The Trinity and Marriage

I have tried to cover, and comment on, many topics related to the current gender debate in the Church; but one thing that I have not commented about previously is the association that some make between the relationships within the Trinity and the relationship between a husband and wife.

Some Complementarians argue that, while Jesus and God the Father are essentially equal in being, Jesus is eternally subordinate to the Father.  This view has been termed Subordinationism.[1]  These Complementarians go on to say that men and women are also essentially equal in being, but that women are, and will be, eternally subordinate to men.  I am not persuaded by their arguments.

Despite disagreeing with the conclusions Complementarians draw from the (supposed) subordination of Christ, I have purposefully stayed out of any debates about it.  The following are the reasons I distance myself from the gender debates based on Subordinationism.

(1) The debate is biased.  The presentation of Scriptural investigation, surveys of the Christologies of early and classic Christian theologians, and the ensuing debate about whether or not Jesus Christ is eternally subordinate – when it is given by people who have a strong interest in either the subordination or liberation of women – is usually skewed and not entirely free from bias.  This bias will hinder a true understanding and appreciation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(2) The Trinity is a profound mystery.  While some of us may think we have some idea about the nature of Triune Godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I believe that we are all in for stunning surprise when we are finally able to see God as he really is.  Furthermore, I don’t think that anyone can possibly know what the (supposed) subordination of Jesus means in the eternal scheme of things.  (I don’t think we have a true comprehension of what 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 [given in endnote 2] really entails.)  Of course the mystery of the Trinity shouldn’t stop us from trying to seek a greater understanding of the nature of the Triune Godhead.  But when this pursuit is done with an underlying agenda of trying to prove the status and relationships of men and women, we are heading away from pure and true theology.

(3)  There is a danger of arrogance in arguing emphatically about Jesus’ status.  Jesus humbly  condescended to come to earth in order to live as a human being and in order to die as a redemptive sacrifice.  However, I think we are in danger of arrogance if we insist that Jesus continues to condescend himself and function as a subordinate member of the Godhead.  Furthermore, the Church has continually failed to understand Jesus’ perspective on hierarchy and subordination in human relations; so how can we possibly understand hierarchy and subordination in the Divine, assuming it even exists?[3]

(4)  The Trinity is not a model for marriage.  Finally, it is very important to acknowledge that nowhere in Scripture does it suggest, or even hint, that the relationships between the members of the Godhead are an illustration of the marriage relationship.  While both men and women are made in the image of the Triune God,  I simply cannot see that a case can be made to use any of the relationships within the Trinity as a model for marriage.  And so it is worrying when people think that husbands somehow represent God the Father, and wives somehow represent Jesus Christ (or occasionally, the Holy Spirit.)

The Scriptures do give us an illustration of marriage.  In Ephesians 5:21-33 Paul tells us that the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church (and not God the Father and Jesus) reveals an aspect of marriage.  The loving, supportive and close association of Christ and the Church is a model for the loving, supportive and close relationship between husband and wife.  [More on this here.]

Conclusion

The Complementarian argument – that Jesus is equal with God the Father but subordinate to him, so women should be content with being “equal” but subordinate to men – is bogus!  I think that by combining the notion of the eternal subordination of Jesus with the notion of the subordination of women we are doing neither Christology nor Christian marriages any favours.  I am particularly concerned with what effect these debates are having on our Christology.  So, for all these reasons, I am staying out of any debates about so-called “Subordinationism”.


Endnotes

[1] Complementarians hold to the view that men and women are “equal in being” but “unequal in role”; a view that I fail to see as logical.  While Complementarians believe that men and women are “equal but different”, I maintain that men and women are “different and equal – no buts”.

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, NASB:

. . . then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.  For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.  The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For He has put all thing in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “ All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him.  When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.

[3] I cannot in good conscience align myself with some Christian egalitarians who state that the relationships within the Trinity are of mutual, reciprocal submission.  I don’t think the Scriptures give us enough information or insight about this.  What if, for instance, the members of the Godhead are not equal as we understand equality?  I imagine that the divine relationships within the Trinity defy labels such as: hierarchy, subordination or equality, etc.  I do believe however, that the will of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are identical. Since each member of the godhead share the same plan and purpose, then God’s will is ‘one will’ and not three different wills either competing or submitting. This degree of unity would certainly be ideal in marriage, yet the Bible simply never states that the Trinity is a model for marriage. 


