The False Gospel of Gender Binaries

Not long ago I had the pleasure of working with Adrian,* a visual artist with a quick wit, easygoing spirit, and creative eye. After an afternoon of laugher and collaboration, Adrian opened up about what it’s been like working with other religious people, particularly evangelicals. 

“I’m intersex,” Adrian said, with a shrug of the shoulders. “Evangelicals don’t have a category for me, so there’s no real place for me in their church.” 

(Intersex is a term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. Learn more here.) 

Adrian’s words hurt my heart, but I knew they were true. Over the past two years, I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed by transgender Christians (people whose gender identities differ from what is associated with the sex they were assigned at birth), and of course by gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians.  Often I hear of childhoods plagued by bullying, exclusion, depression, and fear, all made worse when the churches that were supposed to love and care for them rejected them because they did not fit into rigid gender binaries. 

“God made male and female,” culture warriors like to thunder. “Any deviation from traditional gender and sexuality norms represents a serious sin and threat to the gospel.”** 

This claim is often punctuated by advocacy for rigid, hierarchal gender roles based on stereotypes in which all men are described as being “wired” one way (as providers, leaders, and fighters), and all women are described as being “wired” another way (as followers, nurturers, and homemakers).   

Even the Vatican reinforced this message this week in an international forum on marriage where “complementarity between man and woman in marriage” was described by Pope Francis as “the root of marriage and family.” 

While most people indeed have a heterosexual orientation and identify with a single gender that was assigned to them at birth, it has become increasingly clear that this is not the case for everyone, that gender and sexuality might better be understood as manifesting themselves along continuums, with male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual existing at the poles but with a variety of identities, orientations, and expressions in between.  Science and psychology continue to confirm this as a reality, with the American Psychological Association no longer characterizing variations in sexual orientation and gender identity as disorders, only warning that stigmatization based on them can negatively affect mental health.  

People do not typically choose their sexual orientations or gender identities the way one might choose to wear a watch or to take cream in their coffee. Most of my gay and lesbian friends recall feeling different from a young age, frightened at the prospect of being disowned from their families and cast out of their churches because of something they simply could not change. Efforts intended to reverse sexual orientation through prayer and counseling, once popular within evangelicalism, have proven not only ineffective, but destructive, leading to multiple apologies from former leaders of those movements. Sadly, for many LGBT Christians, those apologies came too late, and the messages they received through "conversion therapy" led them into marriages based on secrets, or, tragically, to suicide. 

Nearly all of us would fail to conform to the generalizations made by the most strident complementarians, but intersex people like Adrian, and LGBT people like those you might meet at The Gay Christian Network, are truly in the minority. And unfortunately, they are consistently subjected to stigmatization and marginalization by religious people who refuse to share bathrooms with them, who disassociate with churches that welcome them, who mock and ridicule them and compare them to pedophiles and idolaters, and who withhold money from charities that employ them. Christians are told that sharing civil liberties with LGBT people constitutes religious persecution, that sexual minorities should induce a “gag reflex,” and that defending gender binaries is as essential as defending the gospel itself. 

But what sort of gospel is only good news for the majority? What sort of gospel leaves people behind just because they are different? 

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not so fragile as to be unpinned by the reality that variations in gender and sexuality exist, nor is it so narrow as to only be good news for people who look and live like Ward and June Cleaver. This glorification of gender binaries has become a dangerous idol in the Christian community, for it conflates cultural norms with Christian morality and elevates an ideal over actual people.  

No doubt some will argue that we cannot build our theologies around “exceptions” like Adrian. When I bring up intersex people in conversations about gender and sexuality, I am typically met with blank stares, shrugged shoulders, and dismissive platitudes about how most people fit neatly into male and female categories and generalities, so we shouldn’t worry about the outliers. 

But if Jesus started with the outliers, why we shouldn’t we? If Jesus started with the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the minorities then why would we dismiss them as irrelevant to our theology of gender and sexuality? 

I can’t help but think of the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8. He was a sexual and ethnic minority, and it was considered “unbiblical” for him to even enter the assembly of God, much less be baptized (Leviticus 21:20; Deuteronomy 23:1).  But when the eunuch learned about the gospel through his reading of Isaiah and the witness of Philip, his response is profound: “Look! There is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Philip could easily have responded by quoting Bible verses and appealing to tradition.  He could have dismissed the eunuch as an anomaly, not worth the time and effort to fight for his inclusion in this new family of God. But instead, Philip baptized the eunuch in the first body of water the two could find. He remembered that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in….starting with you and me. 

