Cross Gendered: An Open Letter to Ben Witherington III

Dr. Witherington,

I recently had the opportunity to read your blog post “On Further Review – Why Gay Marriage Can’t Be Christian Marriage”.  Having read a few of your books and enjoyed their insights, I expected careful exegetical consideration and perhaps some insightful theological reflection.  I wish I could say that was the case.  Sadly, I am forced to wonder how these thoughts are the product of months of careful thought. Most of these arguments have been circulating for decades.

However, one line of argument stood out and has led me to address your article. I cannot be certain you will ever read these words, I’m not exactly a big name blogger; but, should you by some chance stumble across this, I welcome your reply and discussion on the topic.  I hope it will be apparent, I am not trying to provoke or mock you, but open a line of communication that inspires reflection and beneficial dialogue.

You will find my discussion of your “7 possible talking points” below.  I wish to thank you for your exegetical and historical work in writing your books, I found those insightful and thought provoking.  May God bless you in your future academic ventures.

Grace and Peace in our Lord, Jesus the Christ,

Nate Sparks

1) Jesus was perfectly clear— marriage is when God brings a man and a woman together who are capable of sharing a one flesh union with the possibility of fulfilling the creation order mandate— be fruitful and multiply (see Mk. 10/ Mt. 19).

I am often bewildered by use of this passage about divorce and Israelite law to speak against same-sex marriage.  Because Matthew 19 is mostly dependent on either Mark 10 or a mutual source, I am going to treat it exclusively to provide continuity with point (2).  I think you’ll be able to see relevance for either passage.

The context of this passage as a discussion on divorce seems fairly straightforward.  Verse 3 states, “Some Pharisees came to him…and asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?’”  The Pharisees asked Jesus specifically about a husband divorcing his wife at whim.  On what basis can we assume he took this opportunity to largely dodge their question and speak prescriptively about a normative gender binary for all of humanity?  To be clear, he references Genesis 1 as depicting Sex as male and female.  That is not the same thing as saying that being “masculine” or “feminine” is about procreation.

Instead it is important to explore Jesus’ treatment of the divorce law from Deuteronomy 24 to see what he means.  Jesus answers them with the insinuation that this Mosaic Law was a concession for an unfaithful and unwilling Israel, not God’s final will for divorce or marriage.  Instead, quoting Genesis 1:27, he reminds the Pharisees “at the beginning [Yahweh], ‘made them male and female’.” He then adds Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  Thus, he says that a man and a woman who are married, “are no longer two, but one flesh.”

I’m surprised you have chosen a reductionist reading of the text.  In Genesis 1 the creation events are grouped into couplets, 3 groups of parallel creation acts, except Day 7, emphasized by its singularity. This points towards the focus of creation being Sabbath and earth as temple – God’s intimate involvement with his creation.  This is supported by a strong connection between Genesis 1 and ancient cosmological accounts of creation.  While not directly dependent on accounts such as Gilgamesh or Enuma Elish, it certainly reflects an understanding consistent with the environment in which ancient Israel decided to form their early history – post-exilic concerns for identity as the protected people of Yahweh.  Ancient cosmologies quite often culminate in the building of a temple, and there are direct linguistic connections between God’s Day 7 Sabbath and his indwelling of the tabernacle/temple elsewhere in the OT. It is no stretch to assert the earth is designed as a temple to God in which he dwells.  In fact, given the linguistic connections between Romans 1 and Genesis 1, I find it quite plausible this is exactly what Paul has in mind when he states “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen in the things he has made.” (v. 20) – you can’t worship the temple itself, you must recognize the deity it points to.

This is upheld as well by the seven commands for building the tabernacle given in Exodus.  The process of construction and the imagery invoked indicate the tabernacle is a microcosm of creation as well as a reflection of and point of connection with the heavenly temple that sits before the throne of God (cf. Rev 15:5).  Thus, we have a hint in Genesis 1 that the author is creatively foreshadowing later events in the Pentateuch.

