Response to a Review: How to Interpret Ephesians 5

My thanks to Wesley Hill for a thoughtful review of my book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, recently published online at the Living Church website.  Hill disagrees with my book in fundamental ways, but his review helps to highlight some key issues.

Hill’s central objection to my argument is based on his reading of Eph 5:32, where the relationship between husband and wife is likened to the relationship between Christ and the church.  He states,

“God established marriage, Ephesians suggests, in order that it might be a sign (mysterionsacramentum) 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” (see Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, VII: Theology: The New Covenant [T&T Clark, 1989], p. 482). 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.”

I offer first a brief preliminary response.  I think that it will always be true that the “normal” experience of marriage in society as a whole will be between a man and a woman.  Same-sex attraction affects a very small and relatively stable percentage of the population, so these relationships will never become the norm for marriage in society as a whole.  And it may indeed be the case that we can learn some things about the relationship between Christ and the church from heterosexual marriages that we can’t learn from same-gender committed relationships.  The question I raise in my book is not whether heterosexual marriage is “normal” in Scripture; the question is whether it is necessarily exclusively normative, or whether we can make exceptions to this “normal” pattern in those cases where it seems appropriate to do so.  Clearly Eph 5 assumes a marriage between a man and a woman.  The critical question is whether that assumption should also be interpreted in an exclusively normative way.

That question leads to my primary response to Hill’s critique.  I simply do not see anywhere in Ephesians 5 where the bodily differences between men and women are in view.  In fact, bodies are mentioned in this passage, but what the text actually says is that “husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself” (5:28).  It is not the otherness of the wife’s body that is in view, but the fact that the husband and wife are part of the same body.  They are inter-connected with each other.  This is the way this text interprets the “one flesh” of Gen 2:24.  Some interpreters see this inter-connectedness in terms of the “fittedness between penis and vagina” (e.g. Robert Gagnon).  But one might just as readily see the allusion to “one flesh” in Eph 5 in broader terms such as kinship (which I argue in my book), or physical intimacy more generally, or as the shared social status of married couples.  There is nothing in the text that requires or even suggests a genitalized interpretation for this inter-connectedness.

Balancing this theme of inter-connectedness is another theme in the passage:  The difference between husbands and wives that Eph 5 focuses upon is the relationship of authority and submission.  It says clearly that, just as wives submit to husbands, so also the church submits to Christ.  These two themes—authority/submission and inter-connectedness—are the central themes in Eph 5.  I submit that neither of these focuses on bodily differences between male and female at all.  In fact, an emphasis on bodily differences between Christ and the church in this text might well undermine the doctrine of the incarnation.  It might lead some to wonder whether Christ has the same sort of body that we in the church do.  In point of fact, Christ is different from the church, but that difference is not a bodily one, but a difference in rank and status.  So I just don’t see how this text requires that we have in view “certain kinds of bodies, and not others.”

But let’s push this further, to explore the problems with focusing on the bodily differences between men and women as an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the church  in more detail.  Does Christ impregnate the church, in the way that a husband impregnates a wife?  I don’t find that theme in the Bible elsewhere, or in this text in particular.  Or perhaps one might claim that it is the (bodily) job of the wife (rather than the husband) to nurture and feed offspring, and that this difference is also reflected in the contrast between Christ and the church. Yet the New Testament never uses the verb for nurture/nursing (τρεϕω, trepho) with the church as its subject, though it does use the verb twice with God as the subject (Matt 6:26; Luke 12:24).  Where in the Bible are the anatomical differences between men and women explicitly stated to constitute the relationship between Christ and the church?  I just don’t find any examples at all.

But Hill and others will probably counter that Eph 5 assumes that the male and female roles are not interchangeable.  The church can’t substitute for Christ, and Christ can’t substitute for the church.  This is at the heart of the quote that Hill cites from Simon Gathercole in his discussion of Rom 1:26-27:

“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)” (see “Sin in God’s Economy: Agencies in Romans 1 and 7” in Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment [T&T Clark, 2007], pp. 158-72, at pp. 163-64).

But note, first of all, that the argument has shifted significantly, though quite subtly.  Now Hill is not talking about the bodily differences between men and women, but rather about the difference between “otherness” and “sameness.”  This is not the same as “bodily differences”—it is a much more general, non-specific way of speaking.  In fact, if we are to take Eph 5 as our guide, the problem in Rom 1 is not the abandonment of bodily differences but rather the confusion of differences in authority and social status between men and women.  This is the form of “otherness” that is explicitly advocated in Eph 5, and I have argued quite extensively in my book that one of the things that makes same-sex eroticism “degrading” in Rom 1 is that the status differential between male and female is reversed or ignored in these relationships (see the chapter on “Honor and Shame”).  The language of “otherness” and  “sameness” cited by Hill obscures the question of whether anatomy or social roles is the focus of Rom 1.  This is at the heart of the question I am trying to raise:  What exactly is wrong with the same-sex relationships Paul condemns in Romans 1?  Why are they wrong?  Collapsing “bodily differences” and violations of status differentiation into a single category does not help to illumine that question.

I also argue in my book that in our culture, where differences in status and social roles between men and women are not usually considered binding or normative, this whole form of argument needs some cross-cultural translation, but that is another topic for another day (see the chapter on “Patriarchy” in my book).

But I want to finish this exploration by identifying one way in which Hill and I may find some common ground.  I agree with him that Christ and the church are not interchangeable, and that in at least some contexts, male and female are not interchangeable.  I also agree that we must recognize something important about our most intimate relationships (of which marriage is the prime example): In these relationships, it is absolutely necessary that we see our partner as an “other” and not simply as another version of ourselves, or (even worse) as a projection of ourselves.  I would even agree that this is part of what Paul finds objectionable in the same-sex relationships he condemns in Rom 1:26-27.  He sees these relationships as fundamentally self-centered and self-absorbed, rather than genuine and authentic relationships.

But the crucial question is whether all same-sex relationships, including all long-term committed unions, should always be characterized in the same way, as lacking an adequate focus on “otherness.”  Some analysts see same-sex intimate relationships as inherently and necessarily narcissistic—driven by self-love rather than love of a genuine other.  Often, this approach is coupled with a neo-Freudian explanation of the origin of same-sex attraction in relational difficulties with the parent of the same sex.  Yet these neo-Freudian theories have failed to be verified by contemporary study, and therapies based upon them have failed to help gay people become straight.  They just don’t fit the data or the experience of people who experience same-sex desires.

Even more important, however, is the fact that there are many healthy gay and lesbian couples that do manifest substantial valuing of the experience of “otherness” that Hill also values so highly.  These couples do not regard their partners as identical to themselves, or as extensions of themselves, any more than healthy heterosexual couples do.  They differentiate their roles, and value the contributions of the “other” to a bond which is greater than either could establish on their own.  So can this valuing of “otherness” exist even in couples where the anatomical differences that Hill values so highly are not present?  Hill seems to think that this is impossible.  I would be more inclined to consider his line of argument if biblical texts could be cited that focus on these anatomical differences.  But that’s one of the overall theses of my book—that the Bible is not centrally concerned with anatomical differences between male and female.  This doesn’t mean that gender differences are unimportant; it is only to say that Scripture doesn’t teach a normative gender complementarity based on anatomy—a particular understanding of gender differences that must be upheld always, everywhere, by all.  Such a doctrine is completely absent from the entire creedal tradition of the church, and there is no Scriptural basis for adding it now as a new creedal requirement of Christian faith.