Last week, I met up with a good friend, also a blogger, whose areas of interest overlap with mine particularly in regard to consent and feminism. Though she’s not a Christian, a few months ago I had asked if she would read chapter 6 of Tim and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2013). For those less familiar, this is where Kathy Keller squarely sets out her complementarian theology and how she found joy accepting the ‘divinely assigned’ role of her gender by submitting to her husband Tim.
I asked my friend Amy to read it because I wanted a second opinion. I felt Kathy sounded eerily like a woman who’d been conditioned to believe she was a ‘submissive’ in the BDSM sense, even though she wasn’t one – much like Ana in Fifty Shades of Grey (click here for what I mean by ‘BDSM’ and ‘submissive’).
Amy had been through an abusive 24/7 dominant/submissive relationship and she blogs regularly about BDSM, so I was interested to know her thoughts. Also, as someone who isn’t in the church, and who hasn’t exited the church, she didn’t have any theological axes to grind.
I got a flavour of her reaction when she messaged me the day before we met up:
So… it’s okay that my notes on this book contain a lot of RAGE CAPS, right? 😀
When we met she read her comments to me a little hesitantly, in case she was being too scathing in her criticisms. She needn’t have worried. From my perspective it was satisfying to hear her name several of my key complaints against this chapter and complementarianism in general.
But what surprised me was her take on the Trinity.
The Trinity 101
For those less familiar, when I talk about the Trinity, I’m talking about the doctrine that God is three-persons-in-one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Son is the person who came to live on earth, Jesus, and because of the redemptive role Jesus played in saving creation, he is often referred to by the title of ‘anointed one’. The Hebrew word for this title is ‘Messiah’ and the Greek word is ‘Christ’. Hence, Jesus is called the Son of God and Jesus Christ.
The doctrine of the Trinity was developed by the church in the centuries following the time of Jesus. It’s an important idea to be aware of because it took a great deal of collective contemplation, and it is not something that you’ll find laid out explicitly in the Bible. Rather, it’s a doctrine that is consistent with and explains various judgements and statements seen in the Bible.
(So it’s like when you see two identical galaxies sitting opposite each other in a mirror image, you deduce that what you’re observing is actually just one galaxy near a black hole. You can’t observe the black hole directly, but its presence would explain the mirror image because the black hole would bend the light from the galaxy around itself. Similarly, the Trinity isn’t directly in the Bible but it explains an awful of other things that are in the Bible.)
One of the fundamentals of this doctrine is that the persons of the Trinity are all co-equal and of the same substance. They are all equally God. The Father didn’t ‘make’ the Son, so instead we use the strange word ‘begotten’. Also, the Son isn’t subordinate to the Father.
Let me say that again: the Son is not subordinate to the Father.
This came up in my conversation with Amy because Kathy Keller went to some lengths to liken husband and wife relationships (where the wife is subordinate or some kind of ‘redeemed subordinate’) to the relationship between the Father and the Son.
‘My submission is a gift’
Amy’s two specific observations were as follows:
“Voluntary submission of the Son to the Father” – It’s been a while since I read the Bible but seems to me that Jesus didn’t get much say in the whole thing?
You can’t compare a husband and wife to a father and son. Parent/child is inherently an uneven power dynamic. Spouses should not be.
If Kathy had been party to our conversation, I’m sure her jaw would have dropped and she would have asserted very firmly that Jesus did have a choice and that Jesus is equal to the Father. And I’d have agreed with both assertions.
But that’s not the point.
The point is, Kathy badly misframes the Trinity in this chapter of The Meaning of Marriage and the result is a fundamentally flawed understanding of sacrifice and submission. She could not have given any kind of an answer that Amy would have been able to relate to. Forget marriage and gender roles, I’m talking basics of the gospel story here.
Kathy would have turned round and said to Amy that Jesus’s submission as he went to the cross was “wholly voluntary, a gift to his Father” [p175]. Kathy may have gone on to describe that she has discovered how submission is a gift she can offer freely and “not a duty coerced” [p175].
To which Amy would have replied, “Oh here we go. It’s usually the subs with abusive Doms who convince themselves that they’re giving a gift of their own free will.”
The debate would have turned to what you can consent to and what it’s healthy to consent to. Kathy would have brought up her experiences with Tim; Amy would have brought up her experiences with her abusive ex.
But they’d have both missed the point.
Let’s leave aside the whole comparison of human relationships with divine relationships (which is an inherently problematic exercise to begin with).
This point is: Jesus’ submission was not a gift to the Father. Rather, Jesus’ sacrifice was a gift to the world.
