Just because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should (and other arguments)

Bronwyn, thank you for speaking into the question of application with such insight! I appreciate your openness and willingness to wrestle with these questions.

I also really appreciate your reminder, Hannah, that not all gender conservatives are complementarians. If I’m honest, I didn’t realize that until you explained it.

I can’t speak to the questions posed here from a complementarian point of view, as that is not my own conviction. But, the fuzziness of what it means to be in authority over a man is something I’ve wrestled with a great deal as I have tried to be faithful to God’s calling on my life.

As a recent college graduate preparing to head off to seminary, I met with a local pastor to talk about what might be ahead for me in my seminary journey. At that time I was adamant that I had no intentions to be ordained. I believed that women could not be called into ordained ministry. But, I did have gifts for teaching, and had been recommended by many of my professors to pursue an academic path. I also had a profound love for Scripture, and as God called me to seminary, I believed the Mdiv. would be step one on a journey towards becoming a professor.

I sat down on a couch in a dimly lit room with my husband by my side and a pastor in front of both of us. The pastor spoke kindly to my husband and to me about our upcoming seminary journey. He lauded my gifts for teaching and ministry, and he praised my husband’s faithfulness in pursuing his calling to pastoral ministry. And, then his face became very serious.

“April, I worry about you,” he said. “You’ve got gifts, to be sure, but you have to be careful how you use them. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

Interestingly, he never gave the same warning to my husband. And, though he never specified why he addressed this concern only to me, I knew that he was worried I’d start sliding down the “slippery slope” and soon become an advocate for the ordination of women.

In that regard, he was right, I suppose, though I don’t really believe in the idea of a slippery slope. And though it was the first time I had heard the can vs. should argument, it would not be the last.

Though he did not say it directly, I think what the pastor was getting at was the idea that even though a woman theoretically could take a position as a pastor it does not mean she should. He was taking his interpretation of the way God speaks to women and men and was applying it to the realm of vocation. If the Bible says women are not permitted to have authority over a man, how do we apply this to a woman who has leadership and teaching gifts?

What about situations in which men recognize a woman’s gifts and ask for her direction?

How does one discern the difference between what can be done and what should be done?

I also want to admit that I struggle in responding to this conversation as someone who is convinced that women can (and are) called into positions of leadership in the church. I struggle because I do not believe women and men have no differences whatsoever. But, I do not think God speaks to men and women differently in the Bible. I think God speaks to each person regardless of that person’s gender differently because we are all different people.

This is why we read the Bible in community, rather than in isolation, because we are a body and what one hears may be what we all need to hear.

Not All Conservatives

In order to address Bronwyn’s first question,

To what extent do Piper and Grudem (and the big names at CMBW) speak for all complementarians? How big, and how grey, is our grey area?

we need to clarify something. I believe that part of the “greyness” results from using the term “complementarian” to refer to anyone who holds a conservative view of gender—anyone who sees distinct male/female roles in marriage and church office. But what if not all gender conservatives are complementarians?

Complementarianism might be better understood as one expression of gender conservativism. As a response to evangelical feminism, complementarianism developed and flourishes in a specific cultural context, namely a western, white, middle-upper class context; because of this, it will reflect western, white, middle-upper class assumptions about work, economics, and home. The fact that Pastor Piper is even concerned with answering the question “what jobs can a woman do” reflects this.

Consider how the Danvers’ Statement positions complementarianism against “feminist egalitarianism” (which itself was influenced by 2nd-wave feminism). Insofar as complementarians formed their identity in direct opposition to 2nd-wave feminism, they became a photonegative of it.  None of us should be surprised, then, that complementarians are asking “what jobs can a woman can do” because this is precisely the same question that 2nd-wave feminists asked. But even this question is loaded with assumptions about class, race, and agency.

I grew up in a low-income setting where people didn’t have much choice about which “jobs” they took. Today I live and worship in a working-class community where very few of the women in our church have the luxury of not working outside the home. Even fewer would have the luxury of turning down a promotion if it meant she’d find herself “leading” a male co-worker. And yet, these folks would be the first to affirm that “father is head of the home” and that the office of pastor is restricted to men. (These folks would also tend to be congregational in church polity so women—as members of the congregation—enjoy a form of representation that those in more hierarchical settings would not.)

