The Brownson Challenge

At the heart of the traditional view of same-sex relations is “gender complementarity.” That is, men and women are designed by God physically and constitutionally to complement one another. Often gender complementarity is connected to hierarchy but most often the connection is anatomical. James V. Brownson challenges gender complementarity in his new book, Bible, Gender and Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships.

In this Brownson Challenge, we see that Genesis 1 does not teach that adam is not an undifferentiated being that is divided into male and female in Genesis 2:21 (I often refer to this as “splitting the Adam”), that the focus of Genesis 2 is not complementarity but similarity, that image of God refers to value, dominion and relationally, and most importantly that “one flesh” refers not to physical complementarity but to a “kinship bond.” The word “flesh” most often refers to “kinship group” and not to bodies.

What do you think of Brownson’s challenge about gender complementarity, patriarchy, “one flesh” or his ideas about the unitive vs. procreative sense of marriage for Protestants — or celibacy as not for all?

Thus, Genesis 1-2 does not teach gender complementarity so that any appeal to gender complementarity as the moral logic at work is mistaken.

The Brownson Challenge also examines “revisionist readings” and these are essentially the argument that since the texts of the Bible don’t deal directly with same-sex, faithful, loving, monogamous relations therefore the statements against same-sex relations pertains to other elements of same-sex relations, like extreme profligacy. His contention is that the revisionist readings’ appeal to love and justice are inadequate. What is needed is a wider set of categories.

1. Patriarchy: the Bible shows fluctuation between patriarchy and egalitarian relations but the direction is toward the egalitarian. The Bible sketches this as the direction and invites humans to live into that in the now. Hierarchy of genders therefore is not normative. When hierarchy is at work it is not normative.

2. One Flesh: this refers in Gen 2:24 to a lifelong kinship bond. The marriage bond is deepened when God reveals himself as having such a kinship relationship. The essence of marriage is kinship bonding, even when procreative possibilities are impossible. What does not happen with the whole of life is right for any area of life: that is, sexual infidelities denies the whole life element of kinship bonds. What is normal (two sexes) may not be normative (same-sex).

3. Protestants, in contrast to Catholics, teach the unitive sense of marriage not the procreative as the essence of marriage. Marriage does not require procreation to be a legitimate marriage. The lack of procreative elements cannot by itself deny the legitimacy of stable gay or lesbian relationships.

4. Celibacy: simple: since not all are called to celibacy according to Paul, though some are, not all gays and lesbians can be called to celibacy.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Tyler

    What if ‘complementarity’ comes from natural law and not exegesis of Gen 1-2

  • http://disorientedtheology.wordpress.com Paul A.

    How does one determine “natural” law? Homosexuality exists in nature, after all.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    Natural law does not mean “whatever you find in nature.”

  • EricW

    I remember reading years ago somewhere that Frank Moore Cross (in BAR or Bible Review, perhaps?) said that “the two will become one flesh” refers to them being part of the same clan/family – i.e., a kinship joining like it appears Brownson is saying. From: http://covnetpres.org/2010/03/marriage-and-covenant/

    As Frank Moore Cross writes in an essay describing the biblical “continuities between the institutions of kinship and of covenant”:

    In Israel… the legal compact of marriage introduced the bride into the kinship group or family. This is the proper understanding of Genesis 2:24… Flesh refers not to carnal union but to identity of “flesh,” kinship, “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” Obviously offspring of the marital union will be of one flesh; what is asserted is that the covenant of marriage establishes kinship bonds of the first rank between spouses. [i]

    [i] “Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel,” in From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp.7-8.

    From another Website:

    The Religion of Israel V: Frank Moore Cross on Israelite Religion

    In previous posts I’ve made several references to Frank Moore Cross’ classic study Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (CMHE), published in 1973 and now in its ninth edition. Cross, professor emeritus in Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages, was a student of William Foxwell Albright who in many ways pioneered the comparative study of Canaanite and Israelite religion. (William Dever, whose work we have cited frequently, was a student of Cross.) In 1998 Cross published a collection of essays, most of which date to the 1980′s, under the title From Epic to Canon (FEC). Several of these essays are relevant to our concerns and are worth considering before we move on to summarizing our conclusions concerning Israelite religion.

    Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel

    In Chapter 1, “Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel,” Cross stresses that the notion of kinship is absolutely fundamental to a correct appreciation of ancient Israel, based as it was–in common with other West Semitic groups–on a fundamentally tribal society. I would wish to go somewhat further and point out that kinship concerns are not exclusive to tribal societies per se but are a common feature of many societies that Mircea Eliade characterizes as “archaic” or “traditional.” For example, traditional Japanese society is not usually considered to be tribal, yet it is based on the mythology of common blood descent from the god and goddess on Mount Fuji. In theory, therefore, all Japanese are members of an extended family.

    Kinship, Cross notes, defines “the rights and obligations, the duties, status, and privileges of tribal members.” Of particular importance was the concept that an attack on one member was, given the blood tie, an attack on all members. Thus, the notion that all members were one flesh, blood, bone (Cross cites Gen 29:14, 2 Sam 5:1, Judges 9:1-4, Gen 37:27) had very practical ramifications in terms of group cohesiveness for the common defense. Rights and obligations were defined by this relationship not only for other members but also with regard to non-members.

  • http://www.natejohnsongallery.com Nate Johnson

    One can massage a text to fit anything one likes, but I think if we are attentive to the building blocks within the overall context, we can eliminate the fanciful. Gen 1:27 >

    So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

  • EricW

    In this Brownson Challenge, we see that Genesis 1 does not teach that adam is not an undifferentiated being that is divided into male and female in Genesis 2:21 (I often refer to this as “splitting the Adam”), that the focus of Genesis 2 is not complementarity but similarity, that image of God refers to value, dominion and relationally, and most importantly that “one flesh” refers not to physical complementarity but to a “kinship bond.” The word “flesh” most often refers to “kinship group” and not to bodies.

    2. One Flesh: this refers in Gen 2:24 to a lifelong kinship bond. The marriage bond is deepened when God reveals himself as having such a kinship relationship. The essence of marriage is kinship bonding, even when procreative possibilities are impossible. What does not happen with the whole of life is right for any area of life: that is, sexual infidelities denies the whole life element of kinship bonds. What is normal (two sexes) may not be normative (same-sex).

    My question would be (and see my previous post re: Frank Moore Cross on “one flesh”): When Paul in Ephesians 5:31-32 likens the “one flesh” of marriage to the relationship between Christ and His Church, and when Jesus in Mark 10:2-9 discusses divorce and being “one flesh” and in doing so links Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 and Genesis 5:2, and especially when Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:16 discusses becoming “one flesh,” are they using the meaning of “kinship bond” à la Cross and Brownson? Or are they referring, contra Cross and Brownson, to physical complementarity manifested in and displayed by male-with-female genital sexual intercourse? And if the latter, which becomes the normative understanding of Genesis 2:24 for Christians, no matter what the “original Hebrew” meaning and understanding of Genesis 2:24 might have been?

  • http://newlifeduluth.org Jeff Hyatt

    Scot…what does Brownson say about Genesis 3? It seems to me that one can not speak of the ‘natural’ without including brokenness into the mix. This is where the conversation splits significantly in the ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ categories.

    Patriarchy and Feminism, along with domination of all sorts, comes from Genesis 3:16 – “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” So, Genesis 1 & 2 must be referring to some kind of union that the procreative act embodies. Does it need to be either unitive or procreative? Both/and?

    I would agree (from your summary) with Brownson that celibacy is not for every person in the same way that abstaining from alcohol, wealth or chocolate are not for everyone. If one sees homosexuality as inconsistent with God’s good design of humanity, then abstinence/celibacy would be called for in the same way that abstinence would be called for in the case of an alcoholic. Celibacy would become a ‘good’ in this case.

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    I like EricW’s comment #6 and the reference by Paul to sex with a prostitute and emphasizing one in body, not clan or tribe, and quotes Genesis 2:24 as support, and then Paul make a singular parallel to union (“one with him”) with Christ. See 1 Corinthians 6:16-17. I’d imagine Paul with his Jewish training would not use Genesis 2:24 in a skewed way.

  • Tom F.

    I don’t know if I would go quite as far as Brownson, but I am in sympathy.

    1.) As long as one isn’t woodenly literal, same-sex relationships can be procreative and answer the creation mandate. They can adopt. They can take action to care for children in the church. They can contribute to the creation of human culture which broadly leads to the flourishing and development of human beings. Rather than go with Brownson and say that they aren’t procreative, I would broaden “procreative”. Their love overflows for the benefit and flourishing of others; that’s procreative.

