Should We Keep the Trinity Out of the Gender Debate? image

Should We Keep the Trinity Out of the Gender Debate?

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Something I’ve heard a fair bit of recently, particularly amongst scholars who specialise in the Trinity, is that we should “keep the Trinity out of the gender debate”. The background, for those who aren’t sure why the Trinity would ever be in the gender debate, is that both complementarians and egalitarians have appealed to the relationships within the Trinity – specifically, that between the Father and the Son – to support their views of how husbands and wives function together in a marriage. Egalitarians say that the Father and the Son are equal in all respects, and therefore that husbands and wives should be too; complementarians say that there is a relationship of authority, headship and hierarchy between the Father and the Son, and therefore that there should be between husbands and wives too. The whole thing got quite heated a few years ago – unsurprisingly, since the centre of debate moves from “can women be bishops?” to “is God who we thought he was?” very quickly – and that has prompted a number of scholars, including Mike Bird, Fred Sanders and Steve Holmes, to wave the warning flag and tell everybody to calm down. Leave the Trinity out of it, they say; debate gender, if you must, on its own terms.

I get that. Making a debate about eldership a debate about the essence of God, especially in a rhetorically and emotionally charged context, does have the tendency to raise the stakes. But the question that has always gnawed at me is simply: doesn’t Paul do this? 1 Corinthians 11:3, which I posted on in a bit of detail last week, says, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Isn’t the point of that text that there is a connection, whatever we think it involves, between the God-Christ relationship, the Christ-man relationship, and the husband-wife relationship? If so, isn’t that “putting the Trinity in the gender debate”? If not, how on earth do people understand that particular text?

My biases here are pretty clear: I’m not a systematician, I am a wannabe New Testament scholar (although I’m not sure exactly what earns somebody that hallowed status), and I’m doing my PhD research in 1 Corinthians, so I’m bound to be the guy who doesn’t want the systematic-theological tail to wag the exegetical dog. Nevertheless, I have a genuine question here, and knowing that the theologians I just mentioned are sharp guys and good biblical interpreters, I decided to put it to them on Twitter. Here’s the way the discussion, edited for clarity, went (and I should mention that Denny Burk, who edits the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and therefore also has a stake in the conversation, enters the thread part way through):

Andrew Wilson: So I get the whole “keep the Trinity out of gender debates” thing. But what do we do with 1 Cor 11:3?

Steve Holmes: The reference is to ‘Christ’ so read it as Christology, not Trinity - parallel thought to e.g. John 14:28? But I don’t understand the logic of 1 Cor 11:2-16, so don’t really know what to do with individual verses.

Fred Sanders: The Patristic/Reformed mainstream reads it as forma servi, not the immanent Trinity. I need to handle this better soon. My hunch: moderns read it differently because of the shift to more social trinitarianism.

Steve Holmes: Yes, I think that’s right. We make the Father-Son relationship do the work Christology used (ought…) to do all the time.

Mike Bird: 1 Cor 11:3 only asserts that men & women should both respect their respective heads, just like Jesus Christ.

Andrew Wilson: Sure - but what it *means* for God to be the kephalē of Christ is the issue, right? Paul connects man/woman with God/Christ here.

Mike Bird: True, but he never says that Christ/God is the basis for Male/Female. No hint of ontology here.

Denny Burk: But there is analogy, and that’s the point.

Andrew Wilson: Yes. So my honest question is: isn’t Paul putting the economic Trinity in the gender debate?

Denny Burk: I think so (as I say here).

Mike Bird: I grant that Paul makes a genuine analogy, but I don’t think that this translates into an ontology.

Denny Burk: Who says that it does? That’s not really the point of contention between the two sides. Paul says that man’s headship over woman is analogous to God’s headship over Christ. That’s the issue.

Then, understandably but perhaps prematurely, the discussion stopped. I’m sure the point about social trinitarianism is correct, and I agree that the reference to “Christ” indicates we are talking about the economic Trinity (God-at-work) rather than the immanent Trinity (God-in-himself). I also agree with Mike’s idea that Paul is not speaking ontologically here. But nonetheless, I don’t feel there’s a satisfactory answer here to what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 11:3, if he isn’t connecting the (economic) Trinity and the relationships between husbands and wives. By the sounds of things, Denny doesn’t either.

There are plenty of people pushing back the other way, of course (and Mike Reeves’s brief section in The Good God is devotionally superb on this, as he focuses on the other-centred love which flows from God to Christ to man to woman). But from the side that says, “that which God has separated, let man not join together”, I’m not sure what I’ve missed. Any thoughts?

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