Christianity,  Theology/Bible

Why the Trinity must inform our views on gender roles

I am in hearty agreement with Fred Sanders’ critique of Larry Crabb’s new book on gender. The connections that Crabb makes between Trinitarian doctrine and gender roles seem to be entirely speculative and not founded in what the scriptures actually say. In short, Crabb’s paradigm is unmoored from the Bible, and Sanders has shown the flawed basis of Crabb’s thesis.

Having said that, there’s one detail in Sanders’ critique that I would take exception with. I’m reluctant to mention it because I’m a big fan of Sanders. He’s one of the bright lights of evangelical theology and has produced some remarkable work on the Trinity. If you haven’t read his 2010 book on The Trinity, you need to. He’s one of the good guys, and I’m glad he’s on the team making the case for classic Trinitarianism.

So what’s the disagreement? It’s these lines from Sanders’ critique:

I wish [Crabb] didn’t connect gender to the relationship between the Father and the Son. The main reason is that Scripture itself does not explicitly link gender to Trinity, or the masculine-feminine dynamic to the Father-Son dynamic.

Sanders not only rejects Crabb’s argument, but he also rejects as unbiblical any attempt at connecting Trinity to gender relations. This I think goes too far. Nevertheless, I seem to be hearing such statements a lot lately—not just from Sanders. I’m hearing it from both sides of the evangelical gender debate. On the complementarian side, Michael Bird/Robert Shillaker have warned that the analogy between gender and Trinity breaks down and is often pressed merely to advance a theological agenda. On the egalitarian side, John Stackhouse has argued that the analogy is “a bad theological move to attempt—by anyone, on any side of this issue.”

I understand the reasons why people are wary of theologizing about gender via the Trinity. First, such theologizing can quickly become speculative and disconnected from Scripture (as in Crabb’s book). Second, there is the danger of forcing the Trinity onto the procrustean bed of one’s views on the gender debate. In both cases, this central doctrine of the faith becomes the handmaiden of a second tier theological issue. I am completely sympathetic to that concern. The gender debate is so pitched that the tail can get to wagging the dog really quickly.

Nevertheless, such abuses should not diminish the fact that the analogy between gender roles and Trinity derives not from mere speculation, but from the Bible. The central text in this regard 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.

Egalitarians and complementarians still do not agree over the meaning of the word “head” in this verse. Does it mean “source” or “authority”? The debate over that question has been going on for decades, and there’s no sign that the controversy has abated. The reason that debate is so heated is because both sides recognize that the apostle is making an analogy between the Father’s headship relation to the Son and the man’s headship relation to the woman. The precise nature of that relation is disputed, but the presence of the analogy is not. Even if the analogy is limited to the Son’s submission during the incarnation, the analogy is still relevant.

I have no illusions that that this debate about gender and Trinity will be resolved anytime soon. Nevertheless, no one can get above the fray on this one. First Corinthians 11:3 explicitly links the “masculine-feminine dynamic to the Father-Son dynamic.” The apostle Paul himself invokes the analogy, and our challenge is to understand it and receive it. It’s a debate worth having precisely because the link between intratrinitarian relations and gender relations is transparently biblical.


  • Andrew Wilson

    Thanks Denny, I was wondering why 1 Cor 11:3 was missed out, too. One thing, though: as a statement of current scholarship, I don’t think it’s true that the debate is between source and authority (many would now suggest pre-eminence), nor that it has made no progress. My reading in the commentaries and journals (other than the explicitly egalitarian/complementarian ones) suggests there is a growing consensus in favour of pre-eminence, foremostness, etc.

  • Marg

    I do not think that our scant knowledge of the Trinity should inform our views on a gender hierarchy.

    In regards to 1 Cor.11:3 I agree with Gilbert Bilezikian that this verse is not about hierarchy but about chronology and source.

    He writes, “The sequence that links the three clauses is not hierarchy but chronology. At creation, Christ was the giver of life to men as the source of the life of Adam (“by him all things were created” Col. 1:16.) In turn, man gave life to the woman as she was taken from him. Then, God gave life to the Son as he came into the world for the incarnation.”
    From “I Believe in Male Headship”.

