This summer a group of us were studying the Trinity and exploring some very deep waters. As part of our reading we looked at Kevin DeYoung’s excellent post on the Trinity. In that article he makes the point that we need to be careful, very careful, when using the Trinity to defend a certain view of gender roles. He was referring to male headship in a marriage.
Our church affirms that God made men and women equal but different—equal in that both made in God’s image and thus are infused with inherent dignity (Gen 1:26–28), different in their biology and roles in the family and the church. In a marriage the husband is to love his wife and the wife is to submit to the husband (Eph 5:22–33); in the church, men and women are "one in Jesus Christ" (Gal 3:28) but elders are to be male (1 Tim 3:1–7). This equal-in-dignity-different-in-role dynamic is an important idea to grasp to understand the Bible’s teaching on what it means to be male and female. It's called a "complementarian" view of men and women.
In our day, this isn’t an easy pill to swallow, and so, to support the idea that a difference of role does not necessarily mean one is superior to the other, the Trinity is sometimes used as an illustrative analogy. The logic is this: (1) The Son is said to submit to the Father; (2) The Son is not inferior to the Father; (3) Therefore, submission in marriage is not in itself a sign of inferiority. Is this correct? Uh…er….it’s…complicated.
The syllogism sounds plausible, and in certain ways it is. However, trouble (potentially) comes when you begin to flesh this out: How exactly is the Son of God submitted to the Father?
It’s fairly obvious that Jesus in the flesh submitted to his heavenly Father and delighted to do his will. He called it his food and drink (John 4:34; 5:30). He came as a servant and was obedient even to a death on a cross (Phil 2:5–8), and obviously this means obedient to the Father.
But can we take the life of Christ in the flesh and press it backwards into eternity and argue that Jesus has been eternally submitted to the Father? It’s not a simple “yes” or “no.” In fact, this is where we can potentially leave traditional orthodoxy and step into a redefinition of the Trinity.
The Trinity: Beyond our Comprehension
The Trinity is a mystery, something Louis Berkhof called “a mystery beyond the comprehension of man” (Systematic Theology). Apart from God’s revelation we would never come up with it. To grapple with such a mystery we must stand on the shoulders of thinkers who have gone before us: The Bible is our final guide, but we humbly need to acknowledge that we’re not its first readers. The Trinity has been investigated from the first generation of the church and by her most brilliant minds. We ought to hold fast to the earlier understandings unless the biblical evidence is undeniable and overwhelming. Here are some aspects of the church’s historical teaching on the subject.
Our God is One God
Historically, orthodox Christians have affirmed that our Triune God is one God and therefore has one essence. He is of one substance, is one “thing,” is a single being. That is, our Triune God is made of one kind of “stuff,” which is God-stuff. In the words of the Chalcedonian Creed, Father, Son, and Spirit are “consubstantial” with one another.
Note, this doesn’t mean that each person of the Trinity is the same kind of “stuff” (to use a really technical theological word!). To use a kitchen table analogy, if we each get a serving of mashed potatoes out of the same bowl, we each have the same kind of stuff. But we each don’t have the same exact stuff. The potatoes on my plate are not the potatoes on your plate.
But when we speak of the persons of the Trinity as “consubstantial,” we’re saying that each is the same stuff. To speak in physical terms about this spiritual reality, when you touch the “substance” of the Father, you’re also touching the “substance” of the Son. This is unlike my mashed potatoes, where if you touch those on my plate, you’re not touching those on yours.
An implication of this is Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in glory, equal in majesty, equal in their deity, equal in power, equal in knowledge, equal in everything. As one early creed says,
The deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, coeternal in majesty.
The Athanasian Creed
A critical implication of this idea is spelled out later in the creed:
And in this Trinity, no one is before or after, greater or less than the other; but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal; and so we must worship the Trinity in unity and the one God in three persons.
