One of the most famous stories in the Bible is King David’s sexual abuse of Bathsheba. The account is rather brief. David, who has a demonstrated propensity for violence, is walking on the roof of the palace when he sees a woman undergoing a bathing ritual required by the law. David is consumed with lust. He makes inquiries to determine who the woman is, then sends a servant to bring her to the palace, where he sleeps with her and then sends her home again.
Then comes the complicating factor. Bathsheba discovers she is pregnant and, given her husband Uriah has been away fighting wars for some months, the child must be David’s. David is now gripped with fear that his crime will be uncovered and when his attempts to engineer sexual union between Uriah and Bathsheba fail, David arranges for Uriah to be murdered.
Throughout it all the voice and perspective of Bathsheba are missing. The narrator is telling the story of Israel’s Kings and so the focus is entirely upon David. But this silence has given subsequent generations license to shame Bathsheba. Rarely is it told the way it is. Bathsheba is summonsed to the palace by a king known to be violent, has no option but to sleep with him and is then summarily dismissed. In the popular Christian retelling of the story David’s reputation is protected from the claim that he committed sexual abuse and Bathsheba is seen to have acted shamefully. We are led to believe that Bathsheba willingly went along with David’s plans, or even that Bathsheba seduced David, deliberately exposed herself in order to gain his affections. My son’s youth edition Bible comments like this
Bathsheba found herself in a sticky situation. King David thought she was beautiful, so he invited her to visit the palace. Big mistake. She was married to Uriah, one of King David soldiers away in war. They betrayed Uriah, and Bathsheba got pregnant.… David and Bathsheba suffered severe consequences… Yet God still had a plan for Bathsheba’s life… God loved Bathsheba and forgave her sins, just like he forgives ours when we ask.
Are they serious? Bathsheba’s sin?!. David didn’t invite her to visit the Palace for morning tea and a nudge and a wink about perhaps getting into bed together. He sent his servants to get her, and bring her back so he could sleep with her. Do we honestly think there was an invitation? That Bathsheba had the opportunity to say no? David used his position of kingly power to force Bathsheba to have sex with him and then sent her home hoping he would not be found out.
Our attachment to David as a “man after God’s own heart” seems to stop us from saying what went on here. David sexually assaulted Bathsheba and then murdered her husband to try and cover it up. This was not an isolated act of violence. From start to finish David’s career is bathed in blood. He may have feared taking the life of King Saul, the anointed of God, but he had no qualms taking the lives of others – men, women and children. When he was living in exile among the Philistines he and his men would slaughter every last person in the villages they raided in order to cover up their crime. As he lay on his deathbed he counselled his son Solomon to slaughter his enemies at the palace in order to shore up his throne. This was the man whom God would not allow to build the temple because of the blood he had on his hands.
Surely this is a story for our times. We have been forced to confront the ugly truth that some of the priests we trusted and admired are child abusers; that some of our favourite movie stars and actors are serial abusers. My goodness, I’d have never guessed that Kevin Spacey, Rolf Harris, and Bill Cosby could be serial abusers. The United States has a president who admitted to sexually assaulting women and then explained it away as “locker room talk”. And I’m sure there are more revelations to come.
There are two things that I find particularly disturbing. The first is just how frequently this type of abuse seems to occur when power exists without accountability. There is something particularly dark in the human heart that sometimes leads us into twisted and abusive paths when we think we can get away with it. It seems that unaccountable power not only allows the “bad apples” free reign, but that it erodes the character of the good. We must abandon the mythology that the problem is located in the individual character of a few bad apples and recognise the problem is unaccountable power.
The second is our failure to see the wounds that are held in silence. In the telling of David’s story we’re exposed to his joys and sorrows, his strengths and his frailties, and in the midst of all his violence see someone who has a heart that yearns to do the will of God. Despite the best efforts of our childhood Sunday school stories to turn him into a flawless hero, as we carefully read the story we learn to see him as a multidimensional character. We don’t do the same for Bathsheba and the others who have only a bit part in the story. This gives us the freedom to overlook their pain, the consequences of their abuse, and even to shower them in blame.
