The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: The Trinity as Theological Foundation for Family Ministry
The title of this article may raise some immediate questions in the minds of readers: Is there really a connection between the doctrine of the Trinity and the design and practice of family ministry (1)?
[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry, Vol. 1, Issue 2.]
To many persons, the Trinity seems to be nearly impossible to understand and quite removed from real life issues. How could the Trinity truly be relevant to anything that takes place in our daily lives, including the issues related to church and family ministry?
It may come as something of a surprise to some readers that the doctrine of the Trinity is really and truly one of the most practical doctrines in the whole of what we believe in the Christian faith. Why? Because the Trinity helps us to understand how the Persons of the Godhead-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit-relate to one another and so work in this world, as well as how the triune God has designed many relationships among us humans to take place. Wherever you have human relationships–which is about everywhere you look!–you have the opportunity to ask, “How do relationships among the trinitarian Persons help us understand how our relationships are to be lived out in ways that better reflect something of the triune God and better express God’s designed purposes for us, his human creatures made in his image?”
In order to see how the doctrine of the Trinity is foundational for family ministry, we will consider three areas. First, a brief summary of the doctrine of the Trinity will clarify what it is that Christians ought to believe. Second, we will consider some broad areas of trinitarian relationships in order to see how the doctrine of Trinity provides helpful example and instruction for how we should live in relationship with others. Finally, we will explore how truths about the Trinity, rightly understood, provide foundational underpinnings for family-equipping ministries in the church (2).
What Do Christians Believe About the Trinity?
The Christian faith affirms that there is one and only one God. Moses instructed the children of Israel, “To you it was shown that you might know that the Lord, he is God; there is no other besides him” (Deut 4:35). God himself boldly declares through the prophet Isaiah, “Besides me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have not known me; that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isa 45:5-6). James in the New Testament agrees. “You believe that God is one,” he writes. “You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” ( James 2:19).
Christian faith also affirms that this one God eternally exists and is fully expressed in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each member of the Godhead is equally God, each is eternally God, and each is fully God–not three gods but three Persons of the one eternal Godhead. Each Person is equal in essence to the other divine Persons. Each possesses fully and simultaneously the identically same, eternal divine nature. Yet each is also an eternal and distinct personal expression of that one and undivided divine nature.
The equality of essence among the members of the Trinity is greater than the equality that exists among human beings or among any other finite reality. For example, my wife Jodi and I are equally human, in that each of us possesses a human nature. Her nature is of the same kind as my nature–that is to say, human nature. Our equality is real and actual “equality of kind.” Each of us has the same kind of nature as the other.
Equality of Identity in the Trinity
The equality of the three divine Persons is even more firmly grounded than my equality with Jodi. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each possesses not merely the same kind of nature–that is to say, divine nature. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each also possesses fully and eternally the identically same nature. Their equality, then, is not merely an equality of kind but what might be called an “equality of identity.”
There is no stronger grounding possible for the full equality of Persons of the Godhead than this: the Son possesses eternally and fully the identically same nature as the nature that is possessed eternally and fully by the Father and by the Spirit; hence, their equality is not merely an equality of kind but is in fact an equality of identity. And so we affirm today what the church has explicitly affirmed as orthodox since the days of the Councils of Nicaea in A.D. 325 and Constantinople in A.D. 381: The oneness of God–and thus the full essential equality of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit-is constituted precisely in a oneness of divine nature possessed fully, simultaneously, and eternally by each of the divine Persons. There is one and only one God, precisely because there is one and only one eternal and infinite divine nature which is the common possession and full possession of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God is one in essence and three in Persons.
Roles and Relationships within the Trinity
Now, notice this carefully: Since by nature or essence the Father, Son, and Spirit are identically the same, what distinguishes the Father from the Son and each of them from the Spirit cannot be their one and undivided divine essence. At the level of the divine essence, each is quite literally indistinguishable as each possesses eternally and fully the identically same divine nature.
What, then, distinguishes the Father from the Son and each of them from the Spirit? What distinguishes the Persons of the Trinity are (1) the particular roles that each has within the Trinity and in the work each carries out in the world, and, (2) the respective relationships that each has with the other divine Persons and within the creation that the triune God has made. Since the Father, Son, and Spirit must be distinct from each other as Persons, while they are in another sense identical to one another in their common essence, their distinction must be in these areas of roles and relationships, since they cannot be distinct in regard to their divine essence. How, then, are the roles and relationships of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, distinct from one another? And how do these distinctions help us in understanding better the ways in which the Trinity can provide a foundation for family-based ministry?
