As human persons, men and women are created in the image of God. The Church Fathers have shown that many aspects of our humanity reveal the divine image, notably our ability to perceive God's presence and the spiritual realm, our intellect, our freedom of choice, and our capacity to enter into communion with God and live lives of goodness and love. These characteristics belong to every human being as such. But the leading twentieth-century Orthodox theologians have emphasized another aspect of human identity that has tremendous importance: to be made in the image of God is to be made in the image of the Holy Trinity; like the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, human beings are persons. This means that we are free and are able to know and love others, but it also means that our belonging to the community of humankind, our relatedness to other people, is at the very root of who we are. The three divine persons are forever united with each other in mutual love, they dwell in each other. They collaborate continually, sharing as one in all their activities. They are related to each other in a specific order, a taxis, since the Father is the source of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Yet they are completely equal to each other, and each is completely free and possesses royal dignity. Though they are three persons, they are one God, and they always act in unanimity.
This provides a model for the ideal human community, in which people are united by mutual love, they work together in harmonious consensus, and the equality and dignity of each person is respected. In a 1986 article, Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia explains what this means in practice.
Each social grouping-family, parish, diocese, church council, school, office, factory, nation-has as its vocation to be transformed by grace into a living icon of [the Holy Trinity],. to effect a reconciling harmony between diversity and unity, human freedom and mutual solidarity, after the pattern of the Trinity. Our belief in a Trinitarian God, in a God of social inter-relationship and shared love, commits us to opposing all forms of exploitation, injustice and discrimination.1
The bishop develops these points further in a 1997 essay.
Belief in a God who is three-in-one, whose characteristics are sharing and solidarity, has direct and practical consequences for our Christian attitude toward politics, economics and social action, and it is our task to work out these consequences in full detail. Each form of community-the family, the school, the workplace, the local eucharistic center, the monastery, the city, the nation-has as its vocation to become, each according to its own modality, a living icon of the Holy Trinity.
The next paragraph suggests the orientation human communities are called to adopt as they move toward this goal. What is needed is not rigid, defensive or unthinking conservatism, but a compassionate creativity, always reaching out toward others, to include everybody within the circle of mutual love and solidarity.
When as Christians we fight for justice and for human rights, for a compassionate and caring society, we are acting specifically in the name of the Trinity. Faith in the Trinitarian God, in the God of personal interrelationship and shared love, commits us to struggle with all our strength against poverty, exploitation, oppression and disease. Our combat against these things is undertaken not merely on philanthropic and humanitarian grounds but because of our belief in God the Trinity. Precisely because we know that God is three-in-one, we cannot remain indifferent to any suffering, by any member of the human race, in any part of the world.2
As the Russian religious philosopher Nicholas Fyodorov has said, "Our social program is the dogma of the Trinity." One need hardly add that this way of understanding the Trinity as a model for human community necessitates a strong affirmation of the dignity and equal status of women as human persons. It mandates unambiguous opposition to their degradation, oppression or exploitation in the context of family, workplace or society.
Some Orthodox Christians may question the value of regarding the Trinity as a model for human community. This is because the model has sometimes been interpreted in a way very different from that of Bishop Kallistos. It has been taken to mean that the family and human society should be restructured along very authoritarian lines. In its extreme form, the argument behind such a position can be stated as follows: Although He is fully God and entirely equal to the Father, the Son obeys the Father completely. He renounces Himself and does only what His Father wills. So, following Christ's example, in human society women, laypeople and other social subordinates are even more obligated to "cut off their own will" and obey totally and without question their (exclusively male) superiors. This does not undermine their human equality and dignity, since Christ's obedience did not compromise His divine dignity.
If this position is correct, it empties of all content the concepts of human rights, justice, and nondiscrimination that Bishop Kallistos so eloquently affirms. One is simply supposed to obey all authority figures, as far as death if need be, in order to share in Christ's cross.
Surely this second picture is one-sided to the point of distorting theological as well as ethical truth. To understand why, it is necessary to look more closely at the parallel between the Holy Trinity and human community. Let us remember that every analogy between the absolute mystery of God and limited human realities breaks down beyond a certain point. There are ways in which the three divine persons, who are one God, differ from human persons. Therefore human communities can imitate the divine community in some ways but not in others. It is important to consider which aspects of the Trinitarian communion can best be imitated in human interrelatedness, and which aspects of the shared divine life and activity belong uniquely the three divine persons and lie beyond human possibilities.
