Gender and Theology series: Implications for the Homosexuality Debate

oil lamp

Table of contents for the series:

1. Introduction

2. Serene Jones and Feminist Theory

3. Karl Barth on Man and Woman

4. Implications for the Homosexuality Debate

5. Implications for Women’s Ordained Ministry (Charlotte von Kirschbaum)


According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman.”[1] The Confession of 1967 relates this union to the purposes of God in creation: “The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind.”[2] The current controversy dividing the Presbyterian Church is a question of whether the ordering of these two persons, in marital fidelity, is predicated upon a necessary and intrinsic ordering of persons by their gender. Is the gender binary of male and female of the essence of marital and sexual union? Given the significance of this question of gender, it is peculiar that fellow “traditionalists” (not my favorite term) in our denomination have focused so intensely over the biblical passages that explicitly reference homoerotic unions, to the relative neglect of Paul’s model of a covenant ordering in our creation as male and female. As we argued with the help of Barth, this is an ordering established by God, as a similitude of his covenant purposes for creation. It is here, in dogmatic reflection on the nature of God and his creation, that we understand the purpose of our differentiated and irreversible ordering as male and female.

Thus far, we have spent considerable time discerning a proper theological paradigm for understanding gender. If our account of gender is successful, and is faithful to the apostolic authority that must underwrite such an account, then it is a serious question of whether homosexual unions can model the marital union exhibited by Paul in Eph 5, 1 Cor. 11, and other passages. This would not be a difficulty if we were to discover a “radical equality” in Paul, understood as an identity of the genders, but Paul does no such thing. The same Paul who wrote Gal. 3.28 is the same Paul who patterned the relations of male and female on the headship of Christ in the church (not, by the way, on Mosaic or levitical law). To make things concrete — as Paul always does — a marital union of male-male or female-female would pose the question of who is head and who is body, or who is bridegroom and who is bride, or who is to model the self-donation of Christ and who is to model the receptivity of the church (i.e., the covenant). This is the ordering that makes the union of male and female a beautiful witness to the covenant of God. It also, as we argued along with Barth, protects against the sort of self-dependency of the male that dominates in machismo cultures — so long as the male pattern is the sacrifice of Christ for the sake his bride, not for his own sake. In this covenant, and here alone, we know τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν of male and female, to use the language of Romans 1:26-27, is not merely the complementarity of their sexual organs (although important as a witness to God’s command). It is also an ordered union of super- and sub-ordination for the mutual fulfillment of both because, as Barth states, “It is the order of freedom for both.”[3]

[1] Chapter 24. Likewise, the Second Helvetic Confession, chapter 29.

[2] 9.44 in The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This statement is likely influenced by Karl Barth’s account of man and woman in Church Dogmatics III.4.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 (eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), 173.


Image: An oil lamp, recalling the parable in Matthew 25:1-13.


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