I am a conservative, but I often find it difficult to identify with complementarianism. Not because I reject gender differences, but because I reject the incomplete definitions of work, home, and economics that are part of the cultural context in which complementarianism developed. Still, it does exists. And because Piper and Grudem were leaders in its development, there is a sense in which I do think they speak for it. But insofar as complementarianism exemplifies a specific cultural experience, I do not believe that they speak for all who hold a conservative reading of gender.

Acknowledging this leads to answering Bronwyn’s second question.

If one does have a general commitment to a difference in male/female roles in church, family and the world… how in the world do we start trying to figure out what that looks like in practice without sliding straight down that muddy slope?

We start in context of our immediate relationships. We start at home. We start with our nearest neighbors. We start in our local churches. We start in our cultural context.

How my husband and I honor the gender differences between us, living here in Appalachia, will not be the same as how a couple in East Africa honors the differences between them. How my local church honors the differences between men and women will not be the same as how a church from a different ecclesiology honors the differences between men and women.

Admittedly, this requires more ownership of the issue as well as more male-female collaboration to honor those differences well. A pastor far removed from my home and local church cannot make a list of how men and women must relate here in my community. But we must wrestle with it. Pastors and leaders here must process it along with a whole host of other questions about human flourishing. And when we do, I believe we will honor these differences in terms of our relationships: my husband and my wife; my elder and my congregant; my brother and my sister.

And when we do this–when we live in community with each other–I believe much of the “grey” quickly comes into focus.

Lists of Things That Women Cannot Do: The Problem With John Piper (and Me)

file4171276032990John Piper made a bit of a splash with his podcast of last week: Should Women Be Police Officers? A female listener called in, saying she “is a woman who enjoys being a woman… and feels no desire to compete to be better than men at being masculine,” but felt she was “called to police work”. Was this wrong, she wanted to know?

Piper begins his response with a caveat:

“My sense is that it is unwise to make a list of women’s jobs and men’s jobs. There is simply too much diversity and too much flexibility in how many jobs there are and how the jobs are done and what the very relationships with men or women are in all the various jobs. It just won’t work to try to make a list like that.”

But then, as Benjamin Corey insightfully points out, he goes on to do just that. Using “biblical principles”, Piper elaborates on two general principles regarding masculinity and femininity, that being that women should, in general, not hold positions that are both personal and directive in their leadership over men. So, for example, a female traffic engineer may have a very directive job, in that she is telling (male) drivers where they may drive, but her leadership is not personally aimed at them. This may be contrasted with a female drill sergeant, whose leadership over men is clearly both directive and personal, and would “violate her sense of womanhood and their sense of manhood” in the discharge of her duties.

Like Aimee Byrd, I am grappling with this podcast. I, too, was deeply influenced by Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood when I read it fifteen years ago – but as time goes by I’m finding a deep discomfort with where the lines are being drawn, and I am more than a little irritated by the persistent theme that theirs is the line held by those who “deeply want to shape their whole lives by scripture” (the closing paragraph of the podcast). As if, by questioning his lines in the sand, this reveals something less than a deep desire on my part to seek and obey the Scriptures.

I remain a “soft” complementarian in that I am persuaded that the Scripture does address men and female distinctly and differently their relationships with one another and in the world. I admit that there are cultural filters to the context and worldview at the time we must consider (after all, we are not advocating for slavery according to the household codes of the NT letters), and that we are somewhere on the continuum of a redeemed view of humanity, with particular application to our expressions of sexuality. Whatever happened before, and in, and after the garden of Eden affected relationships between men, women, and God – and we have hard theological work to do to figure out where in that journey we are.

My own persuasion is that the Scripture still addresses me, as a woman, differently as it does to men. But what I don’t know, and what Piper’s list of what women should do in the workplace (and Grudem’s list on what women should do in the church) reveal to me is a deep problem in applying these convictions. The Danvers Statement states that “some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men,” a fact which Grudem insists “draws a definite line.” My question is: is the line really so definite?

