The Trinity and Gender Roles in The Church

The Father and Son and Spirit are equal in essence. All Three are fully God. However, the Three have differing roles. Wayne Grudem notes, “The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to creation (italics original).”[1] The Son and Spirit are clearly in submissive roles to the Father, while the Father is in an authoritative role to the Son and Spirit. “Therefore”, according to Bruce Ware, “what distinguishes the Father is his particular role as Father in relationship to the Son and Spirit and the relationships that he has with each of them.”[2] While it is common to think that submission equals diminished honor or importance, this is not the case in the Bible. All Three persons are fully God and are due all honors. Yet, the Three, Father, Son and Spirit have different properties of personhood, which are expressed in their roles and relationships to one another.

The implications of this Trinitarian relationship are very real for the Christian in the church of God. A Christian is called to be like Christ. How better to be like Christ than to emulate his eternal properties of personhood, his actions in his incarnation and his relationship to the Father in his resurrection. Therefore the following discussion will describe the Father’s relationship with the Son and the Son’s relationship with the Church, to the end that the church might see its mutual roles of submission and authority as God emulating and God honoring.[3]

I. Theological Understanding of Son and Father’s Relationship

The Son functionally submits to the Father. Even the name of the Father implies authority, while the name of the Son implies submission. For example, Malachi 1:6a says, “‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?”. Notice that because God is a father, honor and respect is due Him. Thus, the names of the Father and Son imply the dual functions of authority and submission. The Son has always been, was in the incarnation, is now and will be forever in submission to the Father.

In the eternal state the Son was submissive to the Father. For example, John explains that God gave and sent His Son into the world to save it (John 3:16-17). Why use the language of “gave” and “send” if it was the Son’s purpose to go to the world? Why not say that “the Son came into the world to save it,” instead of the language of God giving and sending the Son? The answer to that question is that God, the Father, sent His Son into the world according to His plan.[4] Hence, Jesus said in John 8:42, “I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.” The Son is eternally submissive to the Father.

In the incarnation the Son was submissive to the Father. For example, Jesus said in John 8:28-29, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me “And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” That Jesus said, “I do nothing on My own initiative” and “I always do the things that are pleasing to [the Father]” is indicative of Son’s life of obedience in His incarnation. The Son is so involved in His mission that He even says in John 4:34, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.” The Apostle Paul reflecting back on the life of Christ says that He was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Thus, even Jesus in his incarnation was submissive to the Father.

In the resurrection, the Son is and will be submissive to the Father. For example, 1 Corinthians 15 speaks of the Son’s future reign where everything will be subjected to the Son. This is His moment of glory. However, verse 28 says, “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.” Of course, the One who subjected all things to the Son is the Father. The Father is the one who was the architect of the plan of redemption, which glorifies the Son. Hence, the Father is excepted from being subject to the Son (15:27). At the end, when the Son returns in judgment and rules the nations with an iron rod (cf. Psalm 2:9) and receives His inheritance and glory, he will once again submit to the Father. Thus, the resurrected Son also is and will be submissive to the Father.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God is functionally submissive to the Father. He was in the past before Creation, in His incarnation and is now and will be submissive at the future judgment to the Father. Understanding the relationship between the Father and Son bears great light on the Christian’s relationship with the Son and other Christians.

II. The Son’s Relationship to Life in The Church

A. Individual

To be a Christian means to follow Christ. From the very first, Jesus called His disciples by saying, “Follow me” (Mathew 4:19). To follow Christ is to lose one’s life for Christ’s sake (Luke 7:24). Hence, Paul can say, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Christians are being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18), which includes the moral and mental facilities (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). Thus, the Christian ought to reflect the Son in all that he or she does.

If the Son submits to the Father, yet is no less God than the Father, then church should realize that both submission and authority are attributes of the godhead and therefore both are equally god honoring.[5] But it should especially realize that its duty is to manifest Jesus Christ in the earth.

Jesus said in Great Commission, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). What did he mean by this? Whatever else He meant, it is clear His presence is with the Christian in the present. One way to understand this is to say that the church functions as the incarnation of the Son. As the Son came proclaiming the gospel (Mark 1:14), so also the Christian is to go and preach the gospel (Matthew 28:19-20). As the Son worked by the power of the Spirit in His incarnation (Acts 10:38), being sinless (Hebrews 4:15) and fully manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, so also the Christian ought to be empowered by the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), be dead to sin (Romans 6:11) and manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). These examples illustrate what it means to manifest the Son to the world as the church.

B. Communal

While there are many similarities between the Son and the Christian, no one Christian can manifest the Son to the earth. In fact, the church collectively represents the Son to the world.

For example, the Son was fully obedient and supremely utilized his Spiritual gifts. Hebrews 4:15 says that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus never sinned on earth. He never quenched the Spirit. He never once grieved the Spirit. Hence, the Son was given the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). However, the church, which is stained by sin, has to collectively manifest the gifts of the Spirit to represent the Son.

Individuals from the church use spiritual gifts collectively to manifest Christ’s presence in the world. What are the purposes of the gifts? Ephesians says that gifts are for the building up of the body of Christ “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:14). Think about this. The church is the body of Christ, which manifests the gifts in order to reach the stature of the fullness of Christ. Truly, the church collectively, by means of Spirit empowered gifting, manifests Christ to the world.

