James Brownson – Bible, Gender, Sexuality [Feature Review]

June 21, 2013


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Page 2: James Brownson – Bible, Gender, Sexuality

He also flags the approach which makes “justice” and “love” the sole requirements of Christian ethical statements, although I found some of his rationale slightly confused. He refers to Richard Hays’s argument (Brownson, 47) that Romans 1 goes beyond simple requirements of justice and love in its reference to “rebellion” against God, and notes that there may be criteria for moral behaviour that go beyond simply justice and love. I find this unconvincing since “rebellion against God”, if one identifies and names God as Creator and Sustainer, surely invalidates a requirement of love! More convincing though is the next part of his warning, which is that “justice” and “love” are often simply too vague as concepts to equip us well to engage with challenging moral questions. Even more so, they are unavoidably subjective – one person’s tough love is another’s child abuse – so we do well to not rely simply on our own intuition of what constitutes just or loving conduct.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Brownson spends more time on traditionalist positions, although his criticisms are much more specific and careful (for good reason) than those of revisionist approaches. The bulk of his analysis is a very detailed unpacking of the concept of gender complementarity. Brownson is perhaps a little loose in his use of the word “gender” or “gendered” (versus “sex” and “sexed”), and so a few sentences are somewhat ambiguous. He suggests later in the book that “role differentiations [in relationships] abound […] [but] it often has little to do with the biological differences between men and women” and then almost in his next breath that “[i]n modern society, we have intense experiences of complementarity, and these are clearly related to our individual gendered identities” (264). In fact this might be meant deliberately as a nuanced distinction between nature and nurture, but Brownson never quite disentangles sex from gender enough for this to seem consistent. Nevertheless, his dismantling of gender complementarity is extremely convincing. He offers very detailed surveys of language in the creation narratives (with particular attention to the Genesis 2 concept of “one-flesh”), suggesting that Genesis 2 emphasises the similarity rather than the difference between men and women, and noting that if we are to fully honour the image of God in individual human beings, we can’t also say that men or women are somehow “completed” or more fully reflect God’s image when married.

More broadly, Brownson questions the way gender complementarity is used in the debate, asserting that it cannot be a form of moral logic in its own right. Instead, it is a category within which or observation from which we might begin to form moral arguments. It is not enough to note certain characteristics of or differences between the genders (I would say “sexes”) and then jump to a conclusion on right behaviour. Instead, Brownson says we must identify differences (particular nameable differences, which we can stand by), and then explain why it is that these differences necessitate particular moral conduct. When he surveys the traditionalist uses of gender complementarity in this light, he finds them wanting. Critics have already suggested that pointing out (as Brownson does, 21-22) traditionalists’ wide disagreement on what gender complementarity even is does not give him license to ignore their arguments, but this is unfair; he meticulously takes a whole series of different approaches (including hierarchy, sexual reproduction, and others) and gives them careful analysis.

From here Brownson lays out the real meat of his work, a highly detailed survey of four core topics underlying scriptural teaching on sexual ethics: patriarchy, one-fleshedness, procreation, and celibacy. I won’t try and fully summarise his conclusions but offer a flavour of this section of the book.

In discussing patriarchy, he suggests that right from the bat we need to recognise that the Genesis 3:16 declaration that women’s husbands will rule over them (immediately after declaring that they will suffer pain during childbirth) is a description of broken gendered relationships as a result of the Fall, not a normative account of God-inspired headship. Brownson also introduces a theme which he returns to throughout the book, in which he highlights the need not just to look at the static example given by the gospels and the early church, but also the trajectory that it follows leading out from the Old Testament canon. While it is difficult to argue that the society in which Jesus participates is patriarchal, we see Jesus himself repeatedly undermining patriarchal constructs, and notable leaders in the early church who are women. Brownson himself identifies a strong trajectory towards egalitarian gender relationships in the gospels.

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