Now, I’m not suggesting we abandon conversations about the Bible and sexual ethics, nor am I interested in promoting a “genderless society” (as some have bizarrely claimed, somehow supposing that acknowledging the existence of gray requires dismissing the existence of black and white). I am suggesting, however, that Jesus didn’t die on the cross to preserve gender complementarity. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to ensure that little girls wear pink and little boys wear blue. Jesus lived, taught, died, and rose again to start a new family in which Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female are all part of one holy Body. Certainly there will be those who reject the gospel because of the cost of discipleship, but let it be because of the cost of discipleship, not the cost of false fundamentals, not because they've been required to change something they cannot change. 

There is this tendency within certain sectors of Christianity to assume that if our theology “works” for relatively privileged (often for straight, upper-middle-class, Western men), then it should work well enough for everyone else, and the rest of the world should conform to it. But if our theology doesn’t “work” for the least of these to whom Jesus first brought the gospel and through whom Jesus still presents himself today, then it doesn’t work at all. 

If the gospel’s not good news for Adrian, then it’s not good news.

***

*Name changed to protect privacy.

**And because someone is bound to bring it up, here is Matthew 19:4 in context. As you see, Jesus is responding to a question about divorce, not about gender binaries. 

Finally, be sure to check out Dr. David Gushee's recent lecture at the Reformation Project entitled, "Ending the Teaching of Contempt Against Sexual Minorities."



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“You’re Not Crazy, and You’re Not Alone”

So begins Chapter 1 of Kathy Escobar’s fantastic new book, Faith Shift:  Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Falling Apart.  From those first few pages to the very last, I found myself nodding along, scribbling in the margins, breathing 'amens', and thinking to myself, now THIS is the book I wish I’d had ten years ago, THIS is the book I’ll be recommending to family, friends, and readers experiencing crises of faith. 

It’s been a magnificent fall for book releases, and I know I’ve been recommending a lot these days (sorry!), but for those of you who resonated with Faith Unraveled (formerly titled Evolving in Monkey Town), Faith Shift is a must-read.   While there are plenty of spiritual memoirs that describe what it’s like for a person of faith to enter a time of deep questioning, and plenty of theological books designed to address those questions, Faith Shift is unique in that it offers practical, pastoral advice for managing the emotional, relational, and spiritual fallout from those questions. 

Nearly every time I do a Q&A time after a presentation, someone in the audience asks how my changing faith has affected my relationships with my family and friends. Often, there are tears in the person’s eyes, and I know I’ve found a fellow traveller, a sister sojourner traversing the dark and difficult road of doubt.  The fact is, when your community, identity, and sense of purpose and security are all tightly intertwined with your faith, challenges and changes to that faith can wreak havoc on your relationships and spiritual and emotional health. And unfortunately, for many, the people they most want to turn to for support and guidance—pastors, friends, even spouses and family—at best simply don’t understand their experiences and at worst condemn them as sinful. 

This is why Kathy Escobar is the perfect person to write this book. Not only has she gone through a faith shift of her own, she has years of experience counseling people who find themselves in some sort of spiritual wilderness. So in addition to including Kathy’s own story, Faith Shift is packed with resources, prayers, ideas, conversation-starters, questions for personal reflection, and exercises. The appendix includes an incredibly helpful guide for talking about faith shifts with friends and family and even provides suggestions for “how to be a good friend to someone in a faith shift” that you may want to photocopy and mail to that aunt who has been sending you Christian apologetics books every week since she found out you were questioning young earth creationism. 

For these reasons and more, I highly recommend this book not only for people experiencing a crisis of faith but for people who love and care for someone experiencing a crisis of faith and don’t know how to respond. Pastors too would benefit immensely from a quick read-through. 

Now, this is not a book for skeptics looking for answers, or for those interested in seriously exploring atheism. From the get-go, Kathy assumes that her readers are interested in holding on to some remnant of their faith even as their beliefs dramatically change. If you do not share that presupposition, the book could be frustrating at times. 

But for all the people who come up to me at book signings with tears streaming down their faces because they feel so isolated in their journey through questions and doubt, I am thrilled that I can say with more confidence, “you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone, and you’re going to love this book…”

***

Note: While I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher, I am not paid for reviews. 

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Work of the People Video: The risk of following Jesus

I had such a good time working with Travis Reed from Work of the People on a series of videos about faith, doubt, the sacraments, and church. The video above is the first of many in the series. Be sure to follow Work of the People for more and for other interviews with Barbara Brown Taylor, Richard Rohr, Brene Brown, etc. 

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God and the Gay Christian’ Discussion, Week 6 & Conclusion

Over the past few weeks, on Wednesdays, we have been discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. (See Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story compelling, and he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from. 

