Male and Female, Christ and the Church: The Question of Complementarity and Same-Sex Relationships

The focus of this series has been on the places in the Scriptures that resonate in some way with LGBTQ2S+ persons’ experiences of God and the world. We’ve seen how Adam might best be seen as nonbinary before the surgical act that splits male from female. We’ve seen how sex in the Scriptures is never talked about in terms of procreation but always in terms of reuniting a divided humanity. We’ve seen how important biblical stories favorably portray loving, committed, covenant relationships between men and between women. We’ve also seen examples where there is a change of heart within the Scriptures, suggesting that even ‘a word from God’ might not always be ‘the last word’ on any given issue, even when a change might have dramatic impacts for community identity. But for all of this, these readings of these stories could be said to downplay one important factor when it comes to how the Scriptures describe gender and biological sex: complementarity. And so today I’d like to think this through a bit and see if this issue represents a fatal flaw in the arguments I’ve been making in this series so far.

By complementarity I mean this: When God saw that Adam was lonely, God split Adam into male and female. The two halves exist in complement to one another. The solution was not sameness but difference. In a similar way,  sex is understood primarily as a way of reuniting divided humanity — of bringing male and female back together. For Christians, this sense of complementarity is reinforced by the way Paul uses it to describe ‘the mystery’ of Christ and the Church. Taking the NRSV translation, it reads:

Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I am speaking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5.22-25, 31-32)

At first glance, and in this translation, it looks pretty damning — not only for the possibility of same-sex marriage, but also for a sense of Christian egalitarianism between the sexes. The text seems not only to reinforce patriarchal gender roles within marriage and, but also to then go even further by turning them into an icon of Christ and the Church.

I treated this text in great detail this past Summer in my series on Ephesians, so if the text interests you, I encourage you to have a look there. But for today’s purposes, I want to highlight a few things. First, while I’ve gone with a common translation of the text here, I’ve done it to point out the way our Scriptures are translated and presented to us can be misleading. The tone of the passage changes considerably when we understand that the thought actually starts in v. 21 (which is itself dependent on v.18):

(5.18b, 21) Be filled with the Holy Spirit … submitting to one another in the fear of Christ: (22) Wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord, (23) since the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the Church — he being the saviour of his body. (24) So, as the Church submits itself to Christ, so wives are to do so to their husbands in everything. (25) Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over on its behalf ….(31) “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother, and will joint together with his wife, the the two will become one flesh.” (32) This mystery is great — but I am speaking about Christ and the Church

The goal of the text is not for wives to submit to their husbands, but to promote an ethic wherein the faithful, male and female alike, push aside their own egos and centre their love for their spouse within their relationships. There is no overt command issued to wives here; it has to be inferred and carried over from the previous clause, where it applies to everyone. Paul is less pointing to an essential difference between husbands and wives here than he is equating both of their roles as examples of loving submission: Women submit by respecting the authority of their husband, men submit by self-sacrificially loving their wife. While it cannot be denied that Paul upholds the social order of his day (the larger passage also includes similar teachings for parents and children and enslaved people and their masters), the point of the passage is for those with power to change their relationship to it. Yes, the husband here is still understood to hold the power, but this power is to be used to love humbly and self-sacrificially — the same way Christ used his power and authority to love his way to death on the cross.

Second, we need to remember that in any analogy or symbol talking about God, it is the divine half that takes precedent. Just as we need to understand human fatherhood through the ways Jesus reveals God to be Father, so must we remember that even in this heightened, iconic, status that Paul gives human marriage, it is only a partial and fallen symbol of the Mystery of Christ and the Church. This often gets lost in the contemporary debates surrounding marriage in the Church. There is nothing essentially good or holy about marriage, procreation, and family life per se: these can be just as wicked and destructive as any way of life unless they are directed wholly, persistently, and consistently towards God. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann points out in his brilliant essay on marriage in For the Life of the World:

[M]arriage is, as everything else in ‘this world,’ a fallen and distorted marriage, and … it needs not to be blessed and ‘solemnized’ … but restored. … Needless to say, this restoration infinitely transcends the idea of the ‘Christian family’. … Family as such, family in itself, can be a demonic distortion of love — and there are harsh words about it in the Gospel. … The real sin of marriage today is … the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God.

