At the recent Festival of Theology, we heard eight fascinating presentations on a range of subjects. I have previously posted John Allister on drawing on secular insights in ministry, and Alistair Roberts on virtue ethics in an age of social media. This is a revised version of David Shepherd’s presentation on theological perspectives on male-female complementarity—in which he reaches some surprising conclusions.
In her Chicago University Law School paper, The role of the popes in the invention of complementarity, Professor Mary Ann Case makes this bold assertion: ‘I can find no trace of sexual complementarity in the Gospels.’ Her claim which would resonate with many ardent feminists and same-sex marriage supporters both within and outside of the Church of England. For they believe that the concept of complementarity is patriarchal, oppressive and a recent amendment to the trajectory towards greater equality in Christian tradition. In addition to this assertion, Tobias Haller (the author of Reasonable and Holy, which has become a significant theological sourcebook for those who affirm same-sex sexual relationships) challenged me on complementarity in an exchange on the Thinking Anglicans blog:
You are mistaken on complementarity…Something is complementary when it goes to make up for what is lacking in some other thing.
In testing their claims, the dictionary definition of complementarity yields the following descriptions:
- A relationship or situation in which two or more different things improve or emphasize each other’s qualities
- the concept of contrasting characteristics which together account for a phenomenon in a way that each cannot define separately.
As an example of the latter, we know that light exhibits a form of complementarity, known as wave-particle duality. Wave and particle characteristics are both contributory and integral to our understanding of light. So, in terms of this integral complementarity, a physicist would never suggest that the behaviour of light as a particle makes up for its deficiency in wave properties. Therefore, to believe in male-female complementarity, as a Christian, is to believe that God has imparted differences between the sexes:
- To enhance each other in the mission of founding bonds of natural kinship;
- To emulate that mission, where appropriate, in the wider community (e.g. 1 Tim. 5:1,2).
This is not the same as believing that God created static and stereotypical differences between the sexes. What are the issues arising from the question of male-female complementarity in dominical, apostolic and patristic teaching?
Further on in her paper, Mary Ann Case also suggests that the argument from complementarity originated with Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), but was developed in the 20th century by Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein. However, in reflecting on the NT, this view dismisses the most significant scriptural locus of debates over male-female complementarity, which is Jesus’ own teaching from the Genesis narrative.
Curiously, in the Theology of Marriage report prepared by the Scottish Episcopal Church’s (SEC) Doctrine Committee, Gen. 1 is mentioned once to highlight a conclusion favouring the orthodox position from Church of Wales report. Paragraph 96 of the SEC report reads:
Opposition as expressed in the quotation from the Church in Wales Report (para. 59) is becoming circular. Clearly, if marriage is defined as an exclusive lifelong relationship between one and one woman, same-sex partnerships will not count as marriage. But the matter under consideration is whether we are bound to that definition, or whether there is benefit in expanding it.
Now, this allegation of question-begging might be valid, if Gen 1:28 was merely invoked in response to the much broader question: ‘is non-heterosexual marriage immoral?’ And Jesus might have courted similar criticism, if his reply was in response to the question: ‘is divorce without a cause immoral?’ Instead, we know that Jesus was asked, ‘Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?’, i.e. ‘By what authority should a man be allowed to/prevented from divorcing his wife for any cause?’ His response grounded in the Genesis narrative was ‘it was not so from the beginning’. Supporters of marriage orthodoxy are not question-begging, but echoing Christ’s reply to a similarly framed question: ‘By what (scriptural) authority should a marriage be solely male-female?’.
So, in Matt. 19, Jesus unites the Priestly (Gen. 1) and Yahwist (Gen. 2) narratives to present the God-given archetype (pattern) of marriage:
- Primary organic kinship (‘Flesh of my flesh…’)
- Monogamy (‘What God has joined together…’)
Despite this, we should remember that the gospels record Jesus as challenging patriarchal notions of fractional complementarity. For instance, Mary’s faith gave her precedence in being first to see the risen Christ.
In 1 Cor. 11:11,12, St. Paul explains that:
Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.
