On Reading James Brownson

In the latest issue of The Living Church, I review James Brownson’s new book Bible, Gender, Sexuality. Here’s my summary of the book’s main argument:

Brownson argues that… gender complementarity is nowhere “explicitly portrayed or discussed” in Scripture. Genesis 2:24, the primary text to which traditionalists appeal to establish that complementarity, is, he argues, not speaking primarily of the difference between male and female but rather of their sameness. Adam needs one who is like him, rather than unlike him (Gen. 2:18-20). Therefore God creates a woman to be such a “like” partner (Gen. 2:20).

On the basis of their sameness, male and female are able to form a “kinship bond,” and the “flesh of my flesh” idiom in Genesis 2:23 thus functions the same way it functions elsewhere in the Old Testament: that is, to denote kinship, not a sexual, anatomical “fit” (Gen. 29:14; Judges 9:2; 2 Sam. 5:1 and 19:12-13; 1 Chr. 11:1). The sexually differentiated couple is then blessed to “be fruitful and multiply,” but they are not commanded to do so. Furthermore, their ability to do so is not the basis on which they are said to be in relation to one another.

If this is the meaning of the male/female relationship in Genesis 2, Brownson suggests, it then becomes unlikely that the Old and New Testament rejection of same-sex erotic behavior is based on a commitment to “gender complementarity.” Rather, when one investigates the contexts of the biblical proscriptions of same-sex sexual activity, one finds evidence that those proscriptions are based on fear of cultic prostitution (in Leviticus), idolatry (1 Cor. 6), or an “excess of desire” (Rom. 1). Exploitation, abuse, and lust are the watchwords here.

All of this, then, raises the question of what the biblical writers would have made of same-sex sexual relationships that do not show evidence of idolatry, promiscuity, and excess. Brownson argues that Paul and the other biblical writers never knew of such relationships and therefore we cannot treat his texts as though they say something about them. We are left, instead, to ponder what Paul’s texts mean for faithful, loving, monogamous gay unions in our time. And our conclusion, Brownson proffers, should be that when such relationships function like a “one flesh” kinship bond, then there is no reason why the Church should not welcome and bless such unions between Christians.

And here is what I concluded about that thesis:

According to the christological meaning of Genesis 2:24 given in Ephesians 5:32, the difference between male and female becomes not incidental to the meaning of marriage but essential. God established marriage, Ephesians suggests, in order that it might be a sign (mysterionsacramentum) of Christ’s love for the Church. In order for this parable to “work,” the difference between the covenant partners is required. The relationship between man and woman is here “related over and above itself to an eternal, holy, and spotless standing before God, in the love of the incarnate Christ for his bride, which is the Church”… Or, to borrow Karl Barth’s language, marriage is a parable, and for the parable to communicate its truth effectively requires certain kinds of characters, certain kinds of bodies, and not others.

This focus on gender difference—rather than the alleged presence of “exploitation” or an “excess of desire” in homosexual unions—would then explain Paul’s denunciation of same-sex erotic behavior in Romans 1:26-27. In their near locale, Paul’s descriptions of homosexuality link it to humanity’s turn away from the Creator to images of their fellow creatures. Difference is exchanged for sameness. As Simon Gathercole has written, “The key correspondence [between idolatry on the one hand and homosexual behavior on the other] lies in the fact that both involve turning away from the ‘other’ to the ‘same’ …. Humanity should be oriented toward God but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.25). Woman should be oriented toward man, but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.26). Man should be oriented toward woman, but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.27)”…

The communion of the “wholly other” God with his creation, which was mirrored in man’s turning toward woman and vice versa, breaks down in homosexual relationships, and thus the christological meaning of marriage and gender difference is obscured.

In future posts, I hope to consider some objections to the brief readings of Ephesians 5 and Romans 1 that I point to here, but for now I’ll just let the review stand on its own.

Brownson’s book is among the best and most accessible of its kind, and I hope others who want to defend the traditional Christian view of marriage and sexuality will engage with it.

