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Trinity and Marriage

It's Trinity month in the blogosphere.  And it's Thawed-out Thursdays on Christ the Truth.  So here are two posts from 2010 that (appropriately enough) I've combined into one.  It's all about the one-ness of marriage as defined by the one-ness of the Triune God...


Husband and wife are meant to be one.  Nothing could be clearer.  Think on each of these phrases from Matthew 19:5-6:

The two shall become one flesh.

They are no longer two but one.

God has joined together.

Let man not separate.

Oneness is a priority for married couples.  The question is - what kind of oneness?  Because not every kind of unity is good unity.

There are all sorts of dysfunctional unions - think of a couple feeding each other's sins.

Or there's the Abuser-Victim relationship, or the Rescuer-Victim relationship.  On the surface these marriages look very different, but in both there's a sick one-ness in which the couples are locked into deeply dysfunctional roles with each other.

Then there's the pathologically jealous spouse who is forever suspecting infidelity because their partner has interests outside the home.  They are looking for a kind of unity.

Or there's the subtle and unspoken compromises we make with our spouses - I won't challenge you here, if you don't challenge me there. For the sake of unity we decide not to 'rock the boat'.

Or there's the couple who sing the Seeker's song:

Close the door, light the light, we're staying home tonight
Far away from the bustle and the bright city lights
Let them all fade away, just leave us alone
And we'll live in a world of our own

We'll build a world of our own, that no one else will share
All our sorrows we'll leave far be-hind us there
And I know that you'll find, there'll be peace of mind
When we live in a world of our own

This is unity for unity's sake, with nothing larger to guide or direct them.

So unity in a marriage is not good in itself.  There are some really unhealthy ways in which the two can become one.  So what kind of oneness does Jesus want us to have?

God's Oneness

The trouble with all the above concepts of unity is that none of them model God's unity.  In this post we want to examine God's oneness in two regards.  First, we'll think about how God's unity as a unity on mission.  Secondly, we'll think about how the Trinity models a unity that is held together with distinctions in equality.

Unity on Mission

So, first, the unity of the triune God is not unity simply for its own sake.  It's a unity that's going somewhere.  This is what the missio Dei is all about.  God is the ultimate Missionary.  His very being is a sending forth of Self in His Son and Spirit.  To wind the clock back into the depths of eternity you find that God is always the Sending God.  There is not a God who then decides to go out on mission.  There is only the Missionary God - the God who speaks His Word / shines His Light / sends His Son.  This is not just what He does - it's Who He is.  God's unity is a relational unity of Persons who go out and draw in.  God's unity is (in Richard Sibbes' phrase) a "spreading goodness".  It is of the nature of this unity to be on the move.  On mission even.  And it's of the nature of this overflowing unity to draw others in.  It's not a unity that excludes others, but a unity that seeks to bring more into its own way of love. God's unity is a unity on mission.

And this is the kind of unity we are to look for in marriage.  Our unity is not supposed to be one that closes the door so we can 'live in a world of our own'.  It's a oneness that is for others.  Our marriages exist to overflow - with natural children and with spiritual children.

This paints our marriages on a far larger canvas.  The purpose is not simply to become one.  The purpose is to have a oneness that's going somewhere - i.e. a oneness that witnesses Christ to the world.  An undefined oneness can easily turn into idolatry.

(Note that this is exactly parallel to unity in the church - ecumenism for ecumenism's sake is not the unity which we should seek.  We pursue unity in mission - not unity in unity.)

And just as God's unity is a habitable unity - opened out in the Spirit to those adopted in the Son, so our marriages are to be habitable unities - opened out to spiritual and natural children.

We shouldn't pursue a oneness that then has mission as an afterthought.  We should pursue a missionary oneness - a oneness for the sake of mission and a mission that forges and reinforces the oneness.

If we pursue this kind of oneness, when the time is right we'll be able to challenge sin and complacency in marriage.  If done in wisdom and love, such challenges don't compromise but rather uphold true marital unity.

If we pursue this kind of oneness, interests outside the home won't be thought of as intrinsically threatening but quite possibly as opportunities for our missionary oneness.

If we pursue this kind of oneness, we won't make our marriages into our own private heaven - seeking the kind of relational nourishment that can and should only come from Christ.  Instead we will experience the kind of healthy marital oneness that exists for a purpose far more fulfilling than cosy nights in.