Notice that statement: “No one is before or after, greater or less than the other.” That’s a critical truth to hold when we are thinking of the essence of the Trinity, what the three persons are in their very substance. When we are thinking of God as "one God," then, we can say that the Son is not submitted to the Father. The accent when we are thinking of God as "one God" needs to be on the sameness of their essence and glory and majesty.
Our God is Three Persons
But the three are not interchangeable and identical, since they are Father, Son, and Spirit. There is “a certain definite order” in “the three persons in the divine being” (Berkhof, ST). When Reformed theologians like Berkhof say "order" they do not imply any kind of hierarchy or that the Son is submitted to the Father. They do mean a certain difference of properties that allows us to speak of the different "persons" of the Trinity.
What, then, is the nature of this difference? Here, too, we must also stand solidly on the shoulders of previous generations of the church, especially when it comes to the Father and Son.
The ordering of the divine being is consistent with the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit.” Father and Son are names not meant to signify the authority relationship between the two persons of the Trinity but the fact the Son proceeds from the Father, just as a biological son proceeds from a biological father.
In no way are we saying there was a point in time when the Son of God went from not existing to existing—which is the essence of the heresy of Arianism and part of the lie of Mormonism. Rather, it is an eternal act: “It is not something that was completed and finished at some point in eternity, but an eternal unchanging act of God, at once always complete and eternally ongoing” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics). At Chalcedon Jesus is thus said to be “begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead” (The Chalcedonian Creed).
The Spirit, too, is said to “proceed,” but he proceeds from the Father and the Son. That is his unique personal property within the Godhead. Putting these three together can be done with these ancient words:
The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten; the Son was neither made nor created, but was alone begotten of the Father; the Spirit was neither made nor created, but is proceeding from the Father and the Son.
The Athanasian Creed
In the eternal relations of the Trinity, then, these three equally divine and equally glorious consubstantial persons are unbegotten Father, eternally begotten/generating Son, eternally proceeding Spirit. Thus far there is still no submission of the Son to the Father.
From the Father, Through the Son, in/by the Spirit
This eternally joyful trinity-in-unity and unity-in-trinity did not remain forever alone. Our God performed two great acts which have revealed him to us, creation and redemption. Within these two acts of God, we see the three persons of the Trinity in coordinated and unified action.
Creation and redemption basically happen from the Father through the Son and with/by/in the Spirit: “Through him [Christ] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18). Creation is said to occur “through” Christ (John 1:3), but it’s also appropriate to speak of God the Father in a special way as the Creator. Of course, the Spirit, too, was fully present and active. It’s no small thing that when God created the heavens and the earth “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2).
But it’s important to say that how God has revealed himself in creation and redemption needs to stand alongside what we know to be true of God in his essence, what he is in his substance. The threeness observed in these external workings of the Trinity does not automatically work backwards into the eternal Trinity, the eternal relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. What is eternal in their relations is that the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.
So, now we go back to our earlier syllogism: (1) The Son submits to the Father; (2) The Son is not inferior to the Father; (3) Therefore, submission in marriage is not in itself a sign of inferiority. Is this correct? It could be, but it needs to be very qualified, and when you qualify it you realize you’re better off approaching marital roles from a different angle. In the external acts—external to God himself—of creation and redemption, there is a sense in which the Son submits to the Father. But in the eternal and internal relationship of the three persons of the Godhead within the Trinity, where each is equal in majesty, glory, and deity, there is no such subordination.
What about 1 Corinthians 11:3?
One verse that seems to connect the husband-wife relationship to the eternal relationship of the persons of the Trinity is 1 Corinthians 11:3. Paul here seems to point to some kind of subordination of the Son to the Father: “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Is not Jesus the “Christ” and also the Son of God. Yes! However, when Paul refers to Jesus specifically as “Christ,” it is often—not always, but often—to bring out his life and redemptive work which begins with his incarnation.