We need to be attentive to the voices of the Bathsheba’s among us, to hear their pain, to stand alongside them as they share their stories, go with them on the journey to healing. We have become aware of this in recent days with regards to family and domestic abuse, something for which I’m thankful. I’m hopeful that in the responses to those who have spoken out against Harvey Weinstein and other abusers in Hollywood that we see a turning of the corner in which the power of the abuser will no longer blind us to the reality of the abuse. And I’ve seen it oh so painfully in the story of some of my LGBTIQ friends who continue to be wounded by a church that speaks about them without speaking with them and that does to them what centuries have done to Bathsheba.
The marriage equality debate is underway and I find that the no case is being most zealously prosecuted by the evangelical wing of the church. This also happens to be the part of the church I belong to. Sometimes the ways of this group of believers thrills me, sometimes inspires me, sometimes infuriates me and and sometimes disappoints me (and I no doubt do the same to some of my evangelical colleagues) . On the question of marriage equality I find myself frustrated and disappointed. I advocate for a yes vote, when most of my evangelical colleagues are saying no. I’ve tried to listen carefully and respectfully to the arguments, but remain convinced that evangelicals will come out on the wrong side of history on this one. In this rather lengthy post I lay out my reasoning.
The underlying issue
Evangelicals and other conservative Christian groups are prosecuting the no case with an energy that exceeds anything else in recent memory. We have taken our stand on refugees, homelessness and poverty, but the emotional energy being thrown into opposing marriage equality seems to be at another level of intensity. I don’t mean to suggest that conservatives have neglected those issues. I have stood shoulder to shoulder with my conservative brothers and sisters protesting aid cuts and advocating for refugees. Nor do I think the all too hastily applied epithet of “homophobia” explains the opposition of my fellow evangelicals. My Facebook and blog threads certainly suggest that there are some in our faith communities who are filled with fear and hatred of LGBTIQ people, but the church leaders I know who are opposed to marriage equality are people for whom I have respect, who are generous and gracious and who genuinely want to extend love to their LGBTIQ neighbours.
What I do sense is a concern at the ways our society is becoming increasingly liberal. It is the nature of conservatism to make changes slowly and incrementally and to many of my evangelical friends it seems we are rushing into changes to our understanding of sexuality and our social institution of marriage without being attentive to the possible negative outcomes. Yet I find the arguments they proffer rather brittle.
The nature of marriage
According to proponents of the no case, marriage is more than a relationship between two individuals; it is a relationship that provides the context within which children are born and raised. As such, they argue that it depends upon the biological complementarity of husband and wife. To recognise same-sex marriages would fundamentally alter the meaning of marriage. The Sydney Anglican booklet “What God Has Joined Together” claimed that “In order for same-sex couples to share in marriage, the definition must be changed to remove “founding a family” from the essence of marriage and focus the definition on the rights of a couple.”
The Marriage Act defines marriage as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. In neither the act nor the guidelines for celebrants provided by the Attorney General’s Department is there any reference to family formation. Likewise, when marriages are celebrated the focus is one the couple and not on family formation. The majority of weddings performed in Australia are now conducted by civil celebrants. I did a Google search for “marriage celebrants sample ceremony” and looked at the first five results. Not one ceremony described a marriage with reference to children. Rather the focus was exclusively upon the relationship shared between the couple.
It is somewhat ironic that the definition of marriage in Australian law and popular expression is precisely that which the opponents of marriage equality deem so dangerous! It is not the proponents of marriage equality who are asking to change the definition of marriage. The radical redefining of marriage is in fact being proposed by the opponents of marriage equality.
Removing gender from marriage?
The coalition for marriage website suggests that marriage equality will remove gender from marriage, and then invokes the Orwellian spectre of our children being taught that there is no such thing as gender. I find this argument baffling. A marriage between two men or two women will not eliminate gender. It will be a marriage between two people of the same gender.
The suggestion marriage equality will lead to the removal of gender from our schools is likewise problematic.The proposed changes to marriage and school sex education are both outworkings of a shift in the understanding of sexuality that is occuring in our society, so to suggest marriage equality will lead to our kids being taught crazy gender ideas is misleading. As is the notion that anyone is proposing the elimination of gender. The call to recognise that some human beings are transgender and others experience gender in a fluid way is not to argue for no gender, but for an expanded concept of gender that ceases excluding and marginalising those who don’t fit a binary model.
Impacts on children
Opponents of marriage equality frequently argue that same-sex marriages will have detrimental outcomes for children. They point to the right of children to know their biological parents and the need for children to have positive male and female role models.
