Being so close in age, my younger sister and I developed a helpful system of negotiating disputes, justice, and restitution in our growing up together. Generally our methods of reconciliation worked pretty well. But there were occasions when our communication failed to reconcile an injury or injustice, compelling us to appeal to the highest court—our parents. We made our appeal only rarely because we recognized that in soliciting our parents’ judgment, there would be no turning back. Our parents would provide the ultimate answer. In a similar way, Christians have taken their concerns about gender and authority to the highest court of appeals—to the Trinity. Those who see women as equal in being to men but unequal in authority search for parallels in heaven—where they believe God the Son is equal in being but unequal in authority to God the Father. While the analogy between relations in the Godhead mirroring those on earth is flawed as analogies go, the discussion itself exposes the differing worldviews held by “siblings” who differ on male authority as God’s ideal.
What is at the heart of these differing worldviews? It is nothing less than the nature of God the Son. To suggest that men and women are equal in being but unequal in authority just as God the Son is equal in essence or being (ousia in Greek) to God the Father, yet unequal in authority, is to resurrect an ancient heresy known as subordinationism—an inadequate and feeble view of Christ against which the Nicene Creed was aimed. What is more, Athanasius and the other crafters of the Nicene Creed were careful to make one issue precisely clear—that God the Son and God the Father share equally in power, glory, honor, and majesty, just as they also share one will, because they are one God. The theological emphasis and clarity of the Nicene Creed is repeated in later creeds because the historic church as a whole opposed any ranking of power or authority within the Godhead. Churches since the early centuries have rehearsed the Nicene Creed, testifying to its capacity to summarize the great themes or doctrines of Scripture, especially the character and significance of the Trinity. Through these creeds and through the theological writings of the church as a whole, theologians carefully guarded an orthodox view of the Trinity. For this reason, it should not surprise us that this recent mutation of the doctrine of the Trinity has inspired much debate and numerous publications, including the newest book—The Eternal Generation of the Son by the Trinitarian scholar Kevin Giles.
Despite the re-appearance of subordinationism in the Trinity, many pastors and leaders today fail to engage in the careful study of gender for fear of conflict and because they believe the gender issue is not a “primary” one. By that they mean that regardless of whatever your position on gender and authority, the issue itself is of a secondary order. That is, it does not disrupt the basic tenants of Christian faith, particularly those that reflect the work and person of Christ. But is this really the case?
To teach that Christian faith has a “masculine feel,” and that God is revealed primarily through males wreaks havoc on every doctrine in my systematic theology text, as our series on “Is God Male?” implies. This is never more the case than when insisting upon the eternal subordination of God the Son to God the Father—a perspective that itself brings enormous disarray to our doctrine of Christ. Why is this so? Because it is Jesus who most perfectly reveals the nature and being of God through his words, and especially his deeds—by healing the sick, raising the dead, forgiving sins, and more. Jesus accomplishes these miracles because he holds absolute authority as God the Son—sharing in the same authority as God the Father (Matt. 28:18, Eph.1:20-21, Col. 2:9-10). What is more, those who insist upon the eternal authority of God the Father now teach Christians to pray not to Jesus but to God the Father, who alone is said to hold supreme authority within the Godhead. Of course, the one and true Godhas only one will. To suggest that God the Son is lesser in authority, power, glory, and dominion is undeniably a primary issue that many claim is untouched by the gender debate. Clearly, the modern subordinationist distortion of the Trinity isdirectly linked to those who wish to deny women equal authority and leadership in church and family life. There are terrible ramifications in retaining a subordinationist view of the Trinity, not only in terms of the gospel and the doctrine of Christ, but also in terms of justice.
To say that men and women are equal in being but that males hold authority over women strips the term “equal” of its essential meaning. How can you be equal in being to someone and yet without equal authority? To do so renders the word “equal” meaningless. Yet, the “separate but equal” or “equal but different” argument was used in the Unites States to segregate schools, restaurants, restrooms, hotels, buses, and even churches according to skin color. Ultimately an appeal was made to the highest level—the Supreme Court—where it was determined that separate is never equal. The notion of “separate” or “other” too easily creates segregated social structures that areinherently unequal and unjust. Even so, Christians employ the same argument to keep women out of positions of authority in the church. To suggest that males and females are equal but different (in authority) and to deny females equal authority not because of their character, their intimacy with Christ, their giftedness, but solely because of gender—which is a fixed and unchangeable condition—is to create communities, organizations, churches, or marriages that areinherently unjust because they deny a people group shared authority based not because of their character but based on gender—an unchangeable condition like skin color.
For this reason, the apostle Paul suggests that a church organized in this way fails to function as God had intended—with mutuality, empathy, and justice. Paul said, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ and the head cannot say to the feet ‘I do not need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable…God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it…” (1 Cor. 12:21-26).
As when my sister and I appealed to the highest court in our lives—our parents—Christians today are appealing to the Trinity in order to discern whether an equality of being permits a permanent inequality of authority. If more than 1500 years of theological reflection offers insight to this question, the answer appears to be “No!” To exclude females as a class exercising leadership or authority in any sphere demeans their God-given equality of being, and is itself an injustice that opposes the teachings of Scripture.