Ontological Equality and Hierarchical Subordination

If there is one thing that is lamentably common in almost all feminist writing it is the apparent inability to reconcile the complementary concepts of ontological equality and hierarchical subordination. Briefly, if two things are regarded as ontologically equal then by definition one cannot be subordinate to the other. Thus, it is ceaselessly argued, because a wife is the ontological equal of her husband therefore it follows she cannot legitimately be subordinate to him; and any assertion of the subordination of wife to husband is regarded as an implicit denial of their ontological equality. The concepts of ontological equality and hierarchical subordination are not logically mutually exclusive and the combination is found everywhere around us, but the possibility of the combination is hotly denied by every feminist writer I have come across. It is odd and cries out for explanation; like an inability to rub one’s tummy and scratch one’s head at the same time.

Examples of the combination abound, including in the ad intra Trinitarian Godhead itself. Orthodox Christianity confesses both the ontological equality of all three Persons of the Trinity, as well as the monarchy of the Father (as it was called). There is a heretical subordination of the Son to the Father (as in Arianism, which the insertion of the homoousios in the Creed was designed to exclude), but there is also an Orthodox subordinationism which makes the Father the cause (Greek aitia) of the Son. In the words of the late John Meyendorff (in his Byzantine Theology), “The Cappadocian Fathers eliminated the ontological subordinationism of Origen and Arius, but they preserved a Biblical and Orthodox subordinationism, maintaining the personal identity of the Father as the ultimate origin of all divine being and action”. And this subordination of the Son to the Father can be found in the economy of salvation as well, for St. Paul writes that “God is the head of Christ” just as in marriage “the man is the head of the woman” (1 Cor. 11:3).   At the end also, in the age to come, “the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him”—i.e. the Son will be subjected to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28). Clearly ontological equality is compatible with hierarchical subordination.

Such a refusal to allow the combination of the two complementary concepts is explicable in secular thought, which seems unable to progress beyond the concept of relationship as power struggle and which sees all things in terms of competing “human rights”. Liberal Protestantism especially has proven itself captive of such a narrow and unthinking secularism. But it is more perplexing to see such an inability to combine the concepts in Orthodox writers, who should be quite at home with the concept of a godly hierarchy. Saying (as one such Orthodox writer recently did) that “the subordination or submission principle subverts the unequivocal patristic teaching of the ontological equality of men and women” and that “the ancient Fathers of the Church, good philosophers and theologians that they were, saw the incompatibility between equality and subordination or submission” is simply nonsensical, and contrary to everything within Orthodox life. The Fathers held that women and men were ontologically equal, and yet they still insisted that the wife submit to her husband—largely because they could read the New Testament, which they considered to be authoritative. It was not just St. Paul who insisted on the subordination of the wife to her ontologically equal husband (Eph. 5:22f), but Fathers such as Chrysostom also: “Let us take as our fundamental position then that the husband occupies the place of the ‘head’ and the wife the place of the ‘body’” (Homily XX on Ephesians).

We see this combination of equality and subordination everywhere around us: in families children submit to their parents; in the army, Sergeants submit to the Generals; in a school, students submit to their teachers, and in a monarchy (such as Canada) subjects submit to their Sovereign. Life is hierarchical. This being so, we see this it also and especially in the Church: the faithful submit to their pastors (the bishop and his presbyters) though they are their ontological equals; the presbyters submit to their bishop. Since pretty much everything in our experience combines equality with hierarchy, why shouldn’t the wife also submit to her husband as St. Paul commands? At the very least responsible theologians should acknowledge that equality and subordination are not mutually exclusive. One often finds the terms “patriarchal” and “hierarchical” used as ideological swear words in feminist literature, but one would think that the Orthodox should be immune to such distortion of their traditional vocabulary. It is true that hierarchy can be misused, just as anything good can be misused. The misuse of a thing does not invalidate its proper use. Because Arius misused the concept of the monarchy of the Father to construct a heretical Christology does not mean that the monarchy of the Father should be abandoned. The proper use remains. It is Arius—and the misusers of the proper concepts—that must be abandoned.