    While it is true that the first human being was the source of the first woman, Paul balances his statement in 1 Cor. 11:3 with, “For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (1 Cor. 11:12).

    The source of men and women is the Triune God, but does that mean that we should associate men with one member of the Trinity and women with another? And what about the third member of the Trinity. I think this is going too far.

    I do not believe that Paul is putting forward the members of the Trinity in 1 Cor. 11:3, or the relationships within the Trinity, as a model for marriage. But he does put forward the relationship between Christ and the Church as an illustration of the marriage relationship in Ephesians 5:21-33.

    I think we endanger Christology when we try and make the enigmatic Trinity fit in with our ideas of marriage, and vice versa. Moreover, I believe that the relationships within the Trinity are beyond knowing and beyond labels such as hierarchy, subordination, mutual submission, etc.

    • Chris Ryan

      Well said. I’m not so sure that Bilezikian’s theory is correct, but anytime we try to make broad theories from single scriptures we’re on thin ice. I don’t see how we can use this scripture to say anything substantive abt the Trinity and gender relations…And in light of more explicit scriptures in the Bible on the subject I don’t see why we would want to.

  • Don Johnson

    The teaching unit that 1 Cor 11:3 is in is 1 Cor 11:2-16, it is the whole teaching unit that counts, just extracting a verse can lead to many errors. And this teaching unit is not that clear. Many scholars point out that it forms a chiasm and the opposite paired text can help us understand the other text. For example, Ken Bailey points this out in his book on 1 Corinthians.

    Paul is making an argument about a custom having to do with one’s head and something coming down from it, this can be very confusing as today we do not have such customs with the meanings that they had back then.

    Another aspect that is not discussed much is that the man is restricted from doing something the women is allowed to choose to do, according to Paul, a man is not to the “head thing” whatever it is while a woman can do it or not.

    Another aspect that is not discussed much is that Paul remained a Jew after becoming a believer in Jesus, see Acts 21, for example. As a Jew and a Torah scholar, Paul would be well aware of the Nazirite vows where hair on a person was not cut during the vow, so hair might get very long. The point is that there is simply no way Paul would be against long hair on either a man or a woman, contrary to the way some verses in this passage get translated.

    So there are many challenges to understanding this passage. This first thing is to admit that they exist.

  • Brett Cody

    But since we are made in God’s image, would it not follow that our gender is a parable of sorts to the Triune Godhead? Could not the children that proceed from the marriage of a male and a female be comparable to the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son? Obviously, they are not comprehensive analogies, but certainly worth noting, wouldn’t you think? These are rhetorical questions.

    • hannah anderson (@sometimesalight)

      Yeah, this kind of fertility reading of Trinity has been consistently rejected by orthodox Christianity for centuries. And it is exhibit A of the danger of using Trinity to discuss gender.

      If you intended your statements to be ironic, please ignore the above comment. Seriously, though I couldn’t tell because this is exactly how people are tempted to extend the metaphor and some may not see anything at all wrong it. Which is precisely the problem in the first place.

          • Daryl Little

            Although, Hannah, it is true that there is a clear difference between saying that the Holy Spirit is a product of the Father, and saying that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father.
            Just as it is clearly different to say that the Son was born of the Father and saying that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father.

            • hannah anderson (@sometimesalight)

              I’m not certain I follow. As you stated, Christ’s sonship cannot be understood in terms of biological analogy. He is not “born” which is what makes the suggestion that the Holy Spirit’s proceeding from both F &S is akin to the birth of a child so disastrous. These are not mere semantics.

              • bravelassKamilla


                You are right to reject a fertility reading of proceeding, but I hope I am reading you incorrectly and that you are not thereby rejecting the Spirit’s procession from the Father (and Son, if we can leave aside the dispute between East and West about the Filioque!).

                Christians have affirmed, “And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.” Since the Niceness Creed of the 4th century.


  • Suzanne McCarthy

    If the eternally preexisting trinitarian Godhead were the model for gender, does it not suggest that there should be three genders. God created male and female, but how was this in imitation of his divine trinitarian person.

