Why creation is ‘straight.’

In the latest essay in the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say…?’, Dr Simon Taylor looks at the question ‘Does the Bible Does the Bible Really Say…that Creation is Straight?’[1]

Dr Taylor’s argument.

In the introductory paragraphs to his essay Dr Taylor explains that the idea that ‘creation is straight’ is his shorthand for the ‘complementarian’ understanding of creation ‘in which human beings are made and meant to be male and female.’

Dr Taylor then further explains that he is ‘far from convinced that this is the right way to be reading Scripture’ and that in his essay he is going to ‘look at some key Biblical texts and then to see if a larger Biblical vision might be offered.’

The three biblical texts that he looks at are Genesis 1:27-28, Genesis 2:18-24 and Matthew 19:3-9.

Genesis 1:27-28.

On Genesis 1:27-28 Dr Taylor notes that:

‘A complementarian reading of this passage attends carefully to the way in which the image of God structures humanity as male and female.  Combined with the injunction to procreation, this is then taken to require heterosexual relationships.’

He then identifies three ‘serious difficulties with this approach’:

‘First, it is in danger of requiring couplings of male and female in order to display the image of God.  What then do we have to say for single people?’

Second, it takes the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ as a command for every couple, rather than for the species as a whole.  What then of the childless, the elderly and the infertile?

Third, it loses the way the passage insists that the image of God is seen in women as well as in men. This has not, through the history of humanity and the history of the Church, been something seen as obvious.  Sexual relationships have been constituted as expressions of male power, underwritten by a male God.  Genesis 1.27-28 begs to differ.’

Genesis 2:18-24.

On Genesis 2:18-24 Dr Taylor comments that this text: ‘… has also been taken to support a complementarian account of human relationships.  The ‘one flesh’ that derives from marriage is taken to require a man and a woman.’ As before, he identifies three problems with this complementarian reading:

‘First, the ‘one flesh’ that Genesis 2.24 speaks about is an expression of kinship, not of sexual relations.  ‘One flesh’ could be polygamous, and often is in the Old Testament.  Despite this being the ‘go-to text’ for monogamy, the marriage envisioned is not simply the pairing of a man and a woman.

Second, the order in which the man and woman are created has been taken to imply the subordination of women, 1 Timothy 2.11-15 being a prime example.  Yet we have already seen that Genesis 1.27-28 is seeking to deny such subordination.

Third, Genesis 2.24 needs to be read as part of the whole story, which begins at verse 18.  To read the final verse in isolation misses the whole point of the story.

In the story of Genesis 2, God creates the animals so that the ‘man’ (adam), the first human person, should not be alone. As the first human names the animals, none is found to be a helper and partner. But there is a real sense that they might have been.  Then God creates woman from the flesh of the first human.  Again, the human names the creature woman (‘ishah) and names himself man (‘ish).

The force of the story is on the consent of the person, and the delight of the man in the woman.  Consent and delight are what structures this story.  Gareth Moore writes of “the final bankruptcy of the compulsory heterosexuality interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve.  Not only does it misrepresent God as one who imposes his will regardless of human delight, but … it completely undermines the dynamic that leads to the creation of Eve.’’ [2]

Matthew 19:3-9.

On Matthew 19:3-9 Dr Taylor explains that those who take a complementarian position hold that these verses give:

‘…. the authority of Jesus to their interpretations of Genesis, and does so clearly in a discussion about marriage.  When Jesus speaks of marriage, they argue, he does so in a complementarian model of male and female.’

However, as he sees it:

‘….nothing in this passage that changes the force of the readings I have offered of the two Genesis passages.  Indeed, I would be happy to see Jesus reinforcing the assertion of Genesis 1 that women are fully human, and the assertions of Genesis 2 that consent and joy are at the heart of all human relationships.  Nothing that Jesus says in Matthew’s account need be understood as requiring a complementarian account of human beings.’

A larger biblical vision.

