“Within this unity there are three persons of one essential nature, power and eternity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Part II)
On a previous Facebook post I told you that the ontological equality of the Trinity expressed through economic inequality may have implications for gender roles within the church and the home.
Now I’m going to tell you what that means.
Let’s start with some simple definitions (that will be expanded upon below):
Ontological: the essence of a thing, the core of it
Economic: in this context it has nothing to do with money and everything to do with function. In fact, you could say “function” or “functional” and be just fine, except that a lot of the theological writing on this topic uses the word economic and I want you to be educated. So, there, now you’re educated.
Complementarian: the belief that men and women are ontologically equal but were created for different roles (the woman is, generally, understood to be functionally subordinate). In a marriage this usually means the husband is the head of the home and the wife is seen as a helpmate. In the church this usually means a woman cannot be a pastor, elder, or preacher as she must submit to the authority of the God-ordained male leadership.
Subordinate: one who has a position or function with less authority than the other one and submits to their leadership.
Egalitarian: the belief that men and women are ontologcally equal, they may be created different from each other (aren’t all of us different from each other?). In a marriage this usually means that both husband and wife share authority and responsibility based on gifting, preferences, or functionality and they submit to one another out of love. In the church this means that both men and women can serve in whatever role they are otherwise qualified for and called to.
So here’s how these definitions relate to the Trinity:
All three members of the Trinity are ontologically equal. That is, in their essence or their nature of being, at their very core, they are equal. They have all existed eternally, are all omnipotent (all-powerful), and are all as important and valuable as the others.
They are equal in essence but do not have equal roles. We see, for example, that all three have distinct roles but work together for the salvation of humanity. The Father elects (Ephesians 1:4), the Son redeems (Ephesians 1:7), and the Holy Spirit seals (Ephesians 1:13).
We see the greatest (and most important for our discussion) distinction when the Son takes human form. As a human, the Son (I will call him Jesus from now on) is in a role where he is economically (functionally), but not ontologically, subordinate to the Father and, to some extent, the Holy Spirit. He is no less God than he was before he took human form but he takes on a distinctly subordinate role. Jesus is dependent on the Father for guidance and direction. For example in John 5:19, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”
In (1 John 4:10) we see that the Father sends the Son. The one being sent is taking a subordinate role to the one sending.
Philippians 2 we read that we should have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” We know that Jesus didn’t give up his ontological equality (his essence never changed) but he did not live in functional (or economic) equality, he accepted a subordinate role.
And while he lived and walked among humanity, Jesus constantly was led and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1, Luke 4:14, Luke 10:21, etc.) indication his dependence not only on the Father but on the Spirit to carry out his ministry on earth.
What we see is Jesus submitting to the Father and being led by the Holy Spirit. He is no less God but he is choosing to obey the Father and follow the Holy Spirit (again, the core of who he is hasn’t changed; he’s still God) but he is in a subordinate role.
Let’s try a non-theological example just to make sure we’re all on the same page here. Let’s say I have triplets (I do not, let’s just say that I do) and they are all equally brilliant and perfect (because if I have triplets they’re going to be perfect). My triplets are working on a presentation for class. They decide that one of them will lead the project. As the leader, he delegates tasks to the other two: one works on research, the other works on the visual arts aspect of the presentation, and the leader decides to be the speaker. The two who are, at their very essence, equal to the third (that is, ontologically equal), agree to take on a subordinate role for this project. They are ontologically equal but not functionally (or economically) unequal. They are choosing to submit to someone who is on their same level.
Here’s how this doctrine of functional subordination within the ontologically equal members of the Trinity relates to the role of men and women in the home and at church: the Bible CLEARLY teaches that men and women where created ontologically equal. By this I mean that that are both fully human and equally valuable in creation and before God (men and women aren’t exactly the same, no two people are, but they’re of equal worth). Nearly all complementarians and egalitatians agree with this ontological equality. They disagree when it comes to the economic roles of men and women. A complementarian would argue that men are the head of the household and wives are to submit to their husbands. This does not mean that they are less valuable, or (usually) less capable of leading but that God has created this special helping role for them (and, more often than not, their biology sets them up to thrive in this subordinate role). In the church it usually means that women shouldn’t be pastors, preachers, or elders. Egalitarians would argue that, while their may be general biological differences between men and women, neither these differences, nor the Bible indicate that one gender should be subordinate to the other. Instead, husbands and wives are to submit to one another out of love. Neither should dominate. In the church it usually means that both men and women can serve in any role that they are qualified for and called to regardless of their gender.
Here’s where the Trinity ties in: Some people will argue against inherently subordinate roles (like saying a wife is always subordinate to her husband) because they tend toward, and are sometimes based on, an underlying belief that women are ontologically subordinate to men as well. And when the complementarian system is not doused in love and truth, women are often treated as less capable and less valuable than men. The complementarian response to this is to remind us all that the Bible teaches ontological equality among men and women then to argue that if we can see ontological equality within the trinity expressed in economic inequality (the Son subordinating himself to the Father) than certainly we can use their relationship as a model for our own human relationships. If Jesus, being fully equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, can submit to their leadership then women, being fully equal with men, can submit to their leadership.
And, sure, as a model, we could see how that works. This is irrelevant though, because the bulk of biblical data, as Wesleyans* and other egalitarians understand it, teaches that women and men are ontologically equal and have the freedom to exercise mutual submission in marriage and equal roles in the church. I’ll explore this more later. Jesus’s voluntary submission is a valuable model, not just for women in marriage or the church, but for all believers in all their spheres of life. So my husband can follow Christ’s example as he submits to me and I to him. I can follow Christ’s example as I submit to my supervisor and lead pastor, who are men, as easily as I could follow his example to submit to a lead pastor who was female. You can follow Christ’s example, the one who does not demand equality, as you submit to your leaders whether it’s your manager who is older and wiser or younger and foolish. You can follow his example as you submit to leaders at your church, and as you mutually submit within your home. This submission, of course, does not mean that you never speak up, never challenge authority or the process, but that you do it carefully, wisely, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
*Yes, I’m saying the Wesleyans, as a denomination, are egalitarians. At least we are in our paperwork, we may not always be in practice.