The Use and Abuse of ‘Superiors, Inferiors, or Equals’

Painting by John Rogers of debate in the Westminster Assembly on a portion of the Confession of Faith. Insert: Title page of the first printing of the Shorter Catechism for members of Parliament

What Don’t the Westminster Catechisms Say?

“The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of the husband as superior to the wife, and of lay people as inferior to their leaders” state Michael Foster and Dominic Bnonn Tennant in their popular book, It’s Good To Be a Man.[1] Prior to reviewing the book, when I suggested to one of the authors that the Shorter Catechism lacks that statement,[2] I was told that the intended reference is to the Larger Catechism and that the correction will be made. However, as I pointed out in my review, while Q. 64 speaks of “preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to every one in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals” (and Q. 123–133 of the Larger Catechism use similar language), neither those answers, nor any others in the catechisms describe “the husband as superior to the wife” or “lay people as inferior to their leaders.”[3] Messrs. Foster and Tennant appear to be appealing to the catechetical language of “superiors, inferiors, or equals” to support their view of the inferiority of wives and of those holding the general office of believer, although, since neither catechism states what they suggest, their argument lies somewhere on the spectrum between sloppy writing and improper use of sources.

            While the example above is blatant, one does not have to spend extended time on social media to realize that those authors are not alone in seeing the phrase in the catechisms as supporting the view that husbands are superior to their wives, or even that women are ontologically inferior to men. Is that a proper use of the Westminster Catechisms? Or is it a misuse, possibly even an abuse, of those standards?

Catechisms, a glance at history

            Why do the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms use the language of “superiors, inferiors, or equals” with reference to the Fifth Commandment, particularly when some earlier catechisms of the Reformation did not?

            The deservedly well-loved Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 39, published in 1563, asks and answers:

Q.        What is God’s will for you in the fifth commandment?

A.        That I show honor, love, and faithfulness to

my father and mother

and all those in authority over me;

submit myself with proper obedience

to all their good teaching and discipline;

and also that I be patient with their failings—

for by their hand God wills to rule us.[4]

The catechism recognizes, appropriately, that God requires not only that children honor their parents, but that we honor all those in authority over us.

            Similarly, and antecedently, Calvin’s Catechism (1538), begins its exposition of the Fifth Commandment: “By this commandment there is enjoined upon us piety toward parents and toward those who by the Lord’s ordaining are in authority over us in the place of parents, such as magistrates.”[5] In his Catechism of the Church in Geneva (1545), after dealing with the duties of children, Calvin continues:

194. Is that all there is to the commandment?

Though Father and mother only are mentioned, nevertheless all superiors are intended, as the reason is the same.

195. What is the reason?

That God has given them pre-eminence; for there is no authority whether of parents, or princes, or of any others who are over us, but what God has ordained (Rom. 13:1).[6]

The brief Anglican Catechism of 1549 begins its summary of one’s duty towards his neighbor with:

My duty towards my neighbor, is to love him as myself, and to do to all men, as I would they should do to me: To love, honor, and succor my father and mother; To honor and obey the King and his ministers. To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters; To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters….[7]

            These earlier teaching devices focused on the responsibility to obey parents and those whom God has placed over us. When the authors of the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms produced their documents in 1647, they expanded on implications of the Fifth Commandment (as well as other commandments). Perhaps they were influenced by Paul’s treatment of the Fifth Commandment in Ephesians 6:1–4. He calls children to obey their parents, but also commands fathers not to provoke their offspring. The Westminster Divines (as these ministers were called) recognized that God holds us responsible to submit in the Lord to those having authority over us. But God also calls us to deal appropriately with our peers and with those who may have to answer to us. For better or worse, the language they selected for this was “superiors, inferiors, or equals.” While I am certainly not suggesting that the authors were free of the influence of pagan Greek thought (see the next section), the Westminster language does not have to be taken as implying ontological inferiority of women and children. It can simply refer to rank — in the military, one obeys the order of a superior officer.

