Gender and Trinity

By Robert Rakestraw:

What is the controversy all about?

At the risk of overwhelming serious readers with yet another piece on Trinity and gender, I offer this contribution with the hope that some may gain a bit more clarity on an aspect of the dispute that continues to smolder and even burst into flames regularly. In this series, I will address and support the necessary qualitative distinction between the eternal inner life of the Trinity and the temporal inter-relationships of women and men in church and marriage.

The debate about the Trinity within evangelical Christianity, especially since the beginning of the twenty-first century, has become increasingly tied to the debate about male-female authority in churches and male-female authority within marriages. Many solid evangelical theologians and Bible scholars believe that it is a mistake to tie these three issues together. Let each topic be discussed on its own: Trinity, church, and marriage, considering where the final authority lies within each. This is wise counsel.

The reason these three issues are being woven together as never before in church history (to my knowledge) is that some complementarians (those who believe men should have the final authority in churches and marriages) have been supporting their position by likening male-female relationships to Father-Son-Spirit relationships (focusing mostly on God the Father and God the Son). They argue that just as Father and Son are “equal” so men and women are “equal,” but just as there is subordination (lesser authority given to the Son) in the Trinity, so there should be subordination (lesser authority given to women) in churches and marriage.

Because of this unusual doctrine of the Trinity, many evangelicals are becoming alarmed. They say that this is false teaching about God, perhaps even heresy, because the complementarians (formerly called hierarchicalists) argue that such subordination between Father and Son has always been and always will be, throughout eternity! They assert that the Son has always had lesser authority than the Father, not just while he lived on earth in full submission to his Father.

There is good reason to be alarmed. I realize that some may say I am oversimplifying the issues and even misrepresenting their position in certain respects. To these concerns I reply that I have not intentionally distorted any viewpoint, even though I have simplified matters and am stating the issues rather bluntly, to get directly into the current controversy.

If this new view of the Godhead held by some complementarians becomes popular, it will almost certainly lead to a serious weakening of the universally-held doctrine of the Trinity. The Son and the Spirit will no longer be exalted as equal to the Father in everything, including power, glory, sovereignty, and authority. Let the three issues be considered separately: authority within the Godhead, authority within churches, and authority within marriages.

It is especially dangerous to tamper with the historic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in order to support a particular view of authority in churches and marriages. It is sad and alarming to learn that in a recent (2016) survey, 51% of evangelical Christians in the United States believe that the Holy Spirit is a force, not a person. According to a careful reading of John 14-16 this is totally false. What then, we may ask, are Christians thinking about the Son?

God’s people who know the Bible should uphold and teach the full equality of the members of the Trinity in every sense of the word “equality,” not diminishing the eternal, intrinsic authority of Father, Son, and Spirit. As stated above, whatever Christians believe about the final authority in churches and marriages with respect to gender should be considered apart from the Trinity. To use the idea of the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father to support the earthly subordination of females to males is seriously wrong.

What is the biblical doctrine of the Trinity?

After the first few centuries of the Christian church, the doctrine of the Trinity had become well thought-out and well established. The standard, orthodox teaching since then (with some variations) among all branches of Christianity has been that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have existed eternally as three distinct persons (or members) in one God (or Godhead), each equal in power, glory, authority, knowledge, and all other divine attributes recorded in the Bible.

No member of this tri-personal God—this tri-unity—had a beginning. They have always existed in perfect harmony in the one being of God. None is superior to the others in any sense and none has more authority than the others. No person of the Godhead is the supervisor or leader over the others.

When the Son of God became human, and when the Spirit came in a special way at Pentecost to empower and guide Christ’s church, they were not “following orders” given by the Father. They were “sent” by the Father, as the Bible teaches, for these special ministries in the work of salvation. The Son and the Spirit voluntarily made themselves subject to the Father in the plan of redemption. But the one perfect Trinitarian mind and will of the Godhead always planned and ordained together, as one equal authority, the sovereign mission of the only all-wise God.

There never has been nor ever will be three separate wills in the Godhead. There is only one will—the will of God. The intense struggle of Jesus in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39) had to do with his earthly mission and submission to the Father as the Word made flesh. When the earthly plan of redemption has been completed, and the Son hands over the kingdom to the Father, God Almighty—the triune Lord of all—will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15: 24-28).

The concept of the eternal subordination of the Son, which is spoken of by complementarians as his eternal functional subordination, is a serious theological error. To be eternally equal to someone in divine nature and all divine attributes, yet eternally under the authority of (subordinate to) the will of that someone, if only in function (what one does), is surely illogical. And, with regard to Jesus Christ, such a view is unbiblical.

How can the Son be fully equal to the Father in deity, wisdom, and power, yet not have the same authority as the Father? This makes the Son inferior to the Father in his eternal nature and activity, since the Son takes orders from one who is higher than him in authority. Such a relationship would have to be one of a lesser deity obeying a higher deity!

