How can there be subordination in the Trinity?

The "Trinity" is a word picture used by Christians to explain our understanding of what the Bible teaches relative to the nature of God—that God is one being but three persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. It conceptualizes for us an answer to what and who God is. God, by nature, is one eternal being. God, by identity, is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The idea of subordination, a willingness to submit one's own authority to the will of another, is a vital one for us to understand, as this understanding aids our own relationship with God. God is one, yet is also three distinct persons each having His own desires, will, and ideas; the three persons of God exist in relationship with one another, within Himself, and in perfect unity. This is a picture of how we, too, can live in a relationship with God.

First, the issue of subordination does not have to do with God's nature. All three persons of the Trinity are equally God—there is no ontological difference. Rather, subordination refers to how the persons of the Trinity relationally interact—there is economic subordination. It should also be noted that subordination is distinct from hierarchy. The question is not, "If there are three distinct persons of the triune God, and they are all equal, how is it that one is higher than the others?" The better question comes when we realize it a not a matter of one distinct person choosing to be higher than the others, but rather one distinct person choosing to submit to the others.

In Philippians 2:5–8, Paul explains what this subordination looks like: "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." It is in these verses that we see Jesus' willingness to submit His own authority to the authority and will of the Father. We see this also in Jesus' prayer with His Father just before His crucifixion: "[Jesus] withdrew from them [the disciples] about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, 'Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done'" (Luke 22:41–42).

Jesus, as God and as man, had His own heart and emotions. He "marveled" (Matthew 8:10), He was filled with sorrow (Matthew 26:38), He was "deeply moved in his spirit" (John 11:33–35), and He prayed and cried (Hebrews 5:7). Jesus has His own will, separate and distinct from God the Father (John 6:38; Matthew 26:39). Still, He chose to make Himself vulnerable. He chose to subordinate His own will to the will of the Father so that a plan of salvation would be made known; and this plan, enacted by the will of the Father, and agreed to by Jesus, included His death on a cross.

The Holy Spirit likewise is God. In Acts we read that Peter challenges Ananias by saying, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? … You have not lied to man but to God" (Acts 5:3–4). Peter, the disciple of Jesus and leader of the early church understood that the Holy Spirit is God.

Additionally, the Holy Spirit has His own heart, emotions, and will. He can be grieved (Isaiah 63:10; Ephesians 4:40), He prays to the Father for us (Romans 8:27), and He gives gifts to people "to each one individually as he wills" (1 Corinthians 12:11).

Jesus teaches that the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father: "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit has His own will, yet He allowed Himself to be sent by the Father just as Jesus was sent by the Father.

The Trinity remains a mystery in many ways. We do know that God is one and also three distinct persons. We know that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equally God and are also distinct from one another. Subordination within the Trinity refers to the way the persons of the Godhead relate to one another. It also helps us understand the various roles the persons of the Trinity fill. Again, subordination in the Trinity does not refer to who God is, but to what He does. Properly understanding this can help us avoid heretical teachings about the nature of God, such as denial that any of the persons of the Trinity is, in fact, God.

Understanding subordination in the Trinity can also help us to understand the importance of our own submission to God and to one another (Philippians 2:5–11; Ephesians 5:21; James 4:7–10).

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