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Trinity, submission, eternal subordination, marriage

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.

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Celtic Trinity Knot (Source: openclipart.org)

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All my articles on submission are here.

18 thoughts on “Distinct Roles in the Trinity and in Marriage? (John 5:18-30)

  1. Good summary of the topic. Thanks, Marg.
    Even if one were to believe in the trinity as model for marriage, I can’t see how a passage such as Joh. 5 would lead one to a complementarian model. The father gives authority and judgment to the son, the son does what the father does.

    1. Yes, there’s no complementarity if they are doing the same thing in a similar way.

  2. Thanks for this lovely exposition of the uniqueness of the relationship within the Trinity. Despite the propensity of some N.Z. theologians wanting to liken the binary relationship of men and women in marriage to the relationship between the Divine Persons of The Blessed Trinity – usually to refute the possibility of same-sex marriage – there can be no theological, or practical, justification for this.

    1. The numbers just don’t add up when we try and make the Triune Godhead a model for marriage between two people.

  3. Great post! To my mind the Trinity tells us that to be true image bearers we must live in community, but to divide that community into the men being ‘public’ and the women being ‘domestic’ is to misunderstand Scripture and be conformed to the world’s image.

    1. I agree. The few verses which are about young women marrying, having children, and keeping house were written so that the young women in Crete and Ephesus would fit in with Greco-Roman society, and not give the Gospel a bad name. And this social norm was part and parcel of the Greek view that women were inferior to men and only fit for the private, domestic sphere.

      I’m glad that more and more western Christians, myself included, are realising that our individualistic approach to faith has draw backs, and that we must pursue developing our faith in the context of the church as a loving, holy community.

  4. I see marriage as a head body metaphor where the husband/wife relationship mirrors Jesus relationship to the church, the body of Christ, where there is sacrificial-self-giving love on the husband’s part as Christ is for the church and the wife’s voluntary submission as the church submits to Christ. However, many forget the part where all believers are called to submit to one another members of Christ’s body. Jesus himself submitted when he gave up his life and died for all our sins. Great Post.

    1. Exactly! 🙂 We have a picture for marriage in Ephesians 5:22ff, but we run into trouble when we say that men somehow represent the Father, and that women somehow represent Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

      The Bible does not indicate that men and women represent individual members of the Trinity, but one things is certain, men and women represent the Triune God and are commissioned to act as his regents on earth.

  5. “I do not see evidence in Scripture for a clear delineation of permanent, fixed roles in the Trinity, rather there is a sharing and overlap in roles and ministries.”

    Marg, I completely agree with this statement. And because of that, I think if the Trinity can be a model for any type of marriage, it’s an egalitarian one… where there’s a “sharing and overlap in roles and ministries.” I agree that there’s much we don’t know about how the Trinity relates within himself, but what I do think is clear is that there is community, unity, and mutual submission (ie: no one plays a “trump card”). I agree with you that we should be slow to label the Trinity’s divine relationships by projecting them into our human examples, absolutely, and yet I think looking at how God relates within himself is helpful for looking at some of the mystery of marriage and the unity we hope to grow in.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I was with you all the way… but I’d love to hear your thoughts expanded from your last paragraph about why neither C or E marriages should look to the Trinity as a model. To me, one is crystal clear, the other is not. 🙂

    1. Hi Adriel,

      I honestly think we don’t know enough about how the members of the Trinity relate to each other, so I can’t see how we can use the Trinity as a model. And, importantly, the Bible nowhere hints that we should be using the Trinity as a model for marriage.

      Furthermore, the use of the Trinity in gender discussion is usually skewed. I’ve written about this in this article: The Trinity and Marriage.

  6. Hi Marg – thanks for this article and I completely agree!

    I was wondering if you could help with something. I’ve had someone ask in reply to this topic…about the many references made in the NT about Jesus being ‘sat at the right hand of God’. What do you think that means? They would say that this indicates the Son forever submitting to the Father.

    Any light to shed would be so appreciated ☺️ Thank you!!

    1. Hi Ann,

      The concept of being in a position at the “right hand of god” was a common idea in the ancient Greek world. This concept involved a god and a king having a faithful and powerful alliance. Subordination doesn’t really come into it.

      Many reliefs survive which depict a god on the left and a king on the right, often they are shaking hands. This gesture, or pose, is called dexiosis. Dexiosis comes from the word for “right (hand)”: dexios.