So, when complementarity is biblically defined, it should be explained as mutual male-female interdependence. In describing male-female polarisation as the result of the Fall, Pope John Paul II wrote of Gen. 3:16:
This ‘domination’ indicates the disturbance and loss of the stability of that fundamental equality which the man and the woman possess in the ‘unity of the two’: and this is especially to the disadvantage of the woman” (MD, 10)
Apostolic writings, especially Paul, establish our fundamental equality (1 Cor. 11:11,12; 1 Cor. 7:4-6), but with differing emphases for husbands, wives and children. These are attributable to missional differences which fulfil differing kinship responsibilities, rather than ontological differences. The mission of spouses is to found and sustain caring bonds of loving natural kinship, whether affinal (Eph. 5:25-27), or lineal (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21).
A good alternative example of complementarity is the Church’s purpose and mission, described in Eph. 4:13. The respective gifts and ministries bestowed upon members of the Church are describedas complementary to each other (1 Cor. 12:21). This is what I call missional or vocational complementarity.
We also need to distinguish complementarity from compatibility. Andrew Davison (author of Amazing Love and member of the 2020 Teaching Document working party) wrote the following in a piece entitled: ‘Gender what difference does it really make’ (Church Times 4/04/2017):
If opposite-sex partners are not automatically complementary, then the only way to judge whether they are is to see whether their relationship works in practice. Such a shift towards the empirical is perilous for opponents of same-sex relationships, since it is plain that some same-sex couples are complementary, are compatible. The two people work together, which is why their relationship lasts.
Yet, this argument conflates complementarity with the ‘straw man’ of compatibility. Complementary and compatible are not synonymous.
The era of the Church Fathers spanned from c. AD 100 – 451. Several writings (Clement of Alexandria; John Chrysostom; Tertullian) contain celebrations of both the virtue of Christian marriage and consecrated virginity. Consequently, they opposed Gnostic contempt for God-given material embodiment and marriage.
In debating the Valentinians, St. Clement wrote:
But they who approve of marriage say, nature has adapted us for marriage, as is evident from the structure of our bodies, which are male and female.
In refuting Julius Cassinus, Clement cites Gal. 3:28 as a statement that unity in Christ involves abandoning, not embracing desire:
But when a man gives in neither to wrath nor to desire, both of which increase in consequence of evil habit and upbringing so as to cloud and obscure rational thought, but puts off from him the darkness they cause with penitence and shame, uniting spirit and soul in obedience to the Word, then, as Paul also says, “there is among you neither male nor female.” (Stromata 3.13)
In her afore-mentioned paper, Professor Case invokes St. Paul’s authority on the matter, writing: ‘When he speaks of equality, it is equality in non-differentiation’. Despite this, those who support the church affirmation of same-sex sexual relationships are wont to assert that this scripture is inclusive of sexual desire and is the scriptural basis for abolishing male-female complementarity from every aspect of human endeavour, including and especially marriage.
Others have asserted that, in Gen. 2, it is not difference, but likeness, by which Adam is drawn to Eve through the God-given impetus for marriage. So, in the Church Times, Andrew Davison wrote:
Adam’s first response to Eve was to her similarity with him – “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’—not to her difference.” Yet, in the Good of Marriage, Augustine states:
God willed to create all men out of one, in order that they might be held in their society not only by likeness of kind (generis), but also by bond of kindred (cognationis vinculo tenerentu).
So, beyond just likeness of kind, marriage imparts this God-given organic kinship as a mutual bond wrought through sexual differentiation (1 Cor. 11:12). St. Paul returns to Genesis to explain male-female interdependence as the result of their reciprocal derivation from each other. It is this bond of kinship which prompted Adam’s declaration. Furthermore, St. Augustine describes marriage as ‘the first natural bond of human society is man and wife’. Therefore, significantly, instead this bond being based on similarity (Gen. 2:23), he highlights that Adam and Eve were joined by the bond of natural kinship (Gen. 2:24).
