The Trinity and Gender? Talking about the Recent Debate (Part 1)
I was enjoying my post-graduation trip in South Texas when several friends informed me of the recent online debate about the Trinity and gender roles. Again—yes, again—this issue is hotly debated. However, this time the debate is not between egalitarians and complementarians but among Reformed complementarians. The debate seems to have turned into a “civil war.” The reason why my friends informed me of this newly-erupted debate is that they know that this debate about the doctrine of the Trinity and gender roles was the topic of my dissertation. They also noticed that the debate has lacked the voices of female theologians.
So what is this debate about? This actually goes back to the end of the last century. Some prominent complementarians, mainly Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, teach that the Son submits to the Father eternally in role, function, and authority, often called “eternal functional subordination” (EFS), while being equal to the Father in nature, glory, and power.
When this is applied to the relationship between men and women in marriage, women submit to men in role and function but are also equal to men in nature and dignity.
Egalitarians like Gilbert Bilezikian and Kevin Giles vehemently attack such a teaching. They criticize these complementarian theologians of creating a doctrinal innovation in order to push their ideological agenda of the submission of women to men. Now, some Reformed complementarians also hurl the same charges against those who hold to the EFS position and encourage woman’s submission based on the inner-trinitarian relationship. The current “civil war” started around the beginning of this June (side point: my birthday month) and keeps going on. Who knows how long it will last!
Are the charges against Grudem and Ware fair and correct? Did Grudem and Ware really make up something about the Trinity in order to put women under subjection to men? How do we know? As Christians, how do we determine whether or not what we have heard is correct? Where do we go for answers? To common sense, culture, tradition, psychology, sociology . . . ? All these can be helpful, but we know that ultimately we should go to God’s Word, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. If the Bible indicates such a teaching, then it is biblical, no matter if common sense, culture, or tradition differs from it.
So the question becomes: Can such teachings as EFS and a parallel between the Trinitarian and gender relationships be found in the Bible?
The answer is “Yes.”
“Wait a minute!” You probably will ask: “How can there be a parallel between trinitarian and gender relationships? How can an analogy exist between these two? God is so different from us. He is Creator. We are His creature.” What you said is right. God as Creator and we as His creation are very different. However, this does not eliminate the possibility of an analogy. But remember what we mentioned earlier? This is actually an argument from common sense, not necessarily Scripture. Many put forward this argument in the debate. But let’s go to the right place we should go—the Bible. In the Bible, there are many places in which God is analogized as a creature. God is described as a mother (Hosea 11:3-4; Isa 66:13; 49:15), a woman in labor (Isa 42:14), a bear (Hosea 13:8), an eagle (Deut 32:11-12), and even a hen (Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34). In these cases, the authors of Scripture intend to call attention to some similarities between the creature and God. Thus, the Creator-creation distinction cannot forbid one to draw analogies between them.
Then does the Bible draw an analogy between Trinitarian and gender relationships? From Scripture, can we know if the Trinity is related to gender roles? Yes. There are actually two primary texts in the Bible indicating this relevance. The first one is Genesis 1:26-27, where man and woman are said to be created in God’s image. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1: 26-27).
Notice the plural “our.” What does it mean? The most likely meaning points to the Trinity, which is later revealed more explicitly in the New Testament. So man and woman are created in the image of the Triune God. What does this imply? The brilliant theologian Karl Barth is illuminating here. He points out that the fact that God is plural as well as in differentiation and relationships demands the creation of a man (humanity) in plurality as well as in differentiation and relationships. This point should be well taken because God created man and woman in His image and after His likeness.
This is why God created man and woman, not just man and man, or woman and woman. The pattern in the trinitarian relationship is the original of the copy, i.e., the relationship between man and woman.
The second text is 1 Corinthians 11:3. If Genesis 1:26-27 is more implicit and needs illumination from the light of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 11:3 explicitly relates the Trinity with gender relationships. Paul says, “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). Scholars have been arguing about the meaning of the word kephale (head). However, no matter what the word kephale (head) may mean, the parallel among the three pairs (man-Christ, woman-man, and Christ-God) is obvious.
Paul is highlighting the similarities rather than the differences among the three pairs. Therefore, Scripture indicates that a correspondence, a relevance, and an analogy exists between the trinitarian and gender relationships.
After going back to the Bible, things are clear. Grudem and Ware are not projecting human relationship to the trinitarian relationship. Instead, they just shed light on the similarities between the trinitarian and gender relationships. These similarities exist not because we project our image on God but because God projected (or imprinted) His image on us.
To be continued…
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for more of June’s analysis of this current debate. Her summary and critique will continue in this short series on Trinity and gender.
 See Caleb Lindgren, “Gender and the Trinity: From Proxy War to Civil War,” Christianity Today, June 16, 2016, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/june-web-only/gender-trinity-proxy-war-civil-war-eternal-subordination.html.