One can only conclude that Orthodox writers who refuse to acknowledge the compatibility of ontological equality with hierarchical submission do so because they, like their liberal Protestant colleagues, remain prisoners of a secular ideology. It is significant that their protestations of the incompatibility of the two concepts require highly selective citations from the Fathers, and a virtual ignoring of the New Testament. That is because both the Fathers and the New Testament are replete with exhortations to hierarchical submission. These exhortations are simply discounted. An honest scholarship would admit this, and differentiate itself from the historical Faith of the Church. But that would mean laying aside the label of “Orthodox”, and this they are unwilling to do. It’s too bad—liberal or conservative, Orthodox or innovative, let us at least be honest and ‘fess up to our actual views. Debate is fruitful only when all of the debaters’ cards are laid on the table.





  1. Excellent statement of the basic error Father Lawrence. I assume you have your reasons not to name this particular feminist writer/philosopher.

    To expand your thoughts past the bog of the modern age, there is a deeper epistemological dimension going all the way back to the garden, which is to say at the root of (creaturely) being itself. What did anthropos do in the garden? Male and female failed to submit. What did the deceiver promise as the fruit of their failure? Ontological equality with God. What was the actual fruit? What the deceiver said! A *kind* of ontological equality of God because to know good and evil is too truly be god-like. However, what was the much more ominous fruit? A rupture of the hierarchy – the relationship between anthropos and God such that God changed the relationship (expulsion from the Garden) which also had “ontological” implications.

    This dimension, this relationship (i.e. between ontological equality and hierarchical *relationship*) is a nexus for so many things in theology and the spiritual life. For example, in my opinion it is a mischaracterization of this nexus that leads D.B. Hart and others into a kind of ontological necessity in soteriology – such that Universalism is the only possible outcome of God’s “good” being. It floats in and out of the whole “existential personalism” of Met. John Zizioulas and his debate with Met. Hierotheos. The modern Cartesian Self (which is at the core of “modern” man and his mind – it is *who* he is) flattens out BOTH hierarchy and ontology in his expansion of being/thought which reaches out and grabs ALL of creation at least (really, all of metaphysics and beyond to God Himself). This leads retards modern man’s thinking such that he can simply not hold both ontology and hierarchy in his mind – such a thing can not even be admitted as *rational* and thus the object of thought.

    In any case, excellent essay.

    1. Thank you for your kind words and for your excellent reflection. I deliberately did not identify the writer and his blog piece because my purpose was not to start a feud as if the disagreement was something personal, but simply because his words were a good and timely illustration of something I have found in practically all feminist writing. I think it is important to keep discussion on the level of ideas, and not to personalize. Those intent on determining the identity can find it fairly easily after a search of the usual suspects.

  2. Wonderful article, father. Thank you for standing on the front lines of these issues, and for doing so with wisdom, strength, and humility. May the Lord bless you abundantly. I’m grateful for your ministry

  3. Thank you, Father. I appreciate the clarification of the Orthodox sense of subordination within the Trinity of the Persons of Son and Spirit to the Father vs. the heretical ontological Subordinationism of Arius.

    I noticed one author writing an opposing viewpoint to your article confused or conflated biblical subordination of wives to husbands with what seems to me to be something of a modern heresy (and practical impossibility) espousing submission of all women to all men! You rightly note that there are appropriate spheres of hierarchical authority—marriage being one, the family another, and the local Church another, for instance. We would be in trouble if minor sons did not honor their mothers, for example, but there are some abusive “patriarchy” teachings in heterodox circles that encourage (implicitly if not explicitly) just this sort of thing by teaching a general female Subordinationism.

    I read recently that St, Nicholas of Japan revived the female diaconate for the Church in Japan. I assume something in 19th century Japanese culture warranted the genuine non-liturgical order of Deaconesses for assistance in ministry to women perhaps, but it would be interesting to know in further detail the context behind this instance. It might be helpful to the present discussion.

    1. I am happy to learn this about St. Nicholas of Japan. It is clear that the situation in 19th century Japan bore little resemblance to our own situation today.

      1. Undoubtedly true. Even 19th century Western culture bears little resemblance to our own it seems to me! We are very confused, with extremes and distortions of proper order on both ends of the spectrum on this and other issues in my experience. I do believe the difference in sex roles in Japan are more pronounced than in the Western world even today. I understand the way Japanese women speak the language is different than the way the men speak it. I have a relative who works for a Japanese small business and her colleagues laugh at her when she speaks the little Japanese she has picked up because having picked it up from these Japanese businessmen, she speaks it like a man!

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