The recent Nashville Statement (1) on human sexuality is the latest attempt by the Religious Right to position male-female complementarianism, patriarchy and gender stereotypes as the Biblical norm for today, based largely on the ancient cultural norm in which male dominance and female subservience was the norm. One of the main problems with the belief that the Bible paints a clear picture of “one man, one woman,” is…that it does not. The truth is conservatives must carefully pick and choose their verses to support their thesis, conveniently overlooking the much more numerous passages that portray the ugly side of patriarchy and submission.
Contrary to most evangelical thinking, while the NT gives us excellent advice on loving our enemies and our neighbors as ourselves, the Bible, as a whole is a mixed bag on the issue of “Biblical Marriage.” With Biblical marriages involving polygamy, concubines, maid servants, spoils of war, sisters-in-laws, rape victims, etc., conservatives must do a lot of cherry picking to come up with a definitive view of marriage.
So, the basic quandary behind the Religious Right’s rejection of non binary human relationships and identity is the question of whether or not the “Biblical” model of sexual relationships is culturally informed and outdated, or whether strictly male-female complimentarianism and male headship (2) should be the cultural norm for moderns. As evident from the Nashville Statement, most evangelicals believe the latter, although headship is not specifically mentioned here. The traditionalist stance presented in the Nashville Statement is based, in large, on a specific biblical hermeneutic that is literal and believes the Bible is without error. But pushing for a literal, inerrant understanding of the texts poses problems for the definition of Biblical marriage. If one would follow the various examples of marriage in the Bible religiously and consistently, Christian marriage would differ little from that of Islamic fundamentalism. What conservative evangelicals have done to soften the hard edges of this fact is to couch male dominance in the language of “complimentarianism.” In other words, men and women have separate but equal clearly defined roles. We have heard “separate, but equal” used before and it never truly means “equal.”
This is not to say that all evangelicals hold to a strict male headship relationship of human sexuality and gender role. The minority model I grew up with was “mutual submission,” which is more egalitarian and follows a much more Christlike attitude of serving one another. It also follows the broad outline of Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5.
Behind the language of the Nashville Statement, is a history of a cultural shift from evangelicalism to fundamentalism within the Southern Baptist denomination. As David Gushee points out, fundamentalists within the denomination waged a fierce battle for control of the Southern Baptist convention between 1979 and 1993. What resulted was a decisive string of victories within the SBC that put fundamentalists firmly in control. In, turn, these men made sure that women and moderates were forced out of teaching positions within Baptist colleges as well as diminishing the role of women within the denomination. (3) Prior to 1979, Christian fundamentalism’s primary hand-wringing involved the Civil Rights movement and resistance to Black equality and the “mixing of the races.” But as Gushee puts it, “by the late 1970s, a different strategy was developed on the conservative side, focusing especially on traditionalist Christian discomfort with the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion…This proved a more appealing agenda for conservative Christian consumption than directly attacking progress in racial integration and black empowerment.” (4)
The shift from outright racism (which is still very much alive among fundamentalists) to “family values,” i.e., anti- feminism, anti-Gay, anti-abortion, is very much based on a traditional male headship model, as presented in scripture. One would wonder why evangelical and fundamentalist men would be so upset by Gay marriage, but the answer is simple: non binary individuals fall outside the control of male headship. They don’t fit into a patriarchal scheme of human sexuality. Which begs the question, in an egalitarian society, where an individual’s self worth and purpose is not based on their genitalia, exactly what value does male headship bring to the table? If divorce rates among evangelicals are any indication, the answer is, none, as the rate of failed marriages mirrors that of society as a whole.
The tragedy of the Nashville Statement is that it closes the door to dialogue about human sexuality, and attempts to rigidly compartmentalize gender stereotypes, ignoring the realities of gender and sexuality. It also closes the door to further understanding and reform amongst evangelicals. The door too has been shut on careful consideration of the Biblical passages themselves, preferring a inerrant, literal hermeneutic that does not take into consideration a great many things: culturally bound materials, story as opposed to historical facts, and a general inability to differentiate Kingdom principals from cultural mores. It has sadly become all too apparent that fundamentalists favor law over Grace, continuing over a century of vigorously defending indefensible attitudes towards race, women, violence and sexual minorities. This needs to stop.
3. David P. Gushee, “Still Christian, Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism,” see chapter 3.
4. Ibid., p. 32.