What are the Distinct Roles and Relationships of the Persons within the Trinity?
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully God. They are each equally God. They each fully possess one undivided divine nature. Yet each Person of the Godhead is different in role and relationship with respect to the others. To distinguish the roles and relationships that exist in and among the triune Persons, we might say this: The Father is supreme in authority among the Persons of the Godhead, and he is responsible for devising the grand purposes and plans that take place through all of creation and redemption (see, for example, Eph 1:3, 9-11). The Son is under the Father’s authority and seeks always to do the Father’s will. Although the Son is fully God, he nonetheless takes his lead from the Father and seeks to glorify the Father in all that he does (see, for example, John 8:28-29, 42). The Spirit is under both the Father and the Son. As the Son sought to glorify the Father in all he did, the Spirit seeks to glorify the Son, to the ultimate praise of the Father (see, for example, John 16:14; 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 2:11).
To understand how these roles are expressed, consider some of the works that God accomplishes. Often we think of these as the works of “God,” and rightly they are. Yet these are the works of the triune God, with the Father, Son, and Spirit each contributing to the whole of the work and together accomplishing all that God brings to pass.
Trinitarian roles in God’s Work of Redemption
Consider God’s work of redemption: The Father purposed and planned that our redemption as sinners would be accomplished. The Father planned that it would take place through the work of his Son, such that his Son would have the highest place of exaltation in the end (Eph 1:9-10). The Father is the one who chose us in Jesus before the world had yet been created (Eph 1:3). The Father chose the Son to be the One who would come as our Savior and die for our sins (Acts 2:23; 1 Pet 1:20). When the Son came, he made it clear over and again that he came down from heaven to do his Father’s will ( John 6:38), even declaring in Gethsemane that his upcoming death on the cross was specifically the will of his Father (Matt 26:39).
The Son, for his part, came in full obedience to the Father. His coming was not his own doing but occurred because of the Father’s initiative ( John 8:42). Of course the Son is in full agreement with this, his Father’s will- but that it was the will of the Father is recognized and acknowledged by the Son over and over again. The Son had the distinct role of becoming incarnate in order to take on our sin and provide his life as a substitute sacrifice for us (Phil 2:6-8; 1 Pet 2:24). While it is true that the Son bore our sin on the cross, it is also true that the Father is the One who put our sin upon his own Son, in order to save us through the death that he would bring about through his Son (Isa 53:10; 2 Cor 5:21).
The Spirit, for his part, came as the prophets foretold to anoint and empower the Son for the work that he was sent by the Father to accomplish (Isa 11:2; 61:1-3; Luke 4:18-21). The Spirit so worked in the Son so that the Messiah was able to accomplish all of the good works and perform the miracles he did, as the Father directed him ( John 5:19) and the Spirit empowered him (Acts 10:38). When the atoning work of the Son was complete, the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11) and empowered the disciples of Jesus on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21). As Peter makes clear in his sermon that day, the Spirit’s coming occurred because he was ultimately sent by the Father, though he was sent most directly upon these believers by the Son ( John 15:26; Acts 2:33). The Spirit’s coming upon believers was to empower the proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 1:6- 8), to regenerate unbelievers, to baptize them into the body of Christ (Titus 3:5; 1 Cor 12:13), and to work in all who trust Jesus to make them fully like their Savior (2 Cor 3:18).
Many more examples may be found throughout Scripture, but God’s work in redemption is sufficient to illustrate this point: God works as the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, with each Person accomplishing the specific work that each one is responsible to do. Within the car- rying out of these roles, there seems to be a clear relationship in which the Father is supreme in authority, the Son submits fully to the will of the Father, and the Spirit seeks to carry forward the work of the Son to the ultimate praise of the Father (Phil 2:11) (3). The distinctions in their work, then, must be recognized if we are to understand rightly the outworking of God’s purposes and plans.
Unity of Purpose and Harmony of Mission within the Trinity
One further truth is essential for us to understand this pattern: There is full harmony in the work of the triune God, with no jealousy or bitterness, only love and harmony. The Father never considers himself better than the Son or Spirit–even though he has authority over both and stands as the divine designer and grand architect of all that takes place! In fact, rather than putting himself forward, the Father designs all things so that his Son, not himself, is given the primary spotlight in the history of creation and redemption.
