This is the second in a series of articles that looks at the impact the Trinity has on Christian worship. The material has been adapted from my doctoral thesis.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated that he dreamed that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color or their skin but by the content of their character.” Character is an interesting thing. One has it before any action is taken, but another cannot see it until it is displayed by action. Character is something intrinsic to the person. An individual’s character defines him. He is his character. It is the same with worship. It is easy to think of worship as something the church does; after all, worship is a verb. But there is another sense in which the church brings glory to God by its existence. The church is worship.
How can this be? Simply put, it is why humanity was created. Genesis 1:27 states that “God created man in his own image. . . male and female he created them.” God did not create an individual but a pair, a community of people. Even in the following chapter in Genesis where Adam is created first, the story highlights the fact that the individual was meant to live in community with his own kind (Gen 2:18). While creation in the image of God does confer all individuals with worth and natural rights, the image of God applies equally to the creation of the community and its most basic unit, the family. From the beginning, this original community included God, but the presence of sin has broken this fellowship. It is only through the work of Christ that true community, a community that embodies the image of God in relationship with God, can be reestablished. This restored community is the church.
The hallmark of the Christian community should be the same as that of the Divine community: love. God has many attributes, but love is only one that applies to God in himself. All of the other qualities we think of – goodness, holiness, mercy, etc. – are in relation to created beings but love his how the persons of the Trinity relate to each other. Likewise, love is meant to saturate the church. At the first, this love relationship is expressed between the church and the triune God because, as the adoptive children of God, Christians share in Christ’s filial relationship with the Father thus participating in the life of the Trinity. The reality of the life of the Trinity as the model for the Christian life means that the relationships expressed within the Trinity are as important as God’s character and his commands. We are to love others – both inside and outside the church. The trinitarian relationships of the church can be expressed in the same language as the relationships with the Godhead. Inside the church, we find three primary categories: unity and diversity, authority and submission, and mutual indwelling. Relationships outside the church can be expressed in terms of mission.
Unity and Diversity
Within the Trinity, there exists a unity of being/essence and a diversity of persons, as well as a unity of purpose within the whole and a diversity of action in the particular. In the same way, the church is one body made up of many local assemblies, or on the smaller scale, it is a local gathering comprised of many individuals and ministries. Christians do not share a single essence as the Trinity does, but rather a kinship, all being made sons of God and coheirs with Christ. All of the redeemed, being clothed in Christ, stand equal before God (Gal 3:28). Even so all Christians are not the same and reflect a wonderful diversity. As with the Trinity, so with humanity, there exists no conflict between the equality of all and diversity.
The key here is diversity as opposed to division. In the Spirit, believers are united in Christ but there exists a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, purposes, and gifts (1Cor 12:12-14). We are to honor and respect the differences among believers so long as those aspects are not contrary to God’s character or law. As sinful creatures, it is easy to distort the variety that God has ordained for good. On one hand, there is a tendency toward uniformity, which by necessity erases all distinctions, and on the other, is the desire to turn distinctions between individuals and groups into barriers of fellowship. The Apostle Paul addressed this very issue in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31 which leads directly into the famous love passage. The point is that the diversity of the body of Christ is a good thing when expressed in love, for it is love that leads to unity and from unity love leads to expressions of diversity. With the Trinity, contemplating the three leads back to the one which in turn leads back to the three – and so with the unity and diversity of the church.
Authority and Submission
Just as the unity and diversity of the triune God is a model for humanity, the same is true regarding issues of authority and submission. Within the Trinity, the Father is the source of authority. It is he who sends the Son and the Spirit. For some people, relating to God as Father is difficult because of their experiences with their own fathers. Unfortunately, this is the wrong way to look at the situation. The Father is the source of all fatherhood. In the same way that the image of God was scarred by sin, all human experiences of fatherhood have been likewise damaged. We must see beyond human experience to glimpse at the truth. The Father is the perfect father, and the Son is the perfect son. Their relationship is the paradigm for all relationships where authority and submission come into play.
