The Subordination of the Son to the Father

The issue of "subordination of the Son" refers to the question of whether the Son ever has any limitation in his exercise of authority and prerogatives in comparison to his Father's absolute authority.

There are a variety of views on this issue:
1) Ontological subordination - The claim that the Son has always been subordinate to the Father in both role and nature (ontology). (This view is not considered to be valid within mainstream Christianity.)
2) Complementarian - Although the Son has the exact nature of the Father he has always had a role that is functionally subordinate to the Father (the Father role and Son's role complement each other). This view is is sometimes called "functional subordination" (the Son's subordination is with respect to his function only, rather than his true nature). Some who hold this position question whether the subordination applies to Jesus pre-human life.
3) Egalitarian - Jesus was never subordinate to his Father with the possible exception during the time he was on earth (Luke 2:51) in his mortal body when he voluntarily gave up his functional prerogatives as God.

The rest of this article presents the Complementarian view, the eternal subordination of the Son.

The Case for Eternal Subordination

While it is often assumed that the verses about subordination are restricted to the time of Jesus' human life on earth, there are many references that address his position before and after his earthly ministry and some are timeless, having implications for Jesus' relationship to his Father regardless of time.

References specific to Jesus life after his earthly life

After his resurrection, Jesus is given a seat that is subordinate to God. He is seated at the right had of the Majesty, the Power of God: Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69; Acts 5:31
The Father has bestowed the kingdom to the Son just as the Son will bestow the kingdom to his disciples (Luke 22:29).
Matthew 20:20-23 (Mark 10:35-40) Jesus declares that he cannot give specific positions in the coming heavenly kingdom but only the Father has that authority.

1 Corinthians 15:24-28 - Jesus hands the kingdom to his Father and is eternally subjected to God.

These texts show that even though the Son has all authority over others (Matthew 28:18) but not over his Father and Jesus ALWAYS receives the authority from his Father. He will give it back to his Father but he never bestows authority on his Father. Even though he has all authority over others, some authority will continue to be reserved for the Father alone, even in the Kingdom.

References that appear to be timeless, suggesting eternal subordination

Jesus looks to the Father as his God (John 20:17; Ephesians 1:17 Revelation 3:12; compare Micah 5:2-4) If two persons jointly own a business, they may both be considered to be the Boss. But if one person says that the other person is his Boss then there is a difference in the authority structure. The Son looks to his Father as being His God but the Father never calls the Son "His God." The verses mentioned above clearly show that this relationship extends to Jesus' life after his earthly ministry.

1 Corinthians 11:3 (head of Christ is God - also see Ephesians 1:22)

John 5:19,22,27,30
Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. . . . For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, . . . and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. . . . I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me."

The phrase " . . . something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner" refers to activities the "Father does." This would certainly include heavenly activities and would not be limited to only earthly activities. The specific reference in verse 22 stating the Son will be the earth's future Judge will certainly be a heavenly activity, not one accomplished during his earthly ministry. All these things, whether things done prior to the Son's earthly ministry or after, the Son does "in like manner" to what the Father does. Yet these are the same activities about which he also says "the Son can do nothing of Himself." The Son can do nothing that is out of harmony with the Father's will, or simply put, he can only do things that he sees the Father doing. But if the Son cannot do these heavenly activities on his own initiative, then he must have a subordinate role that transcends all time, for all eternity.

John 8:28 (Jesus does nothing of his own initiative)
John 8:29 (The Son always does the things that are pleasing to the Father.) How long is 'always'? This implies that his life of pleasing the Father extends to all eternity.

Implications for Jesus life prior to his earthly ministry

Jesus disclosed how it was decided that he would come to earth.
John 7:28 'Then Jesus cried out in the temple, teaching and saying, "You both know Me and know where I am from; and I have not come of Myself, but He who sent Me is true, whom you do not know.'
John 8:42 'Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.'
John 12:49 "For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak."
John 14:24,28 "He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father's who sent Me. . . I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I."

