schroeder writes.[9] However, it was not until 1955, with the translation of Fritz Zerbst’s The Office of Woman in the Church into English, that the term “orders of creation” became more prominently associated with women’s (sub)ordination. Zerbst “uses the terms ‘order of creation’ and ‘order of redemption’ throughout the book to develop a theological framework and a rhetoric that has subsequently become the tradition in the Synod for such discussions.”[10]

Schroeder argues that rather than deriving his understanding of the orders of creation from Lutheran tradition, Zerbst relied heavily on outside sources to oppose the idea of ordaining women. He notes that Zerbst only cited Luther twice in his book and that in both contexts, Luther’s arguments for the subordination of women were not based on the idea of an order of creation but on women’s supposed weakness or disorderly behavior.[11]

Following the publication of Zerbst’s book, the LCMS quickly adopted his theological reasoning to support its contention that women’s suffrage should not be permitted in church governance. In 1956, the Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) produced a report in which “the term ‘order of creation’ figures prominently in the theological reasoning for continuing the Synod’s practice of no woman suffrage.”[12] The report stated that “woman’s subordination to man in the order of creation [is] a functional relationship, from the Creator who had chosen to structure existence along certain lines,” and that “the order of redemption ought not to vitiate the proper relationship of women to men in the order of creation.”[13] In 1969, the LCMS endorsed this report’s argument in a resolution affirming “that women ought not to hold the pastoral office or serve in any other capacity involving the distinctive functions of this office.” It based this conclusion on the idea that a woman serving as a pastor would be “a violation of the order of creation.”[14]

The orders of creation concept also had an influence on other American denominations. Kevin Giles traces the history of the concept in the Reformed tradition and notes the oppressive uses to which it was applied:

Orders of creation theology, it is generally held, was first developed by the Lutheran theologian, Adolf von Harless (1806–1879). Orders of creation theology blossomed in Germany in the 1930s, being used to legitimate the Nazi regime and the preserves of the German race. A modified theology of creation orders developed in the Netherlands [in the form of Herman Dooyeweerd’s Reformational philosophy], and then was adapted to support apartheid in South Africa. In 1957 John Murray introduced the theology of the creation orders or ordinances into the North American Presbyterian Reformed tradition. For Murray, as with the Lutherans, these orders were God-given structures governing the whole of life, not just the church and the home.[15]

Murray’s view of the orders of creation was consistent with Luther’s understanding of the topic. When Murray understood the orders of creation as the structures governing human life, he did not interpret this to mean that any particular form of government was God’s preferred choice. Rather, it was the existential fact that people are subject to governing authorities that Murray considered to be ordained by God. “How the state established good government could differ from place to place and from time to time.” Likewise, “it was the family which was the given, not how the family was ordered.” According to Giles, “Luther insisted that in creation men and women stood side by side as equals; woman’s inferior status being a consequence of sin—part of the fallen order.”[16]

The SBC, the CBMW, and Complementarianism

Before entering the Adventist Church in the late 1980s, the headship theology that originated in the Lutheran orders of creation theology passed through a phase of development initiated by the conservative leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In the late 1970s, conservatives in the SBC started to organize in response to the increasing liberalization of the denomination’s seminaries. They viewed seminary professors’ support for historical criticism as a threat to the church’s traditional doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which it had adopted in its first confessional statement, the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, at the height of the Fundamentalist movement. Although conservatives were not initially alarmed when some SBC congregations began ordaining women in the 1960s, their views on the issue of women’s ordination became more reactionary when some women pastors suggested that the Bible reflected the patriarchal biases of its authors and that it ought to be interpreted from a more egalitarian perspective.[17]

The “conservative resurgence” in the SBC was orchestrated by James Patterson, a doctoral student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and Paul Pressler, a Texas judge and Baptist layman. In March 1967, Patterson and Pressler met to develop a strategy by which they would shift the SBC toward a staunch traditionalist position. In the mid-1970s, after receiving his doctorate, Patterson became the president of Criswell College in Texas. He used his position to implement the plan he had developed with Pressler. In 1979, Patterson and Pressler organized rallies in support of a conservative SBC presidential candidate, Adrian Rogers. Breaking with previous church practice, which had discouraged political maneuvering, they mobilized a grassroots effort and funded the conservative delegates who attended the denomination’s annual convention. At the 1979 Pastor’s Conference, which took place before the annual convention, W. A. Criswell, a former SBC president and Criswell College’s namesake, took the unprecedented step of endorsing Rogers for president.[18]

