Separate Spheres, Distinct Roles, and Subordination in the Trinity and in Marriage? (John 5:18-30)

Let me state upfront that I don’t believe that the Trinity should be used as a model for marriage. The Bible does not state that the Trinity is a model for marriage, and when we try and make the case that the Godhead is such a model we risk the danger of tampering with sound Trinitarian theology. I have written about this previously, and I continue here with the following musings.

Separate Spheres in the Trinity? 

Today I read a passage from John chapter 5:18-30 where Jesus speaks about his relationship with the Father. In this passage, Jesus states that he does nothing in his earthly ministry without seeing what the Father does (John 5:19-20), and he states that his judgement is based on what he hears the Father say (John 5:30). (These ideas are repeated elsewhere in John’s Gospel.) So, even though Jesus is the redemptive Saviour and the end-time Judge, he doesn’t do these things on his own. He does these things together in partnership with the Father.

From this passage in John, and other New Testament passages, we see that Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit do not have distinct, separate spheres of activity or ministry. The Trinity works together.

Some Christians who believe that the Trinity is a model for marriage believe that God has designed men and women to have different spheres of activity and ministry. They believe that the man’s main sphere is public and outside of the home, while the woman’s main sphere is domestic, and they segregate the responsibilities of family life and church life into gendered categories of “men’s work” and “women’s work”.

There is no biblical evidence of a precise or fixed differentiation in roles within the Trinity, or that the members of the Trinity operate in separate spheres. Similarly, the idea that men and women are limited, or restricted, to separate spheres has no biblical basis.

Inferiority and Subordination in the Trinity? 

When Jesus came to earth as a human being, he voluntarily laid aside his divine privileges (Phil. 2:6-8) and became completely dependent on the Father’s and the Holy Spirit’s guidance and power. Jesus submitted to, and obeyed, the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Some Christians believe that wives are to display this level of dependency, submission, and obedience towards their husbands. However Jesus, in taking human form, had become ontologically inferior and thus, subordinate, to the Father and the Spirit. He was even “a little lower than the angels” (Heb. 2:9a). Jesus had temporarily lowered and limited himself by taking human form for a very particular purpose and a vitally important reason: to save the world!

Wives, however, are not ontologically inferior to their husbands. That is, women are not lesser creatures than men. So it is unhealthy for wives to emulate the same degree of dependence and submission towards their husbands that Jesus had towards the Father and Spirit while he was on earth.

Furthermore, it is downright harmful for women (as a group) to be generally submissive or subordinate to men (as a group), or for women to “affirm, receive and nurture” the strength and supposed leadership of “all worthy men” as is taught by John Piper (e.g. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 1991, pp. 21, 29, 37, 39-41). This degree of one-sided submission from women has no biblical basis whatsoever, and breeds male arrogance and female passivity in marriage and in the church.

There is no clear evidence in the scriptures that Jesus remained ontologically subordinate to the Father and Holy Spirit once his redemptive mission was successfully completed. Rather, after his resurrection, Jesus was glorified and returned to his place of honour at the right hand of the Father (Heb. 2.9b; Phil. 2:9-11).

We need to be cautious that we do not regard Jesus the Messiah as either ontologically or eternally subordinate to the Father and to the Holy Spirit, especially as he is to be honoured equally with the Father (John 5:23).

“. . . that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.” John 5:23 NIV

Unity and Mutuality in the Trinity? 

From John chapter five and other scriptures, we see that Salvation is a work of the Trinity, and that Judgement is a work of the Trinity. Even if, during his earthly ministry as Saviour and Judge, Jesus was, and will be, the “front man” as far as humanity is concerned.

This unity and cooperation of the Trinity is a basic Christian doctrine, one shared by both Calvinists and Arminians. Here is what one Calvinist has written on this:

One of the most important insights of Reformed theology is the unity of the works of the Trinity. Calvinists believe that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are united in the work of redeeming lost mankind. We do not believe that they act against one another or even on one another, but with one another in our salvation. . . The same harmony exists between the Son and the Spirit. . . .
Richard Philips, What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace? (Lake Mary, FL: Reformed Trust Publishing, 2008), 69-70.

Creation, Jesus’ Incarnation and Resurrection, and the giving of ministry gifts, services and activities are also shown in scripture as being the shared work of the Trinity. Moreover, in the Church Age, the Holy Spirit is Jesus’s replacement (John 14:26). So, presently, the Holy Spirit is effectively the “front man” of the Trinity from the perspective of humanity.

I do not see evidence in scripture for a distinct delineation of permanent, fixed roles in the Trinity, rather there is a sharing and overlap in roles and ministries.

Jesus’ speech in John 5 gives us some insight into the Trinity, as do other scriptures; however, there is still much we do not know about the Triune Godhead and how each member relates with the other members. I imagine that the divine relationships within the Trinity cannot be labelled with terms such as “hierarchy”, “subordination”, or “equality”, etc. For these, and other, reasons the Trinity should not be used as a model for either hierarchical or egalitarian marriages.

Image Credit: Celtic Trinity Knot (Source: openclipart.org)


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