Throughout the writings of John the Sender of the Son is identified as the Father (John 5:23,24,30,36-38; 6:44,57; 8:16,18; 10:36; 13:3,20 ; 17:1,3,8,18,21,23,25 ; 20:21 ;
1 John 4:9,10,14; also see John 6:29,38,39; 7:16,18,29,33; 8:26,29; 9:4; 12:44,45; 15:21; 16:5). Elsewhere the Sender is either identified as God (Luke 4:18; John 3:17; Acts 3:26; Galatians 4:4) or is left unstated (Matthew 10:40; Mark 9:37; Luke 9:48; 10:16; John 4:34). The act of sending happened prior to Jesus' human life on earth. About that 'sending' Jesus said "I have not come of Myself . . .I have not even come on My own initiative" but "the Father Himself who sent Me." Thus it was the Father's initiative that sent the Son, not the Son's initiative. This implies that the Son took a subordinate role in that decision to come to earth. To understand John 14:28 (" . . . I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I") it appears from the context (verse 24) that because the Father had the initiative to send - while the Son did not - this implies the Father is greater with respect to decision-making, even prior to the Son's human life on earth. Jesus compares his own sending as to the way he sends his own disciples (John 20:21). This implies that just as Jesus has authority over his followers to commission them the Father likewise has authority to commission Jesus.

References with possible implications to Jesus' life prior to his earthly ministry

John 6:37-39 (Jesus was sent to do God's will, not his own will.) Also see Luke 22:42; Mathew 26:39

John 14:31 (Jesus does exactly as the Father has commanded him.)
John 15:10 (Jesus kept his Father's commandments.)
John 10:18 (Jesus received a commandment from his Father.)
Hebrews 10:7,9 (Jesus came to do God's will.)
John 4:34 (Jesus does God's will and accomplishes God's work.)
John 5:36 (The Father has given Jesus work to do.)
John 17:4 (Jesus accomplished what the Father gave him to do.)
Acts 3:26 (God raised up a Servant, Jesus.) Note: this is a textual variant that is not in the King James Version.

John 12:49,50 (Jesus does not speak on his own. The Father gave him a commandment what to speak. The Father told Jesus what to speak.)
John 7:16,17 (Jesus' teaching is not his own, but from God.)
John 14:10,24 (Jesus' did not speak on his own initiative ... his words are not his own but the Father's.)
John 8:26 (The Son speaks what he heard from the Father.)
John 8:28 (The Son speaks what the Father taught him.)
John 8:40 (The Son tells the truths he heard from the Father)
John 15:15 ("all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you")
John 17:8 (The Father gave words to the Son.)
Matthew 28:18 (All authority has been given to the Son.)
John 17:2 (God gave the Son authority over all.)
John 5:26 (Father gave to the Son to have life)
John 6:57 (Son lives because of the Father)
John 10:18 (Son was given authority to lay down life and has authority to take it up again).

John 17:5 (Jesus requests to be given the same glory that he had during the time before the earth.)
2 Peter 1:17 (Jesus received honor and glory from the Father.)

John 3:35 (Father has given all things into the Son's hand.)
Luke 10:22 (Father has given all things into the Son's hand.)
John 13:3 (Father gave all things into the Son's hands.)
John 17:7 (Father gives to the Son)

About the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit is subordinate for similar reasons:
1 Peter 1:12 (Holy Spirit is sent from heaven.)
John 14:26 (Holy Spirit is sent by the Father, yet comes in the authority of the Son.)
John 15:26 (The Holy Spirit, who is not the Father, is present with the Father yet sent by the Son.)
John 16:14,15 (The Holy Spirit must wait to receive things from the Son)
1 Corinthians 12:11 (When the Holy Spirit comes, he does as he wills, yet does nothing on his own.)
John 16:13 (Holy Spirit does not speak on his own initiative, what he hears, he speaks.)
Romans 8:27 (The Holy Spirit, "He", does things according to the Father's will.)
Isaiah 6:8 (Acts 28:25,26) (The Holy Spirit is identified as the Lord yet he asks for a decision on whom to send.)