      Being at the right hand of a god, and/or holding the right hand of a god, was a position of power and authority. Implicit in the posture is the idea that the god is endorsing the king. The lexicographer, Thayer notes that to be, or to be seated, at the right hand of God (as in Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 8:1; Hebrews 10:12; Hebrews 12:2) indicates that Jesus the Messiah has become a partner in God’s universal government.

      Here are links to some images of reliefs depicting dexiosis:

      King Antiochus 1 of Commagene and the god Hercules
      King Seleucus I Nicator on the right of the god “Gad” (center)
      The goddess Hera of Samos and the goddess Athena

      1. Wow! Thank you so much, Marg! I’m constantly being blown away as I read your blog! What a treasure chest!

        Do you think it is valid to compare a human with the Trinity? What I mean is that we have body, soul and spirit, and our God is soul and spirit and became embodied as Jesus? We are, after all, made in His image. However, we each are one person with different components but he is three persons in one…Do you have any insight with your knowledge of the language in scripture that we miss in English? Thanks!

        1. Hi Gina,

          I’m so glad you like my blog. 🙂

          There’s a doctrine about the tripartite nature of humans, but I personally can’t see that the Bible teaches such a thing. I don’t think there is a clear distinction between body, soul, and spirit in humans. And if there is a distinction, I can’t see where to draw the line between the three categories. Which category does our intellect belong to?

          Also, the Greek and Hebrew words for “soul” (psychē and nephesh respectively) often simply means “life” or “living being.”

          I just don’t think the tripartite doctrine is sound or helpful.

  7. One thing I have often been told is that the separate roles are that the Father sent the son who sends the Spirit. And that the father planned salvation and the son carried it out. That shows that while they may be equal the father is has the leadership role and Jesus submits to him. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Ashley,

      Just speaking off the top of my head:

      The reason for Jesus’ statement is important in interpreting it.

      Jesus’ statement that the Father had sent him was a way of signifying Jesus’ authority. Jesus was not merely a human who was ministering from his own initiative or with his own self-appointed authority. Rather, he had an authority that the Jews respected (the authority of God the Father), an authority that the Jews would hopefully recognise in Jesus and acknowledge.

      Jesus also says that the Father will send the Holy Spirit, again, as a way of signifying the authority the Spirit has (John 14:26). The idea is that the send-ee has the authority and blessing of the send-er. However, it does not necessarily mean that the Father had, or still has, an authority which Jesus or the Spirit do not have. All it means– or shows– is that the Jews accepted the authority of God the Father, and Jesus uses that idea to make certain points.

      I’m not sure that the Bible indicates that the Father planned salvation, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit did not. Which verse(s) are you thinking of?

      1. Thank you. That is very helpful. The scriptures I was given are Isaiah 53:10, John 3:16, Ephesians 2:7, 1 Peter 1:20 and revelations 13:8. Apparently, these show that as the planner of salvation the Father has the superior role and leads just as the man has the superior role and leads.

        1. Hi Ashley, thanks for these scriptures. I can only give a quick reply right now.

          Isaiah 53:10: Most Christians regard YHWH (or the LORD) as including Jesus. YHWH (or the LORD) is not just God the Father. More on this here:

          John 3:16 and Ephesians 1:7 show that Jesus did have a unique role in coming to earth as a human being, and that he was sent from God. But does this mean that one is superior over the other in the eternal scheme of things? And does “God” exclude Jesus who is part of the triune godhead? Surely God the Father and Jesus and the Holy Spirit all work together for the salvation of humanity.

          1 Peter 1:20 and Revelation 18:10 doesn’t even mention the Father or God, just that Jesus was “destined before the foundation of the world” and “slain from the foundation of the world.” Jesus may well have been part of mapping out his destiny.

          None of these verses actually say that God the Father was the one, let alone the only one, who planned the method of salvation. And I can’t see how the 1 Peter and Revelation reference even comes close to saying that God the Father planned salvation. There must be some understanding that is added to, and underpins, the interpretation of those two verses that I’m not aware of.

          I’m not dogmatic about the doctrine of the Trinity as I don’t think the scriptures are clear on it, but I can’t see that they say that salvation was God the Father’s idea and plan.Rather I see all members of the Trinity doing their bit.

          As I said, “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.”

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