This week we wrap up our discussion with a look at Matthew’s argument in support of marriage equality in Chapter 8 and his concluding remarks in Chapters 9 and 10. 

The Biblical Argument for Marriage Equality

In Chapter 8, Matthew tackles a big question: can same-sex marriage fit a Christian basis for marriage? 

“Our question is not whether the Bible addresses the modern concepts of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage,” he writes. “We know it doesn’t. Instead, our question is: can we translate basic biblical principles about marriage to this new situation without losing something essential in the process?” 

That’s a complicated question for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the reality that Christians themselves disagree on exactly what constitutes “biblical principles about marriage”! I know plenty of people who would describe my marriage with Dan as “unbiblical” because it functions as a partnership rather than a hierarchy, with our roles determined by gifting rather than gender. So we’re wading into tricky territory here, but Matthew handles it gracefully. 

He begins with Ephesians 5, where the apostle Paul describes marriage as a “profound mystery” pointing to the ultimate union between Christ and the Church. “In marriage,” writes Matthew, “we are called to reflect God’s love for us through our self-giving love for our spouse.” This is something same-sex couples can do just as well as heterosexual couples, he says. Matthew then goes on to address three common objections to same-sex marriage: procreation, gender hierarchy, and gender complementarity. 

Procreation

One of the most common reasons for opposing same-sex marriage cited by non-affirming Christians is that only a man and woman can biologically procreate. Appealing to Genesis 1:28 as a direct command rather than a creative blessing, they argue that the capacity to procreate is critical to a God-honoring union. 

While much of Hebrew Scripture focuses on God’s covenantal blessing to Israel through biological procreation, “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ushered in a host of transformative changes,” writes Matthew. “And one of the change is vital to our conversation: Biological procreation no longer determines membership in God’s Kingdom. Spiritual re-birth through faith in Christ does.” 

To support this, Matthew points to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, as well as his statement in Matthew 12:46-50 that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” This new emphasis on being “grafted in” to the family of God brought those who had traditionally been left out—eunuchs, for example—in.  Furthermore, despite the significance of procreation in the Old Testament, Matthew argues, infertile marriages were not considered illegitimate. Take Abraham and Sarah, for example, or Elkanah and Hannah. Song of Songs beautifully celebrates the joys of erotic love for their own pleasurable merits, not simply for the purpose of procreation.  And neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul suggest that non-procreative marriages are illegitimate or that procreation is the only purpose of sex.  “From a theological perspective,” Matthew concludes, “marriage primarily involves a covenant-keeping relationship of mutual self-giving that reflects God’s love for us….Marriage is only secondarily—and not necessarily at all—about having biological children.” 

Gender Hierarchy 

This, in my opinion, is the big one. Because some Christians interpret the New Testament household codes as prescribing hierarchal gender roles wherein wives function as subordinates to their husbands, their challenge to same-sex couples is, who’s in charge? 

We discuss the New Testament Household Codes here, and at length in our series on the subject, here, but in summary:  Just as the New Testament household codes assume a hierarchy between master and slave, they assume a hierarchy between men and women. It would be silly to expect anything else to emerge out of writings from the Greco-Roman culture. What makes the New Testament household codes powerful and countercultural is that they actually challenge those hierarchies by instructing all members of the household—even the masters, who in that culture held unilateral authority over their slaves, wives, and children— to imitate Jesus Christ in their relationships by modeling his self-sacrificing love. 

Matthew points out that in his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that three types of hierarchies would fade away in Christ. One was that of male and female. The others were distinctions between Jew and Gentile and distinctions between slave and free. “In opposing slavery,” writes Matthew, “Christians in the 19th century took that message to heart. Since there will not be a distinction in God’s kingdom of slave and free, Christians decided to abolish the inhumane institution of slavery in the West….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.” 

And yet many today continue to argue that Galatians 3:28 only refers to salvific status when it comes to women, that Paul is simply granting women access to salvation, not equal status with men. (This doesn’t make much sense since women were already regarded as having access to salvation.) But if this thinking were applied to slaves, who are mentioned in the very same verse, then Christians could not appeal to Galatians 3:28 for the abolition of slavery.   In other words, “neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female” has to mean something more than shared access to salvation. It has to mean something radical about how relationships among Christians in this patriarchal culture were to change. 