In my experience, it really is fuzzy.

In Piper’s example of a woman (acceptably) working as a traffic engineer, she may not be personally directing all those male drivers and thus violating their sense of masculinity (!!!), but in the real workplace, she would be presenting her plans to a state level department of transport. There would be committee meetings and managers, presumably a high number of whom would be male. And then there are the construction crews who will build those roads and put the signs where she demarcated they should go. In a day to day way: her job would involve some significant personal direction with male co-workers and subordinates. Like I said: fuzzy.

In my own marriage, my husband and I are persuaded by the servant leader/capable helper model, but I will own that in practice – it looks a lot like the healthy egalitarian marriages I see around me, because in truth: respect and other-person-centered love, which Scripture calls us to, lands up looking very similar in practice. In my nearly 12 years of marriage, I can’t think of a single example of a “when the rubber hits the road, final decision” where my husband needed to wield his manly decision-making authority over me. It really has always been more considerate than that. Fuzzy.

And what of teaching? So, I can’t teach the scriptures to men, but if I publish a talk on my blog, can men read it? Should they? I can teach children and women, but not men… but at what stage do boys become men? Can I teach a high school group? What about college? What if there’s a male pastor who says I am teaching “under his authority”? Is there a difference between my sharing my testimony in a Sunday school class, or sharing it in the main Sunday service? Can I teach church history (which surely should be instructive), but not the book of 1 Samuel (which is both historical and instructive)? Fuzzy.

My confession is this: Pastor John’s podcast shines a light on something of the slippery slope of trying to apply principles. I find myself wanting to put significant distance between my own views and his, but I have a hard time knowing how, or where, to draw those (broad, smudged) lines.

The questions I’d like to raise at our SaltShaker table are twofold:

  1. To what extent do Piper and Grudem (and the big names at CMBW) speak for all complementarians? How big, and how grey, is our grey area?
  2. If one does have a general commitment to a difference in male/female roles in church, family and the world… how in the world do we start trying to figure out what that looks like in practice without sliding straight down that muddy slope?

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sophia?

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Jem. Some quick remarks in response, followed by some reflections on Sophiology:

  1. The sort of figure that Wisdom represents is a matter of considerable debate. Is Wisdom an actual entity or a sort of personification (prosopopoeia)? This could be compared to the question of the ontological status of the woman of Revelation 12. If it is an actual entity, is it personal or quasi-personal? Is it a divine entity or being? Is it a hypostatization of an attribute of God? Is it one of the persons of the Trinity? If it is a personification, what reality justifies the personification? I think that it is important that we take these questions seriously, rather than short-circuiting such study to a straightforward identification of Wisdom with the Second Person of the Trinity.
  1. The identification of the figure of Wisdom with the Second Person of the Trinity is a widespread position, well within the boundaries of orthodoxy, albeit definitely not a complete consensus (Irenaeus, for instance, identifies Wisdom with the Spirit—Against Heresies, 4.20.3). However, such identification does not legitimize the interchangeability of pronouns or conflation of representations (Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s Sophia-christology runs into problems here, I think), not without considerable further argumentation. One could argue, for instance, that the Apostle Paul is the mother labouring in birth in Galatians 4:19 or the nursing mother in 1 Thessalonians 1:7. Even if one could imagine extensive speech-in-character (prosopopoeia) of such a figure, it wouldn’t be appropriate to start using masculine and feminine pronouns interchangeably of Paul as a result.
  1. Imagery has its own logic and grammar, perhaps gendered imagery especially. Scripture personifies Israel in various ways: as a son, as a bride/daughter, as a mother, as an animal, etc. It can be tempting for modern readers to believe that this justifies an à la carte approach to biblical imagery. However, each element of imagery is part of a broader picture and each family of imagery meshes together in a larger symbolic network: you can’t appropriate imagery piecemeal or abstract them from the larger network without tearing the larger fabric. Once again, a crucial aspect of this is that male and female consistently stand for different things, because men and women are fundamentally different in their symbolic potential in Scripture: gendering isn’t a matter of indifference.
  1. The image of Wisdom (Sophia) in Proverbs and elsewhere needs to be understood in terms of the broader picture within she occurs. The entire book of Proverbs is about the relationship between the royal son and wisdom, framed in terms of the quest for a good wife. The book juxtaposes the way of folly, of the foolish woman who leads to destruction, with Lady Wisdom and the noble wife, who should be desired and sought. The book ends with the portrait of the noble wife, Lady Wisdom as royal consort. The prince’s relationship with Wisdom is presented as erotic in character, comparable to the relationship between a man and wife (a theme even more pronounced in Wisdom 8:2ff.). The work of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is framed by the creational initiative of YHWH, the transcendent God, who is presented as grammatically masculine.