More information here:

The Trinity Statement website here.

Here is a long article entitled The Trinity in Gender Debates by Dr Fred Sanders which is on a blog from the Torrey’s Honors Institute.  It is well worth the read.

Or you can watch this excellent video. If you can’t watch the whole thing – it’s long – just watch the first half hour and you’ll catch Kevin Giles’ main message.  Fred Sanders also presents a message on this video.

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Posted October 28th, 2011 . Categories/Tags: Christology, Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Marriage, , , , , , , , , ,

21 comments on “The Trinity and Marriage

  1. Guy Coe says:

    Another misfire in the “eternal subordination” argument is that it has a devastating effect on the nature of parent/child relations.

    Our children are “on loan” to us, until they reach maturity, and increasingly become independent. The view that, because we’re the parents, we have the right to ask for lifelong subordination from our children, is also bogus.

    The truth is, any good and loving father (and, by analogy, the Heavenly Father, also), indeed does subordinate himself to his wife and children, reciprocally, in order to care for them and provide for their needs.

    He is not free to pretend he’s not a father, has no duties towards his children, nor any need to listen to or ever defer to them. Quite the opposite; a good father is in mutual subordination along with his wife and children.

    Heirarchical power struggles are inevitable in any other model.

    So I, for one, do believe that the nature of the relationality within the triune God is at the root of all truly healthy human relationships. Mutual subordination is modeled within it, and even, believe it or not, towards us. The God Who could order us around instead chooses to model mutual subordination.

  2. Marg says:

    Thanks for this, Guy.

    I fully believe that in all healthy human relationships, especially in families, there is a lot of reciprocal submission going on.

    I do understand your last paragraph. However I just can’t see that we have enough to go on, from Scripture, when coming to assumptions about the relationships within the Godhead; assumptions as to whether these divine relationships are characterised by either mutual submission or hierachy and subordination. (I hope you don’t mind that I use the word “assumptions”.)

  3. The biggest problem these theologians have is the “three-fold subjection” of Christ. If Christ has been subject from eternity (1 Cor 11), was made subject at incarnation (Phil 2) and will be made subject at the end of time (1 cor 15), how does anyone reconcile these three? it is impossible, leaving us with only one option: Christ subjected himself to the Father’s will during his incarnation, for as a human, he was as bound to follow God as the rest of us. Contrary to us, he did it perfectly, which gives the rest of us hope. Here’s the beauty of the Gospel: that the One, who didn’t have to obey, became obedient in order to save his sisters and brothers from the dominion of sin. THAT example is what we are told to imitate, not a human hierarchy based on a false assessment of worth. The mind of Christ is the mind of a servant – not a lord.

  4. Guy Coe says:

    Thanks, Marg –the gist of my comments were to suggest caution against assuming otherwise, and to get folks to at least explore the Biblical evidence for mutual submission within the Triune God.

    The ramifications for interpersonal, marital and family dynamics is too great to simply allow others to assume a one-way subordinationism unchallenged.

    In the case of the Triune God, I don’t imagine such stark differences between Persons as to make the matter of much import, frankly. But as a model for our relationships, it seems hugely important.

    I also see the verses in I Corinthians 15:24-28 as suggestive of the eventual death of warring heirarchies, and the reconciliation of all things within God. I’d characterize the goal as one of “organism” rather than heirarchy, where individualism is not stifled, but appreciated in all its diversity.

    The God Who made us approached us originally in a garden, to walk with us in the cool of the day. Only as we became more distant and alienated did we come to the imagery of a throne. My hope is that God is inclined to restore such natural friendship with us as was His original intention.

    I believe God delights in our individuality as well as in our communality, otherwise it makes no sense for Him to urge us on to maturity.

    My two cents… : )

  5. Marg says:

    Susanna, I completely agree with you that we are called to imitate Jesus Christ’s humility and odedience to God the Father; and not get caught up in some sort of human hierarchy.

