Is the Trinity Egalitarian or Complementarian?
Updated: Oct 8
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 patriarch. 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 new re-interpretation of the Trinity. This arguement need to be recognized as going against doctrines of the church and millenia of Christian beliefs. 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 after him and 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."
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' 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 be submissive to their husbands, but that women should be submissive in society, avoiding work that involves them leading or giving direction to men. He would steer women away from careers including teacher, preacher, pastor, counsellor, advisor, police officer, sergeant, manager, director, military commander or corporate or political president.
Theologians have been debating the validity of basing a complementarian view on the Trinity. 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. Even in the 4th century, some church leaders wanted to assert the Father as head of Jesus to justify bishops in the church. Today some church leaders want to to assert primacy of the Father to justify the submission of women. Jesus Christ humbled himself, took the form of a servant, and laid down his life voluntarily, not as a form of submission. Jesus states that he and the Father are One. 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 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, a belief rejected at the Nicene Council. The rejection of the Nicene creed appears to be a heretical opposition to centuries of Christian orthodoxy.
The Trinity is a picture of equals working together: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Redefining it to show headship power and meak submission is promoting a view of human relationships that is more concerned with hierarchy and less concerned with love and service.
Complementarians deny that they are reformulating the doctrine of the Trinity to serve their purposes. Complementarian Wayne Grudem responded to the accusations by posting on the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood website, denying that he was teaching a new doctrime and affirming his belief in the full deity of Christ. 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, and that Christ could submit to the Father while being of the same nature. Speakers teaching the 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.
Scholars dispute using the Trinity as an example of complementary submission, and point out that at the very minimum it is a new and novel way of talking about the doctrine of the Trinity. While complementarians deny that their view is linked to a change in the doctrine of the Trinity, it seems a convenient coincidence that the re-writing of a centuries-old Christian doctrine serves their current priority of placing women in submissive and subservient roles. 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.