One way we know this is the way he refers to “Christ” dying and being raised. Seven times in his letters he says “Christ died” (e.g., Rom 5:6), several times to our dying “with Christ” (e.g., Rom 6:8), once he says that “Jesus died” (1 Thess 4:14). There are referenes to “the body of Christ” (Rom 7:4), through which we died. It is “Christ” who was explicitly “raised from the dead” (Rom 6:4, 9; 7:4; cf. 1 Cor 15:12–20; Eph 1:20). He does refer to “Jesus” being “raised” (Rom 8:34).
The New Testament doesn’t ever say “God died” or even “the Lord died” when speaking of the death of Jesus. These are subtle hints of the two natures of Christ, his divine and human natures. His divine nature did not and could not die, but his human nature could experience all the suffering and death that we also face.
So, when we look at 1 Corinthians 11:3 which says that “the head of Christ is God,” it isn’t a statement of the Son of God being eternally subordinate to the Father. It is much more likely a reference to Jesus in the flesh being submitted to his heavenly Father, a submission that continues until the work of redemption is completely finished (1 Cor 15:22–28). John Calvin explains 11:3 along these lines:
Let us, for the present, take notice of those four gradations which he points out. God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, “that he might be the first-born among many brethren” (Rom 8:29).
John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians
Jesus when he took on “our flesh” and in his role as mediator has God the Father as his “head.” Aside from this condition the Son of God is “of one essence with the Father, he is his equal.”
This is actually a helpful limitation when we think of a wife and her husband, because it reminds us that submission in marriage is only temporary. She didn’t begin her submission until she was married, and her submission will end when the marriage ends (either in this life or the next). Her submission will not continue into the new heaven and new earth.
But another massive point is contained in this verse: “the head of every man is Christ.” Male headship in the home is no license to sin against a wife or in any way abuse or exploit her. The headship of the man is under the all-encompassing authority of his Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. A man is fully accountable to that Judge and is to act as head of his wife as his own head demands. Further, Christ’s headship over the man in this case is also channelled through the authority of the church (which can exercise church discipline; 1 Cor 5) and the state (which bears the power of the sword to punish evildoers; Rom 13:1–7).
With that caveat, though, it's fitting, isn't it that if the husband would be the "head" of the wife, the "excellent wife is the crown of her husband" (Pro 12:4). Yes!
Christ and the Church: A Much Easier Comparison
1 Corinthians 11:3 is not the only comparison made to the Godhead in the area of marriage, however. Another one is much easier to consider for us and far less controversial. Paul in Ephesians 5:22–33 compares a wife and her husband to the church and Christ. A husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. As the church is to submit to Christ, so the wife is to submit to her husband.
But also, as Christ sacrificially and redemptively loved the church, so is a husband to sacrificially and redemptively love his wife. As with 1 Corinthians 11:3 above, male headship in Ephesians 5 is no license to abuse and exploit and sin. His headship is to be controlled by what is good for the wife, what makes her more fruitful and more holy. The result of his headship is to somehow mirror Christ’s own headship of his bride, the church. Christ’s sacrificial love resulted in her holiness and splendor before the throne of God. As husbands, our love will be a poor reflection of such perfect love, but it is nonetheless to be some kind of reflection of that love.
The unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity of marriage is a beautiful and life-giving truth. When both the husband and the wife are happily embracing their God-given roles with a firm dependence on Christ and his grace, there is a powerful dynamic which blesses the couple, any children that God gives to them, and any others who come into contact with them. Their marriage becomes a vivid gospel presentation to the world around them.
As I mentioned above, an excellent resource if you want a slightly deeper look at these issues is Kevin DeYoung’s article on the issue.
The takeaway here for us is to be confident about complementarianism but careful about its connection to the Trinity. Another takeaway is to marvel at our Triune God. He is beyond our understanding but what we do understand should be the cause of endless praises: "Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks down on the heavens and the earth?" (Ps 113:5–6). Amen.