So, what is to be done with Sophia? Wisdom appears to be a sort of mediating figure, an immanent principle of divine operation or divine Person, present and active within the creation. Wisdom is that by which God created and that through which humanity seeks God. Wisdom is represented as a woman to be sought by the royal son. Wisdom is presented as the immanent agent of God’s great works and presence (e.g. Wisdom 1011). Themes associated with Wisdom are explored in 1 Corinthians, for instance, where Paul possibly alludes to such things as Wisdom of Solomon’s account of Wisdom’s role in the Exodus and speaks of Christ in terms of the wisdom (Wisdom?) of God (1:24, 30).

Although identifying Christ as/with Wisdom is attractive, I believe it is mistaken. I believe Wisdom is far more appropriately associated with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Isaiah 11:2; Acts 6:3, 10; 1 Corinthians 2; Wisdom 1:6; 7:7, 22; 9:17), not least on account of the way that they are described. Of course, Christ is anointed with the Spirit without measure, and the Holy Spirit is his Spirit, so a close relationship between Christ and Wisdom is to be expected. Christ is the royal Son who receives Wisdom. In the feminine figure of the Church, formed in union with the Son by the Spirit/Wisdom, I suspect that we see a fuller flowering of the nuptial themes of the wisdom literature. In the union between Christ and his bride in the Holy Spirit, the book of Proverbs arrives at a greater fulfilment.

Approached carefully within such a broader biblical framework, I believe that there is plenty of latitude for and much to be gained from exploring the imagery of Wisdom, not least its gendered dimensions.

“…we understand her to be the Word of God…”

A splendid variety of ideas so far – I’d like to pick up and ponder a couple of questions which Hannah provided.  Not to answer them, but simply to develop a couple of themes.  I’ll also be carrying on the Patristic note which April brought into our discussion.

Hannah noted the tradition of referring to the Spirit in feminine language, and speculated upon how using gendered terms for persons of the Trinity might connect with instinctive feelings about power.  If I’m reading her right, she implies that for some people using “she” for the Spirit will might inclusive and reflect the diversity in unity within the Trinity.  And, if I’m still understanding her, she implies that for others it might lead to subordinationist assumptions, given two historical accidents: the less developed theology of the Spirit in many Christian traditions, and the socially-conditioned view of women as inferior or secondary which is such a constant presence in our patriarchal societies.

I think she’s absolutely right in both cases, and I’d like to draw out a point which lies behind her suggestions: the contingency of speech and its dependence upon context and developing traditions.  As Hannah points out, “she” will have vastly different implications for different people, and its meanings will vary across time and cultures as well as across individuals.  Given the amount of time we spend scrutinising the context of past speech and writing, I wonder if it’s worth asking what context we’re imagining we speak in.  Would it be reasonable to speak of God differently in theological speculation than in communal worship?  In Biblical commentary and in personal prayer?  Might it be appropriate to be more kataphatic at some moments and apophatic at others?  There are many forms of speech – description, address, proclamation, performance, citation – which it might be helpful to consider as needing varying words.