Aristotle’s view of women and his influence

            As Christians we are called to take every thought captive to Christ. That includes asking ourselves if our views are structured by the Scriptures or are they unwittingly influenced by pagan concepts? Aristotle had a profound influence, not only on Greek philosophy, but also on thinking in the centuries that followed. Aristotle is explicit in claiming that, based on nature, males are naturally superior to females:

“Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”[8]

“A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.” [9]

“For the actions of a ruler cannot really be honorable, unless he is as much superior to other men as a husband is to a wife, or a father to his children, or a master to his slaves.”[10]

            Aristotle’s view of women infiltrated the theology of the early church (just as Plato’s dualism tended to make some identify evil with the physical and material). For example, Augustine at times sees the role of women as primarily that of providing children in the family: “I do not see, therefore, in what other way the woman was made to be the helper of the man if procreation is eliminated, and I do not understand why it should be eliminated.”[11]

            The influence of that Aristotelian position carried over into the writings of some of the reformers and the authors of the Westminster Standards. To pick one example, William Gouge, a Puritan pastor and one of the members of the Westminster Assembly, wrote Of Domestic Duties, in which he expanded on the God-given responsibilities and privileges of various members of the household: husbands, wives, parents, children, employers (masters), and servants. Gouge is perhaps more complex than some realize.

            On the one hand, Gouge very clearly structures duties of wives and others in terms of being subordinate and inferior. He speaks of God giving husbands “superiority and authority,” adding, “But God said of the man to the woman, he shall rule over you (Gen 3:16).”[12] He immediately goes on to argue from nature in language that resembles that of Aristotle:

Nature has placed an eminency in the male over the female: so as where they are linked together in one yoke, it is given by nature that he should govern, she obey. This did the heathen by light of nature observe.[13]

He says of wives, “Their very opinion, affection, speech, action, and all that concerns the husband, must savor of subjection.”[14] It is not surprising that Gouge is quoted by some advocates of patriarchy in support of their view that women are inferior.

            On the other hand, a careful reading of Gouge shows that he is no friend of men who would use their position in an oppressive manner.

Husbands are most of all bound to love: and bound to love their wives most of all. Thus this affection of love is a distinct duty in itself, peculiarly appertaining to a husband: and also a common condition which must be annexed to every other duty of a husband, to season and sweeten the same. His look, his speech, his carriage, and all his actions, wherein he has to do with his wife, must be seasoned with love….[15]

Whereas some writers are tempted to focus on Paul’s command to wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22) without looking at the context,[16] Gouge begins by emphasizing that Ephesians 5:21 calls on all believers to submit to one another in the fear of God. He reminds us:

The reason why all are bound to submit themselves one to another is, because everyone is set in his place by God, not so much for himself, as for the good of others…. Let everyone therefore high and low, rich and poor, superior and inferior, Magistrate and subject, Minister and people, husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant, neighbors and fellows, all of all sorts in their several places take notice of their duty in this point of submission, and make conscience to put it in practice….[17]

            As something of an aside, the example of Gouge ought to remind us to be cautious about labeling people. A number of years ago one could speak of a political spectrum. Today, to oversimplify, instead of a spectrum, we have polar points. People are for us or against us. That attitude threatens the church also. We would do well to examine the breadth of positions taken and attempt to read those with whom we disagree in context.

What does the Bible say?

We live in a world that denies the existence of absolutes. In contrast, we who have been redeemed by the Savior confess that we serve the triune God, who reveals himself, not only in creation, but also in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. All authority ultimately belongs to him. None of us lives in a vacuum — God commands each of us to submit to those whom he has placed over us, and he calls us to treat those around us with the respect due to those who are his image. In Romans 13 we are called to be subject to governing authorities, see also 1 Peter 2:13–18. In Ephesians 5:17–6:9, Paul unpacks what it means to submit to one another (part of being filled with the Spirit) as he elaborates on the relationships between wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters. We are called to submit to those who have watch over our souls, Hebrews 13:17. In short, there is oversight and authority delegated by God, but in none of these cases are we called to submit because we are essentially inferior to the person we are respecting and obeying.

In opposition to patriarchy, where the emphasis is often on the superiority of men over women, note that God created mankind, male and female, in his image. Dominion is given to both the man and the woman. They rule over the earth, not over each other. Given Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology, we may think of Adam’s task in Eden as largely agricultural and Eve as subordinate to him, an assistant to Adam, who is essential for his task of filling the earth. But the emphasis of Genesis 2:1–3, in light of the inspired commentary in Hebrews 4, ought to push us to realize that the heart of the goal of our first parents was to enter God’s rest.[18]

            In a thought-provoking post, Anna Anderson focuses on the higher mission of Adam and Eve:

Adam is formed or molded, a creature of the earth. In Genesis 2:15, Adam is to “work and keep,” verbs used for the priestly work of the Levites, protecting both Aaron and the sanctuary (Numbers 3). Not only is Adam installed as a priest, but as the covenant head of the first order of humanity. He was charged with spearheading the ascent of all who would come from him extraordinarily, Eve, and ordinarily, their descendants. In this, he specifically fails.