The Father sends the Son, and the Son readily obeys. The Son also asks things of the Father, which the Father does, but it should be noted that the things the Son asks for are in concert with the Father’s will in sending the Son. The unseen animus here is love. It is out of love for the Son and a desire to glorify him that the Father sends the Son who obeys out of love for and a desire to glorify the Father because love exercises rightful authority and love also submits to rightful authority. Because these types of relationships exist within the Godhead, they also exist among his creatures. When we live in harmony with each other in rightly ordered relationships we brings glory to God.
At first glance, the idea of perichoresis among human beings seems absurd. The closest thing to it I can imagine is dissociative identity disorder in which a person exhibits multiple personalities. Without question, this is not what God intended for humanity and cannot be an expression of the image of God. The issue changes, in my opinion, as we reflect on the Divine image among groups, specifically the family and the church. Within these groups it is not uncommon for one person to act on behalf of the whole, bearing the consent and goodwill of the larger body, and using resources gathered by the community. In such cases, the actions of the one are recognized as actions of the whole. As Christians, we experience unity in Christ through the work of the Spirit who dwells within each believer. So it is not that we indwell each other, but the Spirit who abides in all believers who makes us into the image of God.
This union in Christ by the indwelling of the Spirit creates a new community where we are connected and dependent on each other to supply our needs. This interconnection and interdependence allows for the many to participate in the actions of one, or to put it another way, for the one to act in place of the many and the many to act for the one. Where one weeps, all weep. Where one rejoices, all rejoice together. This indwelling happens in various ways: through prayer, giving, and service. True, the type of indwelling that exists with the Father, Son, and Spirit does not exist within the created order, but what does exist within the church is a reflection of that perichoretic relationship.
Lastly, we see the church as worship by virtue of its efforts to fulfill its mission. Participating in the mission of the Trinity is not a mere imitation of the trinitarian paradigm – it is a participation in the life of the Godhead itself. At no point is the mission simply that of the believer. Rather the believer, through union with the Son by the Spirit, participates in the Son’s mission from the Father. There is a tendency, to think of the mission of the church as simply the evangelization of the nations. Though evangelism is certainly a part of the church’s mission, the reality is much broader. We are meant to be an eschatological community that provides a foretaste of the full restoration of creation and images the triune God to the wider world.
In its unity and diversity, authority and submission, mutual indwelling, and mission the church enters into the life of the Trinity. Furthermore, the church brings glory to God by reflecting the image of the Trinity in the community we were created to be. This worship is done primarily through relationships within the community of believers in Christ with the empowerment of the Spirit. It has nothing to do songs or sermons, buildings or budgets. It has everything to do with how we live our lives in communion with the triune God and with each other. These are the worshipers the Father seeks.
Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).
Ware, Bruce A. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005).
 This statement and some of what follows can equally be applied to the individual believer. I have refrained from making the case for the individual in the interest of keeping things simple and highlighting how the community of believers follows the pattern of the Trinity.
 It is not my intent to make light of anyone’s painful experiences, but we all must attempt to understand God as he has revealed himself, and not lean too heavily on our prior experience or preconceived notions.
This is the first of a series of articles that looks at the impact the Trinity has on Christian worship. The material has been adapted from my doctoral thesis.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a knot of seeming contradictions that is held together by the belief that everything revealed in Scripture is true. This bundle of contradictions sits at the center of the Christian faith much like the hub of a wheel. At its core, the Trinity is a way of understanding who God is in himself. As such, all Christian doctrine flows from the reality of the Trinity. What the individual or church believes about the Trinity will either true the wheel of belief or skew it one way or another. There are three main propositions in the doctrine of the Trinity that must all be affirmed: 1) there are three persons, 2) each person is fully God, and 3) there is only one God. These affirmations guide us in the study of Scripture allowing as much of a glimpse into the infinite that the finite can hope for.