Despite the efforts of moderates to discourage political activity in the church’s official proceedings, Rogers won the SBC presidency in 1979 and immediately set to work on his conservative agenda. He started by appointing his allies to positions that controlled the nomination of seminary trustees. Defying the denomination’s historical commitment to congregationalism, which protected the autonomy and religious liberty of local congregations, Rogers and his allies transformed the SBC into an increasingly centralized hierarchy.[19]

In 1980, during Rogers’s first year in office, the denomination’s leaders passed a resolution titled “On Women” with the goal of “reaffirming the biblical role which stresses the equal worth but not always the sameness of function of women.” This resolution targeted the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the US Constitution that sought to guarantee legal rights for American citizens regardless of sex.[20] The same year, the SBC also passed the resolution “On Doctrinal Integrity,” establishing a symbolic connection between opposition to women’s ordination and support for biblical inerrancy. In the following years, three additional resolutions concerning women were passed: “On the Role of Women” (1981), which affirmed the 1980 resolution on women; “On Women” (1983), which promised “to explore further opportunities of service for Baptist women”; and “On Ordination and the Role of Women in Ministry” (1984), which prohibited women from serving in “pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.” The 1984 resolution on women’s ordination was particularly controversial due to its theological reasoning. It argued that women ought to submit to men “because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall.” Consequently, it concluded, women should be prohibited from pastoral leadership. When the resolution passed with only 58 percent in favor, chaos erupted among the convention’s delegates.[21]

The 1984 SBC annual convention caught the attention of other evangelicals. In 1986, the Evangelical Theological Society chose the issue of women’s role in the church as the theme of its annual meeting. It invited six speakers to present papers on the topic, only one of whom, Wayne Grudem, did not support egalitarianism. Believing that non-egalitarians were underrepresented in evangelical circles, Grudem convened a private meeting of like-minded theologians the following year to draft a statement summarizing their views. The 1987 Danvers Statement, which was released by their newly-formed organization, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), promoted a doctrine they called “complementarianism” to emphasize the complementary (but nonetheless hierarchical) relationship that they thought should exist between men and women.[22]

Grudem and his colleagues rejected the argument used in the 1984 SBC resolution that attributed the subordination of women to the fall. Instead, they maintained that God had ordained that women should submit to men prior to the fall, as part of his plan for the proper relationship between the sexes. In fact, because it was Adam’s neglect of his headship role and Eve’s insubordination to her husband that constituted the fall, the restoration of proper gender roles was necessary for their redemption.[23] The Danvers Statement insists that men and women are “equal before God as persons,” or ontologically equal. Nevertheless, it maintains that gender roles “are ordained by God as part of the created order” and that “Adam’s headship in marriage was established by God before the fall, and was not a result of sin.” Alluding to the Reformed covenant theology, it states, “Both Old and New Testaments affirm the principle of male headship in the family and in the covenant community.”[24]

Grudem credits George W. Knight III, a professor at Covenant Seminary, for encouraging him to research the issue of male headship.[25] In 1975, Knight had published an article titled “The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Male and Female with Special Reference to the Teaching / Ruling Functions in the Church,”[26] which he later expanded into a full book about the topic. In the article, Knight cited Zerbst in his discussion of the Lutheran debate over the issue of women’s ordination. He later appropriated Zerbst’s concept of the orders of creation for his book. But although Knight believed that his conception of the orders of creation was the same view that had been endorsed by his mentor John Murray, who had introduced the orders of creation doctrine to the Presbyterian church, Knight followed Zerbst in distorting the traditional Lutheran understanding of this concept.[27]In the formulating of the ideas for his influential book, The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women, George Knight seems to have assumed that what Zerbst outlined was much the same as what his mentor, John Murray, had taught him, but this is not the case. John Murray’s creation order is marriage itself, not the subordination of women, and this and all his creation orders cover all of creation, not just the church and the home, which are for him the domain of the ‘orders of redemption’.[28]

In other words, when Murray adopted the concept of the orders of creation, he understood it in a way that was consistent with Lutheran tradition. He did not interpret the concept to mean that God had ordained particular social orders to be normative; instead, he understood the orders of creation to mean the existential situation in which people live, including the families and societies to which they belong, regardless of the political structure of those institutions. Beginning with Zerbst (although, as noted above, he may have inherited a static conception of the orders of creation from seventeenth-century scholastic theologians), the meaning of the concept shifted as it was applied to defend the subordination of women.

