An argument for “marriage equality” has become familiar in recent years: Fair treatment requires identical treatment, and identical treatment as applied to marriage means that any two persons can get married, whether they are a man and a woman, two men, or two women. This argument is now central to the same-sex “marriage” campaign, both in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion. But something is amiss. Equality in value does not require the sort of sameness in function that same-sex “marriage” supporters have in mind for men and women.
Where Does the "Equality" Argument Go Wrong?
Contrary to contemporary sentiments, it is possible for two persons to be equal in status—yea, even equal in power and glory and majesty—without being identical or interchangeable. Equal persons can, in fact, be radically different. Such is the case for the very persons for whom the word ‘person’ first acquired its modern meaning.
Contrary to contemporary sentiments, it is possible for two persons to be equal in status—yea, even equal in power and glory and majesty—without being identical or interchangeable. Equal persons can, in fact, be radically different. Such is the case for the very persons for whom the word “person” first acquired its modern meaning.
“Person,” derived from the Latin term persona, originally referred to a mask that an actor wore on stage. Later it came to signify the role that the actor sought to portray by wearing that mask. Then Tertullian, a church father who lived about two centuries after Christ, innovatively applied the word “person” as a reference to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In the Athanasian Creed, Christians profess faith in the Holy Trinity: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three persons in one Godhead. The creed’s explanation of how this can be so, challenges the assumptions that many people have about equality and difference. The creed emphasizes that equality and difference can, and do, co-exist without contradiction.
Compare that teaching to Judge Vaughn Walker’s August 4, 2010 ruling in Perry v. Schwarzenneger (the California Proposition 8 case). The judge recounted a history of social reforms that supposedly transformed marriage from “a male-dominated institution into an institution recognizing men and women as equals … compatible with gender equality” (slip op., p. 112). He ruled in favor of same-sex “marriage” in part because he could not conceive of marriage equality so long as the distinctions between male and female retained any relevance. The historic Christian faith has a different view of equality. The Christian faith centers around the beatific mystery that equality among persons does not require an obliteration of their distinctive identities, but instead celebrates the unique interpersonal relations that radical difference makes possible.
The Trinitarian Model for Personal Equality
The Athanasian Creed first affirms the fundamental equality of all three persons of the Trinity and then emphasizes the distinct and complementary roles that each person of the Godhead has. As for equality, each of them is God, uncreated, infinite, eternal, almighty, Lord. As for differences,
The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone, not made nor created but begotten.
The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten but proceeding.
So there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits.
And in this Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another; but all three Persons are coeternal together and coequal, so that in all things, as said before, the Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped.
The Trinitarian Model Applied to Human Persons in Marriage
Just as God is three Persons in one Godhead, a Trinity in Unity, so also husband and wife are two persons in one flesh, a binary in unity. Just as the three persons of the Godhead are equal, so also the two persons of the marital one-flesh union are equal. Just as the three persons of the Godhead differ from one another, so also the two persons of the marital union properly have distinct and complementary roles.
To attempt to form a “marriage” out of two husbands and no wives would be like making a god out of three Fathers with neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit. To do either of these because of an assumption that equality requires sameness would be to depart from the historic Christian confession that the mystery of marriage and the mystery of the Holy Trinity couple difference with equality. Genuinely speaking, one cannot have same-sex “marriage” any more than one could have a same-person “trinity.” The former results only in adultery, and the latter only in idolatry.
Through Christ alone can the world be delivered from such perversions. Even as Christ submitted to the Father, without losing His divine nature—but in fact thereby affirming His unique role in the Godhead, so also a wife submits to her husband without losing her human nature—but in fact affirming her unique role in the marital union. Let it neither be forgotten nor taken lightly that when St. Paul teaches that “the head of the woman is man” he immediately states “and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3). Christ submitted to the Father, not because Christ was less important or less than equal with the Father, but because He recognized that submissive service was His unique calling (e.g. Luke 22:42). Christ lived, and submitted, vicariously for our salvation.
Christ not only provides the model for wives to submit to their husbands just as He submitted to the Father, but also for husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Christ gave His life for the lost sheep not because he was like the hired worker seeking only his own gain, but because he was the loving Shepherd whose headship involved self-sacrifice (John 10:11-12).
If we want to know what it means for husband and wife to be created ‘in the image of God … male and female’ (Genesis 1:27), we may look to Christ, whose submission to the Father substitutes for our sinful failures to submit, and whose self-sacrificial love on the cross redeems us from our sinful failures to love.
Christ is the “image of God,” yes, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15). If we want to know what it means for husband and wife to be created “in the image of God … male and female” (Genesis 1:27), we may look to Christ, whose submission to the Father substitutes for our sinful failures to submit, and whose self-sacrificial love on the cross redeems us from our sinful failures to love. Sanctioning same-sex unions in the name of “marriage” does not merely violate the law that judged Sodom and Gomorrah. More tragically, it also threatens to obscure the gospel that would forgive us all.
So look to the Blessed and Most Holy Trinity—three distinct Persons who are one in the Godhead. There you will find forgiveness of your sins, newness of life, and eternal salvation. There, too, you will find the primordial model for marriage—for genuinely holy matrimony.
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschool children in Casper, Wyoming, where he serves as Academic Dean and Professor of History and Philosophy at Luther Classical College. He previously taught American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College, 2003–2023. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.