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The influence of premodern theories about sex and gender

Have you ever wondered why women are having such a hard time achieving equality with men in the church and the world? Or why intersex and transgender people are having such a hard time to be accepted as they are? Or why same-gender attraction still evokes visceral reactions among millions of straight people? Or why official theology barely understands the questions?

But there are answers! This is how one of them goes. In the ancient world, women were regarded as inferior versions of men. In the single continuum, “man,” there was a “gender slide” from more to less perfect. Women were men (as the language of Christian hymns and prayers still insist), but cooler, less rational versions of the male. This state of affairs is usually called the “one-sex model,” or the “one-sex continuum,” and appears in many guises. There was “male and female,” but the female was always a weaker version of the male.

By the seventeenth century, and with advances in anatomy and microscopy, the basis of biological differences began to be better understood, and the idea of two “opposite” sexes was born. Almost everyone reads this modern idea back into biblical and social history, without realizing its modern origin. Arguments persist about whether the two sexes are equal, equal but different, or unequal and different. The idea of opposite sexes has been popularized very recently by the notion of “complementarity.” Complementarity became a new argument for marginalizing the lives and loves of lesbian and gay people. If by nature we are made to complement the sex we are not, then only heterosexual behaviour, desire and coupling is acceptable. But now the idea of existing in two opposite sexes, with individuals being either one or the other, has itself been challenged.

There have always been people who have known, and were known to be, straightforwardly neither men nor women. Sometimes they are called a “third sex.” In a more liberal climate, transgender and intersex people have found the courage to become more visible and vocal. In earlier times, when the binary of opposite sexes was less pronounced, it may have been easier for them to lead normal lives, and to be accepted for themselves.

Christian teaching about men and women, i.e., about gender, is a mix of one-sex and two-sex models. What Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and many Anglican and conservative evangelical Church leaders think about women becomes clear when they talk about why women can’t be ordained. They are “one-sexers.” They replicate the ancient view that women are imperfect, malformed men, so cannot represent the perfect male God and His Son. Yet the more liberal progressive churches that have women ministers, priests and bishops usually argue for it on the basis of there being two equal sexes, with the added theological gloss that their equality is something implanted by God. They are “two-sexers.”

Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC. by Brendan Ross. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Secular theories also run with two biological sexes, with gender providing the social context where we become women or men. Only in the last forty years or so, has the sex/gender distinction weakened. It is now generally recognized that alleged sex and character differences have been much over-emphasized, while the distinction between biological and social influences is much more complex than previously thought.

There is a middle ground between one-sex and two-sex models. The ancient theory was right insofar as it asserted a common humanity; right to assume a single continuum running from male to female; wrong in attributing to powerful males a higher moral, intellectual and social position in a hierarchy where women, slaves and animals were below them.

The modern theory is right insofar as it asserts that women and men are equal in status and worth; right in asserting that basic human rights belong to people irrespective of gender (and much else); but wrong in making the distinction between two sexes into a separation; wrong in assuming the sexes are “opposites;” wrong in marginalizing everyone who doesn’t fit the assumed binary; wrong in inviting a huge exaggeration of sexual difference in the selling of children’s toys, cosmetics, shoes, clothing, and so on.

An adequate Christian theology of gender has its own version of a middle-ground, but this ground is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, not Adam and Eve, is the revealed image of God. Christians believe Jesus founded a new realm, variously called a new kingdom, a new creation, a new body, even a new or renewed humanity. In this realm, hierarchies of value, status, class and gender disappear, for “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” These markers of fallen humanity have no place in the new community of love, justice and peace. The churches have much to offer the world when it thinks about gender, but they must first recover their own teaching about Jesus, believe it, and joyfully put it into practice.

Featured image credit: celebrating gender freedom by naturalflow. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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