Something altogether new emerged when theologians started appealing to the idea of orders of creation to validate the permanent subordination of women, and then only in the church and the home. These two novel ideas, woman’s subordination actually being one of the orders of creation, and this subordination being restricted solely to the church and the home, were first developed by Fritz Zerbst.[29]

Giles argues that Knight’s use of the word “role” was also new:

The French word “role” originated in reference to the part an actor played on stage. In the 1930s it became a key term in “functionalist sociology”. Prior to 1960 I can find no evidence of Christian usage of this term in theological discourse. This means that role theory, which is now one of the fundamental building blocks of the present day conservative evangelical case for the permanent subordination of women, is also something quite novel. . . . It was only in the 60s with the advent of women’s lib that the word “role” came into common parlance in reference to the appropriate contributions of men and women.[30]

Knight combined this concept with the notion of the orders of creation in his 1977 book against women’s ordination, and “from then on women’s subordinate status was redefined by hierarchalists in terms of role differentiation.” By discussing role differentiation instead of arguing for an “ontological” or essential inequality between the sexes, the complementarians who followed Knight’s lead sought to avoid the negative consequences of their patriarchal ideas while nonetheless retaining the same teachings that prohibit women from serving as religious leaders.[31] (Although the drafters of the Danvers Statement rejected the terms “biblical” or “soft” patriarchy in favor of the term “complementarianism,” some recent complementarians have tried to rehabilitate the term “patriarchy” by blaming “negative connotations owing to decades of feminist propaganda” for defining “patriarchy as the oppressive rule of men.” For instance, Russell Moore, the former president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has argued that “Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy.”[32])

Headship Theology in Adventism

In 1986, a year before Grudem and his colleagues drafted the Danvers Statement, Samuele Bacchiocchi, a theologian at Andrews University, submitted an article to the seminary’s Student Movement in which he argued, “On the question of the role relationship between men and women, . . . there is no doubt in Paul’s mind (‘I permit no woman . . .’) that the subordination of women to the leadership of man both in marriage and in the church is part of the very order of creation.”[33] At this point, Bacchiocchi did not specify where he received his ideas concerning the subordination of women. However, when he published his book Women in the Church the following year, he expanded on his original argument by citing the complementarians who had founded the CBMW that same year. Bacchiocchi acknowledges that he was in contact with Grudem during this process, stating that Grudem and another CBMW member, James B. Hurley, “made the greatest contribution to the development of my thoughts.”[34] Not only did Grudem contribute a preface to Bacchiocchi’s book, but Women in the Church was also listed in a bibliography published in the November 1995 issue of the CBMW’s newsletter.[35]

The significant influence that the CBMW theologians exerted on Bacchiocchi is evident in his book’s citations. In his chapters “The Order of Creation” and “Headship and Submission,” he cites Grudem, Hurley, and Knight on several occasions to support his claim that God intended women to submit to men before the fall and that the reversal of this role was responsible for causing the fall.[36] Bacchiocchi also borrows Zerbst’s variation of the orders of creation concept. Rather than understanding the word “order” in the existential sense, he argues that “to ‘be placed in an order’ [is] to be under definite tagmata (arrangement of things in order, as in ranks, rows, or classes),” which is a distortion of the original meaning of the concept.[37]

Together with other opponents of women’s ordination, Bacchiocchi formed a journal called Adventists Affirm, which dedicated its first three issues to promoting headship theology. In 1989, shortly after the CBMW published its Danvers Statement in Christianity Today, the editors of Adventists Affirm released their own statement against women’s ordination, which reflected the language used in the Danvers Statement.[38] In 2000, Adventists Affirm published Prove All Things, which included contributions by several authors including Samuele Bacchiocchi, Laurel Damsteegt, and Damsteegt’s husband, Gerard Damsteegt. “By rooting the headship-submission principle in the order of creation rather than in the consequences of the fall, Paul shows that he views such a principle as a creational design and not the product of the curse,” they argue, citing Grudem and Zerbst. “Contrary to Women in Ministry’s argument that headship and submission are the consequences of the fall, Paul grounds such a principle in the pre-Fall order of creation described in Genesis 2.”[39]

Many of the original contributors to Adventists Affirm have remained active opponents of women’s ordination in the Adventist Church over the past decade, and they have continued to endorse the headship doctrine as it was initially developed by the Calvinist theologians associated with the CBMW. In February 2013, a group called the NPUC Supporting Pastors, which was later renamed the Council of Adventist Pastors (CAP), launched the website in response to the North Pacific Union Conference’s decision to explore ordaining women pastors. Among the resources it published in opposition to women’s ordination was the CBMW’s Danvers Statement. In the months leading up to the 2015 General Conference Session, CAP published a book through Amazing Facts called The Adventist Ordination Crisis, which portrayed women’s ordination as a threat to Adventist identity. Laurel Damsteegt and her husband were two of its authors.

