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Gunning for Complementarity

Review by Wesley Hill

Bible, Gender, Sexuality
Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships
James V. Brownson. Eerdmans. Pp. xii + 300. $29

“Of the making of many books there is no end,” says the preacher, but of the making of many kinds of books there is, it seems, a limit. At least in the scholarly realm of New Testament studies, there are only so many types of books to be written. Some books of textual scholarship make genuine advances in the field; they present new evidence or a startling, unanticipated take on old evidence. Other books, however, may be far less original but equally useful — not because they demonstrate the same kind of radicalness but rather because they expertly and winsomely synthesize and summarize the results of previous scholarship, giving that earlier work a sheen and sharp edge it would not have otherwise enjoyed.

James V. Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships falls in the second category. Like its predecessor books by Robin Scroggs, Dale Martin, James Alison, and Eugene Rogers, it argues that the biblical “texts of terror” about homosexuality have been misconstrued to mean that gay and lesbian partnerships cannot be sanctified and blessed in the Church. But unlike (some of) its predecessors, it makes its case with lucid, accessible prose and a remarkable user-friendly layout (at the end of each chapter are bullet points summarizing the main lines of argument in the previous pages). Several Christian leaders and reviewers have suggested that this will be the new “go-to” book for Christians wishing to make a case for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church, and having now read the book, I would second that prediction.

Brownson’s basic thesis is that, if Scripture is to be normative in churches today, we must discern the underlying “moral logic” of scriptural commands before we can embody and enact Scripture’s moral vision in our own unique time and place (p. 50). This thesis depends on distinguishing between what texts say and what they mean. Brownson points, for instance, to the New Testament command to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; etc.).

No serious scholars dispute what those texts say, but it is not therefore clear what such texts mean for Christian communities today. Should we, even in the modern West where kissing is not a normal greeting, display our friendliness in that way? Brownson points out that very few of us think the answer to that question is yes. Rather, most of us recognize that to be faithful to this scriptural command requires us to unearth the moral logic that “undergirds” the command and then translate that logic into our own cultural practice; so, for instance, instead of kissing one another in church, we must give a hearty handshake or invite someone to join us for lunch following the service.

A similar argument, Brownson suggests, may be made with the texts regarding homosexuality (Gen. 19; Judges 19; Lev. 18:22 and 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10). If we ask about the moral logic that undergirds and explains the rationale for why same-sex erotic activity is forbidden in these biblical passages, answers diverge. For traditionalists, the reason has to do with what Brownson calls “gender complementarity” — the anatomical or biological “fit” between male and female, which makes procreation possible. Because gay and lesbian couples cannot relate to one another in a way that honors and enacts that complementarity, their relationships are “unnatural” (cf. Rom. 1:26-27).

But Brownson argues that this gender complementarity is nowhere “explicitly portrayed or discussed” in Scripture. Genesis 2:24, the primary text to which traditionalists appeal to establish that complementarity, is, he argues, not speaking primarily of the difference between male and female but rather of their sameness. Adam needs one who is like him, rather than unlike him (Gen. 2:18-20). Therefore God creates a woman to be such a “like” partner (Gen. 2:20).

On the basis of their sameness, male and female are able to form a “kinship bond,” and the “flesh of my flesh” idiom in Genesis 2:23 thus functions the same way it functions elsewhere in the Old Testament: that is, to denote kinship, not a sexual, anatomical “fit” (Gen. 29:14; Judges 9:2; 2 Sam. 5:1 and 19:12-13; 1 Chr. 11:1). The sexually differentiated couple is then blessed to “be fruitful and multiply,” but they are not commanded to do so. Furthermore, their ability to do so is not the basis on which they are said to be in relation to one another.

If this is the meaning of the male/female relationship in Genesis 2, Brownson suggests, it then becomes unlikely that the Old and New Testament rejection of same-sex erotic behavior is based on a commitment to “gender complementarity.” Rather, when one investigates the contexts of the biblical proscriptions of same-sex sexual activity, one finds evidence that those proscriptions are based on fear of cultic prostitution (in Leviticus), idolatry (1 Cor. 6), or an “excess of desire” (Rom. 1). Exploitation, abuse, and lust are the watchwords here.

All of this, then, raises the question of what the biblical writers would have made of same-sex sexual relationships that do not show evidence of idolatry, promiscuity, and excess. Brownson argues that Paul and the other biblical writers never knew of such relationships and therefore we cannot treat his texts as though they say something about them. We are left, instead, to ponder what Paul’s texts mean for faithful, loving, monogamous gay unions in our time. And our conclusion, Brownson proffers, should be that when such relationships function like a “one flesh” kinship bond, then there is no reason why the Church should not welcome and bless such unions between Christians.

The flaw in this argument is, I suspect, not in the details but at its heart. Brownson maintains that the marital relationship established in Genesis 2:24 is not based on “gender complementarity.” One might be able to read Genesis 2:24 in its Old Testament context and arrive at that conclusion (though this might overlook the canonical movement from the necessity of procreation in the old covenant to the redefinition of family by “new birth” in the new), but the usage of the text in Ephesians 5 makes such a reading highly unlikely.

According to the christological meaning of Genesis 2:24 given in Ephesians 5:32, the difference between male and female becomes not incidental to the meaning of marriage but essential. God established marriage, Ephesians suggests, in order that it might be a sign (mysterion; sacramentum) 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.

This focus on gender difference — rather than the alleged presence of “exploitation” or an “excess of desire” in homosexual unions — would then explain Paul’s denunciation of same-sex erotic behavior in Romans 1:26-27. In their near locale, Paul’s descriptions of homosexuality link it to humanity’s turn away from the Creator to images of their fellow creatures. Difference is exchanged for sameness. As Simon Gathercole has written, “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).

The communion of the “wholly other” God with his creation, which was mirrored in man’s turning toward woman and vice versa, breaks down in homosexual relationships, and thus the christological meaning of marriage and gender difference is obscured. (Brownson, by the way, dismisses the possibility that Romans 1:26 refers to female homosexuality, but in doing so he skates too quickly over Bernadette Brooten’s arguments to the contrary; see her Love Between Women for details.)

This criticism of Brownson’s argument is unlikely to compel anyone, however, in the absence of communities in which one can observe both this traditional view being upheld and gay Christians being loved and cared for and supported in their pursuit of celibacy, community, and friendship. Brownson opens his book with a moving story of how he learned that his son is gay. What good news does the Church have to speak to that young man? Until the Church can answer clearly, no degree of exegetical and theological defense of the “orthodox” position will finally prove persuasive or life-giving.

Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania.


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