In the same teaching on marriage, Augustine also explained that, procreation aside, the enduring good of marriage is the natural alliance between the sexes (naturalem in diverso sexu societatem):
There is good ground to inquire for what reason it be a good. And this seems not to me to be merely on account of the begetting of children, but also on account of the natural society itself in a difference of sex. Otherwise it would not any longer be called marriage in the case of old persons, especially if either they had lost sons, or had given birth to none.
In the Law of Obligations, Reinhard Zimmerman writes of Roman times that: ‘societas is not based primarily on an antagonism of interests; its essence is the pooling of resources such as money, property, or labour for a common purpose.’ Therefore, even if we agree that procreation is not essential to marriage, we cannot eliminate this gendered natural alliance of male-female difference (naturalem in diverso sexu societatem) from the enduring good of marriage without rejecting a key conclusion of the most significant treatise on marriage in patristic tradition.
How do these relate to the question of Gnostic dualism? Gnostic dualism contrasted the ethereal other-worldly goodness of spirit and light with the transient worthlessness of flesh and matter. Consequently, Gnostics held that anything which perpetuated our God-given physical embodiment (including marriage and procreation) was to be rejected as evil, or, at best, inconsequential by comparison with spiritual pursuits.
Fast forward to the 17th Century and Descartes’ mind-body dualism (‘I think, therefore I am’) gave precedence to the mind over the body, conceiving the former to be essential and indicative of the true person, whereas the latter is relatively inconsequential to who we really are. Modern-day Gnostics have quoted Gospel of Thomas 22, as an encouragement to explore their sexuality. In New Dawn magazine, Dr. Stephan A. Hoeller wrote in support of this:
It is generally understood that at the non-physical level, people are not limited to their bodily gender. Jesus declared in the Gnostic scriptures that he “came to make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female not be female.” [Gospel of Thomas Saying 22] We may take this to mean that in order to attain to the Wholeness of the Pleroma, all persons are striving toward a spiritual androgyny. In the hyletic phase of development this often manifests as polymorphous bisexuality, in the psychic phase as homosexuality, and in the pneumatic phase it moves increasingly into the area of a spiritually based androgyny. None of these are sinful or should be condemned in Gnostic thinking.
The idea of a “crime against nature” is meaningless to the Gnostic, for our nature is not merely physical nature, such as our gender, but our total nature within which all dualities exist. When asked about homosexuality, the great modern Gnostic C.G. Jung merely said:
Well, they are the only people who are trying doing something against over-population. The attraction of persons of the same gender toward each other meets with the most powerful taboos of the patriarchal-psychic phases of cultural development and is therefore encumbered by many unnecessary ideas and apprehensions.
Today, gnosticism also finds expression in identity essentialism, where the body is merely the vehicle and the over-painted canvas of self-identification.
In the SEC Doctrine Committee’s Theology of Marriage, this Gnostic precedence of the mind is continued:
It is the way people treat each other that counts, not the shape of the fleshly tools they use to express this. As we understand circumcision to be of the heart and not the penis, so the way in which we must treat each other sexually is dictated by the heart and the Spirit and not the genitals.
This is an anti-incarnational false dichotomy, which sets up a false distinction between how we should employ both mind and body in relationship to others. It is also Hellenistic virtue ethics, which presumes that evidence (read, any declaration) of a virtuous motivation (‘I ended her life out of compassion. I couldn’t wait for marriage because I was so in love.’) is a true bellwether of right and wrong, rather than the actions in themselves, or foreseeable consequences of them.
What are the dangers of male-female stereotypes and the problems with a complementary ‘essentialism’?When we compare the ongoing debates over LGBT inclusion, the Church affirmation of same-sex sexual relationships and women bishops, the common thread is the repeated dispute between essentialists and constructivists on both sides. As recently as last year, the Nashville Statement was issued as a confessional declaration of biological essentialism:
WE AFFIRM that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.
WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.
In 2012, the Church of England response to the Government’s SSM Consultation revealed similar essentialism:
Marriage has from the beginning of history been the way in which societies have worked out and handled issues of sexual difference. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.