In the final section of his paper, in which he sets out a ‘larger biblical vision’ he criticises N T Wright’s view that the Bible is

‘an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.’ [3]

He comments that his readings of the three biblical passages he has looked at explain why he thinks Wright is wrong to read the Bible as saying that humans are created to be ‘male-plus-female’ and then notes that passages such as Isaiah 62:4-5 and Revelation 19:6-9 which link marriage and the new creation describe God’s people as ‘female, as a bride.’

This last point is significant, argues Dr Taylor, because:

‘If we read from the Scriptures to the people of God without any further thought or insight, we might find ourselves requiring all God’s people to be female.  Rather than arguing about whether women can take leadership roles in the Church, or whether we can have women bishops, we might find we need books and articles explaining why men can be Christians at all.  The image of the bride is gendered.

Yet I am not aware of any theologian or interpreter of the Bible that has taken that image as determining the gender of individuals within the people of God.  Even if the creation narratives do speak of a complementary relationship between male and female at the heart of creation, it is a quite different theological move to require such a relationship of every individual person or couple within God’s people.’

To put it simply, just as Isaiah and Revelation don’t require all God’s people to be female so also the creation narratives do not require everyone to be in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex.

A better approach to reading the Bible, Dr Taylor suggests, is to start from Ephesians 2:13-22. This passage tells us that:

‘At the heart of God’s purposes is the bringing together of all things and all people, however far off they may once have seemed.  The death of Christ brings everyone into one new humanity, putting hostility to death.  All are reconciled to God in one body, and no one is a stranger or an alien, but citizens and saints.’

The picture given in this passage, he writes:

‘… is one of the fullness of God and of creation, with all things reconciled and built together into a place where God can live.  There is difference, but it is reconciled, no longer requiring hostility between different groups.  And there is a wide range of difference that has been reconciled: male and female, Jew and gentile, married and single, different races and nations, people of different sexualities and different gender identities.’

Dr Taylor’s final conclusion is that:

‘The Bible calls us to a bigger and fuller vision of God and his creation.  But that vision is not structured by human relationships, but by Christ in whom ‘the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God’ (Ephesians 2.21-22).

Complementarian readings of Scripture are in danger of getting this the wrong way round, which results in structuring Christ around human relationships.  To limit the Biblical vision to a simple ‘male-plus-female’ is to limit the creative and reconciling power of God.

Creation is not straight, it is full of difference, all of which is reconciled into one new humanity through Jesus.’

What are we to make of Dr Taylor’s argument?

Genesis 1:27-28

Looking at Genesis 1:27-28 first of all, the text clearly does say that God structured humanity as male and female: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and  female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27, the same point is repeated in Genesis 5:1-2). It also clearly links the way that God has structured humanity as male and female to the command to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28). It is because human beings are male and female that they can be commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Sex (as in the difference between male and female) and sex (as in the act of sexual intercourse leading to the procreation of children) go together.

However, this does not mean that single people are not made in the image of God. Someone is made in the image of God as a male or female human being, not as part of married couple. Genesis 1 does not suggest that people becomes God’s image bearers only when they get married.

The command to be fruitful and multiply is a command to human beings in general, and obeying this command is an integral part of what marriage is about. As the Christian tradition has always insisted, the procreation of children is a central part of what marriage is for. To use the traditional language, it is one of the ‘goods’ of marriage. We can see this in Genesis 2-5 where Adam and Eve are brought together by God in the first marriage and it is in this God given context that they then obey the command to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 4:1, 2, 25, 5:3).

However, this does not mean that childless couples, or those incapable of having children, are not truly married. The key questions about childless marriages are (a) whether their form of relationship is one that would have led to children being born in the absence of accidental factors such as age or infirmity, and (b) whether the couple would welcome any children granted to them by God as a result of their union? If the answer to both questions was ‘yes’ then a childless marriage would fall within the scope God’s intentions for marriage. The couple would be seeking to live as God has ordained. That is why in the Bible the childless marriages of Abram and Sarai (Genesis 12:2, 18:11) and Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7) are still described as marriages.