17 thoughts on “On Reading James Brownson

  1. Pingback: On Reading James Brownson » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. stumbled across this blog from an article at theatlantic.com.. its courageous, balanced, thoughtful, and articulate.. i’ll be following along, God bless you!

  3. Very interesting review! I will have to check out this book. A couple thoughts: your argument would be stronger if you stayed closer to exegesis of the text. Your primary arguments are not coming from a close reading of the text but from theological abstractions from Balthasar, Barth, and Gathercole. I would be interested in hearing your personal exegesis of Ephesians. For example, you suggest that the christological use of Genesis 2:24 highlights sexual differentiation, But I am not seeing that. The metaphor is used to illustrate the concept of a man loving his wife in the same way that he would take care of his *own* body. For no one hates his *own* flesh. Actually, right now as I am reading the text and typing this I realize Ephesians would support Brownson’s view. His point is that Adam says this is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh–in other words a similarity–like my own flesh. And just like a man does not hate his own flesh, so he should treat his wife as his own body. This would actually mean *no differentiation.* The metaphor then is of an actual body–a *single* body. Christ is the noggin with the two eyes, nose, mouth, and the Church is the arms, legs. Christ and the church form a single body. So Christ nourishes his *own* body, not a differentiated separate body. Genesis 2:24 is then used to back up this idea of UNdifferentiation–the two shall become “one flesh.” Hmmm, quite interesting.

    • Karen, these are good thoughts. I wonder if we should make a distinction between *unity* on the one hand and *sameness* on the other. Genesis 2 does stress sameness as an important element in woman’s fitness as a companion for man (“flesh of my flesh,” etc). Ephesians 5 also touches on sameness, I think, in its use of the metaphor of a body, as bodies share much of the same “stuff” (going back to Genesis 2, flesh and bone, etc.

      But in my mind Ephesians seems more concerned with unity rather than sameness, given the metaphor of a body. Body parts are unified, not separate, to be sure, but they are also differentiated. The head is not a limb which is not a foot, etc. Paul of course also riffs on this image as a metaphor for the church as a whole. Genesis 2 also mentions differentiation (“male and female He created them”),even while stressing sameness at the same time. I think we have to ask why sexual difference is mentioned while no other sort of difference is mentioned.

      Both Ephesians 5 and Genesis 2 stress unity and sameness, but they both also seem to highlight difference in some measure (which is compatible with both sameness and unity).

  4. I should add that this metaphor of Christ as head and the Church as body has often been misunderstood because people tend to read “head” as CEO and “body” as an assembly of people. And thus, the husband is the CEO/manager of wife kind of interpretation. But the metaphor is a picture of an actual physical body–the head of a person and that person’s limbs and torso. It really highlights the intimacy and unity of a marriage because there is oneness. Of course it is all a mystery because Jesus is not literally a skull and we are not literally limbs. Rather, there is some kind of profound oneness between us and Christ. Just as Jesus prayed in the garden in John 17 that he and the Father would be in us and we would be in them. We would be one.

    The Old Testament uses more imagery around the Temple. God in a House. In the NT its a physical body. But of course, that physical body is considered to be like the temple–the place where God’s presence resides. Our bodies are now God’s house. That gets me thinking about how else Scripture talks about our oneness with Christ. Like having “the mind of Christ.” Or “God’s Spirit dwells in you” or “Christ is in you.” That gives the Gospel a whole new punch because it means we have been truly crucified with Christ and our sins are not counted against us. We are his body that hung on the cross “in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us.”

  5. As I was reading Wesley Hill’s summary of the main argument of this book, a few thoughts occurred to me.

    More than anything, it seems that Genesis 2 is about man having a companion *suitable* for him (and it’s unclear that marriage is even in view until the end). To be sure, part of woman’s being a suitable “helper” for man, to borrow the language of some translations, is her being similar in her humanity. Brownson is right to point this out as a main theme of the passage. But it does not follow that distinctness isn’t *also* a crucial element, which seems to be the thesis of this book (in part, at least). On this point, it’s hard to see why “male and female they were created” is mentioned at all unless it’s a central part of the creation picture and plan. No other variation is mentioned in the passage, such as race or ethnicity, so it’s hard to come to the conclusion that sexual distinction is merely another morally insignificant variation in creation (such as race and the like). And I think Hill is right that the “otherness” God builds into creation and wills that we appropriate/respect requires *distinctness,* both to ensure that marriage is a parable of a Wholly Other God coming into relationship with creation, and to ensure that human sexual love is “other-directed” in its very physicality.