    Guy, thanks for clarifying. When I read 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 I get a similar impression: that hierarchies and divisions will be erradicated; and in their place, a unified organism.
    And I agree that we must challenge the idea of one-sided subordination in family relationships, especially between husband and wife.

  6. Don Johnson says:

    I agree that the Subordinationism is not a faithful reading of Scripture.

    There are various ways Scripture refers to relationships in the Godhead. One of these is that there is one will for God (God’s will) and another is that the Father, Word, and Spirit submit to each other. I see these as equivalent metaphors.

  7. Kristen says:

    Marg, I agree with everything you’ve said, except that I don’t think a “type” and an “example” are the same thing at all. I think an “example” is a picture for us to follow, whereas a “type” is a hinting or foreshadowing in the Old Creation of something to be fulfilled in the New Creation. For instance, Adam is a type of Christ, but certainly not an example of Christ. Again, Christ’s laying down of his life to glorify the church is an example for our marriages to follow, while our marriages are not an example for Christ and the church to follow– but human marriage could be a type or foreshadowing of the divine unity which will one day occur between Christ and the church at His return.

    I do agree that the Trinity is not a model for marriage, and I think we have to be very careful in reading human relationships back onto the divine interactions within the Godhead. God and Christ are called Father and Son, but human sons are not the “word” of their fathers, through whom their fathers make everything they make! The Godhead is beyond human relationship and human understanding. I really like what you’ve said here in that regard!

  8. Marg says:

    Kristen, I was trying to come up with a word to explain “type” for those who are unfamiliar with the concept of typology; and “example” was the word, closest in meaning, that I could come up. I know it is inadequate. Can you think of a better term? (I linked to you because I like the way you explain “type” and typology.)

    Don, The “Subordination of Jesus” debate, when you bring marriage into it, is faulty and loaded whichever way you look at it.

  9. Kristen says:

    I appreciate your kind words, Marg, and I’ll try to explain. You said:

    “Finally, it is very important to acknowledge that nowhere in Scripture does it suggest, or even hint, that the relationships between the members of the Godhead are a “type” (or example) of the marriage relationship. While both men and women are made in the image of the Triune God, I simply cannot see that a case can be made to use any of the relationships within the Trinity as a model for marriage. (It is especially worrying when people assign husbands as representative of God the Father, and wives as representative of Jesus Christ, or occasionally, the Holy Spirit.)”

    Here I would simply use the word “example” or “illustration,” because that’s what you’re talking about. The Trinity is not shown to be an example or illustration of marriage in the Scriptures.

    Then you say:

    “The Scriptures do give us a “type” (example) of marriage.”

    Here, I would say, “The Scriptures do give an example for marriage. In Ephesians 5:21-33 Paul tells us that the relationship between the Jesus Christ and the Church (and not God the Father and Jesus) reveals an aspect of marriage.”

    Again, when you’re talking about what the Trinity or the Christ-church relationship does, or does not, teach us about marriage, you are talking about “example” or “illustration.”

    But typology is backwards directionally from illustration or example. Typology goes from the human to the divine; example, as you’re using it above, goes from the divine to the human.

    If you want to go the other direction, and talk about what marriage shows about Christ and the church, then you’re talking about typology. Marriage might be a “hint” or “foreshadowing” of Christ’s future relationship with the church, when He glorifies the church so that we will be “like Him, for we will see Him as He is.” But marriage is not an “example” of Christ and the church– it’s the other way around. We should look at Christ and the church (according to the specific picture painted in Eph 5) to see what our marriages should look like. We shouldn’t look at marriage to see what Christ’s relationship with the church should look like. We might see in marriage a hint of something divine yet to come (a “type”) but not an example of the divine. The human institution of marriage is simply too human to properly show the divine.

    Does that make better sense?

  10. Marg says:

    “But typology is backwards directionally from illustration or example. Typology goes from the human to the divine; example, as you’re using it above, goes from the divine to the human.”

    OK, I get it now. :D

    Thanks Kristen. I’ve edited my article accordingly.

  11. Verity3 says:

    Marg, I agree wholeheartedly with your hesitation to declare co-equality among the members of the Trinity. I don’t think such a position is at all necessary. IMO it is sufficient to point out the faulty assumptions in the Subordinationism camp.

  12. [...] The Trinity and Marriage [...]

