No longer male and female

Published 23 September 2010

Rev Dr Max Champion

Lessons -- Genesis 2:18-24; Galatians 3:23-29; Mark 10:2-9

'In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.' (Galatians 3:26-28 NRSV)

Galatians 3:28 is one of the best known and most powerful texts in the New Testament. It has been a catalyst for radical social change in movements for the abolition of slavery, the vote for women and indigenous people, civil rights for Afro-Americans and the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At their best, Christians have insisted that distinctions of colour, economics, social status or sex, which separate us from each other, have been overcome 'in Christ'.

The text challenges the way things are. To be 'in union with Christ Jesus'  (which is mentioned six times in eight verses) is to challenge beliefs and practices which were and are thought to be normal. A church that is 'in Christ' is called to foster relationships which break down barriers which divide us.

This doesn't mean that Christian unity is to be found in respecting all forms of 'difference'. At times it is wrongly assumed that tolerance of everything is what is meant by being 'in Christ'. In Galatians 5:16-21 (for example) there is a long list of 'differences' to be shunned by Christians.

This morning, in the light of a recent event which has implications for the UCA and the Australian community, I must focus once again on what it means to say that 'there is no longer male and female'.

The event was held on 12 June at Brunswick UC during the biennial conference of Uniting Network Australia, the UC national support and advocacy body which represents gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-gendered
(GLBT) people. A 'sacred union ceremony' for four same-sex couples was led by Rev Dr Robert Stringer and witnessed by 16 other clergy. It featured the signing and witnessing of a certificate and a three-tiered wedding cake on which was set gay and lesbian figurines. Pre-publicity on the UC website and in the radical gay paper the Sydney Star Observer urged all who were committed to marriage equality for same-sex couples to attend.

That such a ceremony could be held without censure is astonishing. The UC has never validly changed its teaching on the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman or on same-sex relationships. UC leaders have consistently argued that the National Assembly has only noted that different views on this question are held within the Church. Therefore, it is provocative, to say the least, to allow this ceremony to stand without censure and thereby imply that the UC is in favour of blessing same-sex unions.

In view of the controversial nature of the issue (in the Church and the community) it is very important to understand Paul's famous and oft-quoted text that 'in Christ . . . there is no longer male and female'.

Paul often speaks about religious and social divisions which have been overcome 'in Christ' (1 Corinthians 12:13; Colossians 3:11; Romans 10:12).

Only here does he specifically include 'male and female'. In view of the shellacking that he often gets for his 'sexist views' (see 1 Corinthians 11:2-16) this is noteworthy. Ancient civilisations, including Jews and Gentiles, didn't have a high view of women, often treating them as 'incomplete men'. So in saying that 'in Christ' there is 'no longer male and female' he is taking a radical step towards the true liberation of women. The natural distinction between men and women counts for nothing for those who are 'united in Christ'!

The fact that there is no distinction between men and women as far as being reconciled by Christ does not mean, however, that our biology -- as men or women -- is interchangeable or flexible! Our 'unity in Christ' does not mean that we have the right to our own 'sexuality' and to be sexually 'united' with whomever we please -- no matter how strongly we may be attracted to men or women or both.

Today there has been a radical shift in the way that we are being conditioned to think about this matter. 'Gender identity' is a term now used by GLBT activists to indicate how people 'see themselves' as male, female or something else. The fact that someone has a 'gender identity' which is at variance with their biological sex is now used to justify same- sex sexual unions.

Could Paul's affirmation of the union between man and woman be interpreted so as to include self-styled 'gender identity'? Is it legitimate to expand the text to say 'no longer straight and gay'?

Justification for this addition can be found among some spiritually minded thinkers (known as Gnostics) on the fringe of the early Church. They considered that achieving a high level of spirituality was superior to respecting our created flesh-and-blood reality. This took two forms: some rejected sexual union; others permitted diverse expressions of sexual union. Both groups thought that a person's 'spirituality' was of ultimate importance.