Dr Taylor’s last point, that a complementarian reading of Genesis 1 loses sight of the fact that the text says that women are made in the image of God just as much as men, is completely baffling. Why would the claim that Genesis 1 says that God created human beings as male and female and that fulfilling the command to be fruitful and multiply requires relationships between men and woman imply that women are not made in God’s image?  This simply does not follow.

It may indeed be the case that historically sexual relationships have been viewed in terms of the exercise of male power, as Dr Taylor says, but there is nothing in a complementarian reading of Genesis 1 that leads to this view.

Genesis 2:18-24

The first point to make in regard to Dr Taylor’s reading of this text is that he is mistaken when he argues that ‘one flesh’ implies kinship rather than a sexual relationship. Flesh is used in Scripture to mean kinship, but in Genesis 2 the reference to ‘one flesh’ in 2:24 references back to the statement by Adam in the previous verse following the creation of Eve: ‘this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.’ The one flesh union between a man a woman in marriage is seen In Genesis as the coming together of the two separate halves of the human race (the two elements of human flesh) in a sexual union that will enable procreation and thus the fulfilment of the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’

Furthermore, the relationship envisaged in Genesis 2:24 is monogamous rather than polygamous. The paradigmatic relationship ordained by God between Adam and Eve is a monogamous one and in similar fashion in Genesis 2:24 a man ‘cleaves to his wife’ not ‘wives.’ Polygamy does not come into the picture until we get the story of Lamech in Genesis 4:17-24 in which Lamech having multiple wives is a demonstration of the spreading effects of sin after the fall.

Secondly, there is not, as he seems to suggest, a link between a belief that ‘one flesh’ refers to a sexual union between a man and a woman and a belief that women are (or should be) subordinate to men. The two beliefs are entirely distinct, which is why numerous Christians who take an egalitarian view of the relationship between women and men continue to understand ‘one flesh’ in a traditional way.

It should also be noted that holding that there is a God given order in the relationship between men and women does not mean holding that women are not equal in their humanity to men. Thus Geoffrey Bromiley comments on Genesis 2:

‘The male has a certain priority in this relation, for the woman is taken from the man and not the other way round. Yet priority is not the point of the story. The equal humanity which is needed for full companionship takes precedence. As in the Trinity the Father, as the fount of deity, has a certain precedence over the Son and the Spirit, yet all are equally God in eternal interrelation, so it is with man and woman in the fellowship which God has purposed and created.’[4]

Thirdly, it is simply not the case, as Dr Taylor argues following Gareth Moore, that the text implies that the animals ‘might have been’ a suitable partner for Adam and that what makes the difference with Eve is simply that Adam delights in her rather than them.

Dr Taylor is correct to say that Genesis 2:24 needs to be read in the light of the whole section consisting of verses 18-24. However, what he fails to acknowledge is that Genesis 2 needs to be read in the light of Genesis 1:26-28. In terms of the literary structure of Genesis, Genesis 2 is narrative commentary on what is said in Genesis 1 about God creating humanity as male and female.  Genesis 2 is a story that explains why human beings need to both male and female.

The key statement in the story is God’s statement in v 18 ‘I will make a helper fit for him.’ As Ian Paul notes, the Hebrew word kenegdo translated ‘fit for him’ in the RSV: ‘…has the sense of equal but opposite; it is the kind of phrase you might use to describe the opposite bank of a river, combining both the sense of equality and difference and distinctiveness.’ [5]

In Genesis 2:20 we are told none of the non-human creatures surveyed by Adam were a suitable helper because they were ‘not fit for him.’ They did not meet the criteria of being equal yet distinct. The reason Eve does then fit the bill (and the reason Adam delights in her) is that she is equal as another human being (‘flesh of my flesh, bone of my bones’) but different in that she is a woman rather than another man.

The story is indeed about ‘consent and delight’ but it is consent and delight to God’s good ordering of humanity as male and female.

Matthew 19:3-9.

