The sexual politics of the Bible

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Salon has recently published extracts from a new book on Christianity and homosexuality. In this extract from that extract the author Matthew Vines explains the connection between the debate surrounding homosexuality with the gender dynamics of the Bible itself:

While Ephesians 5 doesn’t mention married couples having children, it does mention—or at least assumes—gender hierarchy. It calls a man the “head” of his wife just as Christ is the head of the church, and wives are told to submit to their husbands in the same way the church submits to Christ. But same-sex couples can’t live out that dynamic. So does the hierarchical aspect of marriage as described in Scripture mean marriage must be between a man and a woman?

This question brings us back to this big-picture idea: Is the Bible’s reflection of patriarchy normative for Christians, or is it limited in a way similar to Scripture’s accommodation of slavery? We saw before that ancient societies didn’t simply uphold differing roles for men and women; they accorded women inferior value.

Few, if any, Christians today would endorse the degrading views of women that shaped the world of Leviticus. However, many Christians do hold beliefs about gender relations that could be summed up as “equal value, different roles.” That’s the kind of hierarchical gender complementarity often reflected in distinct gender roles in marriage. In that view, husbands act as the leaders and wives as their followers. As long as spouses affirm the equal value of both genders, might we conclude that such an approach to gender relations is consistent with the New Testament vision of relationships free of patriarchy? Let’s look into that question.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that three types of hierarchies would fade away in Christ. The first two were distinctions between Jew and Gentile and distinctions between slave and free. The third was that of male and female. Paul’s main concern at the time was ending the division between Jews and Gentiles, and Galatians 3:28 is focused on our ultimate status in Christ, not our present status in society.

But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to pray that God’s kingdom will come “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). In opposing slavery, Christians in the nineteenth century took that message to heart. Since there won’t be a distinction in God’s kingdom of slave and free, Christians decided to abolish the inhumane institution of slavery in the West.

But what does that have to do with the requirements of marriage?

Just this: Christians did not work for change so that slaves would be regarded as having equal value while maintaining a subordinate status and role in society. They chose to abolish the subordinate status altogether. While slavery remains a tragic reality in much of the world, the church now uniformly opposes it.

Given that Paul in Galatians connected the issues of slavery and gender hierarchy, we should as well. The New Testament explicitly links the submission of slaves to the submission of wives. First Peter 3:1 begins, “Wives, in the same way [that slaves are to submit to their masters] submit yourselves to your own husbands…” The comparison comes from the instructions given in 1 Peter 2:18–25. Peter told wives to submit to their husbands in the same way slaves were instructed to submit to masters.

We see a similar parallel in the words of Ephesians 5 and 6. Wives are told to submit to their husbands in Ephesians 5, and in chapter 6, slaves are instructed to submit to their masters, “just as you would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).

Yet both hierarchies will fade away in Christ, and Jesus calls us to make that a reality now. Scripture lays the groundwork for a redemptive reordering of gender relations in God’s kingdom, so gender hierarchy can’t be said to be essential to marriage. Even if, when a man and a woman marry, they don’t have a hierarchical relationship, no one claims their marriage is invalid on that basis. Acceptance of these marriages indicates that, even with opposite-sex spouses, gender hierarchy isn’t part of the essence of Christian marriage. In keeping with the focus of Ephesians 5, the essence of Christian marriage involves keeping covenant with one’s spouse in a relationship of mutual self-giving. That picture doesn’t exclude same-sex couples.

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One thought on “The sexual politics of the Bible

  1. Pingback: The gay Christians who’ve embraced celibacy | Matter Of Facts

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