Specifically, since they are one God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by nature share one will and one activity in a way that human beings do not, no matter how closely people work together. St. Gregory of Nyssa explains the difference. Even when three people work on the same job, they each perform different actions. Each worker does a different part of the task. For instance, if three carpenters build a house, each nail is hammered in by one of them, not by all three together. So their collaboration is not actually a single activity but a harmonious combination of different activities. In contrast to this, as St. Gregory says, the Holy Trinity acts as one in doing all that God does-creating and governing the universe, guiding our lives and bringing about our salvation.
Regarding the divine nature, we have not thus learned that the Father does anything by Himself in which the Son does not take part, or again that the Son acts separately in anything without the Spirit; but every activity3 that extends from God to the creation. . . starts from the Father and goes forth through the Son and is completed in the Holy Spirit.4
Thus, we receive life from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Each of the three persons is present as life-giver in sovereign freedom. Each contributes in a distinctive way to the giving and also to the gift, since in giving life they are giving themselves personally. Yet their will and the common activity that expresses it are one. Thus, whenever God acts, it is the activity of the whole Trinity together. The divine will and activity always originate from the Father, but the Son and the Holy Spirit always cooperate with Him freely, not, to use another patristic analogy, like slaves, but like fellow emperors. So their common will always expresses the free unanimity of the three.
In accord with this divine model, freedom and dignity for each person and orderly, unanimous cooperation constitute the highest ideal for human community. Yet often, because human wills and actions differ from each other even when people endeavor to work together harmoniously, this ideal is not fully attainable in practice. Theoretically, Church councils are supposed to make unanimous decisions, but history reveals a very different picture, even at the Seven Ecumenical Councils. The Holy Spirit had to work through, around, and even in spite of the messy ambiguities of fallen human existence. The question then becomes, which aspects of the Trinitarian ideal can be attained, and which aspects should have priority when the ideal can only in part become a realistic goal?
The authoritarian approach emphasizes the fact that the Son and the Holy Spirit obey the Father in everything, though they are entirely equal to Him. Unanimity is attained through obedience, through the self-emptying of followers, who defer in everything to their leaders. This is an unbalanced model of human community. Equality, personal dignity, mutuality, and diversity in unity are likely to be suppressed for the sake of obedience. It is a hierarchy without conciliarity, whereas the Holy Trinity is hierarchy that is also absolute conciliarity. All three of the divine persons defer to each other in love. Their common life is free and equal dignity, mutual collaboration, unity-in-diversity. So a healthy and loving human community aims to manifest these aspects of the model, not only obedience. Thus the distorted authoritarian view of human community can lead to a distorted view of God as well. A one-sided understanding of the Trinity that emphasizes only the self-emptying and obedience of the Son and the Spirit toward the Father risks emptying their equality with the Father of all content. In other words, it risks falling into the error of Arianism. When this happens, it diminishes above all our perception of the Father's glory.
The Fatherhood of God
The key to a balanced understanding of the Trinity both in itself and as a model for human community is a correct apprehension of the character and role of God the Father. Orthodox theology emphasizes the monarchy of the Father. This means that He as a person is the root and origin of the Son and the Holy Spirit. He is also the source of all that God is and all of God's will, activity, and self-manifestation in the created world. He is the principle of God's unity; God is one because the Father is one. But what kind of Father is this? He is one who begets the Son and breathes forth the Holy Spirit so as to endow Them with everything He is. He gives Them all His divinity, all His glory, all His creative power, all His authority. He lets Them act on His behalf to create, sustain, and perfect the universe. He allows the Son and the Holy Spirit to represent Him and make Him known in the world. He does not keep anything for Himself alone but shares everything He is and gives everything He has to Them. Their greatness is what constitutes His glory as a Father. It is wrong to think that in the Trinity self-emptying and deference to another person belong specifically to the Son and the Holy Spirit. The self-emptying that is particularly characteristic of the loving and humble God, like everything else, begins with the Father. The Son and the Holy Spirit respond to His humble love by offering the same back to Him, so Their relationship is mutual. In St. John's Gospel we read that the Father has given the key divine attributes of glory and judgment to the Son, and yet the Son seeks only to glorify the Father and defer to His judgment.5 This character of mutual love, humility, and self-offering, which has God the Father as its foundation with the Son and the Spirit, is what provides the model for human community. Ephesians 3:15 speaks of God the Father as the one "from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named." Human fatherhood thus has the vocation to become in a very real sense the image and likeness of the divine fatherhood. Let us note that this does not mean human fathers or patriarchs are to be understood as models for God as Father, just as people are not supposed to create, or imagine, God after their own image. Given God the Father's character, as William J. Abraham observes, "it is surely obvious that the form of patriarchy we encounter in God could be profoundly subversive of the kinds of patriarchy we encounter in the world," and further, "encounter with the fatherhood of God may totally transpose our understanding of what it is to be a human father."6
In addition, the Orthodox tradition recognizes that the closest human likeness to the Father's eternal relationship with the Son He begets is actually the virginal childbearing of the Theotokos. Each of them achieves the whole act of generation and the fullness of parenthood without the help of a partner. The Son as God receives His whole divine nature from the Father alone, and He receives His whole human nature from His mother alone. It follows that through the Mother of God, the divine Father becomes the model for human mothers as well.7 Indeed, He is the ultimate model for all parents, and for leaders in all kinds of human communities.
