Gender Roles in Marriage and Perichoresis: the Dance of the Trinity

Yesterday at White Fields I taught on Colossians 3:12-25. The first part of that text is the one I usually use when I officiate weddings. The title of my message was “Gospel Reenactment” (audio of that message can be listened to here).

Included in this section is a verse which can be controversial for some people: Wives submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.  The idea of defined gender roles in marriage is not the most popular subject in our day and age, where more and more often, gender is considered a social construct and something which is fluid rather than fixed. Furthermore, it is no secret that some who have held to biblically defined gender roles in marriage have at times used them as an excuse to act tyrannically or even cruelly towards their spouse.

However, what I discovered in studying this passage in Colossians, is that it gives a picture of marriage as a reenactment of the Gospel (who Jesus is and what He did for us), particularly as regards the nature of God: One God, creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things seen and unseen, who eternally exists in 3 co-equal persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The term Son does not speak of origin but of rank: the Son willingly submitted Himself to the leadership of the Father, even though they are eternally co-equal and one. This is the model of what marriage is: two become one, but in that one, they take on different, complementary roles for the sake of a mission.

This is something which the church fathers, such as Gregory of Nazianzus and John of Damascus, and more recently Jürgen Moltmann and Miroslav Wolf, have referred to as ‘The Dance of the Trinity’ – or ‘Perichoresis’ in Greek. It refers to the dynamic relationship which exists between the 3 persons of the Trinity:

The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, the Spirit glorifies the Son and the Son glorifies the Father. The Father sends the Son and the Son obeys the Father. The Son sends the Spirit, and the Spirit and the Son together bring glory to the Father. The Spirit exalts the Son, the Son exalts the Father. The Father exalts the Son and glorifies the Son.

It’s a harmonious set of relationship in which there is mutual giving and receiving. This relationship is called love, and it’s what the Trinity is all about. The perichoresis is the dance of love.  – Jonathan Marlowe

The relationships between the three Persons of the Trinity — “dynamic, interactive, loving, serving” — form the model for our human dance. – Michael Spencer

In their book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller write about gender roles. This is one of the best books I have read on marriage, and I would recommend it highly. Here are some things that Kathy in particular had to say on the topic of gender roles:

Every cell in our body is stamped XX or XY. This means I cannot understand myself if I try to ignore the way God designed me or if I despise the gifts he may have given me to help me fulfill my calling. If the postmodern to view that gender is wholly a “social construct” were true, then we could follow whatever path seems good to us. If our gender is at the heart of our nature, however, we risk losing a key part of ourselves if we abandon our distinctive male and female roles.

[Philippians 2] is one of the primary places where the “dance of the Trinity” becomes visible. The Son defers to his father, taking the subordinate role. The Father accepts the gift, but then exalts the Sons to the highest place. Each wishes to please the other; each wishes to exalt the other. Love and honor are given, accepted, and given again. There is no inequality of ability or dignity.

The Son’s role shows not his weakness but his greatness.

[In God’s Kingdom, leaders] are called to be a servant-leaders. In the dance of the Trinity, the greatest is the one who is most self-effacing, most sacrificial, most devoted to the good of the other. Jesus redefined – or, more truly, defined properly – headship and authority, taking the toxicity of it away or, at least for those who live by his definition rather than by the world’s understanding.

Jesus as a master made himself into a servant who has washed his disciples’ feet, thus demonstrating in the most dramatic way that authority and leadership mean that you become the servant, you die to self in order to love and serve the Other. Jesus redefined authority as servant-authority.

In Jesus we see all the authoritarianism of authority laid to rest, and all the humility of submission glorified. Rather than demeaning Christ, his submission led to his ultimate glorification, where God “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.”

Both men and women get to “play the Jesus role” in marriage – Jesus in his sacrificial authority, Jesus in his sacrificial submission.

– The Meaning of Marriage, pp. 194-201

Part of the redemption that we have in Jesus is an invitation into the Perichoresis – the ‘dance of the Trinity’ – and in addition to our relationship with God, this serves as a model and a motivation for our relationships in marriage, work and beyond.