The well-being of children should always be an issue of concern, but it is not an argument that pertains to same-sex marriage. To raise it here makes the assumption that marriage confers the right to have children. Indeed, the Sydney Anglican booklet “What God Has Joined Together” strongly implies this when it says that “while most same-sex couples aren’t seeking marriage so that they can found a family, there will be some same-sex couples who’ll want children if we make the change” (italics mine) and that “Recognising same-sex relationships as ‘marriage’ legitimates the right of all same-sex couples to equal access to assisted reproductive technology.”
The reality is that more than one third of Australian children are born out of wedlock, that lesbian and gay couples already have access to assisted reproductive technology and that lesbian and gay couples already have children and raise families. The 2016 census counted 46,800 same-sex couples across Australia, split almost evenly between female same-sex couples (49%) and male (51%). One quarter of female same-sex couples and 4.5% of male same-sex couples had children.
Having said this, it is worthwhile noting that the overwhelming consensus of peer-reviewed studies into the welfare and well-being of children in same-sex headed households shows that children in those households do as well as children who grow up in other household types. A literature review conducted by the Australian Psychology Association in 2007 found that “the family studies literature indicates that it is family processes (such as the quality of parenting and relationships within the family) that contribute to determining children’s well- being and ‘outcomes’, rather than family structures, per se, such as the number, gender, sexuality and co-habitation status of parents. The research indicates that parenting practices and children’s outcomes in families parented by lesbian and gay parents are likely to be at least as favourable as those in families of heterosexual parents, despite the reality that considerable legal discrimination and inequity remain significant challenges for these families.”. This conclusion was confirmed by a 2013 literature review by the Australian Institute of family studies.
Impacts on Freedom of Religion
Opponents of marriage equality argue that it will diminish religious freedoms. Claims have been made that Christian ministers will be at risk of prosecution if they articulate the opinion that same-sex partnerships are outside the will of God; conservative religious schools may be forced to teach that homosexual partnerships are equal to heterosexual; that Christian bakers will be forced to bake cakes for gay weddings.
These claims are reinforced by pointing to the experiences of countries that have legalised same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, there isa lot of unwarranted alarm occurring here.
In 2015 the Australian Catholic Bishops conference released a booklet entitled “Don’t Mess with Marriage”. The booklet cited a number of examples of attacks upon freedom of religion. The first example stated that “The City of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, ordered Christian ministers to perform same-sex weddings under pain of 180 days’ imprisonment for each day the ceremony is not performed and fines of $1000 per day”. This is a complete misrepresentation of what occurred. The ministers in question were a couple who ran a wedding chapel called “The Hitching Post” in which they advertised that they performed Christian ceremonies, civil ceremonies, and ceremonies for other religious traditions. When the city council passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation it specifically exempted “Religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, or societies.” (see http://opencda.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/LGBT-Ordinance.pdf.) At no point did the city council threaten or initiate legal action, but rather they recognised “the Hitching Post” as an exempt religious organisation. It appears that the owners of the Hitching Post misread the ordinance, believed they would not be exempt because they were a business, made noise about it that received national media coverage, and then sued the council for losses they experienced as a result of adverse publicity.
The second example that Don’t Mess With Marriage cites is that “Clergy in Holland, France, Spain, the US and Australia have been threatened with prosecution for ‘hate speech’ for upholding their faith tradition’s position on marriage; the City of Houston, Texas, has even subpoenaed pastors, compelling them to submit sermons to legal scrutiny when discussing sexuality.” I am not sure what specific instances the bishops had mind for Holland, France, Spain, the US and Australia, but the one specific example cited is again a misrepresentation. In 2004 the city of Houston passed a law banning businesses from discriminating on grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, colour ethnicity, religion, disability, age, etc. Opponents of the ordinance gathered 50,000 signatures to demand a repeal motion. The city rejected their petition on the technical grounds that the signatures were not provided in the correct form, which led opponents to launch a suit against the city. As part of the case, the city issued subpoenas for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by or approved by you or in your possession”. The city of Houston did not demand pastors submit their sermons on sexuality for scrutiny. Rather pastors who were part of a group that brought a suit against the city in which the legality of the signatures they had gathered was under dispute were asked to submit documents, including sermons, that would be pertinent in discerning whether proper processes were followed.