Similarities between the Son and the Holy Spirit in subordination:

John 12:49,50 (He does not speak on his own. Father gave him a commandment what to speak. Father has told him what to speak.)
John 5:19,30 (Son can do nothing of himself, he can do nothing on his own initiative, he does not seek his own will)
John 16:13 (Holy Spirit is sent, does not speak on his own initiative, he speaks what he hears)
The Holy Spirit intercedes between God and man (Romans 8:26,27) in a way similar to how the Son intercedes (Romans 8:34).

Were Jesus' limitations due to his human nature or partly due to his chosen subordinate role?

When Jesus came to earth he took on the form of man (John 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8) and the limitations of humanity (Luke 2:51; Matthew 4:2; Matthew 21:18; Hebrews 5:7) so that he could sympathize with our limitations - and we could observe those limitations - but he did not take on the moral weaknesses associated with human sinfulness (Hebrews 4:15). Were the limitations all a result of taking on humanity or might some limitations be due to his having a subordinate role which, for a time, meant taking on a mortal human body (Hebrews 10:5-10)? The answer to this question will shape the answer to a troublesome issue we will examine below.

If the Son's limitations on earth were solely a result of his human nature, and if he retained this human nature after his resurrection as most scholars believe (Luke 24:37-40; 1 Timothy 2:5) then one would expect the limitations that are presumed to result from the human nature to be retained. But those limitations did not continue with Jesus after his resurrection. The body he had during his earthly ministry died as a result of wounds but the body he had later was unaffected by wounds (John 20:27). Apparently, after his resurrection the Divine nature dominated his glorified humanity and any limitations tied to his humanity vanished even though his subordinate role continued. This suggests that some limitations observable during his earthly ministry may not be due to his human nature but instead may be due to his continuing subordinate role.

With this possibility in mind now consider this question:

Did Jesus know all things while in his mortal flesh?

Now we know that You know all things, and have no need for anyone to question You; by this we believe that You came from God. - John 16:30 (or John 21:17)
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. - Mark 13:32 & Matthew 24:36

Two verses appear to say Jesus knew all things, even during his earthly ministry, while the other two (referring to the same statement) appear to say Jesus does not know the day and hour of the final days of the earth. How can these be reconciled? 

The 'not knowing' in Mark 13 and Matthew 24 is clearly not metaphorical nor idiomatic. It is literally true that no one (except the Father) possesses the knowledge of the day or hour. The disciples asked when the disaster would occur (in Matthew 24:2,3; Mark 13:2-4) because they did not know. Jesus' answer was that not only did they not know, "no one knows . . . but the Father alone." 

Some scholars explain this apparent conflict by appealing to the fact that during his earthly ministry Jesus was not only fully God but also fully Man. Since in his humanity Jesus experienced the limitation of hunger, which he had not known while he was in heaven (John 3:13) then other limitations would also be due to his humanity. Others see how this explains the physical limitations that accompany Jesus' humanity but some find it hard to see why this explains any mental limitations. 

How would the dual nature of Jesus offer an explanation for the above apparent contradiction? Some conclude that when Jesus took on his human nature he possessed two minds, a human mind and a Divine mind, with the human mind responsible for Jesus' knowledge rather than the Divine mind. Others hold that Jesus had one mind but while in his mortal body he chose to have a subconscious mental part that was inaccessible to the conscious mind and then, after his resurrection, his humanity became dominated by the Divine so his subconscious became accessible. Either way, it would seem there was one memory databank that Jesus always had access to (the human mind/conscious mind) and another databank that, due to his human limitations, was inaccessible (the Divine mind/subconscious mind). 

Critics, like myself, ask whether these explanations are necessary or even consistent. If Jesus' mental limitations were due to his humanity, then there could be other things that Jesus did not know. Indeed, if there were other things, like facts about creation, that Jesus did not know while in his earthly tent, then my 'answer' given below collapses. However I think that the appeal to two minds (or two distinct parts of one mind) is unnecessary and does not totally explain what is stated in Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32.