    • Brownson doesn’t argue that male and female mean nothing. Rather he is pointing out that kinship is essential to marriage and procreation secondary. Procreation may be a natural result, but is not essential. Thus, marriage is still a marriage even without children. Genesis is about making someone your flesh and blood. The word “cling” used in Genesis of a man clinging to his wife is the same use of Ruth for Naomi. Ruth chose to make a kinship commitment to Naomi instead of going back to her own people.

      The whole idea of “otherness” and that helping us to connect with God as “Other” is a theological abstraction and not in Scripture. In fact, God came to dwell among us, became like us, so that we could relate to him. So that he would not remain Other.

      Also relying on the idea of Other suggests that people who are married can somehow understand and experience God more than single people.

      Brownson is not suggesting that male and female isn’t the norm. Or that procreation doesn’t belong in a male-female union. He is only suggesting that the Genesis passage doesn’t *require* a distinction since marriage is essentially about kinship and secondarily about procreation. He is suggesting male and female doesn’t necessarily have to be *normative* even if it is normal. The idea of two distinct beings coming together as one or two distinct halves coming together as one is from Greek philosophy and not biblical thought. Many of the conservative arguments are rooted in the Greek notion rather than the kinship notion.

      • Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that married people experience God more than single people. This is why I noted that marriage isn’t even in view until the end of the passage. I think man can live for woman and woman for man without marriage.

        The idea of soul mates that you are describing is a Greek idea, no doubt, but I’m not really talking about that. At least, I don’t mean to be. Highlighting the significance of distinctness isn’t the same as affirming the idea of soulmates to me.

        I think much of this all depends on what we mean by “Other.” I agree that God revealed Himself to us and is no longer *distant.* He is not “Other” in that sense. But God is still wholly other in the sense of being quite distinct from us in being. If marriage is supposed to be a parable for Christ’s love for the church, I suppose it makes sense that the two partners in that parable must have certain differences.

        The notion of kinship is definitely central to Genesis 2. But isn’t marital kinship different from other kinds of kinship (such as the friendship between Ruth and Naomi)? If so, what are the conditions for it? It’s not clear to me that the sex of the partners isn’t one of those conditions.

      • I might be being unclear. I’m sorry.

        I agree that kinship is a big part of Genesis 2, and that kinship encompasses both sameness and unity. But in order to establish his thesis, Brownson needs to show that that is *all* that is going on in Genesis 2 and Eph. 5. That sexual distinction/difference plays no defining role in the theology of marriage, that those passages only mention sexual difference as incidental to marriage (leaving aside the procreation aspect, which is my mind is a different issue, even if it winds up being related).

      • Kyle–I don’t think the Greek idea is only about soul mates–but about male and female as halves that must come together as wholes. At least that is my understanding.

        As for the idea of “Other”—what is your biblical support for a theology of marriage as “otherness” so that one can learn to love God as “Other”? I would need to see some actual specific references as I don’t see this notion in Scripture even though I understand its a popular theology of marriage. As for God being a distinct being–true–but Jesus changed that in the incarnation. Jesus was not a distinct being. He was fully human, even as he was divine. He became one of us.

        You refer to marriage as a parable for Christ love for the Church and you say differentiation is important in this idea. I guess I don’t know exactly what you mean. I don’t see why differentiation is necessary for Christ to love the Church. In Ephesians 5 the metaphor is about Christ nourishing his own body. So there is no differentiation because there is only a single body in the metaphor and its Christ’s own.

