The Trinity vs. Hierarchy

One of the common themes that we circled around last month in our vespers talks and sermons on the Trinity is that there is no "greatest" in the Godhead.  The idea of a Trinitarian hierarchy is an oxymoron.  Jesus promoted servant leadership, and rejected ideas about "who will be the greatest in the kingdom" (Matthew 18:1-5).  And when we see Him teaching servant leadership to His disciples--and saying things like "the last will be first and the first will be last" (Matthew 20:16)--this was simply an overflow of the servant leadership within the Trinity as each member of the Triune God takes turns in leadership, support, and submission when it comes to the plan of salvation, and all is done in love.  We also talked about how biblical marriage calls for love and submission of both spouses, instead of tyranny of any one partner--because this is a reflection of the love God has, both for humanity and within the Trinity.

The support for these ideas has already been laid down in previous talks/articles--This article does not seek to defend the ideas further, but to show why it matters so much that we turn away from any notion of Trinitarian hierarchy. And much of why it matters is wrapped up in an unfortunate view, which many call "headship theology." 

What is headship theology?  Here are some concepts from which it is drawn:

  • Ephesians 5:23 - The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is Himself its Savior.  
  • Matthew 11:27 - All things have been handed over to Me by My Father . . . 
  • These verses are wonderful and obviously represent scriptural truths.  However, it is no secret that Bible truth can be twisted to say something it never intended to say. 
  • Last month, we talked about the concept of a Trinitarian hierarchy: A Timeless (unreachable) God over Jesus, saints as mediators, Mary as head of Jesus, etc.  
    • Protestants have created their own version of that in headship theology:  Where the Father is over Jesus, Jesus is over the Church (whose leaders are men), men are over their wives, wives are over children, etc.  

Now, don't misunderstand me:  I don't mean to discount the Biblical view of Jesus’ role in the Trinity: He was sent by the Father, He submitted to the plan of salvation, the Father handed Him authority, etc.  Nor do I mean to discount the Biblical view of household roles: While husbands and wives are to submit to each other (and there is an equality in that relationship), there is an understanding of head of household (not one of tyranny but of love and support).  Let us also not forget the Biblical view of Christ as the Head and Savior of the church.  However . . . When we start thinking along these lines of Trinitarian hierarchies too strongly, we begin to sanctify earthly hierarchies.

God is over angels, like He is over humans, because God created angels.  Angels have different roles in heaven (Cherubim, Seraphim, Guardian Angels, Heavenly Host/Army, Archangel, etc.), but the only one who seemed to make a big deal out of this was Lucifer: Obsessed with hierarchy.  He wanted to be more than he was: Not top angel, but God rather than angel.  

Lucifer was envious and jealous of Jesus Christ. Yet when all the angels bowed to Jesus to acknowledge His supremacy and high authority and rightful rule, he bowed with them; but his heart was filled with envy and hatred.  Ellen White, The Story of Redemption, p.14.

So yes, God is over all--angels and humans alike.  There is a natural hierarchy where God is over all of His creations, but there is no hierarchy in the Trinity, as we explored in the sermon this month.  The members of the Godhead have different roles, but they serve and love and submit to one another.

To be clear, before we move on, what I am saying is that the only biblical hierarchy is the one where God is over all of His creations.  In the Trinity there is no hierarchy, and therefore on earth there is no hierarchy when it comes to the idea of "who will be the greatest in heaven" or even on earth.  The Bible speaks of many hierarchies on earth, but these are merely descriptors of functional realities and not an expression of God's ideal for humanity.  God created the first humans equal and, ideally, that's how it would have stayed, had it not been for sin.

Back to headship theology.  It is important to understand these ideas, in part, because this is the route that many who oppose women in ministry have taken:  Embracing a Trinitarian hierarchy in order to show that women should not be in ministry.  With this statement, I don’t mean to take a stand on the idea of women in ministry: There may be other reasons to reject the ordination of women, but headship theology brings dangerous implications with it. To be clear: The point of this article is not to defend or disavow women in ministry, but to show that headship theology seems to have found a stronghold amongst those (not all, but many) who oppose the ordination of women.

