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.