To be quite honest, I am finding that all too often when I look into the specifics of claims that freedom of religion is being violated the arguments appear overblown and exaggerated. In Australia, as in most western societies, antidiscrimination laws already prohibit discrimination against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation and gender identity. It is already illegal to incite hatred and violence against gay people; it is already illegal for businesses to discriminate in the provision of services; and it is already illegal to deny people employment on the grounds of their sexual orientation or relationship status. Religious bodies, including churches, welfare agencies, aged care services and religious schools, however, are usually exempt from parts of the antidiscrimination legislation. Businesses are not. If a gay couple wanted to hold a celebration marking their relationship, their anniversary, or the arrival of a child, it is already a violation of the antidiscrimination legislation for a bakery to refuse to bake the cake or for a caterer to provide them with catering on the grounds that they are homosexual.
Having said this, I expect that the next decade or two will see an increase in challenges to the exemptions to antidiscrimination law that apply to churches, Christian welfare services and Christian schools. This will be difficult and may well place new restrictions on religious freedom. These challenges will not however arise because of marriage equality, but due to shifting perceptions in the Australian community of what is acceptable treatment of human beings.
What’s really going on?
From my vantage point, it looks like evangelicals are publicly playing out our struggle to find our place in a post-Christendom Australia. Ever since the Australian constitution was passed (1901) Australia has officially been a secular State, but from the time of the British invasion until the mid twentieth century Christianity had a substantial role in Australia’s public life. It was widely accepted that Australia was a “Christian” nation that would pass “Christian” laws. This started breaking down in the 1950s and has accelerated to the point that Australia self identifies as a multi-faith, multi-values society united by a common commitment to cherish and respect each other’s freedom. Democracy protects people from the tyranny of the state, while liberalism protects people from the tyranny of the majority. We no longer look to the state to impose a uniform morality nor a uniform religion. Rather, responsibility for life choices devolves to the individual. Citizens are granted the freedom to live the lives they value and the responsibility to do so in ways that don’t impinge upon the freedom of others. The State is responsible to create the environment in which this can occur and to defend the freedoms of all citizens. This means I should expect to live in a community in which people hold values and construct lifestyles that are very different to mine. The problem for Christians and churches is that in terms of faith as a lived reality, we now find ourselves a minority, and we’re not sure how to inhabit that space. What do we do when the state proposes laws that we feel are at odds with our faith?
To my mind we do well remember the failure of the Christendom project. Christendom laid bare the painful truth that Christ alone has the character and wisdom necessary to bring together the moral authority of God and the coercive power of the State. When we mortals try to do this we inevitably end up with something resembling the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Calvin’s Geneva or Cromwell’s England. Rather than imbuing the State with the way of Jesus, Christendom saw the church joining the ranks of history’s oppressive powers. It was the Church that served as the priestly guarantor of divine blessing on European states as they colonised Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific, stealing land and murdering those who resisted. We celebrate heroes such as William Wilberforce, but forget that it was a church-backed state that presided over the transatlantic slave trade and then resisted its dismantling; that the majority of evangelicals in the United States argued against the abolition of slavery and saw the Christian abolitionists as subverting the word of God; that it was not the church, but the feminist movement, that demanded an end to the oppression of women and elevated their status.
Our opposition to LGBT freedoms has contributed to the marginalisation, hurt and oppression of LGBT people, and it continues to do so. LGBT Australians experience higher rates of depression, suicide, and mental illness than the wider Australian population. These are classic symptoms of marginalisation, abuse and oppression. This is why I believe every Christian should support marriage equality. The issue is not whether I believe same-sex relationships to be within the will of God. The issue is that it is not up to the church nor the state to make that decision for others, and that when we do so we contribute to a culture that doesn’t embody love but embodies hurt.
What does marriage mean? The debate over marriage equality has forced us to ask this question. It is a good question to ask. In a 2011 article for the Sydney Anglicans website, which was later abbreviated to appear on the Drum website, Anglican Rector Michael Jensen argued that to recognise same-sex relationships as marriage would fundamentally change the meaning of marriage. Marriage, he argued, has long been understood by diverse cultures as the union of a man and a woman whose biological complementarity signifies the “distinctive orientation of marriage towards the bearing and nurture of children” and replaces it with a relationship which places “sexual choice and emotional commitment at the centre”. Is he correct?