The Son never begrudges the fact that he is the Son under the authority of the Father. Just the opposite, the Son loves nothing more than to do the will of the Father (see, for example, John 4:34). While always submitting completely and fully to the Father, the Son does so with joy and delight (Heb 12:2). The Spirit, while being third in the Trinity and always under the ultimate authority of Father and Son, considers it his delight to honor and to glorify the Son (John 16:14; 1 Cor 12:3).
Clearly, when we behold the Trinity for what it is, we should marvel! We should be amazed at the unity and harmony of this common work within authority and relationships that have marked their roles and responsibilities throughout all eternity. Unity of purpose and harmony of mission, yet with differentiation in lines of authority and submission within the Godhead! This truly is a marvel to consider.
Trinitarian Foundations for Family Ministry
How does this doctrine of the Trinity constitute the foundation for family ministry in the church? In short, the Trinity provides us with a model in which we understand the members of a family as fully equal in their value and dignity as human beings made in God’s image. Yet each member has distinct roles and relation- ships within the family; these roles and relationships are worked out within an authority-submission structure that God designed as purposefully reflective of God himself (4).
In other words, the Trinity presents us with the truth that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are fully equal in their essence while also presenting the truth that the authority-submission structure of the Trinity is inviolable with the Father as supreme, the Son under the Father, and the Spirit under the Father and the Son. Each divine Person is fully equal as God. Yet the Father and Son and Spirit each carries out a distinct role and does so within an eternal relational structure of authority and submission.
This trinitarian perspective helps us to understand the family. All the members of a family are equal in who they are as human beings. Each one is equal in value and dignity and worth; in this, they mirror the equality that we see among the three Persons of the Trinity. Because of this equality of dignity and worth, each member of the family ought to be accorded respect and be treated as someone created in the image of God.
Also mirrored in the family are trinitarian distinctives that relate to roles and relationships. The husband and father has, under God, the highest place of authority in the household. His wife submits to him, and his children obey both him and his wife. The wife is under the authority of her husband, but is over the children in the household, partnering with their father to ensure that they learn godliness and obedience. The children are under the authority of both of their parents, understanding that they are to learn from their father and mother what is most important in life, all the while obeying their parents with joy and gladness. Both the equality and the distinctiveness that we see in the Trinity should be reflected in household relationships. The church’s ministries must understand both this equality and this differentiation and seek to reinforce this in what the church encourages and teaches.
How Can Christian Families Reflect Trinitarian Roles and Relationships?
Let’s carefully consider some aspects of family relationships where the equality and differentiation of the members of a family can and should be seen as reflective of the equality and differentiation within the Trinity.
Implications for Husbands and Fathers
Married men and fathers must realize and embrace the truth that God has invested in them a special responsibility for the spiritual leadership that they should develop in relation both to their wives and chil- dren. In a real and vitally important sense, husbands and fathers bear responsibility for the Christian nurture of their households–a responsibility that differs from their wife and from other members of the household. The husband of the household is granted a privilege and a duty, before the Lord, to direct the discipleship and development that takes place with their wives and with their children.
This is abundantly clear as it relates both to the spiritual well-being of a husband’s wife, and of a father’s children. No clearer or more forceful passage could be mentioned here than Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus (Eph 5:25-6:4). A husband is called to regard his relationship with his wife in a manner that is likened to Christ’s relationship with the church. Jesus loved the church dearly and deeply and gave himself for her “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:26-27). Then Paul added these words, “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph 5:28). It simply is impossible to have given a more forceful or more compelling directive to husbands for how they must consider their responsibility as spiritual leaders and lovers of their wives. One phrase particularly captures the end goal that a husband must keep in his mind as the final purpose for Christ’s love toward the church: “that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). The headship of the hus- band must take to heart the sober and joyous responsibility to work, to serve, to love, to pray, and long for the continual spiritual growth of his wife.