Where does the world fit in?
The gospel story goes that God (the Father) so loved the world that he –
— and at this point I’m gonna highlight that God is suprasexual (beyond male and female) and that although the word ‘Father’ has been used historically by the church for many good reasons, we shouldn’t read too much into it because God is not male.
Where was I? Oh yes:
God the Father so loved the world that he sent his Son into the world to redeem the world so that those who believe in him would not perish but instead have eternal life. So, Jesus the Son entered the world in a fully human form. He had a radical and unprecedented ministry for three years before being turned over to the Romans and crucified. But three days later he rose from the dead to prove that he was genuinely who he said he was and that he can truly save people – even from death.
This is why I say that Jesus’ sacrifice was a gift to the world. By bearing the sin of the world whilst on the cross, Jesus opened the door to salvation for the whole of creation.
So where does this ‘submission’ fit in that Kathy says is so important? Well, on the night before he was crucified, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane:
‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’
— Luke 22:42 (NIVUK)
It’s in this moment of Jesus asking the “cup” of suffering to be taken from him we see that Jesus didn’t want to be crucified, but was willing to go with what the Father wanted if the Father still wanted it.
The complementarian argument is that wives are meant to model Jesus’ submission to the Father by submitting to their husbands, and that husbands are meant to model Jesus’ sacrificial commitment to the world’s good by loving their wives.
Leaving aside the fact that such a reading of Ephesians 5:22-23 ignores the passage’s wider context, it means a story that had at least three parties in it – the Father, the Son and the world – gets enacted by only two players: husband and wife. That should already alert us to the fact that there’s a problem with this idea; but there are other issues when we look specifically at the two angles.
Modelling sacrificial love – the problem for husbands
Moreover, this model of marriage conveniently forgets the driving reason behind Jesus’ sacrifice in the first place. Jesus’ sacrificial love was only necessary because of the sin of the world.
By leaving the world out of the equation and saying that husbands must model Jesus’ sacrificial love, we get all kinds of strange questions. Do Christian wives need redeeming? (Surely not?) Do wives need redeeming in ways that husbands don’t? (Again, How do husbands and wives relate after redemption has taken place – does one of them play the “role” of the Holy Spirit?
By accepting our gender roles, and operating within them, we are able to demonstrate to the world concepts that are so counter-intuitive as to be completely unintelligible unless they are lived out by men and women in Christian marriages.
Thing is, I don’t think this convoluted model is intelligible to the world.
Amy’s impression was that Kathy was “jumping through some incredibly complex and convoluted logic-hoops”. I know Kathy is borrowing heavily from CS Lewis when she makes this statement about demonstrating concepts and whereas I agree in principle with CS Lewis that ‘male and female’ does image something important, I’ve argued elsewhere why I disagree with his conclusion that men represent God/Christ and women represent the church.
Meanwhile, here’s a thought: what if the primary way Christians are meant to model Jesus’ sacrificial love is by getting out there and living that love in the world?
Just a thought.
The Trinity and Gethsemane – the problem for wives
Kathy’s take on the story of Jesus’ last supper and death is that (emphasis mine):
Jesus shed his divine privileges without becoming any less divine, and he took on the most submissive role – that of a servant who dies in his master’s service. [p175]
Kathy later builds on this to say that women play the “role” of “Jesus in his sacrificial submission” [p179].
Note, the principal reference point Kathy gives for her argument and model for marriage is Jesus’ suffering and death.
Let’s leave aside how these ideas fail to foster positive expectations for marriage (like having fun). Let’s leave aside other problematic implications that readers could easily take from this (like the idea that you can sacrificially love your abuser into being a good person). Let’s even leave aside the fact that Kathy hasn’t defined what ‘sacrifice’ is (and that Amy’s understanding of the word was very different).
What Kathy presents is a false splitting of Jesus’ agency into (a) his submission to the Father and (b) his sacrificial commitment to the good of the world. Actually, his choice to go to the cross was both of these. It therefore makes no sense to frame each spouse’s agency in marriage as modelling submission and sacrifice individually. This is particularly the case for wives, because promoting submission without the bigger picture is essentially promoting the idea that wives should have no choice/agency of their own (and this was part of what Amy objected to).
So how should we understand Jesus’ agency?
God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – had a plan to save the world. Jesus didn’t stick to the plan just because he loved the Father. He stuck to the plan because he loved the world (despite the world hating him). Jesus’ sacrifice is not for God’s benefit, it’s for ours. In the cross Jesus identifies fully with our suffering and protests against our suffering because – newsflash! – he loves us and doesn’t want us to suffer.
