The supposed connection between Trinity and gender-equality (or not) has come up for me in a couple of different settings recently. On the one hand, I have been trying to decide whether a statement about the equality of persons in the Godhead has a bearing on Christian Associates’ policy regarding women in leadership. On the other, I have to write an essay for a theological forum in the UK looking at the connection (or otherwise) between a doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son and the subordination of women to men. From a biblical point of view I settled this question in my own mind years ago, but I must admit I did not pay a great deal of attention to the Trinitarian argument.
Trinitarian thought is a muddy business at the best of times. Add gender to the debate and we have a veritable quagmire. To keep things relatively simple here, I think it can be reduced to two questions and two positions.
Question 1: Is there a correlation between the Father-Son relationship and the man-woman relationship? Is the former in any sense determinative for the latter.
Question 2: If there is a correlation, is it to be understood as one that gives the man permanent authority over the woman?
Position 1: Some complementarians maintain that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, though they are careful to differentiate between an orthodox relational or functional subordination and an unorthodox essential or ontological subordination. This is how Wayne Grudem, who is perhaps its foremost modern proponent, explains the position in his Systematic Theology:
This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase “ontological equality but economic subordination,” where the word ontological means “being.” Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say “equal in being but subordinate in role.” Both parts of this phrase are necessary to the true doctrine of the Trinity. If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed. (251)
Position 2: Egalitarians, if they show an interest in such theological arguments at all, hold that there is no essential or ontological hierarchy in the Trinity; the Son was made temporarily subordinate to the Father in the incarnation.
I will focus mainly on the complementarian response to question 2, that the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father provides the pattern for the eternal subordination of the woman to the man. I will argue that the emphasis on subordination in the Father-Son is right but not in the way that systematic theologians understand it. But more importantly I will argue that there is no biblical basis for the correlation supposed in question 1. On the whole, on the strength of a rather limited reading of the arguments, I think that position 2 is biblically rather weak.
The story of the Father and the Son
In his chapter “Biblical Evidence for the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father” in D.W. Jowers and H.W. House (eds.), (available online), Grudem argues that the Son is subordinate to the Father not merely during his ministry on earth but eternally.
The eternal names “Father” and “Son”… give a significant indication of eternal authority and submission among the members of the Trinity.
The support provided for this view is remarkably flimsy. If there is any reference at all to the existence of Christ before creation in the texts that he cites, it is not presented as a relationship between Father and Son. In Ephesians 1:3-5 the God who would be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ chose Paul and other Jews before the foundation of the world to be adopted as sons. According to Romans 8:29 God—not here the Father—foreknew and predestined the saints to be “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers”. Sonship is a status which Christ shares with those “sons of God” who will suffer and be glorified with him (cf. Rom. 8:17, 19). In the remaining passages the Father-Son relation—and arguably Christ’s pre-existence—is missing altogether (Eph. 1:9-11; 3:9-11; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pet. 1:19-20; Rev. 13:8); in fact, Grudem goes so far as to insert it by way of square brackets into the text.
The argument that Jesus was in some sense subordinate to God in the “process of creation” carries more weight. Although the Word was God, all things were made through him (Jn. 1:1). All things are from God, the Father, but through the Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:6). The Son has been appointed “the heir of all things”, but also through him God “made the ages” (Heb. 1:1-2). These statements clearly give some sort of priority to God.
The authority of the Father and the submission of the Son are also presumably entailed in those passages which speak of God sending the Son into the world (cf. Jn. 3:16; Gal. 4:4; 1 Jn. 4:9-10).
The Father sending the Son into the world implies an authority that the Father had prior to the Son’s humbling himself and becoming a man. This is because to have the authority to send someone means to have a greater authority than the one who is sent.
The submission of Jesus to God continues after his exaltation to heaven. Jesus did not pour out the Spirit on his own authority but “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit”, which he then poured out (Acts 2:33). As Great High Priest Jesus intercedes for “those who draw near to God through him” (Heb. 7:25). He receives from God the “revelation” of what would soon take place and shows it to his servants (Rev. 1:1). It is repeatedly said of Jesus that he has been given a position of authority at the right hand of God (Mk. 14:62; Lk. 22:69; Acts 2:32; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22) analogous to the authority that God gives his king (cf. Ps. 110:1). Jesus has received authority from his Father to rule over the nations (Rev. 2:26). When the last enemy has been destroyed, “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
So we have a “story” that goes something like this….