One could ask:

  • If Jesus had only one mind (even with two distinct parts), then how could he "know all things" (as God?) while at the same time (as Man?) not know some fact (like the day and hour)? 
  • If one holds that Jesus had two minds, one mind as Man and one mind as God, then is this not equivalent to saying that there were two persons present?
An idiomatic form of 'not knowing' can be seen in the text regarding the event where false Christians stand before Jesus on Judgment Day:
And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.' - Matthew 7:23
Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, 'Lord, open up to us!' then He will answer and say to you, 'I do not know where you are from.' . . . and He will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you are from; depart from me, all you evildoers.' - Luke 13:25,27
But he answered, 'Truly I say to you, I do not know you.'  - Matthew 25:12

The word for 'know' in Luke 13:25,27 and Matthew 25:12 is the same (root) as in Mark 13 and Matthew 24 (a Greek synonym of the word is in Matthew 7:23). But it seems to be an idiomatic use for the Judge knows that the judged are evildoers yet he says "I do not know you" and "I do not know where you are from." Clearly it is not literally true that the Judge does not know the judged. Likely this references means the Judge has not had a close relationship with them and does not know them as true disciples. This illustrates that the word for 'know' can have a latitude of meaning. This makes us aware that there may be some flexibility in resolving the apparent contradiction.

Why the Son does not know

In Matthew 24:15,21 (Mark 13:14,19) Jesus refers to the great Desolation or Distress that falls on Jerusalem as foretold in Daniel 9:12,27 and Daniel 11:31; 12:1. He tells of his return to then gather God's elect (Mark 13:27 / Matthew 24:31) also a parallel to Daniel 7:18,19,21,22,23,27 where the kingdom is restored to Israel. This teaching is familiar to his disciples as shown in an earlier chapter (Matthew 19:28) where the kingdom is restored to his Israelite disciples. Although Jesus answers their question of "when . . .?" with "no one knows . . . but the Father alone" the question comes up again after Jesus' resurrection. In Acts 1:6,7 the disciples ask "is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?" I believe Jesus' answer here extends the previous comment "no one knows . . . but the Father alone" by adding "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority." 

I think this is the real answer. The decision to bring the Tribulation to the earth is a decision reserved exclusively for the Final Decision-Maker, the Father. Jesus does not know the time because his subordinate role does not give him the authority to set the day or the hour. Although he has been given all authority over all creation (Matthew 28:18) he does not have authority over the Father. Jesus knows all that there is to know about created things, but the Son must wait to see what the Father reveals (John 5:19,20 - "the Father will show Him greater works than these").

There is nothing in any of the troublesome biblical references (Mark 13:32; Matthew 24:36; John 5:20) that require Jesus to have forgotten anything or that there was some knowledge he had once had but was now inaccessible. These things that Jesus did not know or had not seen were not things derived from the realm of creation but things that must come exclusively from the Father, the Final Decision-Maker. 

That Jesus' subordinate role extends to decisions in the future kingdom can be seen in Matthew 20:20-23 (Mark 10:35-40) where the Father alone has the authority to decide the ranking of Jesus' disciples. It is consistent that since the Father has fixed the time of the great Distress "by His own authority" (Acts 1:7) the day and hour would be something that the Son does not 'know.'

WHO else does not know the day or hour?

I claim that not only is the above answer possible, it addresses another issue. Reexamine Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32. The text says "no one knows" and ends with the exception "but the Father alone" (Greekmonos - Matthew 24:36). Typically we focus on "the Son" as stated in Mark 13:32 but now let us consider who else could be included among those who do not know. What is the scope of "no one?" Is the scope of "no one" limited to the list given ("not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son") or could the scope be everyone in earth and heaven ("but the Father alone")?  Humans are not specifically listed but they would be assumed since Jesus' audience was human. Demons are not "angels of heaven" nor are they listed but it would be very odd if they knew the day and hour. So the list by itself is not the entire set of those who do not know. It seems likely (to me) that the broader statement "no one knows . . . but the Father alone" is the primary statement and the phrase "not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son" clarifies by extending the scope beyond the human audience. Considering Acts 1:7, which states that the setting of the time belongs to the Father's jurisdiction, suggests there is NO ONE else in the whole universe who knows because no one else has the authority to set the time. If this is the correct understanding then the Holy Spirit also does not know. 