Although Adventist headship theology has retained most of the features of the Calvinist complementarianism on which it is based, there are several ways in which it has been shaped by Adventist traditionalism. Many of the contributors to Adventists Affirm and are also prominent proponents of the Last Generation Theology, which maintains the view that at Christ’s incarnation, he took on a sinful human nature so that he could prove people’s ability to keep God’s law perfectly. This view, when combined with the complementarian doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS), has contributed to a growing trend towards a semi-Arian rejection of the Trinity doctrine among some conservative Adventists.

The ESS doctrine, which was developed by the same theologians at the CBMW who developed headship theology, maintains that the Son was subordinate to the Father even before his incarnation. This provides the justification for the argument, based on a complementarian interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11, that just as Christ is eternally subordinate to the Father, so should women be eternally subordinate to their husbands. In the Adventist Church, the ESS doctrine has exacerbated the tendency toward antitrinitarianism that has persisted among traditionalists since the 19th century. In recent years, some Adventist adherents of both Last Generation Theology and the headship doctrine (including a theology professor who contributed to CAP’s book) have concluded that the Father and the Son have distinct personalities and that the Holy Spirit, far from being distinct from the Father and the Son, simply refers to the mind of God (a conception of the Spirit that they argue avoids the spiritualistic idea that the soul can exist outside a material form).[40] In short, when headship theology is combined with Last Generation Theology and the Adventist doctrine of anthropological monism, it has caused some Adventists to abandon Trinitarianism.

In 2018, the Adventist Review posted a survey on its Facebook page that sought to determine whether there was a relationship between headship theology, Last Generation Theology, and antitrinitarianism. CAP criticized this poll’s intentions, arguing that “the Adventist Review ‘Godhead Survey’ appears to be intentionally designed to create false impressions, false linkages between truth and error.” CAP rejected the idea that there was a correlation between the ESS doctrine and antitrinitarianism, even though some of its contributors were (or later became) antitrinitarians, and affirmed the ESS teaching that “Jesus chooses to be in functional submission to the Father.” Moreover, CAP defended Last Generation Theology, stating that “‘Last Generation Theology’ is basically a shorthand way to refer to the distinctive Adventist sanctuary package.”

CAP argued that the survey’s use of the word Godhead “seems calculated to interest antitrinitarian respondents.”[41] On this point, CAP was probably correct, although it failed to acknowledge its own contributions to the antitrinitarian position. Many supporters of headship theology, including prominent church leaders, have not adequately repudiated antitrinitarianism. Rather, there is a tendency for church leaders to refrain from using the term “Trinity” and to instead favor the word “Godhead.” During the 2021 Annual Council, GC President Ted Wilson tweeted, “There are those who advocate that the Godhead is not three distinct Persons, thus diminishing God.”Although this tweet rejects the extreme antitrinitarian position that there are only two persons in the Godhead, it does not fully endorse the doctrine of the Trinity.[42] Not only did Wilson avoid the word “Trinity” to describe the relationship between the persons of the Godhead, his emphasis on the distinct nature of each person retains the impression of a tritheistic conception of God in which each person exercises a distinct will from the others. Instead, to avoid taking a stance on the issue, Wilson portrayed the doctrine of the Godhead as a mystery. “We know from the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy that there is absolutely a Godhead made up of three Persons united in One,” he stated. “Can I explain that? No, but I believe it by faith.” It is unfortunate that the church’s president should be unable to explain a doctrine that Christianity has affirmed since the fourth century, but this situation makes sense when one considers that many conservative Adventists effectively deny Trinitarianism by promoting Last Generation Theology and headship theology.


Notes & References:

[1] See Ellen White, Confrontation, 16.

[2] It is beyond the scope of this article to refute each biblical argument offered by complementarians in support for their doctrine. However, in Part 2, I will make a few comments concerning the meaning of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 11.

[3] 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), 171. Available online at

[4] Schroeder, 169.

[5] Schroeder, 171; quoting Adolph von Harless, Christliche Ethik (6th ed.) (Stuttgart: 1864), 477, 146.

[6] Schroeder, 172.

