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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

Is the Trinity Egalitarian or Complementarian?

Updated: May 17, 2022

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.

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. Like many 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. This view of the Trinity is a radical departure from what the Christian Church has taught since AD 325 and is an incorrect understanding of core Biblical orthodoxy.

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.

Other theologians oppose the primacy of the Father and dispute the use of the Trinity as an example of complementary submission. 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. This belief was rejected at the Nicene Council as heresy and is a departure from centuries of Christian orthodoxy. At the very minimum, it is a new and novel way of talking about the doctrine of the Trinity, and a rejection of the Nicene Creed.

Complementarians deny that they are reformulating the doctrine of the Trinity to serve their purposes. Complementarian Wayne Grudem denies that he teaches a new doctrine, and affirmed his belief in the full deity of Christ in his post on the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood website. Complementarian Bruce Ware stated he can affirm the full deity of God the Son while a the same time believing in the eternal submission of the Son to the Father. Complementarian Michael Ovey said he has not strayed from the beliefs of the Nicene creed in saying that Christ could submit to the 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 that women have submissive roles.

Photo: adapted from Pexels

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 Trinity is a picture of equals working together: Creator, Redeemer, 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.

While complementarians deny that their view changes the doctrine of the Trinity, re-interpreting this centuries-old Christian doctrine in a way that suits the goal of restricting women to submissive and subservient roles seems suspicious. The doctrine shows that the Trinity is three equal persons working together. 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.

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, 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.

Unfortunately, some Christians have confused the Economic Trinity with the teaching 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. This is then extrapolated to a human family, with roles assigned by the man as head of the family. In this scenario, the homemaker is not equally valued, is 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.

In contrast, the Holy Trinity is not a family and the Economic 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 has its own mission and function. Each person of the Trinity has their own will and voluntary decisions. Each person fulfils a function based on their gifts and abilities. They serve one another mutually, equally, and in partnership. That is a model I would recommend for our families.