An illustration: Lately, I've been reading the book The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day by Sigve K. Tonstad.  There is an illustration in Chapter 10 of this book, where Tonstad makes the connection between Nehemiah's willingness to use force to enforce the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:21) and the Pharisees in the New Testament and their willingness to use whatever means necessary, including force, to silence Jesus and His supposedly unorthodox ways.  Nehemiah had a good intention:  To ensure that a people who recently came back from exile for disregarding God's commandments would start keeping the Sabbath holy.  But sometimes, even with the best of intentions, our methods can be unfortunate and have long lasting negative impacts.  This seems to be the case with headship theology.  The intention is good:  To preserve a biblical model of leadership, but because they fight so strongly for it, the method seems to overreach into an unhealthy realm.  

Because of their resorting to headship theology, some unhelpful implications have arisen in our church, in some circles.  First of all, a Trinitarian hierarchy can be problematic:  If the Father is higher than Jesus and the Holy Spirit, are the two "lesser" members of the Godhead fully God or are they almost sub-gods compared to the Father (an issue not inherent in all headship theology, but definitely an issue Adventism today, as was discussed in a previous article).  Further, if there is a Trinitarian pecking order, then hierarchies are a holy thing, and therefore we can claim biblical support for the establishment of hierarchies on earth. And with this, we are forced to ask the question:  Who is the highest on that hierarchical ladder, and who is the lowest? Who is closest to God in that order? What follows are some historical problems when it comes to this train of thought.

Are men closer to God than women?

Hierarchical theology has led many a church leader to consider women as inferior to men.  Observe these quotes by one of our favorite reformers, Martin Luther . . . 

There is no dress that suits a woman or maiden so badly as wanting to be clever.

God created man with a broad chest, not broad hips, so that in that part of him he can be wise; but that part out of which filth comes is small. In a woman this is reversed. That is why she has much filth and little wisdom.

And who can enumerate all the ludicrous, ridiculous, false, vain, and superstitious ideas of this seducible sex? From the first woman, Eve, it originated that they should be deceived and considered a laughing-stock.

Because Luther would have had a hierarchical understanding of the Trinity, it led him to seeing an earthly hierarchy on earth.  In his eyes, men were closer to God than women and therefore he felt comfortable saying and writing some very upsetting things regarding women.  He also had issues with the way he viewed Jews, which I will not address at this time.  Neither his views of women or Jews were unique to him, as many during his time (and also before him and even into our present time) had a view that said these groups were in some way inferior and further from God.

Are Christians closer to God than others?

With this question I don't mean to address actual salvational realities, such as Christ being the only one who can offer true salvation.  In many ways Christians could be considered closer to God because they are the ones who follow Christ, the Savior.  But this question does mean to ask: Just because you are a Christian (or because you call yourself one, or belong to a Christian church), does that mean God loves you more or that you have more access to salvation than anyone else?  The answer is obviously "no."  However, throughout history there have been examples of the Christian church using religion to set up a hierarchy: One where an in-group (whether it be Catholics or Calvinists or Lutherans, etc.) is excused to persecute and even kill an out-group (whether Muslims or Jews or Anabaptists, etc.) because that out-group is further from God.  Examples of this include the Spanish Inquisition and even the Manifest Destiny philosophy of early American pioneers. Christians have, unfortunately, historically persecuted non-Christians because they felt they had the authority of being God's elect (read: highest/closest to God in the earthly hierarchy) and that somehow God would expect that the "heathens" be persecuted, even killed, if they did not convert.  With that kind of flawed view of God and humanity, would you join the church?  I would not.  This is part of why it is so important to have a correct and biblical view of who God is and what the Trinity looks like.  

Who is closest to God in the church?

