Does the Bible Teach Biological Complementarity?

Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 10

By Reta Halteman Finger

"The Creation of Eve" Stained Glass Window - Photo by Howgill
“The Creation of Eve”

My neighbor Ming and I were taking a walk in the falling snow on the day after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly. We discussed his legal philosophy of “originalism.” The United States Constitution, he had said, is an enduring document that should not be adjusted to changing times (despite his forsaking of the original meaning of the Second Amendment on “bearing arms”).

“This is hermeneutics,” I observed, “the same thing I am working on now regarding the Bible and LGBTQ persons. How do we translate a library of ancient documents into today’s world?”

“Why do you care what biblical ‘originalists’ think about the Bible?” persisted my agnostic friend.

“Because a lot of people in my church think that way,” I replied. “I want to understand this position well enough to debate them on their own turf. I don’t want to just talk past them.”

I could have added that many of us in EEWC-Christian Feminism Today also relate to people who hold similar positions. Ming actually understands the concept well. A political science professor teaching public policy to conservative engineering students in college, she regularly runs up against interpretive issues in government policy.

Different arguments and the reasoning behind them

Lesson 9 discussed a traditionalist position that forbids all same-sex erotic behavior on the grounds of hierarchical complementarianism. According to this approach, God gave each gender a unique role to play in relation to the other (leader and follower), and same-sex relationships confuse God’s ordered plan.

At the same time, some egalitarians disagree with complementarians about gender hierarchy and instead present their contrasting view that men and women were created to be complementary but fully equal. They believe that this approach does not conflict with scripture texts about same-sex sexual expression, which always present such expression in negative terms. (This was the position of Christian feminists who left the Evangelical Women’s Caucus to form Christians for Biblical Equality in 1986 [see Lesson 6]).

For many Christians, these disapproving biblical verses imply the case is closed. But why does scripture (or God) disapprove? I raised that question several years ago in a small group study with the pastor and members of my church who were debating whether to become a welcoming congregation. If there is no abuse or power imbalance, why should God care? Or, as James Brownson puts it in Bible, Gender, Sexuality (mentioned in Lesson 8), what is the “moral logic” behind this disapproval? Traditionalists would answer, explains Brownson, that this behavior “defies the purpose of God found in the creation narrative in Genesis.…God created man and woman to complement each other in the bond of marriage” (p 23). This, in other words, is biological complementarity.

Robert Gagnon’s detailed study in The Bible and Homosexual Practice (2001) has been very influential in making this case. He first refers to the importance of procreation in Genesis 1:26-28, where God commands the humans to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it” (pp 57-58). But, though procreation is essential, Gagnon says it is not the whole meaning of gender complementarity. A stronger argument is Genesis 2:21-22, the creation of woman.

Here Gagnon appears to adopt the work of Phyllis Trible (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 1978) in seeing the original adam as an undifferentiated human—what Trible calls an “earthling” because God formed it out of the earth. She correctly notes the Hebrew word-play where the adam emerges out of adamah, the earth, or the ground. But where Trible might see the original adam as without gender, Gagnon sees adam as binary, a combination of both genders. After God creates the woman from the side of adam, Gagnon continues, “Only a being made from adam can and ought to become someone with whom adam longs to reunite in sexual intercourse and marriage, a reunion that not only provides companionship but restores adam to his original wholeness” (Gagnon, p 61).

Although this position sees gender complementarity as nonhierarchical, it is rooted in biology. A male and a female body together fully represent the image of God in a “one-flesh” reunion.

Biology or kinship?

But Genesis 2 does not discuss incompleteness, but aloneness. Verse 18: “It is not good that adam should be alone.” Brownson notes that the concept of incompleteness arises not in the Hebrew Bible, but in Plato. He also raises practical problems, such as married people focusing too much on their own completion together, rather than as individuals with their own interests and abilities. Biological complementarity may downplay the hard work of making a marriage work in self-sacrifice and mutual submission (p 29). It also leaves single people permanently incomplete, including the unmarried Jesus, who is declared to be the image of God par excellence in 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15-20.

Second, “the focus in Genesis 2 is not on the complementarity of male and female, but on their similarity. Unlike the animals, the woman is “bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh” (2:23). The focus says Brownson, is “on shared identity, nature, and experience between the man and the women, over against the rest of creation” (p 30). Further, when the same “bone-and-flesh” language is used elsewhere in the Old Testament, it always refers to kinship (Gen 29:14; Judg 9:2; 2 Sam 5:1; 19:12-13; 1 Chron 11:1). The Hebrew word for “flesh” is basar, translated as “relatives.”* This is already evident in Genesis 2:24, where the man must leave his original family to establish a new one-flesh kinship tie which will supersede the original one (p 33). What we now speak of as “in-laws,” or the “extended family,” or “both sides of the family” would all be invited to a family reunion— all considered kin or “bone and flesh“ in relation to each other.

Therefore, Genesis 2 does not teach biological complementarity between male and female. Lesbian and gay relationships cannot be faulted on that basis. In future lessons, we must look elsewhere for reasons why the biblical texts treat same-sex sex negatively.

Comments and questions are welcome in the response section below. In what ways have you, or people you know, been influenced by interpretations of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 in regards to LGBTQ concerns?

*A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, eds. F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.