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4.“Gender complementarity” is a set of social norms, not a biblical teaching.

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4.

“Gender complementarity” is a set of social norms, not a biblical teaching.

NON-AFFIRMING MESSAGE

The critical reason why the church should not affirm same-sex relationships is because they violate divinely-ordained gender complementarity.

AFFIRMING MESSAGE

“Gender complementarity” is a set of social norms, not a biblical teaching.

“Gender complementarity” is a category, rather than an argument in its own right. It simply asserts that there is a normative pattern of similarity and difference between the genders, but it doesn’t state what that normative pattern is. When you press for more detail, you discover two critical realities:

  • People who may agree on “gender complementarity” as a general concept don’t agree on what they mean by the term.
  • Attempts to support a more detailed or specific understanding of gender complementarity within the Bible and the Christian tradition fall short.

Q.

So what exactly are these different interpretations of gender complementarity?

Complementarianism

Complementarians believe that men should lead and women should follow. We do see certain patriarchal norms reflected in Scripture, but the New Testament casts a vision of God’s kingdom in which the hierarchy between men and women is overcome in Christ (Galatians 3:28). To learn more about this important topic, we recommend reading the chapter titled “Patriarchy” in Bible, Gender, Sexuality by Jim Brownson.

Procreative Complementarity

There are two core problems with an understanding of complementarity based on a couple’s procreative capacity:

  • In modern times, the Catholic Church—the main proponent of this view of complementarity—has changed its position on the morality of sex from "intending to procreate" to "openness to procreation." This suggests that even most Catholics don't see a problem with marrying a heterosexual couple who know they are sterile. But this allowance creates an inconsistency with respect to same-sex couples.
  • Already, a majority of heterosexual Catholic couples use birth control, against the teaching of the church. This suggests that most Catholics don’t see “openness to procreation” as the moral essence of their sexuality.

Anatomical Complementarity

This view ends up being a “default position” when agreement on the other two is hard to reach.

  • But there simply are no texts in Scripture that address the most common way that anatomical complementarity is defined: the “fittedness” of male and female sexual organs.

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Q.

But what about a more general complementarity of male and female? Isn’t that taught in the creation story in Genesis 1-2?

  • In his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Robert Gagnon argues that the original Adam of Genesis 1:26-2:18 is a binary or sexually undifferentiated being that is divided into male and female in Genesis 2:21. But as Jim Brownson has shown in Bible, Gender, Sexuality, this is not correct. The “myth of incompleteness” has no biblical basis.
  • The claim that male and female are both needed to unite in marriage in order fully to reflect the divine image (Genesis 1:27) is contradicted by Jesus himself, who is the image of God par excellence quite apart from being married. Gender complementarity is thus not part of the divine image, even though both male and female are equally in the image of God.
  • The focus in Genesis 2 is not on the complementarity of male and female, but rather on the similarity of male and female, over against the created animals.
  • The language of a “one flesh” union spoken of in Genesis 2:24 refers not to physical complementarity, but to the formation of a new primary kinship bond.

"That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. -Genesis 2:24

Adam and Eve

Q.

But what about Matthew 19:1-12? Doesn’t that suggest that Jesus taught that marriage is only between a man and a woman?

  • This passage focuses on a prohibition of divorce, which is essentially the severing of kinship obligations. That focus reinforces a kinship reading of “one flesh” in Genesis 2:24.
  • Jesus speaks of “male and female” and “one flesh” because the marital kinship bond addressed in Genesis 2 is more binding than other kinship bonds. You can walk away from your cousin, but not from your wife or husband.
  • Jesus’ citation of Genesis 1:27 focuses the discussion on a particular sort of kinship. This continues to be relevant today to discussions about the relationship between marriage and other kinship bonds, but it says nothing about an exclusively and universally normative gender complementarity.

Key Questions

  • What exact aspect of “gender complementarity” is violated by same-sex intimate relationships?
  • Where do you find this particular aspect of gender complementarity taught in Scripture as universally and exclusively normative?

 Tip   Conversation Advice  

When you engage in conversations about “gender complementarity,” it’s critical to push for a more explicit definition of what that concept means. It’s precisely the generality of the phrase that allows entrenched assumptions — which may be widely divergent from each other, and which may have weak grounding in Scripture — to remain unexamined.