One of the first things that come into focus as we reflect on the Trinity is the relationship that exists between the three persons. The name given in Matthew 28, Father, Son, and Spirit, describes the Divine relationships evidenced in the pages of the New Testament. These relationships define each member of the Trinity based on his relation with the other two. The Son is the Son precisely because of his relationship to the Father, who is likewise Father because of his relationship to the Son and the Spirit. Moreover, these relations are eternal. The Father is eternally Father because the Son exists eternally. These distinctions between the persons as Father, Son, and Spirit are tremendously important to the Christian faith. Were these differences merely temporary, the whole of hope of the Christian would be only empty promises because humanity’s relationship with God takes place in and through the incarnate Christ. Imagine for a moment that Christ decided that he didn’t want to be human anymore. There would no longer be a human being bound up in the eternal love of God, and by extension we would no longer have a place in the triune life. Beyond being a foundation for salvation, the distinctions between the persons of the triune God also give rise to a perceivable order in which they not only relate to each other but to creation as well.
Before investigating this order, however, we must briefly look at perichoresis. Stanley Grenz defines perichoresis as “the interrelation, partnership, and mutual dependence of the trinitarian members not only in the workings of God but even more foundationally in all their very subsistence as the one God.” To put it another way, each of the persons of the Trinity, being completely God, contains the other two within himself. This mutual indwelling means that whenever one of the persons is in view, the others must necessarily come into the picture as well, for none exists alone. Examining the three persons draws us inevitably back to the one being and the one leads back to the three. Additionally, perichoresis is not merely a state of being but also impacts the way in which God acts. Whatever God does, it is the Trinity as a whole that does it – wherever one member acts, the three act together.
As the three act together, a discernable pattern emerges in which the action begins with the Father and is accomplished through the Son in the power of the Spirit. This pattern of from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit is repeated over and over in Scripture. Nearly everything God does exhibits this order. Conversely, when the movement follows in the opposite direction, it is a movement of worship. The Spirit glorifies the Son, who in turn glorifies the Father. What is more, the cycle of glorification does not end there. The Son is glorified by the Father and in turn, becomes the glory of the Spirit. The Trinity functions a community in which the Divine Persons eternally give and experience perfect love in the form of worship.
The ramifications of the economic order of the Trinity on worship are enormous. Too often worship is thought of as the action of the believer toward God. But within the trinitarian paradigm, worship is first and foremost the action of the Trinity and we are allowed to participate in the giving and receiving of love by the power of the Spirit. Worship does not begin and end with a church service or anything we do; it is eternal and ongoing within the Godhead. As we enter into worship by the power of the Spirit, we enter into the Son’s continual worship of the Father. From a human perspective, Christ is the only one true worshiper and we participate through him. Christ holds a unique position as the incarnate Son, he is both completely God and completely human and the only fit mediator between God and humanity. James B. Torrance notes that this mediation is a “relationship between God and humanity realized vicariously for us in Christ, and at the same time a relationship between Christ and the Church, that we might participate by the Spirit in Jesus’ communion with the Father in a life of intimate communion.”
The writer of Hebrews calls Jesus our leitourgos, which means minister or worship leader. By following the example of Christ we learn how to worship, and it is by worshiping united with Christ in the Spirit that communion with the Father is achieved, and the life of the Trinity open to humanity. Such a scheme is certainly Christocentric but not to the exclusion of the Father or the Spirit. Each person of the triune God is active and involved in bring people to worship, and our worship should recognize each member of the Trinity. Worship that focuses on only one person of the Godhead to the detriment of the others is a misrepresentation of the reality of the Trinity. Even worse is worship that recognizes God without any remembrance of the Three.
It is all well and good to say that the Trinity exhibits order, exists as a community of love, and that Jesus is the prime worship leader, but does this stuff really have any bearing on the lives of actual Christians? There are two broad categories of practical application that we will focus on in the next parts of the series: the church as worship, and the church at worship.
Cocksworth, Christopher. Holy, Holy, Holy: Worshiping the Triune God (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd Ltd, 1997).
Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004).
Parry, Robin A. Worshiping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012).
Thompson, John. Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Torrance, James B. Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996).
 Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 68.
 James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996), 31.