C. Conclusion

Individually, Christians are to imitate Christ. When Christians act like Christ, they are the presence of the Son to the world. Acting like Christ becomes an honor. In this way, submitting to one another in love, as the Son submitted to the Father is an honor, not a burden. But individuals alone do not manifest Christ to the world. Rather, it accomplished collectively as the church. Since the Trinity is a personal, triune being, so also is the church made up of personalities in community.

III. Father and Son’s relationship to Ministry

Can this understanding of the Father and Son’s roles within Trinity affect the church? Yes. It greatly affects the church. Without understanding the roles of the Trinity, it would be difficult to answer questions such as: Should woman be in leadership roles in the church? Why should we submit to Elders? Isn’t submission and total authority a bad thing? Should we now look for a middle ground in how we operate as Christians? While this list does not intend to be exhaustive, there are hot button issues that are affecting the churches. One of these issues is the role of women in the church.

A. Submission of Women in the church

It is offensive to many Christians to say that a woman is not allowed to teach or have authority in the church. Yet, even this statement does not go far enough, for God created man and woman with gender specific roles. From creation, God purposed the man to be a leader and provider, while woman was to be a wife and mother. Reflect upon God’s curse on creation in Genesis 3. To the woman, God greatly increased her pain in childbirth (3:16), but to the man, he cursed the ground in which he worked (3:17). Notice that these to respective curses correspond to the gender roles.[6] The woman as wife and mother is cursed in her child bearing. The man as husband and provider is cursed in his work. The Apostle Paul understands that in creation God created man and woman for differing roles. But more than that, Paul appeals to triune nature of God to establish his teaching on woman in the church.

For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul teaches male headship by appealing to God’s triune nature to establish his case. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:3, “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” Notice that there is a taxis or order to this verse.[7] Christ is head over man in general. Man is head over woman in general. Yet God, the Father is head over Christ, the Son. Paul’s case for male headship is directly related to the triune nature of God. Because the Son submits to the Father, man should submit to the Son, and woman should submit to man. What a beautiful representation of God on earth this is. Why ever would one want to rebel against God by allowing a woman to have authority in the church? By doing so, the woman is saying to God, “I reject your purpose for me. I believe that submission, like the kind that the Son had, is weakness. I will do my own thing and subvert the very purpose of being a woman”. What madness is this? However, this is exactly what many are doing today.

Paul appeals to the complementary roles in creation, which mirror the Trinity, to establish the case of male headship in the church. Paul draws on this principle when he teaches that a woman should learn with all submissiveness and stay quiet in the church, “for”, he says, “it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:13). However, having different roles does not mean that one person is inferior to the other. Ephesians 2:18 says, “For through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father”. The pronoun, “Him,” refers to the Son (see verse 13). Through the Son’s work of redemption, one can by the Spirit’s empowerment have access to the Father. These three roles are essential for any communion with God. But one cannot say that one role of the Godhead is better or more important than the other, since each is complementary of the other. In the human relationship, man and woman were made to complement one another, as image bearers of God who is a triune complementary God.

One qualification needs to be made. Submissive and authoritarian roles are appropriate for men and women in different circumstances. For example, children submit to both mother and father (Ephesians 6:1-2). Also, it is not the case that women are the only people to practice submission. In fact, all Christians in one way or another ought to submit to one another (cf. Ephesians 5:21). Nonetheless, the above gender specific roles and the principles are still valid.

B. Conclusions

Based upon the nature of God, man and woman were to have different roles. Paul draws from this concept when he teaches on male headship in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul also seems to imply in 1 Timothy 2:13 that this taxis in the Trinity was imbedded in human nature in creation, when he appeals to the fact that Adam was created before Eve. The forthcoming conclusion is that male headship and woman’s willing submission is not a result sin, nor does it imply that males are superior to woman in any way. Instead, it means that to practice male headship is to emulate God’s nature, and to submit as a woman is to emulate God’s nature. These complementary roles abound for God’s glory. Men and women emulate God by fulfilling their purposes in creation.

IV. Concluding Thoughts

The Trinity is mutually reliant upon each person, equally complementing one another in differing ways while sharing the same essential nature. The Son’s relational role to the Father is submission, while the Father’s relational role to the Son is authority. As the body of Christ, both individually and collectively, the church ought to emulate Christ’s submissive role. Submission does not mean diminished honor. This is especially helpful when trying to understand the distinctive gender roles as they play out in the church. Women are not to lead in the church, but to submit to their leaders and husbands. Men are to be leaders and exercise authority in the church, while remembering that mutual submission among one another is likewise important.

Bibliography

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995.

Ware, Bruce A. Father, Son & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance. Wheaton,

IL: Crossway, 2005.


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), 250.

[2] Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 43.

[3] The reader will notice that the Holy Spirit is not mentioned often. The scope of this paper focuses primarily upon the Son and Father’s role within the Trinity. Thus, discussion the Holy Spirit is minimized. This does not mean that the role of the Holy Spirit deserves any less honor or that it is less important.

[4] Ware, 78-79

[5] See Ware, 76-77; 98-99

[6] Bruce A. Ware, “Jesus And The Father” (Lecture, The Trinity and Providence, The Master’s Seminary, CA, January 5, 2010).

[7] Bruce A. Ware notes that “Intrinsic to God’s own nature is a fundamental taxis, and he has designed creation to reflect his own being, his own internal and eternal relationships in part, through created and designed relationships of taxis” (italics original). Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, 72. Of course, the “created and designed relationships of taxis” include male and female relational roles.

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