  13. Don Johnson says:

    On the aspects of possible mutual submission in the Godhead, one way the relationships are mentioned in Scripture is as “God’s will” which is one will and not three wills competing somehow. The way the comps address the one will question in marriage is to give a trump card to the husband. And egals address it via mutual submission, so it is a reasonable question as to whether the Godhead is EVER described in terms of mutual submission in the Bible. I believe it is, but it is done in a way that is less obvious than the submission of Jesus to the Father, for example.

  14. Marg says:

    Yes, God has one will, and not three competing wills; it’s not about one person’s will and the other(s) submitting to it.
    This is a great point, Don.

  15. Jordan Delp says:

    As for their not being a Scriptural reference for the Trinity being an example of what marriage is supposed to look like, I disagree. Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.” This verse clearly states that the Godhead is revealed in the created order, which would include man/woman relations.

    The relationship between the man and woman, I believe, is hierarchal but also characterized by mutual submission. As Paul points out, woman was deceived, and thus, except in certain situations, woman is not permitted to have authority over man. Also, there is the obvious: “wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians) but this is tempered by the call for husbands to willingly submit to their wives out of love, as Jesus did the church– “who loved me/Her (the church) and gave Himself up for me/Her” (Galatians 2:20) So it’s not an either-or proposition; it’s not subordination vs mutual submission, it’s both subordination and mutual submission.

    We see this aspect in the Trinity in the relationship between God and Jesus, when Jesus is seen as Wisdom. The Scriptures say that Wisdom was “established from everlasting, from the beginning” and we know that it is Jesus because “whoever finds me finds life” (I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”) and “whoever sins against me wrongs His own soul” – if it were merely a personification of wisdom, as some teach, how could we sin against it? We sin against God and ourselves, but not against virtues like wisdom or love or patience. Finally, we know that Jesus is “the firstborn of creation,” so it makes sense that He was “brought forth” as Wisdom, which delighted “with the sons of men” which is a reference to the pre-existence of the human spirit before conception. But I’ll get to that later. For now, let us just realize that Jesus is Wisdom, and that Wisdom is portrayed as a female because it is reflective of the submission that woman have to their husbands, and reveals that Jesus is indeed subordinate to the Father, equal in spirit – Philippians 2:6 – but subordinate in soul – John 14:28. Because the resurrected body is a spiritual body, I don’t consider his incarnate form to be a step down. It was when it was flesh-and-blood, but not when it is resurrected. So the Trinity is equal in spirit and manifestation, but not in soul – the Holy Spirit is even subordinate to Jesus, as He only speaks what He is told to speak, by Jesus and the Father. Lastly, Jesus prays to Father, and the Spirit prays to both Jesus and Father, so there is clearly a hierarchal relation here. BUT, I believe the relationships between the Trinity are mutually submissive also, as Jesus became subordinate to the Holy Spirit during his flesh-and-blood lifetime, and the Father is subordinate to Jesus in the minds of humanity during the 1000 year reign, for “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Yet, this submission is clearly impermanent, and the final order of things will be established for eternity: Jesus handing everything over to the Father, and the fact that Jesus took on a spiritual body, making Him equal with the Spirit in spirit but superior in soul, as Jesus is the Light, and, as we know from physics (remember, the Godhead is known by the created order), the quanta of light that transmits light’s essence, its brightness, is a particle, as opposed to the wave nature, which is equal in form but inferior in nature as it doesn’t actually transmit light. Only the particle (the photon) does; the wave nature has no mass.Thus, Jesus, the particle form that transmits the Light, is greater than the Holy Spirit, the wave form that carries the potential of the quanta at every point, but is not itself that quanta, and thus doesn’t transmit Light to humanity like Jesus does. They are equal in form as wave and particle (Jesus – as a resurrected body – and the Holy Spirit are both of spirit) but unequal in manifestation, as the wave doesn’t have mass (the Holy Spirit’s soul is subordinate to Jesus’).