        As for marital kinship being different, Brownson would say no. But let me explain. Brownson gives good biblical support for showing that “flesh and bones” language as used in Genesis 2 is used throughout the OT to refer to kinship. In other words we are to understand the concept of marriage through the lens of “flesh and bones”–that is, kinship. Genesis 2 is saying that marriage is essentially joining to another person so as to make them your flesh and blood. The same is true with Ruth and Naomi. Ruth joined herself to Naomi–not to be a loyal “friend” but to make her the equivalent of flesh and blood (because apparently being an in-law was not the same). Brownson points out that there is nothing about procreation in Genesis 2. The message is the man and woman became kin. Now there are different relationships within–marital, mother-daughter, brother-sister. But they are all kinship. They are all meant to be understood as “flesh and blood” relations. So marriage is first and foremost a creation of a “flesh and blood” tie. But that does not preclude other aspects of marriage–such as procreation. Brownson’s point is simply that kinship is essential and primary to the definition of marriage but procreation is secondary. So, marriage can be defined as *first* the creation of a kinship tie. Then it is understood secondarily as the procreative unit. What makes the marriage relationship distinct from Ruth and Naomi is the fact that the Ruth and Naomi relationship is not a procreative. But they are in fact the same on the level of making of a “flesh and blood” tie.

      • Sharing Thoughts,

        Re: your earlier comment: True you could differentiate body parts, but I don’t think that is what the metaphor is trying to do. If you were referring to Paul’s discussion of gifts and how there are different gifts in the body, I could go with you. But that is not the metaphor in Eph 5. The metaphor isn’t making distinctions between body parts. Nor is it necessarily making a point about unity. The primary point as the text describes is how a person cares for one’s own body–feeding it, cleaning it, caring for it. We all shower and eat and look after our own needs, etc. There is only a single body in the metaphor and its Jesus own body. I don’t see anything in the passage that is emphasizing differentiation in that metaphor or even unity. Its a “taking care of/nourishing” emphasis.

        As for the “male/female” aspect–I agree there is something important about male and female. The question is whether it is the *definition* of marriage. Brownson would say its not the essential definition. That kinship is the essential definition (see my response to Kyle above).

        Brownson would suggest that our fixation on differentiation as the primary focus and definition of marriage stems from Greek philosophy. The idea that the original Adam was undifferentiated and that when woman was created that undifferentiated being was divided into two. And so a fixation on gender complementarity as the essential defining factor of marriage.

        Its not that male and female mean nothing. Its where the *emphasis* is being placed. Is marriage fundamentally about sexual differentiation? Is marriage trying to bring two halves together? Is marriage primarily about bringing two “others” into one? Is that what Genesis 2 is trying to says this is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh and cleaves to his wife? I think we have to look at the Old Testament more holistically to look at how these concepts of “flesh and bones” and “clinging” is used to understand the concept being conveyed. And I think exegetically Brownson provides the evidence that the *emphasis* is on the concept of kinship, creating a flesh and blood tie. And secondarily about the implications of male and female. The fact that something is derived from or secondary to does not make it irrelevant it just means that its not essential to the definition.

        In other words gender distinctions are not required for creating a *kinship tie*–the primary definition. But gender distinction IS required for procreation and procreation must occur within the kinship tie. So *first* a kinship tie is necessary so that procreation can ensue. The significance of male and female then is procreation. The question then becomes is the purpose of *sex* primarily procreation? If so, then sex must occur within a male/female union. Male and female then is not just normal, but normative for sex.

      • Hey Karen,

        Sharing thoughts and Kyle are in fact the same dude–me :). Sorry for the confusion. I was unclear on how to log in.

        You bring up a lot of good and interesting points. I won’t go point by point in response, but I want to address briefly a few of the foci of the theological/exegetical issues.

        (1) I think you are right that the head/body imagery in Eph. 5 is largely about nourishment. I suppose I was pointing out the differentiation involved in the image of a body to respond to this line of thought of yours: “Christ and the church form a single body. So Christ nourishes his *own* body, not a differentiated separate body. Genesis 2:24 is then used to back up this idea of UNdifferentiation.” As far as the image of a body goes, while there may be sameness and unity (at least if the body parts cooperate), there is certainly also differentiation. The parts differ from one another (the head from the body in this case). Still, I think you are right that the main emphasis here is nourishment, unlike Paul’s use of the body image for the church.

