One of the areas in which Conservative forms of Christianity seek to distinguish themselves from the wider culture is their understanding of sexuality. As I have been contemplating this in recent months I have been helped by an observation in James Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing The Churches Debate On Sexuality, that the notion of gender complementarity lies at the heart of evangelical views on sexuality. Whether it be the argument that leadership in the church and home is to be defined by gender, or the argument that homosexual partnerships violate a God ordained pattern of gender complementarity, or the rejection of transgenderism, the fundamental argument is that gender is essential rather than constructed. A certain set of qualities that requires a certain ordering of relationships are thought to belong to people by virtue of their biological sex.

The late evangelical doyen John Stott articulated this view in Issues Facing Christians Today. In his chapter on homosexuality he pointed to the fact that Genesis 2 speaks of woman being created out of the flesh of the man,and then of the man and woman becoming “one flesh” again in sexual union.

[This] teaches that heterosexual intercourse in marriage is more than a union; it is a kind of reunion. It is not a union of alien persons who do not belong to one another and cannot appropriately become one flesh. On the contrary it is a union of two persons who originally were one, were then separated from each other, and now in a sexual encounter of marriage come together again… heterosexual intercourse is so much more than a union of body; it is a blending of complementary personalities through which, in the midst of prevailing alienation, the rich created oneness of human being is experienced again. And the complementarity of male and female sexual organs is only a symbol of the physical level of a much deeper spiritual complementarity.

Robert Gagnon, whose The Bible And Homosexual Practice is widely lauded as the finest contemporary work articulating a conservative evangelical view of homosexuality, follows a similar line of argument.

Yet in all of this there seems to be confusion. When it comes to defining what it is that is essential to gender conservative evangelicals flounder when they try to nominate anything beyond biological capacities related to reproduction. When Stott speaks of physical complementarity signaling a deeper spiritual complementarity, one wonders what he actually means. The argument requires us to believe that there is something essentially different in the way men and women engage with God and the world.

In an otherwise excellent article on unconscious gender bias, Caroline Turner asks us to imagine a masculine-feminine continuum on which

Strengths of the masculine style include confidence, authority, decisiveness, competitiveness, and handling conflict directly. Examples of strengths of the feminine style are collaborating, seeking and gathering input in making decisions, valuing connection, and influencing through persuasion.

I assume that the author sees these as socially constructed rather than innate to men and women. But when we argue for an essentialism to gender these are precisely the sorts of places we are led to. Men and women are then trapped inside the essentialist boundaries of their gender.

The moment an essentialist tries to spell out what is essential to gender we end up back with Aristotle and the notion that people’s identity and capacities are determined not by a complex interplay of genetics, biology and environment that is unique to every human being but by their belonging to a particular group. This allowed Aristotle to argue that some people are by nature suited to slavery and some to being free; that women are by nature are less intelligent and less trustworthy than men and thus in need of control by men.

One way out of this is to argue that essentialism does not relate to being but to function. Many Complementarians, for example, speak of roles assigned by God to men and women, but shy away from the notion that men are essentially more fit to lead. My problem with this is if there is no essential difference between men and women, the notion that one sex should lead and the other should follow is completely arbitrary. It is difficult to imagine any reason that God would ordain things be this way.

The other option is to reject the notion of gender-based essentialism. I think there is a form of essentialism at play in human beings but it occurs at the level of the individual rather than the group. Every one of us has intellectual, emotional, and volitional characteristics that are shaped by our genetic make up and our environment.

I’m still thinking all this through, but it seems to me that those of us within the evangelical wing of the church need to think much more carefully about gender, identity and sexuality.

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