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?

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Submission: What Does Ephesians 5 Tell Us?

Who should submit to whom? That question seems to be a pressing one for some. Recently in reviewing It’s Good To Be a Man, I took issue with the position of the book on submission. The authors state their position (from which I dissented) that “All leadership, whether in the Old or the New Testament, whether civil or domestic or ecclesiastical, is exclusively male.” (page 9 in the Kindle edition)

A commentator on the review questioned my use of Ephesians 5:

I’ve seen you bring up that Ephesians 5 proof text to back up your logic multiple times. Unfortunately, you use that text extremely vaguely. What does that verse mean? Are you implying that husbands are to submit to their wives as well? If that is the case, then interestingly enough, the interpretation you use is the same one that egalitarians use. Hmmm might not be the best company to be lodging with theologically, don’t ya think? (July 23, 2022, comment by Dd)

Ephesians 5:21 reads “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”(NIV). Paul did not insert paragraph and section breaks in his original letter, but for our convenience the NIV editors placed a section break entitled “Instructions for Christian Households” before verse 21. They make that verse a separate paragraph, and then the following paired instructions for wives and husbands, children and fathers,  and slaves and masters are each separated into a distinct paragraph. The ESV, on the other hand, puts a section break between Verse 21 and verse 22. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is making connections which our editorial breaks can obscure. Greek tends to use longer, more complex sentences than we do in English, and there can be good reason for a translation to separate a lengthy sentence into several for ease in reading. For instance, Ephesians 1:3–14 is all one sentence in Greek — trying to diagram (does anyone still diagram sentences?) it in Greek or English is a challenge!

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It’s Good To Be a Man — A Review

It’s Good To Be a Man: A Handbook for Godly Masculinity by Michael Foster and Dominic Bnonn Tennant. Canon Press, Moscow, Idaho, 2021. Paperback, 242 pages, $17.95 (Amazon), Kindle, $9.99. (Page references in the review are to the Kindle edition, which in my copy has 170 pages.)

Why is the book popular?

Our world’s attempt at autonomy and rebellion against God comes to expression, among other areas, in human sexuality. Gender fluidity contradicts the way that God created mankind, male and female. Even when rebellion is less explicit, one sees a great deal of gender confusion. Would be autonomous mankind denies the authority of the Creator by rejecting human authority. These are areas that Scripture addresses, and thus areas to which the church ought to speak. I believe this is why It’s Good To Be a Man (IGTBAM) appeals to so many. (Amazon’s “Best Sellers Rank” currently places the book as #12 in its category of “Christian Men’s Issues.”) The book is correct in telling us that our problem is sin. IGTBAM is seen as an antidote to that sin and confusion in society. Another positive reason for the book’s popularity may be that it does attempt to deal with aspects of a man’s life which are broader than his personal relationship with God and his family. Nevertheless, although we need something that encourages Christians to have a godly impact on the world around them, I do not believe IGTBAM meets that need. Instead, it seems to perpetuate the church’s sad history of rejecting an error on one side of the road and reacting by driving into the ditch on the opposite side.

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Excursus on the Fifth Commandment

A friend, knowing that I was concerned about the book, It’s Good To Be a Man (IGTBAM), put me in touch with one of the authors, the Rev. Michael Foster, pastor of East River Church (CREC) in Batavia, Ohio, and we exchanged a few emails as I was preparing to review the book, here. Mr. Foster responded graciously to my concern about the reference to the Shorter Catechism mentioned in my review. He suggested that the proof texts cited in support of Q. 129 of the Larger Catechism, which deals with the responsibilities of superiors, include Colossians 3:19 (calling husbands to love their wives) and 1 Peter 3:7 (commanding husbands to honor their wives as the weaker vessel) show that the authors of the catechisms “made it clear by citing these marriage relationship texts that they saw husbands as superiors (in rank, not essence) owing their wives loving care” [personal correspondence, January 29, 2022, quoted with permission]. He continues: “The point we were making in the chapter had to do with rank, not essence. Women aren’t ontologically inferior to men. Headship and submission isn’t due to women being lesser or men being greater. It’s simply part of our God’s created order.”

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