There have as well, many times in history, been instances where even in the church, a hierarchy has developed.  One of the most striking examples has been in the Roman Catholic Church.  In the Middle Ages, Bibles used to be chained to the pulpit so that a common person could not steal it and read it for themselves.  Common folks, after all, could not understand it like the priest could and would only get confused or pervert Scripture if they were given the chance to view it for themselves.  So in this, we see a hierarchy that developed based on one's title and not purely as one's status as a child of God.

Theological hierarchies have developed as well:  This is why we have the word "heretic."  Not that there haven't been people with wrong theology in the past, but once the church branded a person as a heretic, it became ok to persecute them. This was evident in Calvin's church-state of Geneva, in which he violently persecuted those who strayed from his specific brand of Protestant reformation-theology (just as the Catholic Church would have persecuted him, if it had the chance). Even in early Puritan New England, there were many years where a person could not own land, vote, or even become a citizen of a community if they held any divergent theological beliefs from the town leaders.  

And, of course, throughout history there have been dozens of examples of the wealthy and powerful being given more grace than the poor.  The indulgences called for by the Roman Catholic Church (which ended up being an impetus for the Protestant Reformation) are one famous example of this.  But has the tendency to treat the wealthy as somehow holier or more worthy of forgiveness departed from the church since then?  Of course not.  On the other hand, no one would make the claim that a rich person is closer to God than a poor person, but it seems easier for church leadership to let things slide when the perpetrator has donated much over the years than it is to forgive someone who has given little.  

Is any race closer to God?

Our list would not be complete without addressing the issue of race in church history.  The KKK was (and is) a very religious organization, which considers it a virtue to belong to the Nordic race, and the Protestant Christian faith.  Therefore, those with dark skin, as well as Catholics and Jews are considered to be "lesser-than" in the eyes of a KKK proponent, and this idea has led to much violence and persecution against these out-groups.  

Again, the Manifest Destiny philosophy of early Americans was not much different. Native Americans were seen as savages and not among the "elect" of God's people who crossed over to the New World from Europe.  When the diseases they brought over killed many of the natives (because their immune systems weren't used to European germs), they saw it as divine displeasure of these natives and divine providence that they--the new settlers of the land--were chosen by God to repopulate America.  This further is evidenced in their continual forcing-westward those natives who survived the diseases.  

In the Mormon Church, racism has only recently been denounced.  In the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew tribe of Lehi comes to America and after their father passes away, the older brother Laman is jealous and violent toward his younger brother Nephi.  Because of his evil and jealousy, God eventually curses Laman and his descendants with a physical mark of dark skin, to differentiate them from the pure Nephi and his family.  As the story goes, the dark-skinned Lamanites eventually destroy the fair Nephites, which has traditionally been the Mormon church's explanation for why the Native Americans all had a darker skin tone than the Europeans who came later--they were the descendants of the evil Laman, and therefore not part of God's chosen elect.  With this historical backdrop, racism was an institutional feature of the Mormon church up until recently, when the church made some large-scale reforms in order to appeal more broadly to today's American audience.  


In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.  Galatians 3:26-29

The only way for this verse to become reality in our lives is to stop seeing the Trinity as a hierarchy and to start seeing it for the mutually loving, supportive, and submissive collective that it is. The God we serve determines the person we are, so if we serve a God that has a pecking order (The Father being over the Son and the Son being over the Spirit and the Spirit being over the men of the Church, etc.) we will promote an earthly pecking order. Always. If we ever use our race, our gender, our position, our socioeconomic, or our religion (etc.) to lord over others, we are not serving the God of the Bible. 

This is how we achieve equality and unity on earth: By a correct, biblical view of God, and by proxy a correct, biblical view of humanity.

Before we end, the question must be asked: Will we ever achieve this? Is our goal a utopia of equality and unity and peace?

For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  Matthew 24:37

Biblically, things don't seem to get better from here to the Second Coming.  But we can still work to reach as many as possible for the kingdom before the end comes.  Let us not allow earthly hierarchical thinking get in the way of reaching as many people as possible for Jesus. We want to be prepared when His Day comes, and we want to bring as many people with us as possible.

- Pastor Zachary Payne