Friday, February 13, 2009

Lates Townsman Article: Sex and the Christian (Part 2)

Last week, I initiated a series of reflections on the role of sex in the life of the Christian. In the first article (available online at www.saintaidan.ca, under “Sermons and Articles”), I worked up some definitions of crucial terms in the discussion.

For instance, I defined sex as the division of male and female in a species according to their reproductive functions. Gender I defined as connoting the ways in which sex determines social roles, expectations or ideals for men and women in a given culture or society.

I then outlined a series of fundamental questions with which I intend to grapple in the next few weeks. The first of these is whether or not, given the division of the sexes, Christianity teaches a division of gender as well. In other words, does Christianity preach specific social roles for males and females?

The writings of the apostle Paul offer us a way into an answer. One of these basic texts is Galatians 3:27-29: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.”

With the advent of the Incarnation, St. Paul says, sexual distinctions among men and women have no bearing on our status before God. We are all ‘one’ in Christ, and therefore heirs of God’s promises of eternal life and His kingdom.

Such a teaching in fact constituted a radical departure from the traditional pagan understanding in St. Paul’s time, when a person’s sex prescribed the degree to which he or she could encounter and experience God. In the Jewish temple, for instance, women stood in a court far behind the men, who stood closer to the altar. The distance indicated relative status before God: closer to the altar, closer to God, and vice versa.

St. Paul, by contrast, declared openly that in Christ women are no longer qualitatively inferior beings whose female biology restricts their access to God. Baptism qualifies every single human, male and female, to enter into the divine Presence and to enjoy full participation in the divine life that God gives in His Son.

But even though St. Paul tells us that our maleness and femaleness in no way affect our worth before God, the apostle does not seek to eradicate sexual differences entirely. After all, if he really believed that the differences between male and female were insignificant, then it would be meaningless for him to proclaim the transcendence of male and female in Christ. His point is less biological, than theological: God’s love is so powerful that it transcends real and existing sexual divisions in humanity.

What then does the Apostle say about gender roles? A closer look at the original Greek of the Galatians passage reveals that when Paul speaks about men and women being ‘one,’ that ‘one’ is not neuter, but masculine. We are not just one gender-less community, or body. Instead, the context of the verses suggests that we are one son in Christ. And as a son in the ancient Near East would inherit his father’s fortune (not the daughter or the children generally), so too do we inherit the promises made to Abraham. Again, the point is theological: our spiritual gender is masculine because we are heirs.

But it gets more interesting yet when we examine another passage—Ephesians 5:21-33—in which St. Paul declares that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”

As others have pointed out, St. Paul seems to contradict himself. If there is “neither male nor female,” why the exhortation for women to be subject to their husbands? The inconsistency, however, is only skin deep. Later in the passage, Saint Paul says, “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” In other words, the marital gender roles he has described exist to proclaim the relationship between God and His people. God is seen in masculine terms, as the husband who loves his wife by giving His life for her. Humanity, by contrast, is seen in feminine terms, as the wife who is subject to and obeys her husband—God in Christ.

So we begin to see a pattern. St. Paul speaks of God’s love in terms of the transcendence of male and female sexes. He expresses our common inheritance of God’s kingdom through a masculine gender role. And he renders our intimate relationship with God as a feminine gender role. In other words, for St. Paul, sex and gender do exist as objective human realities, but not as ends in themselves. Instead, sex and gender are ways to proclaim the meaning of God’s love for us and our love for Him.

If Christians are going to continue to grasp the full significance of these divine realities, we must also continue to uphold both sexual and gender distinctions in our daily lives and relationships. How those distinctions play themselves out exactly will vary in different times, places and circumstances; however, the distinctions must exist, for Christians at least, in a form consistent with spirit of the apostles’ original teaching.

Without this apostolic conviction of male and female, masculine and feminine, Christians have no real scriptural basis for understanding what God has done in Christ, and the Gospel loses its historical power and meaning. With them, we can continue to grow in the divine realities of which sexual and gender differences speak—so life-giving to our souls.

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