    And how can one being, three personae (let’s admit that the Latin word persona has little to do with the English word “person.”) in one being, be compared to two persons in two beings?

    In addition, we have the rewriting of Phil. 2, that Jesus does not grasp after an equality that he does not have. For all previous centuries it was thought that Jesus did not take advantage of the equality he actually had, that he did not think that equality with God was wrong, but that he actually had equality with God. (Its no wonder that we don’t read the King James version any more. We could not possibly derive today’s theology from that translation.) We have a new Bible, and a new theology for this era.

    And now, we find that Christ has equality with God, and he also does not have equality with God. This kind of theology is beyond the grasp of the ordinary Christian, and beyond the traditional creeds which pronounce that Christ is equal in power with God.

    “Power” was potestas in Latin and was the translation for exousia in Greek, that is “authority.” In the creeds, Christ was indeed equal in power AND authority to God, but those who sign these creeds don’t actually believe that Christ is equal in authority to God. How can this be?

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    This is the statement of ETS,

    “God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”

    This comes from ancient creeds written in Latin at the time of the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible. The word for “power” was potestas, and was a translation for exousia in Greek. If anyone signs this creed, or agrees with it, they confess that Christ is equal in authority to God, and female is equal in authority to male. That is the kind of theology that we need.

    • Brett Cody

      The kind of theology that affirms the power of humanity? I do not think the ETS statement necessarily goes where you claim it does.

      • Suzanne McCarthy

        I don’t mind if the statement is irrelevant to gender. I really want to know how people who agree with the ETS statement still manage to subordinate Christ. They hold that The Son is equal in power (authority) to God, and that he is not, at the same time. What do they really believe, and how can they honestly participate in the ETS conference if they are not believers in the statement?

        • Hermonta Godwin

          You seem to be equating power with authority. They are related concepts but are not the same concept.To deny equal power between the different persons would require one to deny full Godhood to the three persons of the Trinity. But differences in authority does not imply a difference in power. An analogous situation of such a point would be the relationship between a mother and her son. For a number of years, mom has power and authority over her son. Normally at some point, the son’s power matches and then exceeds his mother’s power. However mom maintains authority over her son.

          It seems that you are equating a position of eternal submission of Jesus towards the Father as an admission that He is less powerful or somehow less fully God than the Father. I don’t see how such a position can be defended. In addition, it seems that such a position points in the direction of modalism because it claims that any non symmetric differences between the persons of the Trinity would be proof that at least one of the persons is not fully God. Or put another way, “Unless the persons are identical, then the persons are not each equally and fully God”.

  • Johnny Mason

    gender roles are not related to the Trinity, they are related to Christ and His Church. Adam and Eve are a type of Christ and His Church. Marriage is a picture of Christ and His Church. Husband and wife are a picture of Christ and His Church. And the authority and headship that Christ has over the Church and the Church’s submission to that authority should be reflected in the marriage relationship.

    • Suzanne McCarthy

      So the ideal Christian, according to Paul, is exempt from gender roles. Paul can be protected and provided for by women because he is not married.

  • Tyler Wittman


    Personally, I’m with Sanders on this one. I think evangelicals are on better footing, biblically and dogmatically, when we root our account of gender relations in the doctrine of creation (cf 1 Cor 11:8; 1 Tim 2:13). Heck I’ll even go so far as to say that some kind of gender essentialism is recoverable from within a doctrine of creation.

    Perhaps one helpful question to pose to your take on 1 Cor 11:3 is this: does the text actually refer to the eternal Father and eternal Son (i.e., the ‘immanent Trinity’)? Or rather, does the text actually make a statement about the *incarnate* Son (i.e., the ‘economic Trinity’) that is inapplicable to the eternal Son? I think that, since Sanders is a classical Trinitarian, he understands the text according the latter reading and therefore omits it from the discussion. If we read 1 Cor 11:3 as referring to the eternal relation between the Father and Son, in the sense that there are distinct levels of ‘authority’ or ‘headship’ in God’s eternal being, we let go of classical Trinitarianism in the same breath. The first couple books of Augustine’s ‘De Trinitate’ are helpful on this score.

