“Within this unity there are three persons of one essential nature, power and eternity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
A lot of people have a lot of things to say about the role of women in marriages, in families, and in the church. Expectations come from inside us, our spouses, our families, our friends, our bosses, our cultures, social media…everywhere. The sheer number of messages that tell us how we “should” be is overwhelming, let alone the task of sifting through the content of these messages.
And a lot of these messages are shared with “biblical” dressing.
“God’s design for marriage is…
“The biblical view of manhood and womanhood is…
“A woman should pray for her husband by…
The Bible does have a lot to say about men, women, marriage, parenting, and how society should function but it often doesn’t say what we are told it says. And, sometimes what we are told has some shaky “biblical supported” theology beneath it. Today we’re going to explore one thread of shaky theology that can result in oppressive “shoulds” thrown at women that ends up hurting both men and women when it hits.
On a previous Facebook/Instagram 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. And I’m going to explain how what that means can have significant implications for our every day life.
Use Your Words (but, first, know what they mean)
If you love nerding out on hefty theological words, today is your day. Here are some of the words theologians are batting around when talking about how the Trinity’s relationship within itself is a model (or not) for relationships between men and women. I’m going to define them, then explain why they matter.
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. It’s a synonym for function or role. 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 (essentially) equal (or equal at our core) but were created for different roles. The woman is, generally, understood to be functionally or economically subordinate. That means men and women are equal in essence but unequal in roles (like how you and your boss are equally valuable as humans, but your role is subordinate to theirs). In a marriage this usually means the husband is the head of the home and the wife is seen as a helper who submits to his authority. 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.
Egalitarian: the belief that men and women are ontologically (essentially) equal, but either can function in whatever role they are otherwise qualified to function. In a marriage this usually means that both husband and wife share authority and responsibility of running a home and family based on gifting, preferences; 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, including that of pastor or elder.
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 the same 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). But different roles don’t imply subordinate roles…until the Son becomes human.
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 (essentially), subordinate to the Father. 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.) indicating 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.
How Ontological Equality and Economical Equality Relate to Men and Women
The Bible CLEARLY teaches that men and women where created ontologically equal. Genesis 1: 27&28 clearly shows that we were equally created in the image of God. This means that that men and women 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.
But there is different understanding about whether men and women were created economically equal or not. Complementarians and egalitatians disagree when it comes to the economic roles of men and women.
Complementarians 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 women 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 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.
Where the Trinity’s Relationship Ties In
Some complementarians argue that Jesus is a model for equal-in-essence-but-unequal-in-roles relationships. Just like Jesus, who is equal in essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, submits to their leadership, women, who are equal in essence with men, should submit to men’s leadership in the home and in the church (and sometimes workplace).
As a model, we could see how that works. But you can’t just apply a model to a situation where it doesn’t fit; that’s irresponsible and illogical. The stranger behind me in line at the grocery store can’t randomly declare that I should be subordinate to him or her, citing Jesus as a model. Without ample biblical evidence showing women should be subordinate to men (specifically their dads, husbands, or pastors) applying this model in those relationships is as inappropriate at the stranger behind me in the grocery store applying it to our (non) relationship. And there is not amply biblical evidence that women should be subordinate to men.
Wesleyans* and other egalitarians understand that the bulk of biblical data, teaches that women and men are ontologically equal and have the freedom to exercise mutual submission in marriage and equal roles in the church.
Jesus’s voluntary submission (as explained in Philippians 2) is a valuable model, not for (only) 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 lead pastor who is a man–well, when I originally wrote this, I worked at a church that was led by a man, I now attend a church where the lead pastor is a woman and it turns out both my husband I can can submit to her spiritual leadership too.
You can follow Christ’s example as you submit to your leaders whether it’s your manager who is older and wiser or younger and foolish.
You can follow Jesus’ example as you submit to leaders at your church, and as you mutually submit within your home.
What this Means
This means that you submit and mutually submit because you are a Christian, not because you are a woman. Men submit and mutually submit too.
It means the fact that Jesus was subordinate to the Father while he was on earth should not be used as a model for women’s roles in relationships in marriages or in the church.
There is a LOT more that could be said about the role of women, including unpacking the “biblical data” I mentioned above that supports economical equality…but that’s for another post. This post is about how the ontological equality of the Trinity expressed through economic inequality may have implications for gender roles within the church and the home. And my conclusion is that it does not.
Important Caveat: This submission, of course, is not blind obedience. Submission does not justify abuse, nor require you to stay in an abusive situation. Submission does not mean that you always obey, never speak up, never challenge authority or the process, but that you do it carefully, wisely, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
*I’m saying the Wesleyans, as a denomination, are egalitarians. At least we are in our paperwork, we may not always be in practice.