Response to a review

Ron Citlau reviewed my new book Bible Gender Sexuality on the Gospel Coalition website recently.  As Ron indicates early in the review, we know each other, and respect each other.  So I want to respond to him, not in a spirit of confrontation or hostility, but in an effort to help others to understand both sides of some complex issues.

I’ll be blogging on a number of the issues raised in Ron’s review, but not all at once.  Here’s the first  one:  Ron objects to the way in which I call into question gender complementarity.  I realize, of course, that the Gospel Coalition website on which Ron’s review is published holds the issue of gender complementarity to be a status confessionis, a fundamental issue of faithfulness to the gospel.  Not only gender complementarity in general, but also more particularly the submission of women to the headship of men in marriage and in the church is a core confessional commitment.  In fact, this is what “gender complementarity” means to those who hold to the theological framework of the Gospel Coalition.  I disagree, and the Reformed Church in America, of which I am a member disagrees.  The RCA has been ordaining women to all leadership positions in the church for over 30 years.

But not all advocates of gender complementarity reject female leadership.  Others argue that “gender complementarity” needs to be understood as the fittedness of male and female sexual organs.  My question, which Ron only briefly addresses, is whether “gender complementarity,” conceived  in this way, is the framework that shapes and motivates the biblical writers.  I try to present a good bit of evidence that this is not the case, that other concerns motivate the biblical writers in Gen 2—primarily a concern over the origins of the kinship bond which constitutes the heart and soul of marriage.  Most complementarians find it inconceivable that Gen 2 is not talking focally about anatomical gender complementarity, but I think this is one of those issues that has to be settled by a careful and close reading of the text itself.  I just don’t see it in the texts.

And this leads to the more basic issue where Ron and I seem  to be missing each other.  I argue in the book that “gender complementarity” really isn’t a basic value or commitment; it is rather a category under which people may speak of a variety of patterns of similarity and difference (see p. 18f.).  This becomes critical, particularly when it is claimed that Scripture teaches a normative gender complementarity.  If we don’t define what we mean by gender complementarity, it becomes a kind of Rorschach blot into which different people, and different cultures, may read their own assumptions about what normatively distinguishes males and females.  That’s why I insist that we need to spell this out in more detail.  And I further argue that neither authority/submission nor anatomical complementarity is normatively taught in Scripture.  So if folks want to insist that the Bible teaches a normative gender complementarity, they need to come clean:  exactly what are the patterns of similarity and difference between males and females that are normatively taught in Scripture, and where are the texts that teach these things?

Ron claims that I “ignore the logic of Genesis 1:26-28.”  But I don’t deny that we are created as gendered beings, as he claims.  I also agree, at least in a qualified way, with Ron that the text presumes that male and female often (but not always) find a significant purpose of their lives in heterosexual marriage—a purpose ordained by God.   I reject the notion that heterosexual marriage defines our gendered existence, since this would leave single people entirely out of God’s purpose in their gendered identity—something Scripture does not do.  The question I raise is whether this focus on gender complementarity (however it may be defined)  is the primary thing that Gen 1:26-28 itself is trying to say.  I suggest that the primary focus in these verses is not on the complementarity of male and female (whether conceived hierarchically or anatomically), but on the fact that both male and female (not just males) are created in the divine image.  So we disagree over the moral logic that underlies the text.  Fair enough.  But that’s an issue that we have to settle exegetically, rather than by simply declaring alternative interpretations to be unacceptable.  Ron is “saddened” by my book.  I am not necessarily saddened, but challenged by how difficult it is for us to communicate clearly across these deep divisions.

As I note in the book, “gender complementarity,”  defined either in terms of male headship or of the fittedness of sexual organs,  is a topic that is completely absent from the entire confessional tradition of the church (p.265f.).  Ron and the Gospel Coalition want to make it a confessional issue.  I don’t think that is a very good idea.

Genesis 2:24 and the meaning of “one flesh”

What does Genesis  2:24 speak of when it says “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”?  In particular, what does the text mean when it says that they become “one flesh?”  The meaning of the text is further amplified by the previous verse, Genesis 2:23, where the man says, upon meeting the woman, “This at least is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  A simple scan of other places in the Old Testament that speak of “flesh and bone” yields some interesting results:

  • Genesis 29:14  and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month.
  • Judges 9:2  “Say in the hearing of all the lords of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?’ Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.”
  • 2 Samuel 5:1  Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh.
  • 2 Samuel 19:12  You are my kin, you are my bone and my flesh; why then should you be the last to bring back the king?’
  • 2 Samuel 19:13  And say to Amasa, ‘Are you not my bone and my flesh? So may God do to me, and more, if you are not the commander of my army from now on, in place of Joab.'”
  • 1 Chronicles 11:1  Then all Israel gathered together to David at Hebron and said, “See, we are your bone and flesh.

In each of these cases, the reference to “flesh and bone” is a reference to shared kinship. To be “one flesh” is to be in a relationship of kinship.  This is clearly the meaning that Jesus also had in mind when asked about divorce in Matt 19:5f. and Mark 10:8.  The fact that “the two become one flesh” means that the will of God never countenances divorce, which is essentially the severing of kinship ties and obligations.

Genesis 2 18ff. is thus about the origin of the most fundamental of social relationships that marked ancient society generally:  the relationship of kinship.  Gen. 2:24 narrates the close relationship between sexual union (“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife”) and the kinship relationship: “and they become one flesh.”

The basis for a biblical sexual ethic, therefore is simple.  We are not to say with our bodies (by sexually uniting with another) what we are unable to say with the rest of our lives (by embracing the kinship bonds that such a union creates.)

In my book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, I explore in great detail what this core insight means for sexual ethics in general, and for the question of gay and lesbian relationships in particular.