        (2) I agree that the OT concept of kinship is an essential component of Genesis 2 and the marriage relationship. I also agree that there are non-marital kinship ties in the Bible that are every bit as much kinship ties as marriage is. I think the question then becomes what, over and above kinship, is the marriage relationship intended to be? Or perhaps better, without any implication that marital kinship is “better” or “more” than other types of kinship, what is the nature of marital kinship (as God intends) as opposed to other sorts of kinship? Is it sex? If so, what are the prerequisites for sex? That is be procreative? That it be between two people exclusively? That it be with sexually distinct partners (for such and such theological reasons)? Certainly marriage is a unique kind of kinship. It’s not a brother-sister relationship, parent-child relationship, or Ruth-Naomi fictive kinship kind of relationship. So what makes a marriage? We just get back to the same questions, and Brownson’s main point doesn’t seem to give us any answers.

        (3) I always thought the Greek idea encompassed much more than merely the important of sexual differentiation in marital coupling. The traditional Christian emphasis on sexual differentiation may bear some resemblance to the Greek idea, but it seems far more curtailed, and it’s at least questionable that the emphasis in Christian theology came in through Greek influence, at least insofar as it is present in the Genesis text. But that just raises that very question.

        (4) On the notions of otherness and/or gender complementarity and their basis in the text, one might argue that gender complementarity is simply implied or assumed in the text by using male and female partners, by speaking of humanity as “male and female he created them,” etc. As for differentiation and its involvement in the Christ + Church image, I think the idea is that marriage demonstrates in its very physicality the bringing together of God and humanity (since sex is an act of physical love), two very different spheres. If anything, Christ’s becoming incarnate highlights the vast difference between God and humankind rather than dissolving it. The second person of the Trinity is brought close to us and even dwells within us, to be sure, but He is still distinct/different from us. And Jesus is one person, highlighting unity, but still two distinct natures. I think the idea is that this is the implied “mystery” behind the logic of husband and wife.

        Is gender complementarity or otherness (and its relevance to this image) mentioned explicitly in the passage? No, but it does seem like the theological implication given the partners selected and the image being used. What Brownson needs to show is that the sex of the partners is ultimately non-essential to the theology of marriage, even though its there in the text. But again, we are then left with questions regarding what *is* essential to marriage over and above a kinship tie. Or better, questions regarding the nature of a marital kinship tie vs. other sorts of kinship ties.

  6. Hey Kyle,

    I think your questions in #2 really get at the heart of the issue. You write: “what is the nature of marital kinship (as God intends) as opposed to other sorts of kinship? Is it sex? If so, what are the prerequisites for sex? That is be procreative? That it be between two people exclusively? That it be with sexually distinct partners (for such and such theological reasons)? Certainly marriage is a unique kind of kinship. It’s not a brother-sister relationship, parent-child relationship, or Ruth-Naomi fictive kinship kind of relationship.”

    You mention that marriage is a unique kind of kinship. I don’t think its any more unique than any other kinship relationship. You could just as easily say there is something unique about the parent-child relationship. I think we hold marriage up as an idol in the evangelical American church such that we really do think there is something unique. That is why its so hard for singles in the church. And incidentally why its so hard for Christians to consider the possibilities of platonic partnerships or covenanted friendships. Marriage is seen as the end all–the kinship relationship that really matters. But even though Scripture uses the metaphor of Christ and the Bride, just as much if not more so Scripture uses the image of God as our Father–thus an emphasis on the parent-child kinship.

    What makes the marital kinship different? As I said earlier, I believe its procreation. That is the only unit in which procreation is to occur. As for whether that is to occur between two people exclusively, the biblical record gives mixed messages on that since polygamy was never explicitly condemned. Although two people is certainly favored by the time of the New Testament.

    Should the parents in the relationship be sexually distinct–yes if the marriage unit is characterize by procreation since it requires male and female to procreate. This is where Brownson takes his argument further. He suggests that since marriage is *first* a kinship tie, that gender is not necessarily an issue for two people committing to each other as family (gay marriage). He then argues that procreation is not the sole purpose of sex, but also companionship. He points out the logical flaws in Protestantism that wants to consider sex about companionship but in the process loses the procreative rationale for denying sex to same-sex couples. The Roman Catholic church avoids this because it does believe procreation is the primary purpose of marriage and sex. So if marriage is based on procreation it has to be reserved for male and female.

