Two Three blogs I read have been dealing with issues related to complementarianism and egalitarianism about gender roles. Jollyblogger has four posts: Oppression of Women???, More on the Oppression of Women, Women's Roles in the Church and the Gospel, and Bruce Ware on the Women Issue. Ilona has a number of posts at Intellectuelle as well, A Woman's Place, A Woman's Place,continued, Do We Change Or Do They Change?, A Woman's Place, In The Church, Are We Serious About This?, and The Trinity: How Important Is That Idea To You? It seemed a good time to bring out a post I've been sitting on for a while (though most of that material will be appearing in subsequent posts, since this one deals with one crucial preliminary issue). Update: This is what I get for getting behind on Rebecca Writes. She's got Functional Subordination Discussion and Functional Subordination Again. I need to read these when I'm more coherent. Perhaps I'll say something about them in or before my next post, which is already pretty much written but may need to be adjusted.
The Jollyblogger and Rebecca Writes posts above reflect a complementarian position. Ilona's posts seem to me to seeking some middle ground between complementarianism and egalitarianism, sometimes endorsing complementarian theses and sometimes endorsing egalitarian claims. Complementarians hold that divinely assigned differences in gender roles reflect differences in roles among the members of the Trinity. Ilona's last post in the list above presents an argument that egalitarians often give against complementarianism. Egalitarians see no such role differences in scripture for human men and women (which I have to say Ilona disagrees with, judging by her first few posts) and then accuse complementarians of reflecting the heresy of subordinationism in order to generate the parallel (which Ilona does seem to me to be endorsing). Subordinationism is the view that the three persons of the Trinity are not equal. I think this charge either (1) is completely out of step with the history of Trinitarian thought, or (2) simply misunderstands complementarianism.
First off, complementarians do not hold that the members of the Trinity are not equal (and thus do not hold that men and women are in any way unequal. Complementarians do hold that there are differences in roles within the Trinity, and there are then divinely-instituted differences in roles to reflect the Trinitarian unity in diversity. But these roles are not superior or inferior. They're simply different. The Father has some sort of authoritative role with respect to the Son and the Spirit. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit. The Son submits to the will of the Father. The Son does everything the Father tells him. When you look at the Son, it's as if you're seeing what the Father is really like, and so the Son is somehow a representative of the Father. The Son is never in a parental relation to Christians but is said to be a brother to those who elsewhere are described as in him. The Son is the bridegroom of the gathering of all believers (what has traditionally been translated as the church), not a parent. There's a relation between Christ and the church that Paul in Ephesians says is parallel to a husband-wife relationship. Yet Jesus tells us to pray to the Father as Father, not husband. Believers are heirs with Christ of the eternal kingdom that the Father gives. There's no question that there is very different language with respect to how the Father and Son relate to believers, and much of this has something to do with authority, and it would do injustice to the scriptures to reverse these relationships with the Father in the Son's roles and vice versa.
I think what's going on here is a confusion between two different things that people have classically called the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity. (See the Wikipedia entry on the Trinity for a fuller exposition of this.)
So how does this relate to classic Trinitarianism? Orthodox Trinitarians hold that the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in their being but have different roles. There's a classic heresy called subordinationism that denies the equality of the members of the Trinity by saying that the Son and/or Spirit are/is not equal in being with the Father. At some point a name got attached to the orthodox view. It refers to the view that the Father, Son, and Spirit are in their very being equal as the Ontological Trinity.
Some egalitarians make the claim that complementarianism's commitment to superior and inferior roles in the Trinity commits them to subordinationism. I suppose that depends on what is meant by calling them inferior and superior. If it means some difference in nature, then it would commit the complementarian to subordinationism. But the complementarian does not admit to differences in nature, just difference in roles. This came to be called the Economic Trinity, which says that the different persons of the Trinity are different in how they relate to each other but without any difference in nature.
So if this language about superior and inferior roles simply refers to the Economic Trinity, then complementarians do admit to it, but it doesn't commit them to subordinationism. If it refers to differences in the Ontological Trinity, then it would commit them to subordinationism, but complementarians do not hold such a view. So, whatever these terms about inferior and superior roles are supposed to mean, complementarians simply are not committed to the heresy of subordinationism.
I do wonder what these egalitarians who accuse complementarianism of subordinationism are committed to, however. They seem to me to be upset at complementarians for holding to the Economic Trinity. If so, then they are opposed to the classic, orthodox formulation of the Trinity and are thus holding to an official heresy. I don't know if this is the best way to read them, however. Maybe they just misunderstand complementarianism as holding to something that complementarians do not hold. From the discussion at Ilona's post, I'm sure that's what she's doing, and I suspect it's much more widespread than those who actually believe that there are no role distinctions whatsoever in the Trinity. How anyone could hold that view I just don't understand, because you'd have to say that the Father died on the cross, the Father and Spirit were separated when the Son died on the cross, and the Son and the Spirit sent the Father into the world after the Spirit's ascension into heaven. Since that sort of view would make nonsense of all the distinctions in the Trinity, I have to assume that these egalitarians who are making this charge are just uncharitably reading complementarians to be saying something that the complementarian view explicitly denies.