    2.) The celibacy part makes sense to me. A commenter compared to alcohol; but this fails. To an alcoholic, you can point out that alcohol ruins their life, interferes with work, makes them unreliable, destroys their health, and stunts their emotional growth/well-being. It used to be thought that one could say the same things about same-sex relationships, but that’s no longer the case. You can go investigate same-sex couples lives, and it is simply not true. Their relationships are life-giving, growth-inducing, and evidence sacrificial love roughly as often as straight couples’ relationships are/do. So why are they similar to alcohol, exactly?

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    Tom F #9,
    I don’t think anyone would interpret “procreate the human race” as “get about adopting children, etc.” I am not saying same-sex couples should be viewed detrimentally, but we don’t need to stretch “procreate” to mean something it doesn’t.

    I don’t think the commenter’s point about alcoholism was to stress all the negative effects of the disease, but to say it was not part of God’s good design. Heaven knows the human destruction brought about by heterosexual couples on themselves and on others (children). The point is, I think (and I’m not in Jeff Hyatt’s mind) is that homosexuality and alcoholism are not the way things are supposed to be. I’m not saying I agree with the comparison…just trying to help understand it.

  • Tom F.

    John- When infertile straight couples adopt children, would you say they are being “procreative”? Does the person who gave up the child for adoption get more accolades for being procreative or fruitful than the ones who raise it? Does being biologically infertile mean that a straight couple simply can’t be “fruitful”? Your narrowness in defining fruitfulness may boomerang on some folks you likely don’t want it to.

    I hear what you are saying on the alcoholism. God doesn’t intend alcoholism, God doesn’t intend for homosexual attraction. But it is clear why God doesn’t intend alcoholism. It is not clear why God can not tolerate relationships between two persons who build each other up, who love each other sacrificially, and who contribute as a couple in community. It seems like that would be part of God’s good design, no? If not, why not? It would be so much clearer if, like alcoholism, same-sex relationships were inevitably harmful. But they aren’t.

    The alcoholism example is insidious because some of the negative connotations of alcoholism “splash” onto same-sex relationships. But when asked about these negative connotations of same-sex relationships, all that can be offered is “God didn’t intend that”.

    A better example would be the purity laws in the OT. God asked the Israelites not to eat pork because…well, no because, it just marked them as set apart. There is no practical ethical grounding to the purity laws (i.e., pork doesn’t make you sick if you cook it right). So, to avoid the “splash” of negative connotations from the alcoholism example, I would ask that people start comparing the same-sex prohibition it to the purity laws. God intended for the Israelites not to eat pork, eating pork is outside of God’s intention for Israel, period. God (maybe) intends for his people not to engage in same-sex relationships, same-sex relationships are outside of God’s intention for his people, period. There is no ethical grounding, because its just based on God’s command.

    The prohibition from eating pork is a better comparison, and I suggest that it be used to avoid the negative “splash” from the alcoholism example.

  • scotmcknight

    Tom F,

    You: “When infertile straight couples adopt children, would you say they are being “procreative”?”
    Me: No, that’s not what procreative means.

  • EricW

    I suspect it won’t be too long before they find a way for two lesbians to conceive a child using the genetic material from both of them to fertilize one of their eggs which would then be implanted into one of their wombs, thus enabling them to conceive and bear a child that is indeed their own.

  • Richard B

    Brownson’s challenge comes undone on two fronts:
    1) The kinship bond of Gen 2:24 consists of a “Father and Mother”, and this demonstrates that gender differentiation is necessary and normative (especially since Jesus reiterates this in Mark 10:4-6) with respect to marriage – whether procreative or not.
    2) Natural Law cannot be ignored given Romans 1:26-27.

  • Jim T

    Thank you Richard for giving reference to a scripture that actually addresses the issue of homosexuality.
    Also see Lev.18:20 and Lev. 20:13.
    The Bible can’t be clearer. It is sin.

  • DanS

    Richard #14 – spot on.

    In addition:
    Gen 1:27-28: “27 So God created man a in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” – which clearly speaks of the differentiation between male and female and links marriage and gender to procreation.

    The fact that in a fallen world some couples cannot conceive is not really relevant, any more than the fact that some are born without sight nullifies God’s design for the eye. Both are just a sad consequence of the fall. In both cases, the “norm” is for marriage to lead to children and for eyes to provide sight. Very different thing than saying the anatomical differences between men and women are irrelevant to the Biblical portrayal of marriage.