Certainly, through the long history of the church, the commonly held position was that procreation is central to marriage. In his treatise On the Good of Marriage, Augustine, perhaps the greatest theologian of the early church, argued that marriage has three goods: the begetting of children; the companionship of the partners and prevention of fornication. Yet while he understood procreation as essential to the purpose of marriage in general, Augustine also recognised that it was not necessarily essential to every marriage, arguing that
“here is good ground to inquire for what reason it be a good. And this seems not to me to be merely on account of the begetting of children, but also on account of the natural society itself in a difference of sex. Otherwise it would not any longer be called marriage in the case of old persons, especially if either they had lost sons, or had given birth to none.”
The importance of procreation to marriage continued into the early 20th century. A resolution passed by the 1920s Lambeth conference (a gathering of the Anglican church in England) stated
The Conference, while declining to lay down rules which will meet the needs of every abnormal case, regards with grave concern the spread in modern society of theories and practices hostile to the family. We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers physical, moral, and religious thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race. In opposition to the teaching which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing considerations of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists, namely the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children; the other is the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control. We desire solemnly to commend what we have said to Christian people and to all who will hear.
Does this not suggest Michael Jensen’s argument is correct? I don’t think so, for the simple reason that the meaning of marriage has already shifted. More than 1/3 of children born today are born out of wedlock; couples divorce and remarry even though they have children living at home; and couples without children, which includes many couples who choose not to have children, is one of the fastest growing demographics in the Australian population. These things suggest that Australians do not see an essential link between marriage and childbirth/child rearing.
The reason for this is that there was a fundamental shift in the meaning of marriage that began in the late 18th century and came to fruition in the mid-20th century. In her book, Marriage. A History Stephanie Coontz argues that for most of history marriage was not about satisfying the individual needs and desires of a man and a woman and their children, but a means of political and economic advancement. Today however marriage is precisely a “love match” in which the focus is upon satisfaction of the individual needs and desires of the married couple.
It is not same-sex marriage that will yield a shift away from the “distinctive orientation of marriage towards the bearing and nurture of children” and replace it with a relationship which places “sexual choice and emotional commitment at the centre”. That has already occurred and is deeply embedded in our culture.
Should this change concern us? I don’t think so. I belong to the Christian faith is, and while a couple of thousand years of Christian theology, grounded in screwy notions of female subordination and the inherent sinfulness of sexual intercourse, may have insisted on procreation as necessary to the meaning of marriage, the Bible does not. The only passage in the Bible that seeks to explain the reason for marriage is Genesis 2:18-25 and it does not link marriage to childbearing. God creates a man, places the man in the garden with the commission to till and keep it, then declares that “it is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him”. The only task the man had been given was to till and keep the garden, so presumably it is this with which he needs help.
God originally brought the animals to the man to see if they would be a suitable helper, but thankfully none was found to be so. Yet when the man comes across the woman he rejoices, not because he’s found someone who is other to him but because he has found someone who, unlike the animals, is just like him. Literally flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. This, the narrator comments, is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife and they become a new kinship unit.
The emphasis in the Genesis 2 story is not upon the “distinctive orientation of marriage towards the bearing and nurture of children” nor upon the biological duality (or any other duality) of men and women. Rather, the reason for marriage is that we find another who is just like us (ie human) with whom we can share life and its tasks.
Marriage throughout the Bible is built around this kernel. It goes all sorts of places we today reject – polygamy, levir marriage, taking wives as the bounty of war, the subordination of women to men – but it also provides us with this glimpse of possibility, that marriage can be that relationship in which we find delight and bonds of unity. I’m glad to be free of those past accretions, which means it’s sole force is its relational functions. That makes marriage at one and the same time more prone to breakdown than ever, yet capable of reaching greater depth than ever. That is what I think we need to be protecting.
Journalist Julia Baird has conducted research on domestic violence in the church that is being released as a series of reports on the ABC. It has already sparked intense discussion and people are getting defensive.
Surely this is a moment for deep introspection, a time for us to talk about the culture of our churches, and not to make this just another stage in the Complementarian v Egalitarian theology debate.
I abhor Complementarian theology (the view that God has assigned leadership in the church and home to men), but if this becomes a debate about Complentarianism it will shift the focus from where it should be : the perpetration of physical, emotional and financial abuse of women by their intimate partners.
