Is Sex Difference Essential to Marriage?

A couple of weeks ago, The Sexual & Gender Identity Institute at Wheaton College presented a public forum titled, “Is Sex Difference Essential to Marriage? A Conversation on Same-Sex Relationships.” I’m excited to see this conversation happening – meeting opposition (the video was actually made unavailable for a few days after the event, presumably because of pushback), but still, happening!

It really was far more a conversation than a debate, thanks not only to the venue offered by Wheaton College but also the friendship between the speakers, Wesley Hill and Karen Keen.

For them and for me, and for many other people, as host Mark Yarhouse pointed out in his intro, the topic is “not just a theological discussion,” but an integral part of our lives. When I was going through my own process of wrestling with the “givens” of my inherited interpretation of Scripture, I pretty much narrowed the whole thing down to this one central issue, so I was very keen to listen to Wesley and Karen talk about it.

Wesley represents the theological framework where I spent many years of my life. Sometimes called “Side B,” it holds that same-sex attraction is not a sin in itself and cannot be changed, and that God, while loving and accepting us, calls us to a self-sacrificial life of either celibacy or heterosexual marriage. Since I came from a much grimmer theology where same-sex attraction *itself* was deemed wicked, shameful and punishable, discovering “Side B” was balm for my soul at the time. Even though I (recently) ended up moving on from this theology, I will always respect and be grateful for the Christians who openly hold it, offering a space of hope and dignity for those of us who come from places of deep pain.

Basing his talk on Augustine’s view of sex and marriage – a dubious position, in my opinion, although I also understand why he would want to do that – Wesley proposed that sex is essentially about procreation, making marriage a necessity during “this age,” (quote: “a feature of our fallen condition”); thus, celibacy is not only the faithful choice for same-sex attracted Christians, but even “a higher calling” in general – the end goal, in fact, for all saints. “Those who voluntarily embrace childlessness,” he said at a high point of his speech, “are in a sense skipping the parable of marriage and going straight for eschatological fulfillment.” I got the sense that he clings to this undeniably negative (and reductionalist) view of sex and marriage because if he permitted himself to think of them in any other terms, he might not be able to face the stark severity of celibacy. In his closing remarks, he did acknowledge that we cannot build our lives around something we’re saying “no” to (“a vocation of no”) – a very wise observation – and that our quest should be to seek what will “draw us deeper into the life of God in Christ.” 

Karen rooted her intervention solidly in Scripture, which I admit I found refreshing after all the Augustine😉 She began by talking about the importance of distinguishing between canonical vision versus rule book hermeneutics, pointing out that just as sanctioning slavery (which can be supported with many Bible texts) missed the canonical vision of liberation, prohibiting all same-sex relationships misses the canonical view of marriage. Her stance is that marriage (“covenanted kinship of mutual support”) is essentially about relationship, not sex difference. The highlight of the Creation story is the deep human need for “ezer kenegdo” companionship, not the sexual binary. And while procreation is a blessing stemming from sex difference, it is not the defining characteristic of marriage (nor, despite Augustine, is it the only “justification” for marital sex), something that should be clear since no one thinks infertile couples have no right to be married! 

What I most appreciated about Karen’s talk was how she unpacked the term “ezer kenegdo.” I had discarded the blatantly sexist translation “helpmeet” years ago while deconstructing concepts around women’s identity and role, but I had not considered it in the context of the conversation about same-sex relationships. “Ezer” is best translated as “strong ally.” That is what a spouse is meant to be: the person who faithfully has your back through life. Gender is not relevant here. A man and a woman can be each other’s ezer; two men can be each other’s ezer; two women can be each other’s ezer. It is all about connection and kinship and covenant. “Kenegdo” means “corresponding to,” which is the whole emphasis of the Creation account (similarity, not difference!), and again, it is all about connection. There is NOTHING like the deep sense of rightness and belonging when you connect with a person “corresponding to” you. There is no moral or ethical reason why same-sex attracted people should be barred from this beautiful, life-giving experience. The heart gives witness to the truth expressed in Scripture: kinship, not sex difference, is the core of marriage.

I am very encouraged to see these conversations taking place, and I hope more and more Christians will join them as we move forward, deeper into the love of God.