If someone had posed that question to me a year ago I probably would have replied with a blank stare and a “huh?” Yet many Bible-believing theologians use the one to justify maintaining male dominion in the other. Having been personally confronted with men of this mindset three times in the past few months, and all three times having walked away shaking my head and wondering what planet they’ve been living on, I decided to do a little digging.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell. Quoting from the essay The Subordination of Christ and Subordination of Women by Kevin Giles, published in Discovering Biblical Equality (InterVarsity Press, 2004):
“Contemporary conservative evangelical arguments for the permanent subordination of women frequently tell us that the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father. This “truth” is taken to be… a rationale for women’s permanent subordination to men (since the Trinity reflects the God-given ideal for male-female relationships)… Just as the divine Father-Son relationship is hierarchically ordered, so too are the husband-wife relationship in the home and the man-woman relationship in the church. […] those who argue for the eternal subordination of the Son… claim that their theology of the Trinity is entirely orthodox… what all orthodox Christians have believed from the Council of Nicaea onward.” (p. 334-336)
The author grants that “Virtually all Christians agree that in the incarnation the Son subordinated himself to the Father. He functionally assumed the role of a servant.” However, “most Christians to not believe that the Son’s subordination… is definitive of the Father-Son relationship in the eternal or immanent Trinity.” (p. 337)
I’m grateful to Kevin Giles for providing the scriptural backing for a truth that seems intuitive to me based on my experience with the Holy Spirit, and to the folks at InterVarsity Press for publishing this amazingly comprehensive resource.
So here’s what the issue comes down to:
The teaching of Scripture and of church tradition is that all three persons of the Trinity — God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit — were, are, and always will be co-equal with each other. The only exception to this was when Jesus voluntarily and temporarily took a servant’s position in His role as Saviour, being obedient to the Father and doing the will of the Father in the power of the Spirit. Here are just a few of the verses that support a non-hierarchical description of the Trinity (underlining mine):
“God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Heb 1:1-2)
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5-11 (This describes Jesus’ subordination of himself to the Father)
“in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” ( Col. 2:9-10)
And what about the claim that the early church taught otherwise? This also is untrue. Athanasius, one of the greatest of the early church fathers, in his arguments with the Arians taught that Jesus was fully God, one in being and of one substance (homoousios) with the Father. As with the scriptural arguments above, Athanasius taught that there were two ways to see Jesus: in his temporal guise (earthly, when as a human being he volunteered to be subordinate to the Father) and in his eternal life (when the the Father and Son act as one). Athanasius based his teaching on John 14:11, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.”
John Calvin also warned against thinking of God in terms of division; in his teaching about the Trinity he spoke of “a distinction, not a division”. He also, like Athanasius, looked to John 14 when he wrote, “The Father is wholly in the Son, and the Son wholly in the Father, as he himself declares” and “Christ in respect to himself is called God; with respect to the Father, Son” and “in eternity no before or after”.
The Athanasian Creed (c. 500) includes the words “such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit” and “none is afore, or after another; none is greater, or less than another but the whole three persons are co-eternal together and co-equal.”
So it seems the theologians who are teaching a hierarchy in gender (male over female) based on the example of hierarchy within the Trinity (Father over Son) haven’t really taken a close look at what the Bible and the historical church teach about the Trinity.
In actual fact the relational dynamics within the Trinity as described in scripture and church tradition — something of a perichoresis (from the Greek peri (around) and choresis (as in choreography or dance)) — would make an excellent model for egalitarian relationships between men and women.
I’d like to give Kevin Giles the last word: “Contemporary evangelicals who argue for the eternal subordination of the Son in being or function have broken with historic orthodoxy, both in what they believe and in how they interpret the Scriptures. They have mistakenly concluded that relations within the Trinity are ordered hierarchically , and on this premise they have sought to justify the hierarchical ordering of male-female relations. In doing so they have defined divine relations in terms of fallen human relations, where some rule and others obey and where people are differentiated according to the authority they exercise or are exluded from exercising.” (p. 351-352)