As important, beautiful and profound as family life is, Christianity is not and has never been a fertility cult. All human relationships find their meaning and their ultimate fulfillment not in finding ‘true love’ or in raising children, but in in the Kingdom of God, represented in our Scriptures as the marriage of God and Israel, of Christ and the Church. In this sense, marriage is not “heteronormative” as much as it is “christonormative.”

In a paradoxical way, this both centers and marginalizes gendered existence. It centers it in that the union of male and female in an iconic reading of marriage requires the male to ‘play the role’ of Christ, in his agency and priestly vocation, and the female to ‘play the role’ of the Church, in its radical openness towards God. And yet, even assuming for the moment that these traditional gender roles are good and holy, these differences are also marginalized in the Kingdom, for in Christ there is neither male nor female. Since we are all, male and female, within the Church Christ’s Bride, we are therefore called to embody this archetypal ‘feminine’ role. And since we are all, male and female, called to ‘be as Christ‘ to the world and offer our lives in self-sacrificial love, as well as to offer up creation to God in thanksgiving as the priests of creation, we are also therefore called to embody the archetypal ‘masculine’ role. And this is true not only in our orientation towards God, but also to each other. When it comes right down to it, both archetypes boil down to the same thing: humble, self-giving love.

But beyond the gender stereotypes, we know that both biological sexes include the full spectrum of personalities, strengths, and abilities. God may have divided Adam into male and female, but when it comes to everything that makes a person a person, these categories have a tremendous amount of overlap: they are not two separate circles, but a Venn diagram with an almost total overlap between the two. As William Stacy Johnson rightly points out, Adam’s response to meeting Eve recognizes this point:

There is no emphasis here [at the end of Genesis 2] on ‘difference’ or ‘complementarity’ at all — in fact, just the opposite. When Adam sees Eve he does not celebrate her otherness but her sameness: what strikes him is that she is ‘bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.’ (A Time to Embrace, 126)

This means that an inflexible and fixed understanding of sex and gender can easily hide, rather than reveal, the truth about complementarity. As true as it is that part of the beauty and challenge of marriage is the overcoming of the differences of male and female, insisting on a a world where ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’ can mask the fact that the true gulf lies not between ‘man’ and ‘woman’ but between ‘I’ and ‘Thou.’ To appropriate Solzhenitysn, the true gulf of separation lies not between the sexes, but between two human hearts, and every two human hearts. And when we remember this, it follows that ‘Adam and Steve’ may be better complements to another, and may have a more difficult set of differences to overcome in relationship with each other, than ‘Adam and Eve’.

And this is where I begin to see the theological prospects for what genuine part gender and sexual diversity might play in God’s ‘very good’ Creation. The idolatry of ‘typical’ family life and the reification of gender differences is always a temptation, whether in ancient Canaan’s fertility cults, or in Christian groups today who are obsessed with procreation and the 1950s-style nuclear family.  The Church needs to be reminded that the world is a complicated place andlanguage and concepts are always imperfect and partial and need to be shaken up. The presence of same-sex couples, and the celebration of these relationships as channels for the working of the Spirit of God, can remind the Church that Christian marriage is not primarily about making babies, but about manifesting the Kingdom of God; just as the presence of those outside traditional gender norms can remind the Church that we are all, male and female, in this together.

So with all this in mind, I’ve come to see the teaching that marriage is an icon of Christ and the Church not as a barrier for queer folk at all. If we think it through, we find that we are all, irrespective of sex and gender, called to be Christ to one another, and are simultaneously all called to be His Bride. We all, every single one of us, contain within ourselves, and are called to cultivate within ourselves, both halves of the human spirit and marriage icon.