  • Tom F.

    Scot, fair enough. How about “generative” then? I mean, I’m talking about translating “be fruitful and multiply”. Fruitful is already a metaphor, so it would seem to have some space to expand. Perhaps “multiply” has to be more specific then. I’ll grant that.

  • Amanda B.

    I think 2 and 3 are reasonable points (though I confess to having trouble grasping what is meant by “What does not happen with the whole of life is right for any area of life”). Procreation cannot be the mark of a godly marriage, especially considering the accounts of hetero couples in the Bible who were both faithful to God *and* barren.

    However, I find 1 and 4 to be very weak points.

    To 1, male/female hierarchy is not a necessary foundation of the belief that marriage should be heterosexual. Egalitarian leanings in Scripture concerning the status and functions of the genders do not prove anything about same-sex marriage. It’s very fair that this should cause us to reevaluate our presuppositions about same-sex relationships, but it is not, on its own, support for or against them. Further connection is needed.

    Point 4 is simply not a logical if/then statement. What Paul says is that not everyone is supposed to be celibate. It does not logically follow some gays and lesbians should not be celibate. Though (of course!) gay and lesbian people are people, they are not *the whole collective* of people, and therefore we cannot prove from Paul’s statement alone that some of them should marry. If every single homosexual believer was biblically called to celibacy, Paul’s statements would still be true.

    The weakness of points 1 and 4 do not *disprove* the validity of homosexual marriages, but neither are they an adequate defense of them.

  • Andrew

    Marriage’s primary purpose in Judaism was procreation of the Jewish people. Jesus shocked his audience with his divorce prohibition because to divorce your wife because she was “barren” was perfectly acceptable and in line with God’s plan. Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, said your bond was your bond and not even infertility could break that bond. Thus turning on its head the traditional understanding of marriage.

  • http://www.psephizo.com Ian Paul

    I am reading through Brownson myself, and I’m finding his arguments very much less than persuasive.

    In relation to the complementarity between male and female, it seems to me that the essence of his argument is that, because commentators can’t agree on exactly what the nature of this complementarity is, therefore there is no sense of complementarity in the text.

    This seems to me to be a serious confusion of method. it is confusing what the text says with our explanation of why the text says what it says. Okay, I agree that there is some difference in the explanation of why the text says what it says, but I can’t find any serious commentator who does not find the idea of complementarity firmly embedded in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. in the end Brownson does not address this exegetically, he just notes that commentators disagree!

    There is quite a strong parallel around the idea of image of God. I think there is quite a wide diversity amongst commentators on what this means; but such disagreement does not imply that the notion of humanity in the image of God is not present in the text.

  • Matt Brown

    Looking deeper to find the reasons behind God’s commands is all well and good, but I think there is a larger question looming. If we simply read the commands regarding marriage and relationships at the surface level, it is reasonable to conclude that the leaders of ancient Israel and the NT church viewed same-sex relationships as “other” and outside of God’s plan. We can look for context clues and hints along the periphery, but if we come to a different conclusion as to what the people of God believed about God’s commands, we are largely arguing from silence.

    But this would not be the first time we would have to reevaluate what the Bible is really saying based on new glimpses into God’s world (e.g. Heliocentrism). My question is: what is the “new glimpse” that demands reevaluation? Is it a better understanding of human psychology? Is it the seeming cessation of the need to “be fruitful and multiply”? What is the new evidence that is driving Brownson’s re-interpretation?

    As it stands, there are only a few historical viewpoints available if you believe the Bible is significant to man’s relationship with God: 1. Homosexuality as we see it today is relatively new phenomenon, and therefore the ancient text of the Bible doesn’t speak directly to how we should treat the subject, 2. Homosexuality has been a latent element in human society from day one, initially prohibited for practical reasons (see: Onan) but now permissible since the conditions for God’s commands have been met 3. God directly spoke to his people about what he wanted for them, but they added their own restrictions that God did not intend, 4. Every single time any kind of homosexual relationship or behavior is seemingly mentioned, it is actually only referring to ceremonially unclean or sexually deviant acts, and that their is a hidden, silent history of healthy, vibrant same-sex relationships within ancient Israel and the New Testament church, and finally 5. Homosexual relationships and behavior were seen as outside of what God wanted for his people and his creation, and that he intended that to be revealed to both ancient Israel, the early church, and the generations after. Which of the first four is Brownson’s underlying assumption?


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