This brings us to imago dei.  God speaks of making humanity in his image in verses 26-31.  Humanity’s purpose and identity is defined in terms of what God is doing in creation and the kingdom he is establishing.  The word rendered ‘image” in verse 26 is an allusion to the authority given to a priest or royal steward, pointing to  humanity’s commission as God’s priestly stewards, holy and chosen from all creation to advance his purposes.  This is connected to Exodus 19, where Israel is described as “chosen from among the nations”, “a holy nation” and “priestly royalty”.  Again, the author of Genesis foreshadows the call of Israel from among the nations, to be a prophetic witness to the nations, bringing them back to their purpose before Yahweh (cf. Isa 2).

This is also reflected in 1 Peter 2, when the author directly quotes Exodus 19 in relation to the Church.  The Church is called from among the world as witnesses to the cross of Christ – to be fruitful and multiply by advancing the kingdom of God.  It seems highly unlikely, then, that any allusion Jesus was making was rooted in “be fruitful and multiply” as mere sexual procreation.  Unless of course you think the imago dei is solely a procreative reference; you think that Genesis 1 has nothing to do with the history of Israel, and you think 1 Peter is not consistent with Jesus’ teachings.

“One Flesh”, in Genesis 2:21-25, is tied to the woman’s creation from the man’s side.  In seeing her for the first time, Adam poetically speaks of how she is “bone of his bone” and “flesh of his flesh”.  She is not like him, or even a complement to him, she is in the most literal and intimate of ways “from him”.  She has been made from his bone and flesh.  The intimacy of being one flesh, is expanded by the author of Genesis to leaving the flesh of one’s biological family (father and mother) and clinging to the wife as his new “flesh”, a call to view one’s wife as one’s own body, and vice versa.  This theme plays out in the NT as both Paul and Jesus state that “loving neighbor as yourself” is tantamount to fulfilling the law and loving God (Rom 13:9, Gal 5:14).  In case you think this isn’t an allusion to “one flesh”, Ephesians treats “one flesh” love between husband and wife as a metaphor for the love that must exist between Christ and his Church.  That is, they are called to be of the same flesh as him through participation and identity found in his embodiment, the Church.  This is explained by saying “no man hates his own flesh”.  This is language very similar to “love neighbor as self” indicating a likely connection between this command and the metaphor of “one flesh” in the community of God.  This, however, can be further solidified by Phil 2, which calls us to imitate Christ’s self-limiting, self-sacrificial love between all believers.  Also, 1 John 4 states that we can only demonstrate love because God, in Christ, first showed us his love.

In my opinion, it seems clear that, for the body of Christ, being “one flesh” is relational goal for all believers directly tied to the notion of Christ as head, and the Church as both body and bride.  Further, in as much as we recognize our identity as being in oneness with Christ, we then can extend that love to all other persons as demonstrate for them the love that Christ has shown us on the cross.

It also seems pertinent to consider that, after Abraham was promised progeny through God’s covenant, he and Sarah became impatient (Gen 16).  They sought to fulfill God’s purpose by marital sex, but not between themselves but Abraham and Hagar.  However, when Sarah becomes pregnant, the text does not speak of Abraham and Sarah engaging in sex but of Yahweh being faithful to his covenant and blessing them with Isaac (Gen 21:1-7).  When considered with the sacrifice incident in Genesis 22, it seems a fairly reasonable assumption Yahweh is not worshipped, and his purposes not fulfilled, through Ancient Near Eastern fertility practices (sex as worship, child sacrifice, etc.)

Reflecting this, Lev. 18 & 20 prohibits same-sex practices, but only in connection to worship of Molech.  These passages explicitly state that sexual practices as participation in pagan culture is an abomination, even between male/female partners.  In other words, what is at stake is not same-sex practices by themselves, but whether they take their identity in Yahweh and follow his temple laws as a trust in Yahweh for provision, fertile crops, and progeny.

I find it unlikely Jesus teachings on being “one flesh” would be completely unrelated to the OT command. Especially as he uses this as grounds for setting aside Deuteronomy 24.  I find it even more dubious he intended us to make the move from male/female as anatomical definitions of Sex presumed within the question he was asked, to the gender binary definition of masculine/feminine defined through procreation.