Dr Taylor once more misses the point of biblical text in his account of Matthew 19:3-9. The text is not about Jesus affirming that ‘women are fully human’ or that ‘consent and joy are at the heart of all human relationships.’ What the text is about is Jesus affirming that God created human beings as male and female, that he created marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, and that because a married couple are joined together by God human beings should not break their marriage apart.

Contrary to what Dr Taylor asserts, what Jesus gives us in Matthew 19 is a ‘complementarian account of human beings’ since it affirms that ‘human beings are made and meant to be male and female.’

A larger biblical vision.

Dr Taylor’s response to NT Wright is unsatisfactory in two ways.

First, as we have seen, nothing that Dr Taylor has said has called into question the correctness of Wright’s claim that the biblical narrative works on the basis of a God-given complementarity of ‘male-plus-female.’

As the American writer Michael Brown notes ‘the Bible is a heterosexual book’:

  • Every single reference to marriage in the entire Bible speaks of heterosexual unions, without exception, to the point that a Hebrew idiom for marriage is for a man to ‘take a wife.’
  • Every warning to men about sexual purity presupposes heterosexuality, with a married man often warned not to lust after another woman.
  • Every discussion about family order and structure speaks explicitly in heterosexual terms, referring to husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
  • Every law or instruction given to children presupposes heterosexuality, as children are urged to heed, or obey, or follow, the counsel or example of their father and mother.
  • Every parable, illustration, or metaphor having to do with marriage is presented in exclusively heterosexual terms.
  • In the Old Testament God depicts His relationship with Israel as that of a groom and a bride; in the New Testament the image shift to the marital union of husband and wife as a picture of Christ and the church.
  • Since there was no such thing as in vitro fertilization and the like in biblical times. the only parents were heterosexual (it still takes a man and woman to produce a child) , and there is not a hint of homosexual couples adopting children. [6]

Secondly, Dr Taylor is wrong in conflating the two issues of the metaphorical use of the term ‘bride’ or ‘wife’ to refer to the relationship between God and his people and the issue of whether the complementarity between male and female has to extend to every human relationship.

Because the use of the terms ‘bride’ and ‘wife’ are metaphorical it does not follow that every member of the Church has to be female (any more than the use of the metaphor ‘shepherd’ for God means that all members of the Church are sheep). However, the way that God has created the world, to which the Bible bears witness, does mean that every human being needs to be in some form of relationship with members of the opposite sex, and that marriage (and hence sexual relations) should be between a man and a woman.

The problem with Dr Taylor’s proposal to ground a vision of ‘God and his creation’ in the account of reconciliation in Ephesians 2:13-22 is that this passage does not exist in isolation. It forms part of the bigger biblical canon and has to be read in the light of this fact.

When we read the passage in this context what we discover is that the God to whom Ephesians refers, the Triune God who has reconciled us to himself in Christ, is the same God who created human beings as male and female and who ordained that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Furthermore, the humans whom God reconciles are the human beings whom God has created in this way and for whom marriage has been ordained in this way.

It is therefore a poor reading of Scripture to contrast reconciliation and complementarity as contrasting approaches to understanding what the Bible says. They are two facets of the biblical picture and both need to accepted. We are both those who have been created as male and female and are called to live rightly in the light of this fact and those who have been reconciled to God in Christ.

It should also be noted that the Bible does not talk about the reconciliation of ‘people of different sexualities and different gender identities.’ The Bible does not see ‘sexualities’ in ontological terms as much modern thinking does. From a biblical perspective people are not lesbian, gay, bi, trans, questioning etc. They are simply men or women and called to live as such. Furthermore, the Bible does not think in terms of ‘gender identities’ either. To repeat, in the Bible there are simply men and women.

Conclusion.

It is indeed true, as Dr Taylor says, that ‘creation is full of difference.’ Humans are different from the non-human creation (which is itself hugely diverse) and all humans are different from each other. Nevertheless, ‘creation is straight’ in the sense that the world in which this difference exists is one in which ’human beings are made and meant to be male and female.’

