Of Gods and Godheads


In discussing Mutuality and Patriarchy over on Rachel Held Evans’ blog, I’ve been doing a lot of close reading and thinking this week about patriarchal structures. The Gospel Coalition and Dennis Burk were glad to help me out this week, each with an article that came straight out and stated: Yes, complementarianism  is patriarchy. And both of those arguments went a step further to claim something I’d never heard in this debate before: that the patriarchy is modeled on the Trinitarian structure of the Godhead himself. The Gospel Coalition, in the midst of their poorly structured and ultimately straw-manning piece “Debatable: Is Complementarianism Another Word for Patriarchy?”, had this fascinating sentence that should draw the eye of anyone who has spent time studying the Trinity – which frankly should be every member of the Church. It reads:

Evans claims that complementarianism is patriarchy, and here she stumbles upon the truth. She doesn't appear to recognize, however, that the patriarchy of marriage models the patriarchy of the Godhead. In contrast, the "functional egalitarianism" that Evans prefers models our culture's obsession with autonomy and disdain for authority. It is an ideology particularly suited to fulfill the masculine desire---first exhibited by Adam---to shirk our responsibility as servant-leaders and transfer our God-mandated role to our wives. (emphasis mine)

It’s a simple claim that's easy to glance over, but it contains a big wallop. I know that they meant to imply that Evans wants to upset the structure of the church and the Godhead – therefore committing heresy on her part – but the assumptions upon which this claim functions are, in themselves, heretical.

I’m confident in the intelligence of my readers, so don’t be scared: I’m going to get a little academic on your asses right now.

First, in order to understand what GC is telling us, we have to decide one of two things about this sentence – are they referring, when they say “the patriarchy of the Godhead,” to the idea that God – in the form of the Trinity – rules over all creation? Or are they saying that the Trinity/Godhead itself contains a patriarchal structure?

If it is the first, why, then, do we need the gendered language of “patriarchy”? Wouldn’t “hierarchy” be a more apt term, especially as the Godhead is three persons, two of which are not gendered, functioning equally?

And in the second, what does that imply about the supposedly egalitarian functions of the three person that compose the Trinity of the Godhead?

Let me back up a tidge and discuss a little of Trinitarian theology. You’ll find more information on my understanding of Trinitarian theology in the first chapter of my thesis, which can be found in PDF form here. For space, though, I’ll have to give you a very brief overview.

The Trinity is composed of three persons – The Holy Spirit, God “the Father,” and Jesus the Son.*

God the Father is the first member of the Trinity (though not created – do not make that mistake).

John 1 tells us that “In the beginning was God, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.” This Word – Logos – is Jesus, a second member of the Trinity. Though Jesus did not appear on earth as a corporeal being until years after creation, John 1 tells us that he is always with God and always a part of the Godhead.

And the last member of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit, which makes its appearance amongst the believers at Pentecost, but appears throughout the Old Testament as well.

So now we have the Trinity. It’s a mystery, and it’s hard to grasp, so forgive me if I elide or skip over some of the messier parts. But what is generally accepted in orthodox theology is this (as found in the Nicene Creed of 381):

  1. The Trinity consists of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  2. The members of the Trinity are coequal and of the same substance though they are also three distinct persons.
  3. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, but is not made by him. This same goes for the Son. This procession does not imply hierarchy or even created order (the member of the Trinity did not create one another).
  4. Each of these members function in coequal community, sharing one will and one purpose.

So where does this leave us with the complementarian argument that patriarchal male leadership – in marriages and in pulpits – stems from the Trinity?

Well, it certainly pulls us away from orthodoxy. Let’s circle back around to those initial questions about the GC’s statement, eh?

First, does this claim mean that marriage is formed after the relationship between the Trinity and the human church (or humanity in general)?

