A Reflective Response to Eugene Rogers' "Same-Sex Complementarity"

In a previous blog article—one of my “Responses to Basil”—I expressed dissatisfaction with the standard orthodox Christian arguments against same-sexuality that usually rest on a combination of three pillars: scriptural (or patristic) texts, long-standing customs and/or appeals to natural law. I argued that what Christians in a postmodern generation require is a vision of sexuality rooted in an experience of Jesus Christ that is both personal and consistent with that of the Christian community from the beginning. In other words, postmodern Christians need a sexual theology that is founded primarily in an orthodox Christology, and that only secondarily finds confirmation in the texts and customs of the Christian community, not to mention the broader biological realities of human life.

In 2011, Eugene F. Rogers wrote an article for The Christian Century entitled, “Same-Sex Complementarity: a Theology of Marriage” that demonstrates both the compelling possibilities of a Christologically-rooted sexual theology, as well as its potential problems. In the article, Rogers interprets Ephesians 5 to propose that marriage is first and foremost a typological reality. “In both Galatians and Ephesians,” Rogers says, “the New Testament writer subjects ‘male and female’ to what Stanley Hauerwas has called christological discipline… Ephesians makes Christ and the church the realities referred to, husband and wife as the signs that refer.” In other words, marriage no longer exists merely to ensure social stability or produce children; rather, it serves the greater end of pointing to Christ.

According to Rogers, the Christological vocation of marriage means that the issue of sexuality must shift beyond sociological arguments or textual arguments and onto a new terrain, namely, “the mystery of Christ and the church, what icons can image them and what ‘male and female’ means for Christians.” He goes on to argue (taking up the poststructuralist thought of Judith Butler) that Christian tradition “has surprising things to teach us about how to expand the terms male and female—how to displace them from contexts in which they confine the realities of Christ and the church.” Specifically, he sees Christian tradition as disconnecting gender from its ‘confinement’ to the biology of men and women. Thus the New Testament may gender the Church as female (the Bride), but it does not restrict membership to women alone. Similarly, Jesus is gendered male (the Bridegroom) but His healing of humanity’s sins is not restricted to men alone.

If this is the case, Rogers says, then there is no reason why the gendered language of marriage cannot include same-sex couples because ‘male and female’ in the Christian understanding refers not to biological realities but to our calling to practice the self-emptying love of Christ for His Church, whatever physical forms our efforts may take. Rogers is clear to point out that he is not downplaying the importance of the body; embodiment, he says, is important because it provides the way (or rather, many ways, including same-sex, intersex and transgendered) in which gender can signify Christ and the church. As Rogers puts it, “A christological account of gender gives bodies more, not fewer, ways to matter.”

As you might guess, I agree with Rogers broadly that the question of sexuality and how it is to be practiced must rest on the ground of Jesus Christ. In his exhortation to the husbands and wives of Ephesus the Apostle Paul is pretty clear that his pastoral precepts and principles exist not for purely for the purpose of social stability, but refer to Christ and His Church. The ultimate purpose of sexuality is indeed as Rogers says to speak of or ‘point to’ a greater reality. In this sense, the Christian vision of marriage relationship is that of living, historical proclamation of the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ, a propagation of the Incarnation and the saving work of God in the life of the couple and the family.

Where I have trouble with Rogers’ argument lies in his complete disconnection of ‘male and female’ from their contexts in lived social experience. For instance, he points out that in the Middle Ages, an abbot could be referred to as the “mother of monks,” and thus was gendered female. This is indeed a powerful use of gender in its symbolic sense, but from where does this power derive? Doesn't it flow directly from the human personal and communal experience of motherhood? In other words, isn’t calling a man a ‘mother’ striking precisely because we associate ‘mother’ with a complex web of concrete social realities? Likewise, doesn't the emancipatory meaning of referring to women as ‘sons of Abraham’ derive from a specific community’s experience that limited inheritance to men? And if we speak of Jesus as having breasts and a womb (as the Cistercians did), doesn't the astounding power of that symbol stem from the Church’s collective historical experience of Jesus as a first century male Jew? Isn't it the case that Christ’s embrace of both men and women stands out as radical and revolutionary precisely because he was so obviously a man?

When we sever male and female, mother and son from the lived experience of actual mothers and sons, men and women, we rob the symbols of their potential resonance. What does it mean to say, for example, that Jesus had breasts and a womb when it doesn't particularly matter if He was a man? Rogers says, “The analogy [of Ephesians 5] recognizes Christ and the church as the realities, not male and female gender. Male and female point to something else.” By using ‘not’ and ‘something else,’ however, Rogers deprives the gendered terms both of their experiential grounding and their signifying power.

All of this has implications for same-sex relationships. While two men or two women who are committed to sharing the whole of life together can attempt to typify the self-emptying love of Christ for His Church, those attempts will always derive their meaning from the prior existence of heterosexual marriage, which alone is rooted in the soil of social experience where ‘male and female’ and ‘bride and bridegroom’ draw their symbolic life. Put another way, the ways in which two men or two women can exist as ‘bridegroom’ and ‘bride’ will always require validation from the experiences of actual men and women who leave their fathers and mothers and are physically united to each other in holy matrimony.

Rogers’ Christological approach justifies the inclusion of same-sex couples in the marriage rite on the basis that ‘in Christ there is no longer male or female.’ This would seem to suggest that Christological typology is not sufficient for those seeking a compelling argument against same-sex marriage. As I have suggested, though, the Christological approach is sufficient as long as we are careful not to disconnect terms such as ‘bride and bridegroom’ from their lived social contexts. If we keep those contexts in view, we can draw the opposite of Rogers’ conclusion: as long as same-sex relationships continue to invoke the ‘bride and bridegroom’ typology, they will remain derivative of their heterosexual counterparts. At best, such relationships can be regarded as pseudo-marriage; at worst, they are no marriage at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I guess if you're gay you'll want to prove the Bible says it's ok to have gay sex..... Like if you're divorced you'll want to prove the Bible says it's ok to remarry..... Same old chestnut... What man wants v what the Bible says. Selfishness v selflessness. Great response to a troubling blasphemous article by Rogers.