It’s also possible to extend Hannah’s remarks by a reference to Origen, whom I was reading recently as part of my not very extensive pottering around the writings of the Fathers.  In De Principiis, Origen goes beyond referring to the third person of the Trinity with female pronouns, and cheerfully uses them of Christ.  the line I quoted for the title of this post comes from Of Christ, in the passage where Origen is concerned to identify the Word of God with divine Wisdom (and to insists on Wisdom’s hypostatic existence on the way.)  In identifying the two, he includes lines such as “we understand her to be the Word of God” and “on this account she is called the Word”.  I wonder how this connects with the issues of speech and context I sketched in the previous paragraph: does it seem controversial to put the pronoun “she” next to the second person of the Trinity?  If so, does that reflect a difference in situation, or a lack of thinking through our theological and Biblical commitments?

And I can’t quote that bit of Origen without remembering the heroine of Catherine Fox’s novel The Benefits of Passion, who finds herself frustrated by the way her tutor adds “or woman, of course, or woman” to the end of sentences to sound scrupulously inclusive, and expects one day to hear him declare “He was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary, and was made man…or woman, of course.  Or woman.”

Gendering God

I’ve appreciated reading everyone’s thoughts on this subject. At risk of moving our conversation a little off its original course, the following are a few reflections on Hannah Malcolm’s remarks on ‘(re)gendering’ the Trinity, specifically addressing the issue of how gendered language is used in relation to God.

  1. There is a widespread assumption that sex and gender are accidental features of biblical names and imagery: ‘Father’ could be replaced by ‘Parent’ or switched for ‘Mother’ without loss or change of meaning. However, fathers and mothers have different forms of relationship to their children, irrespective of their personalities or traits. These different forms of relation arise from their sexual differences, but aren’t reducible to them. A mother bears her child in and feeds the child from her own body; there is a material bodily continuity between her and her offspring that characterizes their personal relation. A father, by contrast, does not have the same direct material connection to his offspring. He fathers children by an act of love by which they are conceived and gestated outside of his being. He is materially ‘other’ from his offspring and stands over against them in a way that a mother does not. Switching masculine pronouns and male imagery for feminine pronouns and female imagery can have unhelpful implications for our understanding of the Creator-creature distinction and relation. It is not accidental that biblical and cultural images for sovereignty and transcendence are overwhelmingly masculine. This most definitely doesn’t mean that feminine images shouldn’t be explored or developed (quite the opposite, in fact: carefully deployed feminine images and themes highlight that, despite the priority of transcendence, God’s relationship to his creation is also characterized by immanence of presence). Rather, it means that they must be governed by the logic of revelation and deployed with care and precision. We can’t merely project a God in our chosen image or use feminine and masculine imagery interchangeably.
  1. God’s particular personal identity—revealed in the Tetragrammaton (his personal proper name, YHWH)—is consistently referred to in grammatically masculine ways in Scripture (God isn’t a man or a male). This consistency of usage reflects the fact that God’s self-designation is not just another human metaphor or title for God, but functions as a self-revealed personal proper name. It doesn’t compare God to any human entity, but simply refers to him. The consistent use of masculine pronouns corresponds to the fixity in reference of a personal proper name in contrast to a cloud of metaphors. The consistent use of masculine pronouns relates, I believe, to the biblical precedent for such consistent usage and to the fact that such masculine personal pronouns are the most apt to express the transcendence of the One to whom we refer. It also has to do a resistance to relativizing God’s self-revelation as ‘Father, Son, and Spirit’ in Jesus Christ. We share in the Sonship of Christ in relation to his Father.
  1. Introducing feminine personal pronouns for the Spirit creates a discontinuity within the Trinity, risking pushing us in the direction of conceiving of God in terms of three distinct centres of self-consciousness. The likely use of masculine pronouns for the Spirit in places such as John 16:13 maintains the use of the same pronoun to refer to the one Triune God.
  1. With such caveats in place, however, it is important that we recognize that, within, the linguistic discipline established by the Tetragrammaton and the revelation of Father, Son, and Spirit in the gospel, there is considerable room for the exploration of feminine imagery and themes within the pneumatological form of naming identified by R. Kendall Soulen. While God is identified using masculine pronouns, any identification of God as male is constantly unsettled by biblical revelation, which frequently yet subtly brings feminine imagery into play. This makes clear that, although God can analogically and truly reveal himself in the language and reality of gender, God is beyond gender.
  1. Here it is appropriate to recognize the intense association of the Spirit with the feminine, as this is part of divine revelation. The Spirit and the Bride are associated in several ways (e.g. Revelation 22:17). Both descend from heaven to Christ. The Spirit’s association with love and the dove is also significant here. The Spirit forms communion, fills, gives life, the future, (re)generation, glory, groans within us with the birth pangs of new creation, is associated with conception in the womb of Mary, etc. all things that are associated with women in Scripture. The Spirit is the Spirit of Wisdom (personified as feminine in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere in Scripture), God’s Glory, and God’s immanent presence within his creation. Women represent dimensions of God’s divine activity (especially that of days 4-6) in ways that men cannot.