In the 2nd Century Gospel of Thomas the Kingdom of God is promised to those who can overcome sexual differences:

'... when you make the male and the female into a single one so that the male will not be male and the female not the female, then you shall enter the Kingdom of God.' (H Montefiore and HEW Turner, Thomas and the Evangelists p102.)

Thus 'the annihilation of the distinction between male and female is the logical corollary (outcome) of the Gnostic repudiation of sex' (p102).

Once that fundamental distinction is rejected the way is opened to accept same-sex or bi-sexual relations and expand the text to say that 'in Christ... there is no longer heterosexual or homosexual'. Despite the fact that a 'gay gene' hasn't been found and that social experience and individual choice play the major role in 'confused sexual identity' or the arrogant refashioning of gender identity, it is argued that Paul's text must be expanded in the light of modern science so that we can move beyond the primitive understanding of 'male' and 'female' in Scripture.

This way of thinking is behind the push for marriage equality for GLBT people today. It is said that we must move 'beyond' the restrictive duality of maleness and femaleness to our truly spiritual unity as free and egalitarian individuals. Only in this way will the inequalities in relationships between men and women be overcome.

However, nothing that Paul says here or elsewhere should be interpreted to justify 'same-sex marriage'. Our creation as men and women, and the purpose of marriage, is inflexible. Marriage between a man and a woman is God's will for the creation of family life and the prospering of God's covenant of grace-and- righteousness among all peoples. That is why Paul, in concert with the biblical witness as a whole, insists that we should respect our bodies according to their God-given dignity.

Therefore being 'baptised into Christ', as Paul says, doesn't mean that from now on everything is to be tolerated. It doesn't mean that the difference between men and women is overcome. Indeed we should say 'vive la difference'! The critical point is that our essential humanity is not to be found in our spirituality, but in the complementarity of our femaleness and maleness and our unity which is consummated in marriage between a man and a woman.

Our freedom in Christ isn't to be confused with a freedom to express ourselves sexually in 'diverse ways'. Being in Christ does not mean that women and men have the 'right to choose' their own 'sexuality' -- no matter how strongly they may be attracted to others. There are forms of sexual diversity which mock, rather than display, our unity in Christ! We have been reconciled by Christ to live a new life of righteousness -- one that in Paul and all Scripture unambiguously precludes same-sex and other destructive sexual preferences. (1 Corinthians 6:9f)

Therefore, contrary to what the leaders of Uniting Network and others say, there are no theological grounds on which the Christian Church can accept marriage equality between people of the same sex. It denies our God-given creation and elevates spirituality above our flesh-and-blood existence.

This does not mean that we should treat harshly those who are tempted by same-sex or other sexual attractions. But it does mean we should stand firm when activists insist on a right to express 'their sexuality' in contravention of the splendid God-given pattern given to us in Christ.

The momentum to legislate 'marriage equality' for same-sex couples -- in the community and the UC -- must be resisted. It is encouraging that, last Monday (21 June) in Canberra at the 2010 Make It Count event (which I attended), the then PM Kevin Rudd and opposition Leader Tony Abbott both reaffirmed their commitment to upholding marriage as the union of a man and a woman, while ensuring that same-sex couples (like others in dependent relationships) are not discriminated against in matters of finance, medical care, wills and so on. Less encouraging is the Greens commitment to 'legislate to allow marriage regardless of sexuality or gender identity'. (15 on Sexuality and Gender)

How this will play out in the forthcoming Federal election is unclear.

What is clear is that Christians should be alert to the kind of thinking which underlies the groundswell for radical change, counter its attractive and beguiling misrepresentation of biblical texts and -- following Paul's advice in Galatians 6:3 -- stand in solidarity with brothers and sisters who are confused about their sexual identity.

Then, as baptised members of the Church, we shall truly know what it means that 'in Christ . . . there is no longer male and female'.

Rev Dr Max Champion is minister in the St John's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley, Victoria, Australia. Dr Champion is Chair of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the UCA.