Unity in Distinctions and Distinctions in Unity

We've seen that a married couple are supposed to be one.  But not every kind of oneness is healthy.  So what kind of oneness should we pursue?  First, it should be a unity on mission.  Now we're considering the truth that our unity must embrace and uphold our distinctives. Again we're beginning with the truth that our unity is modelled on God's unity.

And when it comes to God's unity, there are all sorts of illegitimate ways of understanding God's oneness.  These are called heresies!  Here we'll see how they map onto recognizable marital problems.

Trinitarian heresies...

Any orthodox account of the trinity needs to be able to answer three questions.  How are the three Persons united?  How are they distinct?  And how are they equal?

If you can only answer one of these questions well, you're at the corner of the triangle and you don't really have any kind of trinity.

If you can answer all three questions well you are inside the triangle - hopefully in the centre.  You are orthodox.

If you can only answer two of them then you're at A, B or C - along one of the sides of the triangle.  You have two aspects of a good trinitarian theology but not three.  In other words, you're a heretic.

At position A you have subordinationism (also known as Arianism).  Here the Persons are united and distinct but not equal.  So Jesus is the first creature.  God still mediates all his business with creation through him.  But actually Jesus is on the creature side of the Creator-creature line.  He is decidedly inferior to God.

At position B you have tritheism.  Here the Persons are distinct and equal but not united.  You have effectively three gods.  They might defer to each other and work really well as a team.  But there's no substantial unity.

At position C you have modalism (also known as Sabellianism).  Here the Persons are united and equal but not distinct.  Effectively you have only one Person who wears different masks at different times.  The oneness is an all-consuming oneness that swallows up any ideas of difference/otherness/mutuality etc.

Where you want to be is in the centre of the triangle.  There you can respond to all the questions with the same answer:

How are the Persons united?  Asymmetrical mutual indwelling (i.e. love!)

How are the Persons distinct?  Asymmetrical mutual indwelling (i.e. love!)

How are the Persons equal?  Asymmetrical mutual indwelling (i.e. love!)

But if you get this wrong you drift away from the centre and towards one of the heresies.

I would suggest that if you attempt to answer those three questions in three quite different ways you'll run into trouble.  But that's a different post.

Marital heresies...

Other than the triune relationships, there are two other relationships in which humans particularly share in this kind of mutual indwelling.  The relationship of Christ and the church.  And the relationship of husband and wife.

In this post we'll limit ourselves to the marriage side of things (though obviously this is derivative of the Christ-church relationship - see e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:3).

So let's think about what it means in marriage to have a healthy sense of unity, distinction and equality.

It's worth asking the questions of your own marriage:

On Unity:

Is there an intimacy between you deeper than what you experience in any other human relationship?

Do you have a oneness that is going somewhere (hopefully the same place!)?

To put it another way, Do you have a sense of 'face-to-face' unity and 'side-by-side' unity?

On Equality:

Do you look at your spouse as your equal?  Do you honour them, upholding and valuing them in love?  Or is there a sense of superiority - contempt even - residing in your heart?

Do you perhaps have an unhealthy sense of inferiority?  Do you meet your spouse as an equal or do you shrink away, allowing them to dominate (to theirs and your own detriment)?

Do you both play an equal part in where you're going as a couple?  (Even though according to different roles)

On Distinction:

Does your relationship foster or smother distinctive strengths in each other?

Does your marriage foster or smother distinctive roles of head and body?

We have to die to our selfish, individualist selves when we marry.  But as you serve one another in love, is your relationship drawing out the real you?

If you're doing well in only one of these categories, it's unlikely you actually have a marriage!  If you're doing well in all three then hopefully the distinction, equality and unity are mutually informing each other in a healthy way.  If you've got two but not three of these areas covered (which is where all marriages tend to be to one degree or another) then you've got problems.

What do Marital heresies look like?

These are the kinds of 'heretical' marriages we tend towards:

At position A we have the Arian marriage: unity and distinction but not equality.  This might take the form of  a Noble Rescuer married to a Poor Unfortunate.  Or an Abuser and a Victim.  Or your garden variety Superior Patroniser and their Silent Admirer.  Here we have the mystery of how such unity is maintained amidst all this inequality.  But codependency is a fascinating study!

There are all sorts of no-go areas within and outside the marriage since the power structure must be maintained.

The danger of an affair here is either the arrogance of the more powerful partner who feels entitled to it, or the amazement of the weaker partner to find someone "who actually respects me!"

In traditional churches, Arian marriages may go unnoticed as a problem.