As such language functions in Scripture and most of the tradition, men and women are not interchangeable, but are different ‘genres’ of human persons, who symbolize and relate in manners peculiar to their gender. Many modern attempts to advance feminine language and imagery for God want to recover biblical and traditional examples of such language while rejecting the more established structural understanding of gender that informed them. Gendered language in such contexts is informed, I believe, not by a notion of gender as ‘hierarchy’, but by a notion of gender as mutually constitutive difference in relation and of such difference as symbolically meaningful.

The benefit of such an understanding is found, I believe, in: 1) its refusal to map human gender onto God, while appreciating the revelatory potential of gendered language in a theological context in an analogical manner; 2) its close attention to the biblical witness and to its ‘grammar’ of gendered language; 3) its refusal to reduce gender difference to indifference and interchangeability or to frame it in terms of hierarchy, privileging man over woman or vice versa. Rather, significance is given to the difference in relation itself, both men and women being valued for their peculiar symbolic and relational potential, a potential created by God and apt for expressing and reflecting his creative rule in the world.

(Re)gendering the Trinity

Thank you to all of the comments below – all very helpful, and I’m not sure I have a great deal to add directly!

However – reflecting on the recent discussion in the media over masculine and feminine terms for God, I have found it interesting to reflect on the fact that certain church traditions have, at various points, referred to the Holy Spirit in the feminine. At risk of entering into counter-factual theology, if such a tradition were a mainstream practice (and if indeed it becomes more mainstream in the future) does this impact one’s view of the relations of the Trinity? Is it then more instinctive to have a ‘subordinationist’ view of the Trinity – that, somehow, calling God the Holy Spirit ‘she’ is less controversial not only because the Holy Spirit doesn’t have another gendered name, but because this still appears to uphold a kind of hierarchy? And how much might it affect our view of intra-trinitarian relationships if they are not all addressed with male pronouns? Basically – and more broadly – how might regendering the Trinity impact Trinitarian theology, or our perceptions of Trinitarian relationships? Would it be damaging? Would it be helpful for some people? Obviously, this is a very broad question, and far more speculative than anything else. But I’m curious to hear reactions to it.

It’s Getting a Little Athanasian up in Here

Oh dear, Graham! I’m afraid everything I post in response to Alastair’s intriguing initial conversation starter will have, “That’s modalism, Patrick!” ringing in the background.

Alastair, thank you for kicking off this conversation, and thank you Bronwyn and Graham for your excellent responses and questions.

If I may, I’d like to ask a different question, one that I think all of our other questions are attempting to answer: Is the Trinity a helpful analogy for how men and women ought to relate to each other?

Genesis 1:27 says this: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NRSV).  But what does that mean for human relationships? More specifically, what does it mean for marriages?

I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out there and say that it’s dangerous for us to speculate too much about the inner life of the Trinity, especially if we are doing so in an attempt to understand what godly human relationships ought to look like. Creeds have been written, people deemed heretics, churches split, battles (verbal or otherwise) waged over the exact nature of the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the Trinity. And frankly, most of it is speculation.

The Gospel of John goes to great lengths to assert the divinity of Christ. John 1 talks about the pre-existence of the Son, that he was not created, and that he was present at creation. And while, 1 Corinthians 11:3 seems to suggest the subordination of Jesus, when read in the context of the rest of Scripture (the Gospel of John, Philippians 2:6-11, and more), the subordination of Jesus within the Trinity is decidedly less clear.