What I believe we do need to do is ask questions about the culture of our churches. For example:
- Are our churches places where the voices and interests of men are favoured over the interests of women? I belong to a denomination that almost 20 years ago made it possible for women to serve as pastors, yet the last time I went through our list of churches and ministers less than 3% of churches had a woman serving in a lead pastor role. Does this not suggest that whatever our theological positions may be our culture does not value women’s voice and interests in the same way it values men’s?
- Are our churches places where the institution of marriage is prioritised over the wellbeing of people in marriages? I am shocked to hear of pastors who advise women they should stay within abusive marriages, but even where this is not the advice given, have we deified marriage, given it such importance that people feel trapped within marriages that are abusive? Are we guilty of making partners serve the institution of marriage rather than marriage serving the partners?
- What part do our theological positions on men, women and marriage play in creating cultures that militate against hearing the voices of abused women ? How do we counter this?
I hope that Julia Baird’s research helps us ask these questions, and more, and take action on them. Yes, the church will cop criticism, some of it fair and some unfair. But surely now is not a time to to get defensive, nor for me to assume smugly that this is a problem for Complementarians but not for me? Surely it is time to come with an open heart and open mind, to stop talking and start listening, and be prepared to repent where it is needed.
In the past few years I have done a lot of reflecting around issues of sexuality. One area with which I have only begun to engage is intersex, which I take to refer to people whose biological sex doesn’t conform to either male or female, and transgender, which I take to refer to people whose sexual identity is different to their biological sex. Some reflections:
1. Although intersex and transgender are relatively frequent – eg 1 in 2500-4000 people are intersex depending on what biological variations are counted as intersex – I have sent most of my 50 years on this earth with very little awareness that these are the experiences of some people;
2. I have had to learn to distinguish in a fresh way between biological sex and gender. While this at first was somewhat uncomfortable, I have found it a very helpful and sensible distinction.
3. Our cultural tendency has been to define sexuality in binary terms – male or female – and historically we have been dismissive of and intolerant to intersex and transgendered people. Historically there has been a tendency to associate deviation from a male/female binary norm with deviancy of character, leading many intersex and transgender people living with a sense of shame and fear of being exposed. This is something for which we as a community need to be deeply repentant;
4. Intersex and transgender are not moral states but biological-psychological states. It is not right/wrong to be intersex or transgender. It simply is;
5. Bringing intersex and transgender out of the shadows is a good thing. I am at a loss to explain why some people are opposed to this. Surely it is a good thing for people to be able to openly acknowledge and own their sexuality without being shamed, ostracised, or considered deviant?
6. I get that there will be debate about whether we enlarge our understanding of “gender” and “sex” to embrace the notion of multiple sexes and multiple genders or retain a male/female binary and acknowledge variations from this. At the moment I favour the former, for a couple of reasons:
a. It will help all of us recognise that whatever we may believe about the origins of sex and gender the reality now is that these are diverse;
b. The (admittedly little) I have heard from transgender and intersex people is that they frequently experience a male/female binary as reinforcing a sense of isolation and rejection;
7. This subject can evoke feelings of deep discomfort – after all sex and gender are central dimensions of human identity and for the categories to suddenly be changed can be confronting to the mental maps we have created to navigate life – but this is precisely why those of us who are not intersex or transgender must not allow our feelings of discomfort to drive our response. If I am feeling uncomfortable by the sudden (to me) broadening of the categories of sex and gender, this is nothing compared to the difficulties for intersex and transgender people in a society that has barely acknowledged their existence.
8. One of the best things we can do is listen to the stories of intersex and transgender people. A recent edition of Australian story, for example, focussed on a transgender teenager named Georgie. I found it incredibly helpful to my understanding of transgender and the issues confronting transgender people, their families and their communities.
9. I think this issue should help us recast a biblical theology of sex and gender. In particular, our discussion always seems to go back to the Genesis creation narratives, which of course makes sense. But I am now wondering whether we need a much stronger focus on Jesus’s statement about eunuchs and the absence of marriage in the kingdom to come and the Pauline construction that “in Christ there is no male and female”. It seems that these texts suggest that the redemption of creation will not involve a restoration of sex and gender to a creation norm but some kind of redefining of sex and gender. Not sure just what that means or the implications for how we construct sex and gender in the present but I suspect it’s where I need to do some thinking.
10. I am on a steep learning curve and looking forward to learning from and with new intersex and transgender friends.
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.
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.