At position B we have the tritheist marriage: equal and distinct but not united.  The couple run on parallel tracks, more like a working co-operative than a marriage.  There is no 'face to face' closeness and this might well stem from a deep fear of personal intimacy.

In all this shallow engagement, the danger of an affair is the distinct possibility that either one will find someone "who actually touches my soul!"

In busy churches, tritheist marriages may go unnoticed as a problem.


At position C we have the modalist marriage: united and equal but not distinct.  Here the couple get lost in each other.  Not in the Christ-like way of losing your life in order to gain it.  This is more like strategic people-pleasing, but they may not be aware they do it.  They won't really know who they are but tend to think and act in the collective.

They have learnt well the no-go areas within the marriage and are very threatened by no-go areas outside it.

In these marriages there may be an abiding fear of an affair that is completely unjustified.  But the danger of the affair comes when one of them finds someone "who actually appreciates my gifts!"

In nice churches, modalist marriages may go unnoticed as a problem.


Now these are sweeping generalizations and there are massive margins for error.  I'd be glad to hear any feedback you might have.  But, as with trinitarian theology, it's always good to be aware of which particular heresy you're most in danger of falling into.

It also means, when faced with a Superior Patroniser, you don't have to call them a smug git.  You can call them an Arian!


4 thoughts on “Trinity and Marriage

  1. tim parker

    This is tremendous analysis and incite. I don't know if it is right or completely wrong. I read to the very end and Glen, what a sense of humour! I son't know who this post is really aimed at, there is higher understanding going on here, way beyond a lot of folk , I guess. Slightly puzzled how a clear trinitarian diagram/triangle can be 'imposed' on male/female marriage. However it verges on the terrrifying, ie where does the reader fit in the scheme of things and to that extent introspective. One the one hand the audacity to push theology to the 'limits' and then to set a kind of 'Cosmo.' style questionning into the bargain. All I could think of when the going got tough ie questionning got difficult, was to say, thank goodness for Christ, may he sort this one out and lead on out so that my existence is lead by his vicarious life, whatever that is!!
    You have a lot of courage to write like that, where all this is sourced I don't know, but it is , as i say, strangely academic and Christian 'Lifestyle' all in one.

  2. Glen

    Hi Tim, yes it's a strange intersection of theology and 'Cosmo' style quizzing. I think it speaks to me because my interests are exactly in that cross-over between trinitarian theology and pastoral theology (which is my biggest tag in the sidebar). If it speaks to others, all well and good.

    But you're right - what I've laid out here is essentially law! It needs a follow-up with "This is the good news for marital heretics, and here is the kind of Athanasian marriage it would free you into..."

    Another time!

  3. tim parker

    Yes, you know you are onto something when your trinitarian theology is inherently pastoral. The two are inseparable. yes.[above] certainly speaks...of man! But I thought we would get the lead-out man ie Jesus! , to answer or rephrase our questions/ or /reframe our 'condition'? That is to say, by focussing on the trinity and the hinge which is Jesus, I thought this 'quiz' would dissolve away in the approach of Grace. So why, if i am not pig-headed about it , why have the questions in the first place, unless you conceive of the magnificence of Christ as taking us 'beyond' the law and onto Grace? And at which point we can breath a sigh of relief.
    The more I look at this heady mix or intersection between biblical christianity - in the New Testament - with the lively influence of centuries of culture and the activity of sheer living, biblical formulation is one thing, but the interactions of the living God, viewed here (my me) as the mirad interactions of reciprocity and mutuality as lived out in our relationships, a mind boggling presence which can only quicken the mind and assert the perennial presence of God, if in fact we needed to be reminded. There would not be enough room in the world for that big book! (I use the words reciprocity and mutality, not because i know how to apply them, but because there would appear to be a rather more simplifed version of the categories you use.) Also, haven't you found, mired in all the complexities of our language, that it is rather reassuring when beyond our ability to formalise, describe, etc, there is the indescrible presence of Christ - in prayers, sorrows, joys....? Reality takes over where all these troublesome baggage of words leaves off. Surely, that has to be a relief. I find it so, but there again, I am parasitic upon those who are more cogent than i am in diligently discovering the text of life who is Christ for me, in the first place. All we simply need do then, is live it, in the only life we have, our own, with Him in it, the most interesting blend of theory and practice.

  4. Pingback: Happy Dying – Resisting A Counterfeit Headship « Christ the Truth

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