29 thoughts on “Gender Roles in Marriage and Perichoresis: the Dance of the Trinity

  1. Both men and women get to play the “Jesus” role – but Men don’t submit like Jesus submitted and Women don’t get authority like Jesus had authority. They are each a half of Jesus. A single man is a leader without a follower; a single woman is a follower without a leader. A single man has to lower himself to clean the dishes, cook the food. A single woman has to go above herself to handle the finances and bring home the bread and bacon. Gender roles (men and women) or status roles (married or single) – seems to differ depending on who/what/where you are in life. If you see God (trinity) as authority/submission then it’s unloving to not order people about or to take orders without question. If you see God (trinity) as all about love, then authority/submission ceases to matter – it’s all hands on deck to get a task done, everybody pitching in. Not as pulling rank, but co-equals – an example of that might be the boss cleaning a toilet even though it’s the responsibility of the lowest ranking employee.
    While the idea that men are “heads” over women; or more specifically husbands are “heads” over their wives is a Biblical one, so is the teaching that slaves must submit to their masters and we saw that slavery has never not been abused; nor has the teaching that one person has higher authority/rank than another. In the shepherding movement, in the divide between clergy and laity, in all human relationships. When the Bible was written, singleness was virtually unheard of; but now singles slightly outnumber married couples. Gender role teachings tend to devalue what they can bring to the table because they come alone.

    1. You are correct – each is called to play a different part of the Jesus role, but in each of these roles the focus is on loving service and working for the good, never the belittlement or subjugation of the other. Regarding slaves/servants and masters, I talked about that in the Sermon which I linked in the body. Where you are wrong is that there was indeed a time when defined roles of authority and submission were not abused to the detriment of the one who submitted: that would be in the relationship between the Father and the Son and the relationship between Jesus as Master & Lord and those who submit themselves to Him.
      Furthermore I think you are way off base in suggesting that doing dishes is a woman’s role and handling finances is a man’s role. THAT is chauvinistic thinkinh. I just did the dishes today in fact. That’s not a matter of a biblical gender roles at all! What I’m referring to us leadership in a family, not which tasks are for femals and which are for males. This teaching does not apply to single people as therefore is not a detriment to single people. There is nothing inherently male or female about any of the tasks you mentioned.

      1. That still doesn’t help non-traditional families; ones whose “heads” are imprisoned or ill, families that consist of non-believers. What if a husband is a believer who just doesn’t believe that the Bible grants him headship – and decides to be co-equal with his wife, allowing her to make decisions or have the tie-breaking vote or the last word when the occasion calls for it?

      2. It does in fact help non-traditional families. The Kellers actually address this directly in their book. Here’s one quote from the larger section which addresses the question you bring up:
        “One of the pillars of wise counseling is the statement, ‘The only person over whom you have control is yourself.’ You can change no one’s behavior but your own. If a man or a woman wishes to bring him or herself more fully into the biblically defined gender roles in marriage, it does not actually require assent from the other person. Since both the headship role of a husband and the submission role as a wife are servant roles, one can always begin to serve without waiting for permission.”
        The practical outworking of these roles will look different in every marriage, not only the exceptional ones which you mention. Furthermore, are we to dismiss a rule because of exceptions? Shall we say that because some people don’t have legs, there should be no design or organization for the game of football, since they can’t play it?
        Furthermore, once again you are missing the point by misconstruing that “co-equal” is somehow opposed to biblical gender roles. As I stated in the body of the text, the pattern of marriage is 2 co-equal partners. Co-equality is at the theological heart of defined gender roles in marriage leadership – as the Son is co-equal to the Father.
        If a husband chooses to abdicate the role of being the “tie-breaker”, that is his choice. It’s not the biblical design, but there are plenty of people who don’t follow biblical designs for things. That doesn’t mean there is an inherent problem with the biblical teaching.

      3. Still, with the strict “gender” focus, you only talk about marrieds. How are single men to take the lead even outside of the context of family, how are women to submit to nobody?
        Thing is – these are also norms for a patriarchal society, not necessarily what God intended the world over until the end of time – as with the case of slavery.