    On #4 and your discussion of otherness, you need more to your argument. As your write: “On the notions of otherness and/or gender complementarity and their basis in the text, one might argue that gender complementarity is simply implied or assumed in the text” and “Is gender complementarity or otherness (and its relevance to this image) mentioned explicitly in the passage? No . . .”

    What is causing you to hold on to the notion of otherness theology without having very solid textual evidence, if any? Do you think there might be an underlying bias that is making you argue for that regardless?

    I sense that you noticed there is something important about male and female. I agree with you. But perhaps that importance is not what you previously thought it was. Are you willing to consider another way to look at it?

    You state things like “I think the idea is that marriage demonstrates in its very physicality the bringing together of God and humanity (since sex is an act of physical love), two very different spheres.” Where in Scripture do you find evidence for this? This is a modern notion. Most of Scripture views sex as about procreation. I think you are very influenced by post-reformation marriage theology that emphasizes companionship. That is relatively new.

    You still haven’t given me any solid exegesis supporting the otherness theology. If you find some passages and go through the exegesis verse by verse demonstrating your argument rather than making general theological statement that will help us to engage more on that idea.

    You also say that Brownson needs to show that gender is non-essential to marriage theology. I think you might be missing his point somewhat. If kinship is, in fact, the primary definition then gender is not *required* or normative. However, he acknowledges that the normal (not normative) outcome of marriage is procreation. I do believe that Scripture is emphasizing procreation in respects to male and female. This is why Jesus likely says there will be no marriage in heaven. No need for procreation. Also, you have to look at the context of Genesis 1 where it says God created them male and female. It comes in the context of procreation. All the creatures are recounted as being made after their own kind and then blessed to be fruitful and multiply. Then he creates male and female and blesses them to be fruitful and multiply. The whole context is all about procreation.

    Brownson argues that we have interpreted this as a command–we MUST be fruitful and multiply and therefore the Roman Catholic Church has erroneously made procreation the essential characteristic of marriage. All sex must be open to procreation, thus requiring male and female. However, he says the text reads “God blessed them, saying Be fruitful.” In other words its a blessing not a command. Its a blessing not a requirement.

    The creation of male and female then is based on procreation. We had to have male and female in order to propagate the species. It couldn’t be any other way.The marriage passage in Genesis 2, however, does not mention procreation. Instead it says the purpose is because its not good for man to be alone. This sees two different things happening. There is the creation of male and female broadly speaking for procreative purposes. Then there is the separate incident of “marriage” (though the text does not call it that) that focuses more on kinship and not being alone.

    I think its important to grasp the distinctions Brownson is making. He is not saying male and female is irrelevant. He is saying its normal, but not necessarily normative. In other words, its not *required* to define marriage which is first and foremost kinship and not being alone. And then within that kinship, male and female procreate–the normal outcome but not the required outcome.

    I think if Protestants are going to assert that sexual differentiation is required they will need to follow the logic and base marriage on procreation. If sexual differentiation is the defining factor of marriage then any sexually differentiated persons would qualify for marriage–such as brother and sister, mother and son, father and daughter etc. So clearly, marriage cannot defined only on sexual differentiation or “otherness”.

    I think the biggest gap in your argument is the otherness theology if you are trying to base it on something other than procreation. Maybe we can focus our discussion on that. Perhaps you can find more evidence? Or maybe consider other possibilities too if there isn’t sufficient evidence?

  7. Wes, Thanks for sharing this. I am not sure I am quite persuaded by your approach to Brownson since, as others have commented, I would rather do so on the basis of exegesis of Gen 2 in its own terms, rather than appealed to later reception of it. (This is where I think ‘conservatives’ go wrong in the debate about women; Gen 2 does not ‘really’ mean what Paul says it means…)

    My comments are here:


    Would be interested in your views.

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