Fundamentally: No. In order to argue that specifically patriarchal structure on earth is modeled after God’s specifically patriarchal relationship to man, one would have to argue that the Godhead, in of itself, is male. This is a hard argument to make from Scripture because it would require maleness to be an element intrinsic to the Godhead, which is simply not a winnable argument. God the Father is referred to in both masculine and feminine terms. The Holy Spirit is referred to in almost completely feminine ways. Jesus is the only truly gendered member of the Trinity, and it is unclear whether that gendering was a part of his full humanity in the Incarnation, or intrinsic to his being as a member of the Trinity (I would argue much more for the former).

It is far more likely that the GC was making the argument that the patriarchy exists within the Godhead itself – in that the relationship of the Trinitarian members to each other is, in itself, a male-based hierarchy.

This is where things get dicey.

To put it bluntly, stating that hierarchy exists within the Trinity is to commit the heresy of Arianism. Arianism proposes that the Jesus, the Son of God, is created by and functions as a secondary subject to God the Father. Rather than being equal to God, Jesus is submissive and ruled by God. Jesus is, rather than a fully-functioning member of the Trinity in himself, a secondary, created creature. This runs into the problem of basically making Jesus a second, lower demi-god, rather than a fully functioning, fully integrated member of the one Trinity (in opposition to an orthodox monotheistic understanding of the Trinity).

But what of Jesus “submitting” to God in the garden on the night before his crucifixion?

This is far from simple, but my answer is to remember that Jesus, being God incarnate, is fully God and fully man (another mystery). I would posit that the scene of submission we see in the garden was evidence of his full humanity, rather that evidence of a patriarchal structure within the Godhead.

To say that patriarchal complementarian theology is modeled on the Godhead is to slant and twist an orthodox understanding of the Godhead itself. It is to place members of the Godhead into a hierarchy, when orthodox theological tradition dictates that this is not and cannot be the case.

(This, of course, says nothing about the idea that, if the Godhead is patriarchal, then we are once again gendering a genderless being, and leaving the Holy Spirit high and dry.)

This, I find, is the scariest implication of complementarian theology. Not only does it affect and change individual relationships between men and women here on earth, but it also changes our view of the Godhead itself. It leaves little room for the Holy Spirit, forces a sinful hierarchy onto the relationship between Father and Son (words that are more semantic devices than prescriptive elements), and makes God something that is unorthodox and unbiblical.

Instead, I’d like to propose an alternate understanding of the Church as it reflects the Trinitarian nature of God. This understanding is a spin off from the Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz, who some of you may recognize. It is also an position about which I go into greater detail in my aforementioned thesis chapter.

Here it is: The Trinity is the ultimate understanding of community, and to be the imago dei (the image of God) means to be in community – real, true, giving community – with each other.

Back when I was a young whippersnapper of a theology major in college (and far, far more conservative than I am now), the Trinity was explained to me thus: God the Father and Jesus the Son are engaged in a fully perfect, fully divine, fully loving relationship, and the Holy Spirit is the love, the bond, between the two.

It’s an imperfect analogy (as every Trinitarian analogy is), but it is that structure of community, that idea of the image of God that I have carried with me through my adult life. It is a perfectly equal, perfectly loving relationship that is the image of God, and we are that image of God most perfectly when we are engaged in the act of loving our neighbor. This image doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship, though romantic relationships can themselves take on an image of God. But it is also the man who takes in a hurting neighbor. It is also the friend who prays for you every day. It is also a dinner - a communion - with friends.

The image of God is reflected most clearly when we come together in community, not when we engage in a patriarchal marriage relationship. The image of God that we get from orthodox understanding of the Godhead is fundamentally egalitarian; it is fundamentally based in the love of equal partners, not in one part taking leadership over the other. All lead, and all are saved. Together.


*I put the label for God the Father in quotes as this gendered language – though common Christian tradition – is debatable. While the God of “in the beginning, God,” is frequently referred to as God the Father, he is also referred to in gendered female terms as well. There is an entire academic debate [PDF] surrounding the concept of “God the Father” as a gendered being, but for the sake of this argument, I’m going to simply say that God, as an incorporeal (except in the form of the Incarnation) being, is genderless. Thus the quotes. For simplicity’s sake, "God the Father" and "he" will do for shorthand for now.