In contrast, in Marie-Amélie George legal study, Expressive Ends: Understanding Conversion Therapy Bans, we read:
In short, whether sexual orientation is in fact immutable, many individuals experience it as such and it forms a constitutive part of their identity. Gays and lesbians consequently form a “quasi-ethnicity” based on a shared “fixed, natural essence, a self with same-sex desires,” which provides the basis for claims of status-based discrimination.
As one writer has explained:
At its core, essentialism assumes at minimum that a pure and perfect definition of a particular thing can be found…that some definition can be framed that is irreducible in the sense that it has all the necessary descriptors and no unnecessary ones, and that is constitutive in the sense that, something exists wherever the qualities described by those terms appear in a single thing.
In an exchange of comments on Dr. Mike Higton’s blog, I agreed with him that: ‘the map of sexual differences is not a map with two distinct territories: it is much messier than that’. However, I maintained: ‘yet we also simplify nationality, when we know it’s much more complex than our current legal/cultural models allow’.
The key danger of both male-female stereotypes and complementary ‘essentialism’ is that (as much as sexual identity essentialism) they beget unwarranted and exploitative generalisations about how men and women should interact, whereas St. Paul was specific in urging just husbands and wives to model their relationship on the mystery of Christ and His church. While the Church community should emulate these bonds of kinship, where appropriate, Pauline theology cannot be extended into a blanket demand for all male-female interactions to conform to this model.
These kinds of essentialism (whether biological gender or sexual identity variants) also have the potential to polarise any discussion into irreconcilable conflicts over the characteristics which should irreducibly define human personhood.
Does a ‘missional complementarity’ provide a better alternative to the current misuse of Trinitarian theology in this area?
Some have even predicated complementary essentialism upon the nature of God. So, Carrie Sandom explained the view of Reform that: ‘God’s word demands a complementarity of roles that has its roots in the Godhead itself’. Yet, this basis for complementarity has been strongly contested as based upon a heretical Eternal Subordination of the Son. So, we should re-iterate that: ‘The trinity is not our social program’!
In contrast, sexual identity essentialism seeks to reify the impossible. So, there are court cases in which same-sex couples demand that marriage law should be gender-neutralised to impart them with joint primary parental recognition, thereby extinguishing a child’s right to its known natural father. (e.g. Matter of Q.M. vs. B.C. (New York); In re: M.C. (California). The International Lesbian and Gay Association wants parenthood to be ‘regardless of genetic connection’.
Missional complementarity has its basis in scripture (Eph. 4:11,12; Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:21) ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you.’ God’s mission can involve different callings to different segments of society. God’s calling can be:
- Personal, e.g. the OT prophets, such as Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah; Peter and Paul – Gal 2:8; Barnabus and Paul – Acts 13:2
- Corporate, e.g. Levites – Num. 1:47-54, Israel – Ex. 19:5,6; church – 1 Cor. 1:2; Heb. 3:1.
- Complementary in emphases, e.g. wealth (James 2:5, 1 Tim. 6:18); marital status (1 Cor. 7:35, Deut. 24:5); widowhood (1 Tim. 5:9-12); age and sex (Titus 2)
These segments within the Church received various callings to complementary missions in the world, but all in pursuit of their united, common purpose in Christ. For the married, the scripture’s commands are gendered, reflecting their complementary contributions to the mission of kinship formation. In terms of the apostolic authority, St. Paul differentiates the mission of husband and wife as they emulate the mission of Christ and the Church: ‘Husbands love your wives; wives obey your husbands.’ It’s worth noting that, as some do today, Peter similarly questioned the mission which Christ gave him:
‘Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me! Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them…When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 12:17 – 22)
So, in place of implacable essentialism on all sides, I would suggest that it is the mission of founding and protecting natural kinship and its emulation, but only where appropriate, in society, which requires male-female complementarity. If we can accept a missional complementarity in ministry which is not fractional, but integral, then we can accept the same for marriage in its mission of founding and extending the bonds of natural kinship.
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