It’s interesting to me that this idea of subordinationism is still hanging on as the majority of the Athanasian Creed was written to refute it.  Truly there is nothing new under the sun. Here’s just a portion of that creed:

The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten; the Son was neither made nor created, but was alone begotten of the Father; the Spirit was neither made nor created, but is proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Thus there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three spirits.

And in this Trinity, no one is before or after, greater or less than the other; but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal; and so we must worship the Trinity in unity and the one God in three persons.

Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.

Well, all righty then.

Whenever we think about the inner nature of the Trinity, I think we have to do so with great humility, and with our sandals off. Indeed, this is holy ground, and we can never fully conceptualize God as God truly is. Because of this, I think we need to be very careful with social trinitarianism. Our human relationships should honor God. They should reflect the fruits of the spirit, which also means in some way they should reflect God. But, they cannot perfectly reflect the Trinity, nor should we insist that they do.

What can we learn from the Trinity that can be applied to our human relationships? Things like humility, sacrificial love, self-giving, and grace. In my own marriage, we strive for mutuality and mutual submission, but rather than claim that we live this way because the trinity is mutually submissive, we live this way because we believe all Christians are called to submit out of love.

Rather than social trinitarianism, it is the example of Christ’s radical self-giving and the call for all Christians to do likewise that compels us.

C’Mon Patrick

Thrilled that Alastair kicked off this discussion of Trinity and gender. I have many thoughts, so I’m glad he framed this in specific questions. I won’t even attempt to answer all 7. But before I jump into several, I think it’s important to recognize that no matter how we understand the Trinity, as the great Irish philosophical duo has told us, any and all attempts to produce an analogy or metaphor for the Trinity ultimately leads into some very problematic thinking. So, on to Alastair’s questions:

1. Should we abandon social Trinitarianism, despite the prominent role that it has played in both complementarian and egalitarian theologies?

No. Even though, as our Irish friends have pointed out, analogies will come up short, and possibly lead us into some newly articulated form of an old heresy, I think social Trinitarianism, if we understand it’s limitations, can actually be helpful. It may get us frightfully close to tritheism, but I think understanding the relational connections between the three persons of the one God can actually bring an element of truth to the table. How this plays out in discussions of gender is something still being fleshed out by theologians. But my own take, is that it isn’t useful equally for both sides of the debate. It certainly provides an image far more in line with an egalitarian view of gender.

Several of Alastair’s questions are interrelated, so I’ll group together these: 2. Can our doctrine of the Trinity illuminate and inform our accounts of society or gender relations? // 4. How should we handle verses such as 1 Corinthians 11:3? // 5. How do we relate the earthly obedience of Christ to his Father’s command to the life of the Trinity? //6. Can a doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son be theologically justified or squared with the orthodox tradition of Trinitarian theology?

In response to the first of those; Paul seemed to think so. The fact the 1 Cor. 11:3 draws a very obvious connection between the relationship of man to woman and the Father to the Son, means that in Paul’s thinking there is (or perhaps that there ought to be) in some sense a reflection of one in the other. But what is that connection? Is “head” (kephale) meant to suggest the male’s position of authority over the woman? Or, as many egalitarians have pointed out, kephale (and its Hebrew rough equivalent rosh) can refer to “origin” or “source” (e.g. the “head” of a river). I would tend towards the latter, since I am not at all comfortable with the subordination of the son (at least not in any ontological sense, but the notion of kenosis which Paul uses to depict Christ’s work, and the attitude his people ought to imitate, is applied to all Christian relationships [see Gal. 5:13-14, Phil. 2:3-8, Eph. 5:21] not just of the wife to the husband [e.g. Eph. 5:22]). The Son, in the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection, is doing the will of the Father (e.g. John 5:30, 6:38-39, Gal. 1:4), but does this mean the Son is subordinate? I would argue no, this makes the Son kenotic not subordinate. Since Christ was in very nature God, there is no ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. Perhaps we can distinguish a functional subordination, but even that is something I’m not entirely comfortable with. But I would certainly not accept the eternal subordination of the Son, since I find this subordinationism pushing its toes right up to (but not quite over) the line with bitheism and/or some form of Arianism.