Appended note – those who are intersex.

An obvious objection to what I have said in this paper is the existence of intersex people who, it is claimed, fall outside of the binary divide between male and female.

The first point to note in this regard is that the number of people who are genuinely intersex in the sense that their bodies are a mixture of male and female biology either at the level of their genotype (their genetic constitution) or their phenotype (their observable physical characteristics) is incredibly small – some 0.018% of live births.[7]

It should also be noted that those with the medical conditions involved are not neither male not female, they are a combination of male and female. Furthermore this combination is, medically speaking a disorder of development what Oliver O’ Donovan has called ‘an ambiguity which has arisen by a malfunction in a dimorphic human sexual pattern.’ [8]

However, acknowledgement that such malfunctions exist then leaves us with the task of thinking  about the specific possibilities of vocation for people who live with this defect. How can they live rightly before God as the people they are?

Firstly, it must be emphasised once again that people with intersex conditions are first and foremost human beings made in God’s image and likeness. The Christians United statement is right to declare, ‘We affirm that those who are born as intersex are full and equal bearers of the image and likeness of God and are worthy of full dignity and respect.’[9] Even though the development of their male or female identity has become disordered, people with intersex conditions bear witness to their creation as human beings in God’s image and likeness through the male and female elements that exist in their genotype and phenotype.

Secondly, they, like all other human beings, are summoned to live as people created by God and redeemed by God through Jesus Christ, having faith in the Gospel, loving God and neighbour, and living lives marked by the offering and receiving of friendship.

Thirdly, they, like all other human beings, are summoned to live in a way that reflects God’s creation of humanity as male and female. In cases where there is distinct male or female genotype but where problems have occurred in the development of the corresponding phenotype, the proper way forward would seem to be for them to live according to the sex of their genotype, receiving spiritual and psychological support and (where necessary) medical intervention in the form of reconstructive surgery to help them live more comfortably in their given sex and, when possible, to allow them to have children.208 Like other people they may either be called to marry a member of the opposite sex, or called to serve God through a life of singleness.

In the very rare cases where the genotype has both XY and XX chromosomes and the phenotype has both male and female sexual characteristics (for example both a penis and a vagina) the question of whether it would be proper to live as male or female becomes much less clear cut.

A possible way forward that would bear witness to the truth of who they are would be to live as either male or female (thus responding to God’s general call to humans to live as a man or a woman) while acknowledging the presence of elements of the other sex in their bodily make up. If this way forward were adopted then any marriage would need to be with a member of the opposite sex to that in which they have chosen to live. What would arguably not be appropriate would be for them to live as a non-binary (i.e., neither male nor female) person. This is because the truth about who they are is not that they are neither male nor female, but that the way their biology has developed means that they are both male and female.

M B Davie  25.7.19

[1] Simon Taylor, ‘Does the Bible Does the Bible Really Say…that Creation is Straight?’  18 July 2019 at https://viamedia.news/2019/07/18/does-the-bible-really-say-that-creation-is-straight/.

[2] The reference is to Gareth Moore OP, A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), p. 143

[3] The reference is to Matthew Schmitz, ‘N. T. Wright on Gay Marriage: Nature and narrative point to  complementarity’, https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/06/n-t-wrights-argument-against-same-sex-marriage.

[4] Geoffrey Bromiley, God and Marriage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p.3.

[5] Ian Paul, Same-sex unions (Cambridge: Grove Books 2014), p.8.

[6] Michael Brown, Can you be Gay and Christian?  (Lake Forest: Front Line, 2014), pp.88-89.

[7] Leonard Sax, How common is intersex?’, Journal of Sex Research, 1 August, 2002, text at http://www.leonardsax.com/how-common-is-intersex-a-response-to-anne-fausto-sterling/.

[8] Oliver O’Donovan, Transsexualism: Issues and argument (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2007), p.8.

[9] Christians United in Support of LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church, Article 4, text at http://www. christiansunitedstatement.org/.

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