So why does the Holy Spirit - who is also God - not know what the Father alone knows. If the explanation for the Son's ignorance rests on his human nature, then that cannot explain why the Holy Spirit does not know for the Holy Spirit never took on a dual nature. However if our answer is based on the subordinate role taken by the Son and the Holy Spirit, then the reason for the ignorance of the Holy Spirit is the same as that for the Son. Just as there are things that the Father would yet show the Son (John 5:19,20), there are things that the Son will yet share with the Holy Spirit (John 16:14,15). The Holy Spirit knows everything the Creator knows but not those things reserved for the Father alone. The things yet to be shown to the Son and the things yet to be transferred to the Holy Spirit could be those decisions regarding the final day and hour.

Why is the Father called "God" more often than the Son is?

Critics will argue against the Son being God or at least being the same kind of God as the Father based on: 

If the Son really were God, included in the One God who made the universe, why would He be distinguished from "God" so consistently?

No verse specifically answers this but I think there is a reasonable possibility. Elsewhere evidence has been given to show that while only one God made the universe and is capable of doing what no other could do, yet both the Father and the Son shared in the making of the universe. From Hebrews 1:3 and John 5:19,20 it is clear the Son is exactly like the Father and does everything the Father does. But there are differences between the two, certain roles are reserved for each person; only the Son is the mediator (1 Timothy 2:5) and only the Father has the jurisdiction to decide certain things in the kingdom (Matthew 20:20-23 ; Mark 10:35-40 ; Acts 1:7). 

Assuming it is true that the Son is included in the One God who made the universe yet has an eternally subordinate position next to his Father, then what would be implied if they were both addressed as "God" side-by-side? There are a few verses in the Old Testament where the "true God" (Jeremiah 10:10) is referenced side-by-side with other gods (eg.: 1 Kings 18:24) yet we know that Yahweh is a distinct God from these others and could not be "one" with them in any sense. Thus it might be that we do not see such statements about the Father and Son both being "God", in the same sentence, is because such a reference would likely convey the idea that there were two distinct Gods. Giving them both the same supernatural title "God" in the same context might  not reflect the subordinate role of the Son even though it would maintain the "God" nature they share.

Paul had great knowledge that rivaled the 12 Apostles (2 Corinthians 11:5,6; 10:10), he was considered by many to be an apostle (1 Corinthians 9:1,2) yet in the context of the twelve he hesitated to be called an apostle (1 Corinthians 15:7-9). Paul wrote most of the New Testament but the twelve had a prominence that Paul did not (Matthew 19:28; Revelation 21:14). He was not inferior yet he was submissive (Acts 21:23,24). Paul was included in the one Bride of Christ along with the twelve. So in one context he was reckoned as an apostle, yet in another context, because of his rank, he was not. 

I think this suggests that Jesus, when being referenced alone, can be identified as "God" because he is included in the One Maker of all things who brought the universe into existence from nothing (Romans 4:16,17; - which could be a reference to Jesus since it seems reasonable to think that Genesis 17 and 18 refers to Jesus - see John 8). Yet when he is mentioned in the immediate context of his Father and he is described with one of his submissive roles (as "Christ") he is not given the role of "God" thus avoiding the conflict of rank. This would parallel how Paul did not accept the title of "apostle" in the company of the twelve due to the respect he had for their role as assigned by Jesus. 

Other than the role/functional differences between the Father and Son, and the phraseology that would maintain those differences, we do not see any differences between the Father and Son. They are both honored the same (John 5:23;1 John 2:23), they both receive worship (Hebrews 1:6; Revelation 5:13,14) and religious service (Daniel 6:26; 7:13,14,27 - Ralfs; compare John 12:26).