So, when Paul says “Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:3 NRSV) he is alluding not to subordination, but to the sequence of the creation narrative. All things, including man, are created through Christ, and woman is from Adam (but unlike many complementarians, I would categorically reject any sense of headship of man over woman in Gen. 1-2; this subordination is something resulting from the fall [Gen. 3:16], which I’m sure Alastair will lambaste me for saying 😉 ). The ensuing conversation in 1 Cor. 11 dealing with head coverings is fascinating, complex, and of course hotly debated. But since Paul authorizes women to prophesy with heads covered (v. 5), I am inclined to read this passage as supporting women’s full participation as women. NT Wright has argued, rightly in my own mind, for seeing Paul affirming differentiation without subordination in this passage. Paul, unlike the Gnostics of the early 2nd century, affirms the equal dignity of male and female, and does not support a strange call for women to become like men, and blur genders (as in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas), but that men and women remained gendered as such, but the Holy Spirit- and not gender- defines the participation in the Church (it is worthy of note, and needing further exploration I think, the mixing of relationships within the marriage in verse 3, and the roles of women in the Church in verse 5).

So, the relationship of man and wife reflects the Father-Son relationship not in terms of authority and subordination, but in terms of different but equally sharing in the image of God, and as I noted above, equally called to kenotic ways of living, which reflect the kenotic life of Christ (e.g. Phil. 2:5-8, Eph. 5:1-2).

What Does The Trinity Teach Us (If Anything) About Gender Relationships?

Alastair has raised a number of questions about the use of trinitarian theology in discussions regarding gender. In a longer post, he laid out some critiques offered by leading trinitarian theologians about social trinitarianism, arguments that rely on the “use of the inner life of the Trinity as a basis for its social vision.”

Reading these posts left me spinning. Even though I have a theology degree and have read more than the average number of articles on men and women relating “biblically” to each other, this was a perspective I have never heard before, and yet on reading the critique I realized that YES! I have been confused by the fact that both complementation and egalitarian theologies rely on arguments positing a certain view of the way the Father, Son and the Spirit relate to each other to support their views (Complementarians: “just as the son submits to the Father, so women should submit to men! Together, men and women reflect the beauty of the Godhead!”… Egalitarians: “Just as the Father, Son and Spirit relate in mutual, affirming, mutually submissive ways, so too we are imago dei and there is no one-upmanship between men and women.”) The shifting and varying theological arguments here do suggest to me that rationalization, rather than honest and principled theological reasoning, is taking place.

I, for one, am in favor of taking a distinct step back from social Trinitarianism. The danger that we will project our social and hermeneutical biases onto Scripture is ever-present, and greatly heightened when the doctrine in question is the unknowable God himself.

However, I am not sure then what to make of the statements as in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “but I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”, particularly as it relates to the meaning of “head” and “submission”. These are relationship-words which Scripture itself uses to describe aspects of the Father/Son’s relationship, men and women’s relationship, and the relationship between us and God. Clearly, we are to learn something from the patterning of relationships, but it seems that we are in grave danger of error when trying to pin down exactly what it is we’re learning.

I do not understand “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 to refer to ontological ordering (head doesn’t mean “source”, after all), but if it does refer to some functional way of relating, I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to apply it. I had understood “head” to mean “authority”, and the verb “submit” to mean “appoint yourself under the authority of…”, recognizing that Jesus himself submitted to authority (the Fathers’, the rulers of his day etc), and that even the demons themselves submit (recognizing authority) in certain situations is significant because it signals to me that, whatever we say about mutuality in God’s economy, that we are not always at the same levels as others, and may need to accord proper respect and deference as is appropriate to that situation. Jesus is the King of Kings, but there was a time when he bowed to kings.

Even if I am persuaded (and I think I am) that there is no “eternal subordination of the son to the Father”, the scripture still speaks of Jesus’ submission, and in some way calls us to model that submission in appropriate relationships. As such: the questions of what that means for me as a woman relating to my husband specifically, the men in my church, and men in general still remain. It would be, however, something of a relief to not have the Trinity being used as a theological club to make points in that conversation.