    Just some thoughts! Peace, bro.

    • Suzanne McCarthy

      Yes, Augustine is explicit and clear that the son is not unequal to the father in potestas, that is, authority. He states this. Augustine and the creeds have been rejected by those who subordinate Christ. Will this be made clear by Ware, that he rejects the equality of the son in Augustine’s de Trinitate?

      • Suzanne McCarthy

        For he was not sent in virtue of some disparity of power or substance or anything in him that was not equal to the Father, but in virtue of the Son being from the Father, not the Father being from the Son.

        De Trinitate IV

        The word power in this sentence is potestas in Latin, which was the translation for the Greek word exousia (authority.) It is one thing or the other. Either you believe in the subordinate Christ OR you believe in Augustinian trinitarian relations and the creeds. You cannot have both.

    • Hermonta Godwin

      On what basis do you believe that the economic Trinity is showing/revealing something different from the Immanent Trinity? A point of the economic Trinity is to reveal the immanent Trinity. Jesus was sent (as opposed to the Father or the Holy Spirit) to redeem use from our sins because the immanent Trinity is what it is.

      To claim that the headship of the Father over the son in God’s eternal being is a problem is to assume that such headship or Sonship would make Jesus less than God. Why would such a position make Jesus and the Holy Spirit less than authentically God? Would you also want to say that the distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity are not real? It seems that your position seems to run/point in the direction of a form of modalism.

  • Mark Olivero

    I am amazed at how position that reads gender/sex into the Trinity and then wants to use that a validation for their practical applications with regard to men and women.

    I am neither egalitarian nor complementarian with regard to the Trinity. Why? – because Yahweh God within himself is not a dichotomy of gender/sex. In pagan views of deity such a concept can be found, but not in Yahweh of the 66 books of Holy Scripture.

    The Ware/Grudem/Burk variety of Complementarianism seeks to ground its views in the Trinity when Scripture doesn’t even go there. I am complementarian and see support for that view in Creation within time and space not eternity.

    The Ware/Grudem/Burk variety of Complementarianism reads I Cor 11:3 read it back to us as “the Father is the head of Christ” when the text actually says “God is the head of Christ.” Is not Christ God too.

    When we read the NT we should read it with the same starting point as we should read the OT. God is Yahweh. When we are reading along from Genesis till we arrive at Romans by that point before we begin reading I Cor it should be clear that God=Yahweh and that Yahweh is triune in His being. It the term God is referring to a specific Person in Yahweh’s being the context will indicate that. Otherwise the default mode should be that God always refers to Yahweh.

    Thus, I Cor 11:3 is not saying the Father is the head of Christ, but that Yahweh is the head of Christ. This makes much more sense and is in accord with the rest of Scripture which shows that Messiah comes from Yahweh and of course in that sense Yahweh is the head of Messiah.

    There is no gender/sex dichotomy in Yahweh because there just isn’t.

  • Hannah Lewis

    I think it’s ridiculous to assume anything gender related from a spirit being with no gender existing outside space-time and any cultural context. Gender roles exist in socio-cultural temporal contexts and they are cultural constructs. Outside of these contexts, they have no meaning.

    • hannah anderson (@sometimesalight)

      I assume that this is meant for me and not Hannah Lewis, so I want to own it. I struggle to see what is problematic with my tone although I apologize for mixing up my websites. (I came to this post via TGC and mistakenly included it in my response to you.)

      My tone is rooted in the fact that the Trinity is a first level doctrine that we do not have the option of speculating about. I do not care if you agree with me about the danger of what you suggest, but you must submit yourself to 2000 years of church history. And even those who link gender roles and the relationship between the Father and Son would never assent to a paradigm that creates a quasi-incestuous relationship between the members of the Godhead. It simply is untenable.

      Please do not feel that this is a personal attack, but the concept merited a firm response.