One more important point needs to be made about God the Father. We often think of Him as the utterly transcendent one, the ground of absolute and unattainable divine mystery, and so He is. Yet, as Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy observes, He is also intimately present to the faithful. Bobrinskoy cites John 14:23: "Those who love Me will keep My word, and My Father will love them, and We will come to them and make Our home with them." The Father's intimate presence, which makes present the eternal Kingdom, is solemnly invoked in the Divine Liturgy, when the priest asks that "boldly and without condemnation we may dare to call upon Thee, the heavenly God, as Father, and to say, 'Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. . .'" Although the Father does not become incarnate like the Son, nor is he poured out in tongues of fire at Pentecost like the Spirit, He also descends in love from the height of divine majesty to share Himself with His children.8
The Transfiguration of the Human Community
All people have a need to receive guidance so that they can continually grow in love for God and for one another, that they may be transformed from glory to glory into the likeness of Christ. "Give instruction to the wise, and they will become wiser still; teach the righteous and they will gain in learning" (Prov. 9:9). We are all by nature followers. And because of the needs of followers, there will always be leaders in human communities, and God has given people gifts to lead in various ways. So it is natural and inevitable that hierarchical structures emerge in society in various forms. Some of these structures are informal and others formal, some may be permanent while others arise temporarily to enable the collaborative accomplishment of specific tasks. The interpersonal relationships in the Holy Trinity are loving, free, dynamic, and supremely alive, not dead, static, or confining. Likewise, human leadership needs to be loving, dynamic, practical, and flexible enough to respect every person's dignity, uniqueness, and distinctive ways of being related to others. Like God the Father, the leader is called to provide a strong foundation enabling other persons to use their gifts in mutual service and collaboration. He or she has the task of establishing a framework in which all can freely and creatively share themselves with others in loving, dynamic interaction.
God does not abolish human hierarchy but transfigures it from within into conciliarity, into mutual love and communion among persons who all share freedom, equality, and royal dignity. The primary burden in this labor toward transformation is borne by leaders, whose vocation is to take the initiative in humility and self-offering, following the example of the Father, and of Christ Himself (cf. Luke 22:25-30). Followers, too, are called to collaborate in this essential communal effort. When the leaders do not do their part, the followers can still work toward the goal, perhaps by obeying their leaders anyway but perhaps by looking for other ways to further the dignity, freedom, and equality of all, along the lines that Bishop Kallistos suggests.
The transformation of human communities into a life of Trinitarian mutuality, communion, and collaboration is very difficult. God's grace is needed in abundance, to be sure, yet even then the challenge is daunting. Hence it is understandable that many feminists have given up on the idea of hierarchy altogether and produce idealistic visions of exclusively egalitarian community in the family, the workplace, and society as a whole. It is easier to believe that hierarchical structures are inherently unredeemable than to envisage their genuine transfiguration, as Christ taught by word and example. However, if His teaching is to have credibility in today's communities, real effort must be made to put it into practice. It must not be used simply to provide empty rhetorical justification for old, fallen, oppressive uses of authority.
Egalitarian utopias prove unrealistic in practice because people naturally still need to be led, and because some always emerge with gifts of leadership. Revolutions tend to produce new "revolutionary" leaders, who may be more authoritarian than those they have overthrown. So hierarchy cannot be abolished, but when we cooperate with God's loving will, even in part, it can be changed for the better. Instead of withholding what they possess leaders can share it, instead of excluding others they can include them, instead of pushing people down they can lift them upward, instead of creating barriers and distances they can create community. Followers also can and must work toward these goals. Then human communities can begin to be transfigured into the likeness of the Holy Trinity.