      4. Precisely! I am talking about marriage! The rules of football do not apply to someone who is not playing football – and likewise, the gender defined roles of leadership and submission do not apply outside of marriage!
        Slavery is a particular case which should be understood in historical context. Hence what I spoke about in the aforementioned sermon and in an article I previously wrote on this blog titled: “Does the Bible Explicitly Condemn Slavery” in which I deal with the issue. You might check those things out, since I’m not going to rehash them here in the comments section of this post.
        Again – the Bible is not calling women to general submission in society, nor is it calling men to general leadership. What this is about is marriage, and I do not believe that it is archaic and to be dismissed, nor do I believe that it was simply a societal norm. There are, in fact, matriarchal societies in the world – and the model of servant-leadership is one which would have been foreign to the ancient world in which it was written. In the aforementioned sermon, I also discuss how the Christian “virtues” of meekness and humility were not considered virtues to the ancient Greeks and Romans, nor are they to many non-Western societies today – however they are some of the major defining characteristics of Jesus, both in his authority and in his submission to the Father. This isn’t about archaic societal norms, this is about God’s unique design for the marriage relationship which is based on his character and his actions in what we call the Gospel.

      5. Isn’t not contradictory to be the “head” the one with the decision-making power, the tie-breaking vote, and the final say and to be “meek” and “humble” at the same time? Show me in Scriptures where Jesus’ headship of the church looks like the headship/submission teachings that are often taught from it. Why is it that abused wives are so very often told to “submit more fully” or “don’t do whatever made him mad” rather than have the elders come to her aid and stand by her side. Why is it that a woman who anulled her marraige to her pedophile husband was formally disciplined while her husband was not? Why was another woman told to apologize to the congregation for fleeing her abusive marriage before they would forgive her?
        If they’re “marriage” roles, why call them “gender” roles? Aren’t men still men if not married? And aren’t women still women if not married? I think it’s a misnomer to say “gender” roles and then say it doesn’t apply to certain women and men; as if they aren’t their gender as singles and are only fully their gender when married.

      6. Correct, it’s not contradictory. And I’m glad you asked for an example! Here you go:
        “All things have been handed over to me by my Father (**authority**), and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you (i.e. ‘come under my authority’), and learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:27-30)
        Both authority and meekness and authority right there in one passage.
        Furthermore, I have repeatedly defined that I am speaking of gender roles in marriage. I’ll go ahead and change the title to reflect that as well.
        As to your questions about what some people have done in practice: I am genuinely sorry that some people have misrepresented the heart of God towards the abused and the weak. I would point you to the Old Testament, primarily the major and minor prophets, through whom God told his people Israel that he was bringing judgment upon them precisely because they had failed to protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of their society, and had instead supported the oppressors. God hates injustice and he hates abuse. He hates it so much that He came to give his life to put an end to evil and injustice forever. No woman (or man for that matter) should be coerced into remaining in an abusive relationship. That’s what I teach, and I believe it’s the heart of God. As for what other people do, all I can do is mourn over the misrepresentation of the heart of God and the detriment that has been throughout the generations. However, just because there is some dirty bathwater doesn’t mean you should throw out the baby with it. Throw out the bathwater by all means! Preserve the baby.

      7. I and the Father are one. (John 10:30)
        But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father. (vs 38)
        Doesn’t this verse kind of contradict that idea? If God’s the authority and Jesus isn’t, then how God be in Jesus and Jesus be in God?

      8. Precisely what I am saying, in fact I said it very clearly in the body of the text. Did you actually read it? Because I made this point myself: The model for Christian marriage is: The Father and the Son (along with the Spirit) are ONE, and yet as one, they take on different roles and ranks for the purpose of a mission (the gospel). Likewise, in the bond of marriage 2 units become ONE, and they take different roles and tanks for the purpose of a mission.
        It isn’t (as you say) that “God’s the authority and Jesus isn’t”. Jesus is God. The Father is God. The Son (Jesus) is not any less God than the Father is God. As the creed says: “There is ONE God, creator of heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen, who eternally exists in 3 co-existent persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” That’s Christian doctrine and has been for 2000 years.