According to Ephesians 6:1-2, children are to obey their parents and to honor their fathers and mothers, recognizing that this is the first commandment with a divine promise (Eph 6:1-2). Notice that “parents”–that is fathers and mothers–are in view in these first two verses. One might expect that, in the next verse, Paul would have continued to urge both parents-but he doesn’t! Instead, Paul aimed his next direction specifically toward fathers of households: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” The point is clear: Fathers in particular bear special responsibility for the faith-training of their children. As heads of their houses, some fathers might abuse their authority in ways that would provoke their children to anger-but that is not God’s way. Instead, fathers are to create an atmosphere where they lead their children in the discipline of obedience to Jesus and in learning the wisdom of Jesus. Fathers have the God-given mandate and privilege of blessing their children by cultivating a household environment where children grow to respect, love, and follow Jesus, in obedience to their fathers and in honor of both their fathers and mothers.
Both headship relationships–the husband guiding his wife and the father directing his children–can be easily perverted into one of two sinful tendencies. One sinful response is for men to abuse their headship by being heavy-handed, mean-spirited, harsh, or demanding in unloving ways. God has not given husbands this authority for the purpose of gratifying their own pleasures or for exploiting opportunities for their own com- fort! Godly authority is exercised out of benevolence, not out of selfishness. The husband’s headship must be invested in constant healing, restoration, growth, and joy in family relationships.
The second sinful perversion of headship is far more sinister yet far less obvious. In this perversion, husbands and fathers abdicate their God-given responsibility. Such men are not necessarily mean-spirited; they are simply not there. When we abdicate our responsibilities as husbands and fathers, we become apathetic, distant, often absent, uninterested and uninvolved in the spiritual direction of our wives and children. The harm that we inflict on our families through apathy and uninvolvement can wound just as deeply as the harm that is inflicted through heavy-handed selfishness. The souls of our wives wilt before our eyes, and our children grow more distant and more attached to peers than parents as they seek the love and leadership that they lack from their fathers.
God has assigned husbands and fathers a sacred stewardship that involves responsibility for the spiritual growth and well-being of wives and children. The roles and relationships within the Trinity call us to realize that God intends households to reflect a reality that is true in the Godhead itself. And since this is true, church ministries must be designed in ways that acknowledge and equip husbands and fathers to carry out these responsibilities. In too many cases, well-intended church ministries have usurped the father’s role in the discipleship of his children. How much better to train men so that they can lead their families to grow in love for God and in knowledge of God’s Word! Family ministry must give focused attention to the training of men. In a very real sense, as the husbands and fathers go, so goes the family and, as households in a congregation go, so goes the congregation.
Implications for Mothers and Fathers
Here is a simple yet revolutionary and counter-cul- tural observation: Every New Testament passage offer- ing instruction directly to wives includes one common element. In every instance, wives are commanded to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22-24; Col 3:18; Titus 2:3-5; and 1 Pet 3:1-6). Today, it is rare, even at Christian weddings, for the bride’s vows to include a promise to “submit to” her husband.
Our culture despises submission as much as it despises authority, but God calls us to a different mind and heart on this matter. And here, wives can benefit enormously from the doctrine of the Trinity in realizing that submission is itself reflective of the very submission eternally given by the Son to his Father, and by the Spirit to the Father and the Son. In this sense, God calls wives to be what he is, just as he has also called husbands to be what he also is. In obeying the biblical command to submit to their husbands, it is not enough simply to grit your teeth and submit, resenting this calling. Why is such begrudging submission insufficient? It is because such an attitude fails to understand the nature of submission as a reflection of the Son’s submission to the Father, and the Spirit’s submission to the Father and the Son. In the Trinity, just as the Father exercises his authority with impeccable wisdom and goodness, so the Son and Spirit give joyous and glad-hearted submission to the Father, always longing to do just what is asked or commanded of them.
In addition, just as the husband’s thoughtful and loving headship should reflect Christ’s relationship to the church (Eph 5:25-27, 31-32), so the wife’s glad-hearted and consistent submission should reflect the church’s privilege of absolute submission before the lordship of the Messiah (Eph 5:24, 31-32). Therefore, the type of submission a wife is called to render to her husband is joyful and glad-hearted. A wife, then, should seek before God to render submission that seeks to help, longs to serve, and looks for opportunities to assist in any way that will be an encouragement and help to God’s calling upon her husband’s life. Just as God calls all of us to submit to authority with whole heart and willing spirit, so this special calling and privilege is given to wives as a reflection of the triune relations within the Godhead.