The full equality among the members of the Godhead—in both being (what one is by nature) and in authority (what one decides and does)—is extremely difficult for us as human beings to comprehend. How can a committee of three not have someone in charge?

The answer is that the Trinity is not a committee, board, or group of executives. The three are in perfect, glorious unity of mind and will. They are distinct, yet fully equal. This is definitely a mystery, but it is not contradictory. If everything about God could be fully explainable to our human minds, the god we come to believe in will not be the true God of the Bible revealed in Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:14, John 14-17, and many other scriptures.

In our humanity, when three or more people are working on a project, we almost always want someone to be “in charge.” This is a very good and necessary leadership principle. However, because of this, it is practically impossible for us to think of pure equality of authority within the eternal Godhead, so we are strongly inclined to bring our ideas of human relationships into our theology of the Trinity. Yet if we do so we will go astray, even if our intentions are noble.

How is male-female authority involved in the controversy over subordination in the Trinity?

As alluded to in Part 1, there are two main groups within evangelicalism debating the issues of subordination (lesser authority) among the members of the Trinity and subordination among male-female relationships. Complementarians believe, among other things, that women should be under the authority of male leaders in their churches, and wives should be under the authority of male leaders (their husbands) in their marriages. Their main organization is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Two major scholars supporting their views are Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem.

Egalitarians believe, among other things, that women are to share leadership authority equally with men, in mutual submission, in the responsibilities of church and marriage. Their main organization is Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). Two major scholars supporting their views are Philip Barton Payne and Kevin Giles.

Both CBMW and CBE are led by serious Bible-believing evangelical Christians, and have fully orthodox statements of faith. Even though they disagree quite strongly on male-female issues, each believes they are basing their teachings on the Bible. (It is only right for me to state here that I am a member and supporter of CBE, and have been since their beginning in 1988. Before that, I had been a member of a similar organization for years.)

Following the emergence of the secular feminist movement in the 1960’s, some evangelical Christians began to rethink the traditional ideas of male-only leadership in churches and marriages, to see if these positions really were taught in the Bible. Such questioning in itself was, and is, a good thing, since current controversies often provide opportunities to examine one’s doctrines and practices to see if they are well-grounded.

When John Wesley, John Newton, and William Wilberforce challenged the prevailing practice of slavery (which was strongly supported from the Bible by many Christians), this led eventually to the abolition of slavery. Years ago, God’s people searched the Bible to see if the word of God supports such practices as putting the American flag on the church platform along with the Christian flag (should “for God and country” be the motto of Christ followers?) and the excluding of certain charismatic practices that were present in the first-century churches.

So also, many of God’s people are re-examining the issue of women’s subordination to men in churches and marriages. Some of these believers—actually many—are looking at the issues in full submission to the authority of the scriptures. They are not casting the Bible aside to follow the culture, as many others seem to be doing. Some are focusing more on women and church issues and some more on women and marriage issues, even though all know that both areas need careful thought and prayer to avoid the serious abuses of authority by men who have severely damaged many women over the years.

Conclusion        

There are different opinions on the above matters among the people of God, just as there are on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, predestination, and the second coming of Christ. Controversies often develop, however, when those on one side of an issue (or those on both sides of an issue) go beyond the Bible.

In this regard it is not wrong, for example, to think about what God’s “omnipresence” actually means in detail, or what God was “doing” before this universe was created. If we do such thinking, however, we need to be aware that we are entering into some “speculation,” which means that we are going beyond plain biblical revelation. This is not necessarily wrong, but it is good for us to acknowledge that we cannot speak with finality on these and many similar matters. God did not give us his word in the form of a systematic theology textbook. If he did, we would probably argue about that “Bible” just as much as we do now, even if it were a 20-volume set, with every conceivable question answered by God himself!

When we, as mere specks in the universe in ourselves, delve into the mysteries of the eternal Trinitarian Creator and Sustainer of all—why and how God thinks and plans and lives—we must always be aware of when we go beyond the Bible. If we do go beyond the actual words of Scripture, as we all do at times to develop and express our theology (our set of ideas about God), let us recognize when, how, and why we are doing this, and be careful not to put our doctrinal formulations—as helpful as they may be—on the level of Scripture.

In all these matters, the responsibility of each believer is to consider prayerfully the issues from the word of God as fully as our energy and ability allow, to listen respectfully to all viewpoints, and to move forward in our service for Christ, looking to him for ongoing knowledge, wisdom, and grace. If we must disagree, let us do so charitably and humbly, admitting that we still have much to learn. The overall goal of all who belong to Christ must be—with unity on the essentials, with unselfish neighbor love, and with zeal for the honor of God—to make faithful disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.