[7] Schroeder cites the Lutheran theologian Werner Elert, who argues in his book The Structure of Lutheranism that Luther intended his understanding of the orders of creation to be flexible. Others, including Paul Tillich, have clarified that Luther’s doctrine of nonresistance to government authorities does not permit individuals to change the orders of creation; in fact, Tillich attributes the historically anti-revolutionary tendency of the Germans, in part, to Luther’s inadequate teachings on individual resistance (Paul Tillich [ed. Carl E. Braaten], A History of Christian Thought: From Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968], 255–6). Nevertheless, although Luther opposed individual resistance to state authorities, he believed that law enforcers had a duty to resist the encroachments of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V on the religious liberty of the Protestant churches. In other words, in certain limited situations, Luther acknowledged that some people have a responsibility to change the political order to which they belong (see Alan Ryan, On Politics [New York: Liveright, 2012], 341–3).

[8] Schroeder, 175.

[9] Schroeder, 170.

[10] Schroeder, 169–70.

[11] Schroeder, 170, footnote 6.

[12] Schroeder, 165.

[13] “Woman Suffrage in the Church,” Convention Workbook (48th regular convention of the Missouri Synod), 514–22; as quoted by Schroeder, 166.

[14] Proceedings of the Forty-Eighth Regular Convention of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (Denver, CO: 1969), 88; as quoted by Schroeder, 165.

[15] Kevin Giles, “A Critique of the ‘Novel’ Contemporary Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 Given in the Book, Women in the Church. Part II.” Evangelical Quarterly 72:3 (2000),, 197.

[16] Giles, 197.

[17] Sydney Smith, “The Sacralization of Absolute Power: God’s Power and Women’s Subordination in the Southern Baptist Convention,” dissertation (2019),, 17–29.

[18] Smith, 54–7.

[19] Smith, 55–8.

[20] “Resolution on Women,” Southern Baptist Convention (1980),

[21] Smith, 33–4, 58–9. See “Resolution on the Role of Women,” Southern Baptist Convention (1981),; “Resolution on Women,” Southern Baptist Convention (1983),; and “Resolution on Ordination and the Role of Women in Ministry,” Southern Baptist Convention (1984),

[22] Smith, 34.

[23] See point 6 in the Danvers Statement, which states, “Redemption in Christ aims at removing the distortions introduced by the curse.” It lists these distortions as husbands’ “harsh or selfish leadership” and wives’ “resistance to their husbands’ authority.”

[24] “The Danvers Statement” (1987),

[25] Wayne Grudem, “Personal Reflections on the History of CBMW and the State of the Gender Debate,” (May 31, 2009). Archived at

[26] George W. Knight, III, “The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Male and Female with Special Reference to the Teaching / Ruling Functions in the Church,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 18:2 (1975). Available online at

[27] Giles, 198.

[29] Giles, 198.

[30] Giles, 200–1.

[31] Giles, 201.

[32] Russell D. Moore, “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Winning the Gender Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49:3 (2006),, 573.

[33] Samuele Bacchiocchi, “Ministry or Ordination of Women?” Student Movement (March 12, 1986); reprinted in “Ordaining Women: Andrews Faculty Responds,” Spectrum 17:2 (December 1986), 22.

[34] Samuele Bacchiocchi, Women in the Church: A Biblical Study on the Role of Women in the Church (Berrien Springs, MI: Biblical Perspectives, 1987), 16.

[35] “Egalitarian/complementarian bibliography,” CBMW News 1:2 (November 1995),, 12.

[36] See Bacchiocchi, 83, 111–2, 136.

[37] Bacchiocchi, 76.

[38] Gerry Chudleigh, A Short History of the Headship Doctrine in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (2014),, 13–4.

[39] Samuele Bacchiocchi, “Headship, Submission, and Equality in Scripture,” in Mercedes H. Dyer (ed.), Prove All Things: A Response to Women in Ministry (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Adventists Affirm, 2000), 74.

[40] See “The Biblical Concept of the ‘Spirit,’” (n.d.), Here the author argues that since people were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and since their being consists of the unity of body and spirit (Genesis 2:7), then God can be described by the formula “Divine Body/Form + Divine Spirit = Diving Being (whole Person).”

[41] Council of Adventist Pastors (May 14, 2018).

[42] This avoidance of Trinitarian language could also be seen during the 2022 General Conference session, when the Adventist church’s official Twitter account tweeted the following summary of Wilson’s Sabbath sermon: “1. The Godhead: The Godhead is made up of 3 divine and equal persons who have existed and will exist from eternity to eternity.” (Adventist Church, tweet [June 11, 2022],


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

Image Credit:  Sigmund on Unsplash

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