Ballroom dancing must be the western culture’s last bastion of patriarchy. A few months ago Nikki (my wife) and I ticked off our to-do-list by taking up dancing. Like most modern couples, we struggle to find time together. Dance was meant to solve all that: intimacy, music, and romance. But it’s all gone strangely awry. You see, Carol—my female instructor—turned out to be a chauvinist. “Males always lead; the woman’s role is to follow,” she informed. The guy next to me nervously looked at his partner. I snickered. Sexist men of the world, your safe haven is in a dance hall near you! Then again, perhaps another bastion of patriarchy remains …
How about the church? In the eyes of many, Christianity is as patriarchal as it gets, where men dominate and women are subordinate. How backward! How countercultural! “How could it be otherwise?” some wonder, as from the top down, Christianity is a family business: a Heavenly Dad calls the shots, and directs his Son to save the world in the power of some mysterious Spirit! So not only do Christians hold to this bizarre notion of a three-in-one God, but this Trinity appears patriarchal, hierarchical, and monarchical right to the core. No wonder so many feminists have preferred to walk out the door. In the words of one woman, “Christianity is a masculinist religion and irreformable.… The question for many women is whether they can be Christians.”
The church certainly has a lot to answer for when it comes to (mis)treatment of women. But my dance experience has got me wondering if such critiques have made a mis-step when it comes to this Triune God. Watch a novice like me, and you’ll see some ugly leading. Skill is short, and so are cues, so I push and pull and occasionally step on Nik’s feet. But when I watch Carol and her partner, it’s so fluid. There’s rhythm and poise, and I can’t tell where the leading ends and the following begins. “Subordination” is never a word I’d use to describe their dancing. Instead, “grace” comes to mind. Each works to make the other look good; each moves in beat to a higher rhythm. Thinking on the Trinity, then, what word best describes the motions of Father, Son, and Spirit across time? How about an old Greek word, “perichoresis.”
When Basil and his Cappadocian brothers framed the Trinity way back in the fourth century, they chose this word. Meaning? It means to dance around. Perichoresis means that three distinct persons are in such an interpenetrating dance that three become one: echad—to borrow a Hebrew noun—a composite unity, where each blends into the other with no beginning or end. (Think of when the multiple members of your favourite sports team work as one.) Each member moves to glorify the others—to highlight their true beauty and prowess. And what is the higher rhythm of this dance? It’s mutual submission to the beat of love.
Look around. Western culture is fixated on freedom. But we want it without strings attached. I, Me, My, Mine. We seize power, and seek independence—so screw anyone who gets in the way or holds me back. In this mindset, feminists like Betty Friedan have painted any type of submission—such as a female dancer to her lead—as dehumanizing. Women like Carol who dance to these rhythms are not “fully human.”
The Trinity, however, suggests another way. It reveals that at the heart of the universe is a relationship. We are built for community. Radical independence only leaves us lonely. But mutual submission—of men to women, and women to men—is the path to life. And far from oppressing, this triune God has suffered on our behalf through Jesus, to throw open this divine dance for all to participate. And this God, who is essentially Spirit, transcends all gendered metaphors, longing to embrace us as a mother does her children. If we are willing, that is.
Freedom always comes in a form. And what is the form in which we are most free? It’s love. To quote Jürgen Moltmann, “God is love. That means God is self-giving. It means he exists for us: on the cross… Through the concept of perichoresis, all subordinationism is avoided… Here the three Persons are equal; they live and are manifested in one another and through one another.”
So, this coming Wednesday you’ll find me back in the dance hall. And this coming Sunday, you’ll find me worshipping this three-in-one God. Why? Because the longer I dance, and the longer I sing, the more convinced I am that God’s dancing around in love is the only foundation for what we all want: a truly humane community of men and women moving together in inter-dependent freedom.
 Daphne Hampson, The Independent, 13th Nov. 1992, cited by Rosie Nixson in Liberating the Gospel for Women, Grove Evangelism Series No. 28 (Bramcote, Nottingham: Grove Books Ltd, 1994), p3.
 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Bantam, 1972), 77.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM), 83, 176.