Yes, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus checks in with the Father to make sure there isn’t a way that doesn’t involve the cross. But he doesn’t do this because he’s feeling put under compulsion, rather he does this because they have a healthy and honest relationship and because, in his humanity, Jesus needs to know that this the right way forward. Also, though often overlooked, the Father responds to Jesus’ prayer; it’s not a way out, but he is strengthened enough to find a way through (Luke 22:43).
All in all, Jesus’ choice does have the qualities of an act of submission, but we still need to get our facts straight.
Jesus is able to put the Father’s will before his own because he’s in a loving and trusted relationship, but that’s not why he puts the Father’s will before his own. The reason why he puts the Father’s will before his own is because he knows he’s acting as part of a grand plan. A plan which he also has ownership of, wants to see succeed and which he knows is coming to its crunch point.
Jesus knows his Father’s business because the Father’s business is his business.
This is why it’s so important we understand what it means to say that Jesus is the Son. Without the co-equality and triune unity of the Trinity firmly in the centre of the picture, salvation becomes the Father’s plan in which Jesus plays the supporting, subordinate, submissive role (and the Holy Spirit is non-existent).
Forget how problematic this is as a model for marriage, this is not the gospel message!
Why I still use the words ‘father’ and ‘son’
“Words mean things and you don’t just get to redefine them to fit your ideology.”
– Amy Norton
I recognise that it’s easy for me to say “Oh but when I use the word ‘father’ to refer to God, I mean it in a different sense to how other people understand the word.” And maybe I do, but it’s unfair to the conversation if I pull out this trump card each time someone disagrees with me.
So let’s take a step back.
Why do Christians refer to God as our Father? Because Jesus taught us to. And at the time he did this it was a radical and bold move, that personalised God in ways not previously understood.
Why do Christians refer to Jesus as God’s Son? Because he used this language of himself to claim equality with God (John 5:18), and because God vindicated Jesus as God’s son (at his baptism, at his transfiguration and at his resurrection).
In other words, this terminology has history. Its purpose was not to infantilise Jesus with unequal power, or to frame him as a subordinate, but rather to show that he had authority over heaven and earth. It was because the word ‘son’ was used in this way that the early church realised Jesus was (and is!) co-equal with the Father.
In many ways ‘father’ and ‘son’ are still very bad words to describe these two persons of a triune God whose very being is beyond comprehension. I wish we had better but we don’t, and they are a better shorthand than he-who-cannot-be-named (or-is-it-she-I-don’t-know-do-gender-pronouns-even-apply-my-brain-hurts).
Meanwhile, we need to be clear that the relationship between the Father and the Son is not that of master and servant, dominant and submissive, or indeed leader and subordinate. And Christians need to avoid promoting comparisons with these dynamics. Because when we do, it’s not just complementarians making marriage look ugly, it’s the church making the gospel look toxic.
This post has been edited slightly since its initial publication.
For further reading I’ve made a detailed comparison between Jesus as the suffering servant and Ana’s supposedly redemptive role in Fifty Shades: The Suffering Servant vs Ana: Choice, commitment and consent (part 4).
Oh, and whereas I believe that ‘male and female’ do image something important, here’s my post explaining why I don’t think they image Christ and the church. Priestesses in the church? Why CS Lewis’ argument was right, but his conclusion wrong
For the record, the idea that you can deduce Trinitarian relationships using human relationships led the church to the idea of ‘eternal subordination of the son’. Credit to Kevin Giles for his detailed work in calling it out as a heresy. He singularly takes down the complementarian view of 1 Corinthians 11 in his book The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity and also explores questions in that books as to why the idea of ESS gained any traction to begin with.
If you want my take on 1 Corinthians 11, I discuss it in a post I did for Ezer Rising: Clothes are not about lust, they’re about worship. UPDATE 2021: The Ezer Rising blog is currently down, but I did finish this series and I was very pleased with what I achieved. However, it’s the length of a book. And each post drew a parallel with characters and images from Harry Potter, which… has since become a bit problematic. Anyway, if you are interested in reading the other parts of this series, please contact me.
If you want to check out Amy’s blog, fair warning she writes a lot of very, very explicit content, including discussions of sexual health, reviews of sex toys, erotica, polyamory, and safety in BDSM. I have time for her blog because she has a strong sense of fun, cares about consent and frequently calls out unsafe and unhealthy practices. Her website is called Coffee and Kink.