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 (mysterion; sacramentum) 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.