Right now in Rome, the Catholic Church is holding an international colloquium on a very important, and highly controverted, subject: sexual complementarity. The title of the gathering is Humanum Colloquium, “The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Colloquium.” The colloquium’s focus is on the institution of marriage (video above was just released at it).
This is a landmark event. Leaders from the whole religious spectrum are speaking at it. These include Rick Warren, Pope Francis, Robert George, and Russell Moore. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and other religious groups are represented, all of them united around a single commonality: the complementarity of the sexes.
As the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, this event warms my heart. I often find that CBMW is a lonely voice promoting complementarity, the idea that the sexes fit together and become one as the fulfillment of our distinctiveness. God created man and woman, not any organization. Procreation depends upon complementarity. The future of the human race depends upon complementarity. If men and women do not come together, they cannot produce children, and humanity will die.
This is just what Pope Francis said: “[C]omplementarity is at the root of marriage and family.” (See the report from the Vatican from ERLC Vice President Phillip Bethancourt here; full text here.) It is refreshing to hear such formulations expressed in public, and by such a public figure. I found it notable that Pope Francis used “rights” language in speaking of the need children possess for fathers and mothers: “Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity.” This is an argument that we will likely see public theologians develop in coming days.
According to Bethancourt, the Pope celebrated the union of man and woman: “Complementarity will take many forms as each man or woman brings distinctive gifts and personal richness….[this is] not just good but also beautiful.” I find these words stirring and heartening.
Evangelicals have participated in a major debate over gender roles for some time now. Complementarity has become less popular than it once was, and churches are sorely tempted to give up on this biblical doctrine. When it is taken out of the familiar territory and articulated in light of marriage, however, all Christians should see just how essential it is. If we lose sight of sexual complementarity–the recognition that man and woman are different and fill different roles when united–we will surely lose marriage.
Let’s put it like this: there is no Christian marriage without complementarity. There is no marriage without complementarity. Marriage is defined by God and signified by nature. We can try to redefine it, but if a union is to be a marriage, it must be complementary. Union only comes between a man and a woman; children are produced only through a man and a woman. Even if one works with a test-tube to procreate, the test-tube must be complementarian, so to speak.
We are dealing here with realities that are beyond us. They point us to the wisdom and intelligence of God’s creative design. They show us that the Bible’s definitive word on men and women is this: complementary. Created for one another. Made for oneness. Fashioned for glory, glory magnified through union. The Vatican and dozens of religious traditions are not giving up on these truths. Evangelicals–at least some of them–are celebrating these realities.
Strange as it may seem, in 2014, sexual complementarity is global news. It is my hope that it will also, in increasing measure, be received wisdom once more. What is at stake in this discussion, after all, is not only the health of children and the stability of society. Great as these stakes are, they go yet higher. What is at stake is the image of Jesus Christ and his blood-bought church, the complementary union that humanity alone has the privilege to image–and the responsibility to guard.