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it a million times more: What makes a marriage holy and sacred isn’t the degree to which it reflects a rigid hierarchy, but rather the degree to which it reflects the self-giving, self-sacrificing love of Jesus.  It’s not about putting Jesus at the top of a flowchart, with the man next in line, and the woman at the bottom. It’s about putting Christ at the center.  That, I believe, is the truly radical message of the New Testament Household Codes that so often gets drowned out by advocates of Christian patriarchy. And I see no reason why the self-sacrificing love of Jesus cannot be modeled in a committed same-sex relationship as well as it can be modeled in a committed heterosexual relationship. (After all, if anatomical complementarity alone were what sanctified a marriage, then an abusive heterosexual marriage would be considered more “sanctified” than a loving homosexual one.)

[For more on the New Testament, check out our "Submit One To Another" series.]

Anatomical Complementarity 

A final argument against same-sex marriage is that two people cannot become “one flesh” if they do exhibit anatomical complementarity. Here Matthew cites Jim Brownson’s Bible, Gender Sexuality, where the Bible scholar argues that such an interpretation of Genesis 2:24 over-sexualizes the phrase “one flesh,” which in the Bible is used metaphorically to describe ties of kinship between all sorts of people. (In Genesis 29, Laban describes his son-in-law Jacob as “my bone and my flesh,” for example.)  “Becoming ‘one flesh,’” Matthew argues, “encompasses much more than the act of sex. It includes the entire covenantal context in which God intends for sex to take place.” 

In Ephesians 5:31-32, the phrase “one flesh” is said to be a mystery of marriage that relates to Christ and the Church. "Not only does Ephesians 5 never mention gender-determined anatomical differences, it focuses instead on the fact that husbands and wives are part of the same body…So according to Ephesians, gender difference is not necessary to become one flesh in the Bible’s understanding of those words.” 

Matthew concludes this chapter with a stirring call: “In God’s glorious, limitless love, he has imparted to us that most precious and humbling of gifts: our own capacity for love. Not all Christians are called to marriage, and the church must uphold the validity of celibacy for those who are called to it. But for those who do not sense a calling to celibacy, God’s gift of sexual love in marriage should be affirmed. There is no biblical reason to exclude the covenantal bonds of gay Christians from that affirmation.”

I suspect that as marriage equality continues to spread across the country, the Church’s conversation around LGBT inclusion will change. Will churches that oppose same-sex marriage encourage married couples to divorce? Will they turn away gay or lesbian couples when they bring their kids to Sunday school? Will they deny that Christ-imitating, self-sacrificing love is indeed present in many same-sex relationship and continue to advocate against ensuring gay couples can visit one another in the hospital? God has this strange habit of using “outsiders” to school the “insiders” on what it really means to love and serve. I suspect it will be no different in this case. 

The Image of God and LGBT Christians

In Chapter 9, Matthew makes a strong case that being created in the image of God cannot uniquely be tied to heterosexuality and points to the Trinity to show that part of being created in the image of God is longing for intimacy and relationship. It’s too much to reiterate in the limited space we have left, so I urge you to pick up God and the Gay Christian for the full argument.  I would simply add that, having had a conversation just yesterday with someone who is intersex, it is time we accept the reality God has not created a rigid, one-dimensional world when it comes to gender and sexuality. As someone put it the other day: Acknowledging the existence of twilight doesn’t require rejecting the existence of day and night. 

Matthew addresses the incredible damage done by Christians who teach LGBT people to hate their sexuality, which cannot so easily be separated from their very selves. “When we tell people that their every desire for intimate, sexual bonding is shameful and disordered,” he writes, “we encourage them to hate a core part of who they are. And when we reject the desires of gay Christians to express their sexuality within a lifelong covenant, we separate them from our covenantal God, and we tarnish their ability to bear his image.” 

Then Matthew concludes with this little truth bomb:  “Instead of asking whether it’s acceptable for the church to deny gay Christians the possibility of sexual fulfillment in marriage, we should ask a different question. Is it acceptable to deny gay Christians the opportunity to sanctify their sexual desires through a God-reflecting covenant.” 

Questions for Discussion: 

1.    Are there same-sex couples in your life whose relationships reflects the self-giving love of Jesus? Tell us about that. 

2.    As more states embrace marriage equality and civil rights for LGBT people, how do you think the conversation regarding their inclusion in the church will change? 

3. Finally, as we conclude this series, do you have any lingering questions, thoughts or ideas you would like to discuss? Has this conversation changed anything for you, and what would you like to see happen moving forward—both on the blog and in the wider Church?  

***

Finally: I'd like to issue a big thank-you to our friend, Matthew Vines, who not only wrote a great book for discussion, but who has jumped into the comment section several times to respond to your questions and ideas. I've gotten to know Matthew a little better over the course of the last few weeks and I have to say, his guy's stubborn sense of hope, joy, and commitment to Jesus continues to inspire and challenge me. Let's be in prayer for his efforts at The Reformation Project's Regional Training Conference this week. 

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