      9. God has many “roles” in scripture, he was creator, conqueror, desert guide, husband, divorcee – in each different season, God’s role changed. He’s not “creator” when he’s bringing death and destruction, he’s not “desert guide” when he’s divorcing himself from the Israelites. Likewise, the “role” in the Scripture isn’t a given to always be so – just as they don’t apply to the “single” role, they also don’t apply to the “divorced” or “widowed/widower” role either. But the variety of people is as such that not every single man, just because he’s male, is automatically a leader. Some women are actually outstanding leaders. Some men are much better at not leading then they are at leading. There’s not a one size fits all. Just as you’re willing to do the dishes, some men wouldn’t stoop to doing that – they would want to be paid for doing “women’s work” but that’s what happens when complementarians can’t agree on the specifics of what they teach.

      10. I completely agree with you that not every man is a leader just because he’s male and that some women are excellent leaders. This isn’t about character, value or equality. This is a structure which God, who created marriage, designed for marriage. As to dishes and finances, and the idea of men’s and women’s work – THOSE are the cultural constructs. Some people (including you???) confuse the difference between a leadership structure and cultural expectations upon men and women.

      11. I wish I knew – half of the complementarians I see make up the rules as to what’s “men’s work” and what’s “women’s work” take it up with them and let me know what’s what.

      12. I and the Father are one. (John 10:30)
        But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father. (John 10:38)
        Trinitarian theology hails from the Council of Nicaea – for a few hundred years, believers were pefectly content to be utterly confused and vexed by the concept of the trinity, debating about role, substance, being; it resultled in a number of heresies, including the one that said that the Son is subordinate to the Father. How is Complementarianism any different? You see roles, authority, submission … I don’t. If God can be explained down to every last detail, then there is no mystery and no majesty. Once you know how the magic trick is done, it ceases to amaze. I really don’t think that God cares whether or not men lead and women follow – if he had, he could have instructed it right alongside of the instructions he gave for the temple – in stunning detail, lenghty, with every exception all in one place. Do you think it would fly if the temple instructions were as scattered as those of Complementarianism? Interspersed over a half dozen books spanning decades? I don’t think it exists; it’s just something that people want to believe because it suits the human tendency to dominate and control or to be dominated and controlled because having agency is too frightening.

      13. Trinitarian theology hails from the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Nicaea only formalized and “codified” Christian beliefs into one creed that everyone at the council (which lasted for a very long time, btw – and was attended by all of the Christian leaders of the known world at that time) agreed was the clear teaching of Scripture.

      14. In no way do I suggest that God can be explained, but God has chosen to reveal some things. Many things, such as how His sovereignty works, and how God can be a Trinity, are beyond our comprehension. Read John 17 – Jesus speaks to the Father about how the Father sent him and how he has done everything the Father sent him to do. Philippians 2 speaks of how Jesus humbled himself and submitted to the Father, even though he was co-equal with the Father. If you don’t see the submission/authority between Father and Son you are being willfully ignorant.

      15. And you’re limiting God by sticking to the book; it’s never going to go beyond 100 a.d. in terms of society and progress; so you’re basing your worldview on that of a patriarchal society, in a world of classism, racism, and sexism as the anchor to which you’re sunk. God never opens the doors beyond that – He’s stuck to that time-frame. To me, God’s bigger than that. The Bible only reveals what God was up to until 100 a.d.; but my God exists in 2016 and isn’t afraid of women serving as pastors or husbands letting go of power and authority; Jesus said that his kingdom was upside down and inside out; the greatest has to be like the one that takes orders; but Complementarianism freezes time so that hubands are never servants; servant-leadership is just as much a misnomer because Jesus never lead like husbands lead. Just because you see a parallel, it doesn’t follow it’s an order for all time. If it were, every single christian woman would wear a head covering (1 Corinthians 11’s first half) but we saw it was cultural. So too, was male headship – very much belonging to the culture of 100 a.d.

