Subordination and Scripture

This is the fifth in a series of articles on the Incarnation. Previously: Six key passages on the Incarnation

In the previous column, we examined six key passages of Scripture that help us understand the Incarnation – the eternal Son of God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Bible is clear that Jesus is one person with two distinct, but undivided, natures: human and divine. This means, at least in part, that by adding sinless humanity to His deity, Jesus did not become less than co-equal with the other members of the Trinity.

At the same time, we must address several verses of Scripture that seem to say Jesus is a lesser being than God. Those who promote this false view of Jesus, and who use these Scriptures to support their position, are known as “ontological subordinationists.”

These are people who believe that Jesus is less than God by nature of who He is. Rather than the eternal Son of God, Jesus either is a created being, a lesser god, or both.

This should not be confused with “relational subordination,” a biblically faithful position also known as “economic subordination.” According to this view, the three persons of the Godhead are equal in nature, but they voluntarily submit to each other respecting the roles they play in creation and salvation.

We should embrace relational subordination and reject ontological subordination.

Counterfeit Christian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) reject Christ’s deity, along with the doctrine of the Trinity. Instead, they believe Jesus is subordinate in nature or essence to the Father. JWs insist that Jesus is the first of Jehovah’s creations, Michael the archangel.

Four key passages

The following four Bible verses often are quoted to buttress the belief that Jesus is lower in nature than the Father.

John 14:28b – “the Father is greater than I.”

Jesus utters these words to His disciples gathered in the upper room. He is not implying that He is inferior in nature to the Father. Quite the contrary. On many other occasions, Jesus places Himself on the same divine footage as Yahweh (e.g., John 5:17; 8:58; 10:30).  Here, Jesus speaks of the Father being greater than He is because, in the Incarnation, Jesus has humbled Himself and taken on the form of a servant (see Phil. 2:5-8).

As Kenneth Samples writes in God Among Sages, “By relinquishing the prerogatives of deity and veiling his divine glory, Jesus had, as a man, taken a role or position that was less than the Father in rank but certainly not in essence.”

John 20:17b – “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

Jesus speaks these words to Mary after His resurrection. How could Jesus call the Father “my God” if He is God Himself? The answer is quite simple. As the God-Man, Jesus possessed two natures: divine and human.

Having just been resurrected as glorified humanity – the divine nature does not die and therefore needs no resurrection – it is quite natural for Jesus to speak this way. He also provides assurance to Mary that He is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (see 1 Cor. 15:20-22).

Col. 1:15b – “the firstborn over all creation.”

Ontological subordinationists lean on this verse to argue that Jesus had a beginning and thus is a created being. However, in this context, the word “firstborn” (Greek prototokos) does not mean the first one born (or created). If Paul had meant “first-created,” as Jehovah’s Witnesses contend, Paul could have used the Greek term protoktisis (first-created).

While prototokos can be rendered “firstborn” and used to identify a first-born child, it often means first in rank, heir, or preeminent one. In this respect, Jesus, who created all things (John 1:3; Col. 1:16), is sovereign over all He has made.

1 Cor. 11:3b – “God is the head of Christ.”

In this passage, Paul teaches Corinthian believers about relational authority within the Godhead, not degrees of nature. Earlier in the passage, Paul notes that the head (authority) of woman is man, even though Paul elsewhere stresses the equality of all people (Gal. 3:28). Men and women are equal in being, as people God made to bear His image. As a result, all people share a common dignity and moral worth.

Rather than undermine the equality of persons in the Trinity, this verse shows that relational submission is consistent with equality of being. Jesus voluntarily submits to the Father. This makes Him no less divine.

Voluntary submission

These four passages of Scripture do not teach that Jesus is a lesser god, or a created being. Rather, they help broaden our view of what the Incarnation is all about. As the eternal Son of God, Jesus does not forfeit His deity in order to come to us as Redeemer.

He voluntarily submits to the will of the Father, sets aside His privileged position at the Father’s right hand, and adds sinless humanity to His deity. In His role as Suffering Servant, Jesus acknowledges that the Father is “greater” than He is – not better, or more divine.

Next: Incarnational heresies