    So that’s my argument for both subordinationism and the hierarchal but mutually-submissive stance on husband/wife relations. I look forward to your rebuttal. :)

    Finally, we were spirits before we were incarnated as beings in the flesh. Hebrews 2:14 says “Inasmuch as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same” and this refers to the process of our spirits taking on fleshly form, as Jesus did. Also, there’s Galatians 4:26 “The Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” making it clear that our eternal home is both before and after our incarnation. Lastly, there’s Ephesians chapter 1, all of which can be read as taking place prior to our incarnation. It gets pretty deep, but stick with it!

  16. Marg says:

    Jordan, Judging by your comments, I think our beliefs are very different and I have no desire to offer a rebuttal with the objective of changing your views.

  17. Marg says:

    For my readers who may have read Jordan’s comment I offer the following points:

    Using Romans 1:20 as some sort of proof text to say that the Trinity is “an example of what marriage is supposed to look like” is a long bow indeed. As Kristen has said, “We have to be very careful in reading human relationships back onto the divine interactions within the Godhead.” The relationship between husband and wife varies from culture to culture. I’m glad that I am not married to a Huli wig man in Papua New Guinea. Are the marriages of the wig men (who live very close to nature) a picture of what God’s creation has revealed? Do their marriages give us a glimpse of the interactions of the Trinity? Or do their marriages simply show us how painfully selfish, unfeeling and exploitative some men can be towards women, who are regarded as vastly inferior?

    I do not believe that “Wisdom” in Proverbs is Jesus. Both “Wisdom” and “Folly” are personified as women in Proverbs. I believe this is simply a literary device used for effect.

    People do foolish, stupid things all the time, and thus sin against “Wisdom”.

    I cannot see any evidence for a gender hierarchy before the Fall. My article on the Complementarian Concept of the Created Order here.

    Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit, without limit, and relied on the leading of the Holy Spirit during his earthly ministry (Luke 4:1). I cannot see that the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is subordinate to the other members of the Godhead .

    Prayer is simply communicating with God. All three members of the Trinity communicate with each other, so one member of the Trinity communicating with another member of the Trinity is not an indication of subordination.

    As Don has pointed out in his comment, the Godhead is never described in terms of mutual submission in the Bible. God has one will. There are not three competing wills (or any evidence of differing levels of hierarchy) within the Trinity, so there is no need for submission.

    I see God’s mind and hand in nature and science, including quantum physics – a love quantum physics; but to think of Jesus as literally a photon and the Holy Spirit as a light wave is going too far. It is likely that the Apostle John was thinking of “light” in Platonic terms (rather than in terms of quantum mechanics.)

    There is no indication in Hebrews 2:14 or Galatians 4:16 that human beings had a previous existence before our conception in our mothers’ wombs. The idea that we had a pre-existence is speculative. The Bible is silent on this.

    Finally, to say that “woman was deceived, and thus, except in certain situations, woman is not permitted to have authority over man” is an interpretation. Paul doesn’t mention any exceptional situations in 1 Timothy 2:12, he doesn’t use the word for legitimate authority in this verse, and I think it was a false, topsy-turvy teaching about Eve’s deception that was the reason for the prohibition. I certainly don’t think Paul was holding all women responsible for Eve’s deception. Paul trusted several women as faithful stewards of apostolic teaching. (I have listed several other interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:12 here.)

    As I said previously in an endnote, we just don’t have enough information on the divine relationships within the Trinity, but I imagine that they defy labels such as hierarchy, subordination, submission or equality, etc. The Godhead is transcendent and enigmatic. It is beyond our comprehension. Moreover, the Bible never states that the Trinity is a model for marriage.

  18. […] Let me state upfront that I don’t believe that the Trinity should be used as a model for marriage. The Bible does not state that the Trinity is a model for marriage, and when we try and make the case that the Godhead is such a model we risk the danger of tampering with sound Trinitarian theology. I have written about this previously and I continue with these musings. […]

  19. […] Here is a small book (which I think is only available electronically outside of Australia) that has been written by Rev. Dr. Kevin Giles. The book, entitled Better Together: Equality in Christ contains eight studies and has been written with group discussions in mind. It covers more than marriage. There are two studies on Genesis, two on Jesus and women, two on Paul and women, and one each on liberation and justice. Plus, there is an appendix on “The Trinity Argument”. Kevin Giles is well known for his books, papers, and lectures addressing the Trinity argument in discussions on gender. […]

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