      16. Ah, and here is the crux of the issue: you and I differ on what is referred to as “sources of theology”. I believe in the divine inspiration of scripture and that believing the scriptures is not limiting God, but honoring God at his word. You clearly do not. No wonder we don’t see eye to eye.

      17. I believe I said that you’ve limited God to a 100 a.d. time-frame and since God doesn’t change, then that’s the ideal to which Christianity must exist in. Women’s rights, then, must truly be an evil deception because it’s something God clearly didn’t ordain in Scripture. Since God can’t move beyond 100 a.d. – you’re just stuck and so is He.

      18. Well that’s not just putting words in my mouth, it’s also very offensive. I am all for women’s rights, equal pay, respect and dignity. The New Testament teaches the equality of women very clearly and Jesus modeled it himself. The modern western movements for women’s rights derive from these pre-100 AD writings.

      19. I’m not sure I’m following how that works. I thought the Bible was the authority and the Bible says that women must be silent and can’t be pastors. It doesn’t say that a women’s role is anything like what it is today for our society.

      20. Can you make a great argument as to why the letter that Paul wrote to the Colossians circa 55 a.d. in Greece (I think,) applies as a society in general teaching, the world over, until the end of time while the letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the same time and place were for a specific setting? The difference is?

      21. The things you mentioned from the Corinthian letter refer to organization and order in the church, not society at large. Prescriptions for marriage in Colossians and elsewhere are also addressing a particular area of life (marriage) not society at large. Again, this is a point I’ve made several times over. I’m getting tired of explaining the same thing again and again and I have a wife and kids to go love, serve and lead. Good night!

      22. This conversation did get a little out of hand – usually I’m a bit better at expressing my thoughts – but I guess for everything there’s an exception and this would be it. However, I had hoped that you’d see the larger implications of what you teach – that if you preach on gender roles and say that “only marrieds count” then the single men and women become non-gendered non-persons because so many verses speak nothing to their lives. They (and me) grow up hearing nothing but marriage, marriage, marriage, and can often feel as if God doesn’t care about them or give them the time of day because they’re single, and he must hate them for not getting them hitched. Were the shoe on the other foot, I like to think things would turn out differently, but few are capable of laying down their own authority and power as it corrupts them – not just absolutely, but also spiritually. I know I’m to blame because I haven’t been entirely sensical. I wish you well. Feel free to take over a post or two on my blog and explain it all to me sometime, step by step because I think some of the disconnect is that you’re at an advanced reader level and I’m only at the basics. There are so many missing pieces that I can’t make heads nor tails of the big picture.

      23. I’m not surprised to hear that you’ve got some personal wounds in this area. You are right in this: that there is an emphasis on married people in most Christian circles and arguably not enough focus on speaking to people who are not married. This however does not change the fact that the scripture which I was speaking about is about marriage. Also, statistically, most people will be married at some point in their life, so it does speak to the majority of people. It is however not correct that the Bible has nothing to say to single people. One of the best examples of that is in the middle of 1 Corinthians, where Paul talks about the greatness of single life, because there is no need to worry about the leadership and cultivation of a marriage or family, and one can be wholly devoted to and submitted to the Lord.
        God loves single people and God loves you.

    2. This may be you opinion but it not one based upon facts; singleness was wide spread during Biblical times and grew especially among those taking religious vows in various church history stages. Apostle Paul addressed it as the ideal state to be in to serve God. No one has half of Jesus that is absurd. You submit to His leadership and direction and by his infilling of love you serve one another. Even slaves can serve their master knowing that they have a Master in heaven that rewards them no matter how much this fallen world abuses and controls people. Jesus wa co-eternal and equal with the Father but served him as a Son out of love and honor. This honor system which is strong in Asia and not very prevalent in America is how the Kingdom of God operates. We are all equal but we each have specific calls and anointing for service and Jesus said if we want to be great in the kingdom of God we must become the servant of all. The greater the leadership abilities the greater one should be serving.

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