But let’s be clear about this also: Submission can be very difficult. Unlike the church’s relationship to Jesus, in which the church can be confident that anything Jesus commands will be wise and good, husbands cannot be counted on to lead with flawless wisdom and goodness. In fact, sometimes husbands are pitifully unlike Christ, and submission can be very difficult. Wives are not commanded to “retrain” their husbands, though they might endeavor to do so through fervent and godly example. Wives nonetheless are commanded to submit to these imperfect husbands.
The most striking passage here is Peter’s instruction to wives. Peter specifically addresses wives whose husbands are unbelieving. Presumably, these husbands may be the most difficult for a Christian wife to live with and under. An unbelieving husband might have far less in common with his wife’s spiritual interests. Despite this, Peter instructs these wives to be subject to their own husbands, so that they may be guided toward the Messiah through the godly conduct of their wives (1 Pet 3:1-2).
I find it astonishing that it is in this text, of all New Testament passages that teach on husband and wife relations, that the strongest language is used to describe a wife’s submission! Peter appealed to Sarah as an example and said that she “obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (1 Pet 3:6a), indicating that they would be Sarah’s “children” if they fearlessly followed this example (1 Pet 3:6b) (5).
Make your relationship to your husband an issue of spiritual accountability before the Lord, and live before your husband in a way that honors Christ. God will honor you as you seek to honor him and his Word. He will bless you enormously as you seek to obey him by being faithful to fulfilling what he has called you to do.
Implications for Children
Children are given the role both of obeying their parents and of honoring their father and mother. Every parent understands that you can receive obedience–at least outward obedience–without receiving honor. Children must view honoring their parents as essential to their role in the household. To honor parents is to respect them as persons and to listen attentively to their instruction as persons older and wiser. Parents bear primary responsibility for how children are raised, but children bear responsibility for responding to parents in appropriate ways. Even now, learn to view your parents as God’s gifts to you and to consider their words of advice, warning, encouragement, and instruction.
The equality that exists in the Trinity is reflected in the equality by which God has made every human being. Since each member of your family is made in the image of God, each should be treated in ways that are fitting to who they are. Insults, unhealthy sarcasm, lying, and hurting one another have no place in a fam- ily, because they dishonor both God and those made in his image. Parents and church ministries together must cultivate an atmosphere where children learn to speak to one another and act toward each other in ways that find approval in God’s sight.
The Trinity and Family Ministry
Family-equipping ministry seeks to partner with husbands, wives, parents, and children to assist them in learning what it means to be a family as God intends them to be. Men embracing biblical manhood, women embracing biblical womanhood, and children embracing their biblical roles under their dads and moms–this is what the family-equipping church seeks to foster and to advance. In each of these roles, the model of the Trinity provides invaluable guidance, for we see in the Trinity that the Ones who submit are fully equal to the One who holds ultimate authority in their relationships. Equality and distinction, oneness and difference, unity and harmony, mark the Trinity. These same realities, in finite measure, ought to mark the family relationships we enjoy, as persons created in the very image of the triune God.
(1) This article has been excerpted from the forthcoming book Trained in the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical, and Practical Perspective, ed. Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones (Grand Rap- ids: Kregel Academic, 2011). Used by permission.
(2) For further study of the doctrine of the Trinity, both as a central doctrine of the Christian faith and for the relevance and application it has for the Christian life, I recommend the following: Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: Inter- Varsity, 2009); Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2004); Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005); James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1998).
(3) For further explication and clarification of submis- sion structures within the Trinity, see Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005) 46-66, 87-102.
(4) For interaction with alternative positions on this matter, see, e.g., S. Kovach and P. Schemm, “A Defense of the Doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42 (1990): 461-76, and, B. Phillips, “Method Mistake: An Analysis of the Charge of Arianism in Comple- mentarian Discussions of the Trinity,” Journal for Bib- lical Manhood and Womanhood (Spring 2008): 42-47.
(5) A question may be raised here regarding how women should respond if their husbands engage in abusive behaviors. While this specific issue is beyond the scope of this article, the editors recommend reference to Ware, Father, Son, and Spirit, 146-148; David Powli- son, et al., “Pastoral Responses to Domestic Violence,” in Pastoral Leadership for Manhood and Womanhood, eds. Dennis Rainey and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003) 265-277; and, the Statement on Abuse from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (http://www.cbmw.org/Resources/ Articles/Statement-on-Abuse). See also the article by Heath Lambert later in this issue.