On complementarity, univocity, equivocity, and analogy … and God

Same sex marriage

A good friend just directed me to Andrew Davison’s interesting piece on complementarity, published yesterday over at the Church Times site. Here’s the gist:

Sexual difference is obviously not sufficient to guarantee complementarity; and it seems, empirically, that it is not even necessary: not if the word “complementary” is taken to refer to something real in the world.

Complementarity rests on more than sexual difference. As with similarity and difference, it is worked out on many levels – many more than the bishops acknowledge. It matters which experiences and traditions a couple share, for instance, and which they do not. The otherness that a woman finds in a man is not exhausted by his maleness: there is also the fact that he is a Scot while she is English, that he tends to think in concrete terms while she tends to be abstract-minded, and so on. Similarities between a man and a woman are also important. Our own experience confirms that a certain irreducible difference exists between any two people, in any kind of relationship. The difference of one person from another is more profound than a difference of sex,even in an opposite-sex relationship. When a man finds comfort in his female partner, for instance, her femaleness is not a matter of indifference, but she also matters as another human being: as someone to talk to, someone to rely on, someone to share responsibilities with. Adam’s first response to the creation of Eve was to her similarity with him – “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” – not to her difference.

So many elements of similarity and difference are interwoven in a heterosexual relationship that picking out just one sort of difference – sexual difference – as if it were all that mattered for complementarity is remarkably short-sighted. No one loves someone else simply as a man or simply as a woman, and not also as funny, or serious, or Welsh, or practical, or tall, or dark-haired, or a hundred other factors. A collapse of difference into male-female difference, which so undergirds current Church of England formulations, reduces our vision of sexual relationships to the level of a budget brothel: you ask for a woman, you ask for a man, and you take the first one who’s free: sexual difference is what matters, not particularity.

You can read the entire piece here. Those interested in the questions raised here might also like to read Eugene Rogers’s essay ‘Same-sex complementarity’, published a few years ago in Christian Century. I found Rogers’s essay, as well as his book Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God, to be very helpful resources.

The matter is of particular interest to me at the moment because I’m currently working on a short statement on marriage, by invitation of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.


  1. Jason, how blessed are the good people of ANZ to have you writing a statement on marriage for them! (Which have you chosen– verse or prose?) Either way, I hope that you post the result.

    Your links make well-argued points, and I look forward to seeing what you do with them. They may help me to answer the strange opinions of a huge black preacher man I met in a truck-stop bar. My profession was then politics; his Sunday-work was praching; his week-work was to climb down into a Louisiana snake pit, grab the vipers, milk the venom from their fangs, and take the deadly fluid to the lab that made its antidote. He was an amiable man, given to reading in the hot sun of the Gulf. His thoughts were contrary to what all right thinking people say, and I know that you will not take them seriously– who these days can?– yet I cannot quite get them out of my mind. There was a beautiful rhythm and cadence to his words for which I lack the ear– but his thoughts were like this–

    “Until Protestants engaged debates about birth control in the C20, the moral and spiritual connection between sex and procreation was undisputed among Christians. Since severing that connection to make way for contraception in marriage, marriage has been rethought independently of procreation, nearly always as romance. Romantics like this, celebrate this, cannot imagine why anybody wouldn’t like it, tap their feet impatiently waiting for others to agree with them. Understandably so– sex is exciting; reproduction is costly.

    “But the Bible’s language in the realm of sex-marriage-family is not as individualistic as romantics want it to be, and it is just about what someone attuned to developmental neurobiology (or a good deal of stubborn, messy reality) would expect. Officially reframing marriage in terms that include same sex attraction as normative completes the romantic rebellion against the biological roots of human nature, but at the price of pre-empting readings of scripture that engage those roots. On which we fragile humans live in our bags of skin everywhere but in science fiction.

    “Ironically, the bitter debates on the Six Texts illustrate that point. Two generations ago, they would most likely have been read, not with reference to a C19-21 lifestyle and cultural force as they are today, but as a fence around the law relating sex to procreation within marriage. “There are things you can all do, but should not do, and they include…” But now they stand quite alone as isolated expressions of the divine will about those who can only do what is prescribed. This misleading isolation of the Six Texts from their reproductive context is the scriptural motivation for homophobia.

    “Churches, faced with the few percent whose stable attraction is not procreative, cannot make a pastoral accommodation for an ‘act of God’ that made them so because the biological teleology in which that would make sense has become unspeakable. It offends gay pride and the romantic sensibility to mention it. Instead, churches divide– into those who see those free-standing condemnations that fell from heaven and try to faithfully apply that to the lifestyle they know, and those who tacitly bracket all biblical guidance on sexuality because, if taken seriously, it seems indefensibly harsh both to gays and to romantics. Shall we be homophobic or promiscuous?

    “In retrospect, it would really have been simpler– more realistic, more pastoral, more conciliatory, etc– to accommodate contraception within the older understanding that when the Bible is talking about biology it is talking about biology. But in those days, (a) we knew nothing whatever about the neurobiological roots of human nature, human emotion, etc and (b) the only available ethical tools were either non-teleological or neo-Thomist [on which, see (a)]. There had been no Anscombe, no MacIntrye, no Yoder, no Hauerwas to open our eyes to what virtues language in the Bible could mean for the ethic of a society two generations from being born. In ignorance, a connection between the Bible and life was sheared away to meet a need that then seemed urgent. We should, of course, forgive our forebears and mentors for this, as we do for their eugenics, nuclear weapons, pollution, factory farming, etc.

    “And there is one other odd consideration that comes to mind– the globe. When we look at the nations in which this theology took hold, we notice that they not infrequently are the same as the ones with birthrates at or below zero. There are some who rejoice to see a smaller carbon footprint, I know, but then there are also economists who point out the rather dire implications that this has for social justice. Societies that think of babies as carbon footprints seem far from Genesis.

    “It seems strange to imagine it, but we have almost a rational case for a future gospel ministry, perhaps lead by some charismatic (even Charismatic?) African, who will preach to crowds of people on the edges of cold cities, telling them that they were meant to be fruitful and multiply, and that life in a family was meant to prepare them for the main roles of their lives– not enriching capitalists, but living vocations– of mother and father. That humans can adapt to all sorts of arrangements, but that not all sorts of arrangements are best. That love between the sexes means nothing without the daring to be open to what God sends. That technology has made laboratory children that God loves, but also controlling laboratory parents with whom God is displeased. That the completion of the human brain’s marvellous capabilities takes almost the lifetime of Jesus, that a lifespan is what God chiefly entrusts to us, and that what we do today shapes what our children will do with their children. That the gospel first spread to households, and that every corporate church is dead, whilst the real Church is a vast family. That the lives they live in that age are so unnatural, that to return to the divine order of creation requires many acts of repentance, and that the true pastor is the one who is strong enough in Christ to show the way back.”

    He said many other things like this, but I could not take them all in, and truthfully, they did not all make sense.


  2. You should look at G of Naz on this issue. Oration 37.6-7 (as well as the later paragraphs on Mattw 19:12) and also the mixology of his theology/Christology: Oration 38.13.

    Stuart Dean


  3. @ Bowman: thank you for sharing that story. The statement I’m needing to write is considerably shorter.

    @ Stuart: thank you. I hadn’t visited Gregory of Naz on this issue. Nearly every time I visit the fathers, I find gems.


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