Redeem a truly Christian approach to gender

by
12 August 2016

After all the arguing about sex, now is the time to engage critically with the inadequacies of secular views of it, argues Adrian Thatcher

FOR ALL our well-publicised distress about sexuality, we Anglicans have never thoroughly quarried the mines of history and doctrine in making sense of sex, and commending our vision of it to the wider world.

I would argue that, first, there have been in the Christian tradition two quite different ways of understanding relations between men and women — relations of gender; and, second, that our current difficulties with sexuality are due largely to our attempt to combine them.

Third, in the mean time, the modern world has developed its own understanding of gender, which, fourth, requires a theological analysis that is yet to be made.

 

IN THE ancient world, women were generally regarded as inferior versions of men. In the single human continuum called “man”, there was a “gender slide” from more to less perfect. Women were men (as the language of Christian hymns and prayers still insists), but less rational versions of the male.

This state of affairs is usually called the “one-sex model”, or the “one-sex continuum”, and appears in many guises. There was “male and female”, but the female was always a weaker version of the male. Women had the same genitals as men, but theirs were inside their bodies, not outside.

By the 17th century, and after advances in anatomy and microscopy, the basis of biological difference began to be better understood, and the idea of two “opposite” sexes was born. Modern interpreters invariably read this modern idea back into biblical and social history, without realising its modern origin. Arguments persisted about whether the two sexes were equal, equal but different, or unequal and different.

The idea of opposite sexes has been further popularised recently by the concept of “complementarity”. This became a new strategy for marginalising the lives and loves of lesbian and gay people. If, by nature, we are made to complement the sex that we are not, then only heterosexual behaviour, desire, and coupling is acceptable. Now, however, the idea of existing in two opposite sexes, and individuals’ being either one or the other, has itself been challenged.

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There have always been people who have known, and were known to be, straightforwardly neither men nor women. Sometimes they are called a “third sex”. In a more liberal climate, transgender and intersex people have found the courage to become more visible and vocal. In earlier times, when the binary of opposite sexes was less pronounced, it may have been easier for them to lead normal lives, and to be accepted for themselves.

 

CHRISTIAN teaching about relations between men and women is a mix of one-sex and two-sex models. The one-sex model comes to the fore whenever Churches place obstacles in the way of ordaining women. They replicate the ancient view that women are imperfect, malformed men, and so cannot represent the perfect male God and his Son. They are “one-sexers”.

And yet the more liberal, progressive Churches, which have women ministers, priests, and bishops, usually argue for it on the basis of there being two equal sexes, with the added theological gloss that their equality is conferred by being in the image of God. They are “two-sexers”.

In the 20th century, the modern binary view almost entirely replaced the older view. Only in the past 40 years or so has the sex/gender distinction become weakened. It is now generally recognised that alleged sex and character differences have been much over-emphasised, while the distinction between biological and social influences is much more complex than had previously been thought.

 

THERE is a middle ground between one-sex and two-sex models. The ancient theory was right, insofar as it asserted a common humanity; right to assume a single continuum running from male to female; but wrong in attributing to powerful males a higher moral, intellectual, and social position in a hierarchy where women, slaves, and animals were below them.

The modern theory is right, in so far as it asserts that women and men are equal in status and worth; right in asserting that basic human rights belong to people irrespective of gender (and much else).

It is, however, wrong in making the distinction between two sexes into a separation; wrong in assuming that the sexes are “opposites”; wrong in marginalising intersex, third-sex, and trans people who do not fit the modern binary; wrong in inviting a huge exaggeration of sexual difference in the selling of children’s toys, clothing, cosmetics, and so on; and wrong in commercialising and normalising the male gaze, and its “attractive” object.

 

AN ADEQUATE Christian theology of gender has its own version of a middle ground, but this ground is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, not Adam and Eve, is the revealed image of God. Christians believe that Jesus founded, and invites everyone into, a new realm, variously called a new Kingdom, a new creation, a new body, even a new or renewed humanity (all in Colossians).

In this realm, hierarchies of value, status, class, and gender disappear; for “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” These markers of fallen humanity have no place in the new realm of love, justice, and peace.

The Churches have much to offer the world when it thinks about gender, but they must first recover their own teaching about Jesus, believe it, and joyfully put it into practice.

 

Dr Adrian Thatcher is Honorary Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter. His book Redeeming Gender has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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