At his side to help him, God built the woman as the glory creature, an eschatological marker to help Adam pass through probation and enter God’s rest. By her presence, she evangelizes Adam. She represents to him life beyond the garden, a Sabbath city and temple, where union and communion with God will reach its consummation. She speaks to him of the Mountain of the Lord in the heavens. Garden, city, temple, and mountain all portray the realm of Sabbath rest where God is enthroned and worshiped. Her words match her being. She does the work that no other creature can, she speaks his language, and her message is “Come” (Rev. 22:17). In this, she specifically fails.[19]

Perhaps grasping that vision will help us avoid treating one another as inferior, instead rejoicing in the gifts God has given and honoring one another.

Proper use, not abuse

            Given that sanctification is a process even for us as redeemed people, we should not be surprised that we look for excuses (including the language of “superiors, inferiors, or equals”) to consider ourselves more important than others. The apostles, James and John, fell into that trap as they sought positions of honor in the kingdom, but Jesus rebuked them, and warned them that their attitude was pagan:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you, instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25–28, NIV)

            Misreading the language of the catechisms can have a pervasive influence. In some cases, I have noticed a tendency to formulate church discipline, regardless of the offense involved, in terms of the Fifth Commandment and to cite the language of superiors and inferiors. The special offices in the church, those of deacon, ruling elder, and minister, carry a God-given authority. But when that is emphasized at the expense of the general office of believer, we might ask, are we misusing the catechism? Our first question ought not to be, “Who is over whom?” We need to be careful to read the catechisms in the light of Scripture, and not to strain Scripture through our own understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Catechisms.

            The language of “superiors, inferiors, or equals” is found in the catechisms, but not in Westminster’s primary document, the Confession of Faith. Grasp the balanced focus of the Confession’s treatment of the creation of mankind:

After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it: and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change. Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures.[20]

Absent is any reference to the female being inferior to the male or dominion being primarily a masculine mandate. Rather, male and female are equally image of God, they receive the command not to eat, they are happy in their communion with God, and they have dominion over the creatures. This would suggest that it is possible for us to read the language of the catechisms without importing the pagan structure of Aristotle’s thought.

            The plea of this reflection is to be self-conscious in our use of the language of “superiors, inferiors, or equals.” We need to make sure we are being biblical (reflecting the breadth of our responsibilities) instead of reading those words in an Aristotelian fashion, treating some as inherently inferior to others. We need to be aware of harm that is done by misusing the Catechisms.

            Prince Caspian, in the C. S. Lewis novel of that name, learns the somewhat unsavory history of his Telmarine human ancestors and remarks, “I was wishing that I came of a more honorable lineage.” The Lion responds:

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”[21]

Those of us who benefit from the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms can be thankful that the language of “superior, inferior, and equals,” when properly used, reflects the biblical breadth of implications of the Fifth Commandment. At the same time, we can bow our shoulders at the misuse which has been used, even in our circles, to demean.

[1] It’s Good To Be a Man: A Handbook for Godly Masculinity, Canon Press, Moscow, Idaho, 2021. Kindle edition, loc. 498s.

[2] Question 64 of the Shorter Catechism asks, “What is required in the fifth commandment?” and the answer is “The fifth commandment requireth the preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to every one in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors or equals.”


[4], Q. 104.

[5] Dennison, James T. Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, Vo. 1, Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 416.

[6] Reformed Confessions, pages 493–494.

[7] Reformed Confessions, p. 549.

[8] Politics, Book 1, Part V.

[9]  Politics, Book 1, Part XII.

[10] Politics, Book 7, Part III.

[11] Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Vol. II, Book 9, Chapter 7.

[12] William Gouge, Of Domestic Duties, Kindle Edition, loc. 4611.

[13] Gouge, loc. 4611.

[14] Gouge, loc. 4590.

[15] Gouge, loc. 6031. The call for men to love their wives is noticeable by its absence from It’s Good To Be a Man, see

[16] In I interact with a critic regarding my use of Ephesians 5.

[17] Gouge, loc. 187–193

[18] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “A Sabbath Rest Still Awaits the People of God,” Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Charles G. Denison & Richard C. Gamble, editors. Philadelphia, PA, 1986, pp. 33–51.

[19] Anna Anderson, “Anthropology, Origin, and End,”

[20] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 4, “Of Creation,” 2.

[21] C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, Harper Collins, New York, NY, 1951, p. 218.

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