top of page

Is the Trinity Egalitarian or Complementarian?

The voices teaching that God gave men and women different but complementary roles have been growing louder in recent years. In practice, complementarianism looks a lot like patriarchy. It is hierarchal, with women having a submissive role and only men speaking and leading in families, churches, businesses, and politics.

One argument used to endorse the complementarian view is based on a re-interpretation of the Trinity. It needs to be recognized that this argument goes against the doctrines of the church and millennia of Christian beliefs. I affirm what the church has taught for millennia, that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God incarnate, not subordinate to God. The Nicene Creed says Jesus is "begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father"

In the 4th century, some church leaders wanted to assert the primacy of the Father, as head over Jesus, to justify bishops in the church. As early as AD 325, at the Council of Nicaea, representatives of all Christian churches met and agreed on the doctrine of the Trinity: that God is one, in three persons from the beginning, made of the same substance. They specifically opposed the Arian doctrine that Jesus Christ was subordinate to the Father, created by him or begotten after the Father and did not always co-exist with the Father.

Arians said Jesus was made of a similar substance but not fully divine of the same substance. The Nicene Creed states, in part, "one Lord Jesus Christ... begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father."

Today some church leaders want to assert the primacy of the Father to justify the submission of women. John MacArthur, a well-known complementarian Christian, discusses his change in belief from Jesus being one with the eternal God to Jesus being the eternally subordinate Son:

"I have abandoned the doctrine of 'incarnational sonship'.... the relationship between God the Father and Christ th eSon as an eternal Father-Son relationship. I no longer regard Christ's sonship as a role He assumed in his incarnation." John MacArthur in Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ, quoted on page 130, Woman this is War! by Jocelyn Andersen.

Complementarian theologian John Piper states not only that wives should be submissive to their husbands, but that women should be submissive in society, avoiding work that involves them leading or giving direction to men. Piper would steer women away from careers including teacher, preacher, pastor, counsellor, advisor, police officer, sergeant, manager, director, military commander or corporate or political president.

Like other complementarians, Tim Challies states that the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Trinity is a perfect example of submission. Challies states that the Father is the head and Jesus's eternal submission to the Father provides a pattern for how women should submit to men.

The Eternal Subordination of the Son is a radical departure from the view of the orthodox teaching that the Trinity is three equal persons made of the same substance, as taught by the Christian Church has taught since the Nicene Creed of AD 325. This incorrect view of the Holy Trinity subordinating Jesus as less than God has been used to promote an incorrect view of eternally subordinating women as less than men. Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware "unapologetically set gender relationships as the frame" for their views on the Trinity. Mike Ovey suggested that there is a difference of will between the Father and the Son and that the Son eternally submits his will to that of his Father. Speakers teaching complementarian viewpoints are well-funded, charismatic, and have a large marketing and distribution network. They deny that their new interpretation of the Trinity is motivated by a human desire to place women in submissive roles.

The Economic Trinity and the Ontological Trinity

Ontology is the study of being and essence. The Ontological Trinity deals with what God is. It states that each of the three persons is equal in their attributes and nature. Each is divine and eternal, omniscient, and omnipresent.

The Economic Trinity deals with what God does, and how the three persons relate to one another and to the world. It shows different functions and roles suited to the gifts of each of the persons of the Trinity, with each of the equal persons working mutually for the common goal. Some Christians have used the Economic Trinity to teach that the Son is subordinate to the Father, not equal but in submission; not eternal but coming subsequently, and not made of the same substance or essence as the Father. Complementarians refer to it as household management, with the household running more efficiently when roles are assigned within the family. They extrapolate this new view of the Trinity to a human family, with roles assigned by gender and the father as the leader and authority of the family. In this scenario, the homemaker is not equally valued, not financially compensated, does not always have freedom for financial decisions, and is not always free to act of her own will or pursue her own mission or calling in life.

While complementarians deny that their view changes the doctrine of the Trinity, their re-interpretation of centuries-old Christian doctrine suits their goal of restricting women to submissive and subservient roles. While complementarians may say that they are reversing decades of worldly feminism, they are in fact reversing centuries of Christian teaching about equality and the Trinity.

photo of shamrock
Photo: Anna Shvets

As early as the 5th century, St. Patrick attempted to describe the Trinity using the image of a shamrock: three leaves on a single stem making one plant, like three persons of the Trinity in one God.

Many theologians show how the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) opposes Scripture and Christian church creeds. Liam Goligher of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals pointed out that the church rejected the idea of the Father being first and foremost, and upheld the three persons of the Trinity as equal. Goligher goes on to say that portraying Jesus as subordinate is to move away from Christian doctrine and that it is idolatry to say something about God which is untrue. He points out that using the view of the Trinity to demonstrate submissiveness is a departure from biblical Christianity as expressed in our creeds and confessions from the beginning of the church.

Theologian Mike Bird suggests that if those who use the Trinity as an example of submission are not Arian, they are at least following the belief that God the Son is not of the same substance as God the Father, rejecting the Nicene Creed and centuries of Christian orthodoxy. The Nicene Creed called Arianism and the subordination of the Son a heresy. At the very minimum, it is a new and novel way of talking about the doctrine of the Trinity. He also questions the idea of the Trinity as a model for human marriage.

Jesus himself says "No one takes my life away from me. I give it up of my own free will" (John 10:18). Jesus Christ humbled himself, took the form of a servant, and laid down his life voluntarily, not as a form of submission. Jesus states, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). Teaching that Jesus came after the Father, is not of the same substance as God, and is fully submissive would take away Jesus's deity.

The Holy Trinity does not deny the equality of nature and attributes. All of the roles are equally essential and valued. There is no hierarchy. Each person of the Trinity fulfils a function based on its gifts, mission, and function. The three persons together have the same will and voluntarily work to achieve it. They serve one another mutually, equally, and in partnership. Egalitarians oppose the primacy of the Father and dispute the use of the Trinity as an example of one-way submission.

The Trinity is a picture of equals working together: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Redefining it to show headship power and meek submission is promoting a view of human relationships that is more concerned with hierarchy and less concerned with love and service; more concerned with worldly power and less concerned with biblical truth. Redefining the Trinity to fit with a human goal for male hierarchy opposes God's goal for mutuality, serving one another, loving one another, and working together towards joint goals. That is a model of the Trinity I can get behind for marriage and families.

Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor


bottom of page