  • Brett Cody

    “Nevertheless, no one can get above the fray on this one. First Corinthians 11:3 explicitly links the “masculine-feminine dynamic to the Father-Son dynamic.” The apostle Paul himself invokes the analogy, and our challenge is to understand it and receive it. It’s a debate worth having precisely because the link between intratrinitarian relations and gender relations is transparently biblical.”

    Hannah Anderson,
    You are getting unnecessarily up in arms over this. I agree with Denny: there is a link there that is from the scriptures. Do I think it is enough to comprehensivly explain the Trinity? No. But it is there and worth considering.

    • hannah anderson (@sometimesalight)

      But this is not what you put forth. I responded to a very disastrous conclusion that you drew from the possible analogy. You did nothing wrong logically; you simply took the offered gender/Trinity correspondence to its logical conclusion and ended up with a nearly blasphemous paradigm. The sheer danger of your conclusion should have alerted you to the fact that your original analogy was somehow problematic in the first place.

      Along with other commentors, I want to reiterate that whatever analogy Paul is making in I Cor 11 it cannot be a direct 1:1 correspondence to gender as we are currently applying it.. Does Paul mention God and Christ? Yes. Does Paul mention husband and wife? Yes. Is he drawing direct correspondence? Absolutely not.

      Otherwise, you conclusion would be valid.

  • Brett Cody

    So is it then possible to affirm that there is an analogy without affirming every implication of that analogy? Is it heretical to use analogies as a way of trying to understand the doctrine? I am simply trying to see the limitations here.

    • Daryl Little


      It may not be heretical in itself, to use analogies for explain the Trinity, but it is impossible to use an analogy to explain an entirely unique thing.

      The Trinity is like nothing else is all respects, so using analogies, while not an heretical act in itself, will inevitably lead to heretical conclusions.
      That’s why Chalcedon explained the Trinity as it did, without refer to eggs or ice or any other such analogy.

    • hannah anderson (@sometimesalight)

      The problem comes when we extend or change the analogy from what is inspired in Scripture. I have no problem with thinking analogically in respect to the Trinity–the concepts of Father, Son, and Spirit are themselves analogical; this is how a Trinitarian God reveals Himself in human history. My issue is that we are bound by the metaphors that God inspired. And what is happening in the gender debate is a theological slight of hand that is replacing one metaphor that describes interTrinitarian relationships (Father, Son and Spirit) with a second metaphor that is designed to describe how human beings enter into Trinitarian fellowship through union with Christ (marriage).

  • Michael Jefferson

    What is the theological explanation for hermaphroditic children? If it is the Fall, why couldn’t a consequence of the Fall be females being born in male bodies?

      • Michael Jefferson

        Looking forward to your response. I was just wondering why we have to be committed to a position that states God only allows our gender to match our genitalia even with the Fall in mind.

        • Hermonta Godwin

          Isn’t ones gender determined by one’s genetics and not simply by one’s genitalia? Also isnt there a problem in accepting one’s subjective view of oneself as determinative vs. one’s objective genetics etc.? Because one feels that one is a woman or a man, therefore one is a woman or a man stuck in the body of the other sex?

          • Michael Jefferson

            Why do we have to commit ourselves to gender being determined by genetics? Once again, that may not be the case because of the Fall. Genetics play more of a role in our body, not in our soul. Perhaps how God is speaking to us about our gender identity is the objective determinant of gender.

            • Hermonta Godwin

              How are you determining that God is speaking to you concerning sexual identity vs. one’s fallen nature talking? Because we are fallen we can rationalize a lot of stuff.

              Next, if you read my follow up post, you will see that I am taking genetics in a broader sense than Mendelian genetics. My position is that one’s sexual identity is determined beyond what one believes themselves to be at any particular point in their life.

              • Michael Jefferson

                I’m guessing you’d approach it the same way you would any other aspect of life – with plenty of prayer and devotion. We don’t always have the kind of security we’d like our beliefs. We have faith. I agree with your position wholly, and my position is not that we determine gender subjectively, as I have explained.

  • Mark Olivero

    The “masculine-feminine dynamic to the Father-Son dynamic” seems an odd thing to posit since there is no feminine component in the Trinity and surely not in the Father-Son relationship.

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