- Jesus is the Word or Wisdom of God through whom all things were made.
- The Father sends the Son into the world.
- Jesus is the Son (or servant) who is obedient to the Father to the point of suffering and death.
- Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and given authority as “Lord” to judge and rule over the nations throughout the coming ages.
- When the last enemy is destroyed and all things have been subjected to God, this authority to judge and rule will be given back to God and the Son will himself be subjected to God.
The relationship between the Father and the Son is conceived primarily in terms of the narrative of vocation-obedience-death-exaltation-lordship. This is certainly a relationship of authority and subordination, but two things should be noted.
First, authority is given to Jesus because of his faithfulness, as part of a story, which makes for an awkward correlation with the non-narrative relationship between the man and woman.
Secondly, the Father-Son dynamic should not be projected back from the apocalyptic narrative on to the process of creation. It has to do specifically with the eschatological transformation that gets under way in the early centuries: the suffering of the community of the Son of Man, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the defeat of an idolatrous imperialism, and the conversion of the nations. Whatever is said about Jesus and creation draws on a different conceptuality. There is a disconnection between points 1 and 2.
To my mind the theological arguments, on both sides, are fundamentally flawed because they flatten this narrative-historical shape into a pattern of theoretical abstractions.
But we need to get back to question 1….
The head of a wife is her husband
In 1 Corinthians 11:3 Paul states that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God”. Complementarians reject the standard egalitarian counter-interpretation that “head” means “source” and argue that Paul grounds the subordination of the woman to the man as her “head” in the subordination of Christ to God as “head”.
I agree with Thiselton, who agrees with me, that as a metaphor kephalē (“head”) would have connoted neither “authority over” nor “source of” but “prominence” or “preeminence”.
This proposal has the merit of most clearly drawing interactively on the metaphorical conjunction between physiological head (which is far and away the most frequent, “normal” meaning) and the notion of prominence, i.e., the most conspicuous or top-most manifestation of that for which the term also functions as synecdoche for the whole. The public face is linked with responsibility and representation in the public domain, since head is both the part of the person which is most conspicuous and that by which they are most readily distinguished or recognized.1
Paul’s argument in the passage is not that the woman should be subordinate to male authority but that she should not bring dishonour on her husband. What is at stake is the reputation or glory of the man as the prominent or conspicuous public figure. The behaviour of his wife in this radically new worship experience will reflect (hence “image and glory of God”: 11:7) either well or badly on him. To say that the “head of Christ is God” is to say that Christ by his faithfulness to the point of death and his exaltation to the right hand of God brought glory to God the Father (cf. Phil. 2:8-11). The only reference to authority in the passage is in verse 10: a woman should have authority over her head.
The husband is the head of the wife
Paul urges wives to submit to their own husbands “as to the Lord” for “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:22-23; cf. Col. 3:18). I don’t think that this comes under an overarching exhortation to mutual submission: what Paul means by “submitting to one another” in verse 21 is wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters—in other words, submit to one another as is socially appropriate. Nothing in what is said to the dominant figures either here or in Colossians 3:18-4:1 suggests that he expected them to submit to the inferior party. However, I also think that, as with 1 Corinthians 11:3, kephalē does not carry the idea of “authority over”. Paul urges the woman to submit to her husband as the socially prominent or conspicuous party in the relationship. This is simply the best way to do Christian marriage in a rigidly patriarchal context.
But for the present discussion this is really beside the point. There is no Trinitarian analogy here: the wife submits to her husband as the church submits to Christ, not as Christ submits to the Father (5:23-24).
So frankly, I find it hard to see how any doctrine of the Trinity can be used to determine the nature of the relationship between the man and the woman. In many respects Grudem gives us a better account of the biblical relationship between God and Christ than egalitarians like Kevin Giles. But there is no good reason to transfer the pattern to the man-woman relationship. On the one hand, the subordination of the Son to the Father is narratively and eschatologically constructed, and there is no corresponding narrative by which the woman first makes herself of no account, humbles herself, is obedient, suffers, and then is exalted by her husband and given authority to rule. On the other, the two passages (1 Cor. 11:3 and Eph. 5:22-23) which are commonly supposed to support the subordination argument do nothing of the sort.
- 1. A.C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (2000), 821; cf. A.C. Perriman, “The Head of a Woman: The meaning of ΚΕΦΑΛΗ, in 1 Cor.11:3”, JTS, 45, 602-22; and Speaking of Women: Interperting Paul, 84-102].