Likewise, the treatment of the notion of “one flesh” love elsewhere in the NT seems to make your treatment of “one flesh” in Matthew 19 improbably at best.

Abraham and Isaac

2)  Jesus was equally clear in Mt. 19 that the alternative for his disciples was celibacy in singleness, which is what ‘being a eunuch for the kingdom’ refers to.

Now, we return briefly to Matthew 19.  After hearing Jesus statement that the Mosaic Law is not unquestionable divine will but contains concessions, the disciples balk at the idea that divorce is strictly forbidden except in very specific circumstances.  The disciples are intimidated by Jesus’ teaching that “what God has joined together, let no person separate.”  If God has joined them – as he did Adam and Eve – are we to assume this is about marital sex?

Jesus’ warning is that being a eunuch is not for everyone, “Not everyone can accept this teaching”, but only those to whom it is given by birth, physical trauma, or those who are called to serve God in singleness.  The Greek word for eunuch here does not mean only impotence or even castration; it also means a person who has chosen to be single.  Jesus is chastising them for balking at marriage as “one flesh” and telling them that being single is no walk in the park.  Even if they were born a eunuch, had castrated themselves, or are simply unmarried they must be willing to answer the call to be fully devoted to God and his kingdom.  Lest this be viewed as some particular call, even those who are married that fail the call to “hate their wife” and even their own life are not worthy of discipleship (Luke 14:26, cf Matt 10:37).  Jesus’ statement is not an either or of married or single, of one man/one woman or nothing at all, but a statement that being single – as opposed to the Pharisees’ question about marriage/divorce – does not get you off the hook in the kingdom of God.

3) In order to meet the requirements for being a husband according to the household codes in Col. 3.-4 and Ephes. 5-6 one must: 1) be a male, and 2) have a partner who is a member of the opposite sex. Men cannot be wives, however much they may try and play such a role, nor can women be husbands, and a relationship that involves either two men or two women produces exactly NO husbands or wives.

This is an astounding statement.

The household codes are an ironic criticism of Roman households and the notion of pater familias.  The Romans believed that the man was head of and had the right over life and death over everyone in his household.  However, for the Christian, all relationships (it does after all talk about slaves and masters as well) are centered in the headship of Christ.  In looking to Christ, they identify with his sacrifice and self-limiting (Phil 2).  This is the root of “one flesh”, loving one another as Christ loves his bride, the Church – his own flesh.  Since all relationships in the Church are called to this “one flesh” love, the question becomes if any specific relationship is incapable of reflecting this.

So, I ask you, can a same-sex marriage between two individuals who root their identity in Christ and participation in his body practice “one flesh”?

4) The only couple capable of being a father and a mother of their own biological children is a man and a woman. Adoption only makes a person a surrogate father or mother at best. And if one person is the biological parent of the child, whereas his or her partner is not, then in fact one has deprived the child of either their birth mother or their birth father. They have come to have a child ‘out of wedlock’, if one counts either gay or lesbian relationships as marriage.

You state adoption is “surrogacy at best” and anyone who isn’t within a one man/one woman marriage that adopts is seeking to “have a child out of wedlock”.  This is a woefully myopic rhetoric more concerned with preserving ideology and maintaining power balance than actually considering how you arrived here.  1 Corinthians 1 tells us the cross opposes power systems and ideologies not rooted in humility and self-sacrifice, the weak are exalted, the proud and powerful made to look foolish.

Adoption is a powerful metaphor in Scripture for how we become coheirs with Christ.  We receive the promise of the covenant and are counted as God’s children by adoption (Eph 1 is all about this).  Your argument reduces this to surrogacy by stating the relationship with our biological parents trumps.  How is this consistent with “hating father and mother” (Luke 14:26; Matt 10:37)?

5). A child deserves to have both a mother and a father, and more particularly their own biological parents if humanly possible. Any relationship which involves two mothers (one of whom is not the real mother) or two fathers (one of whom is not the biological father) does not provide the modeling of what a husband and wife/mother and father relationship should look like under any sort of normal circumstances.

For the record, it is humanly possible for a child to survive a physically or sexually abusive childhood with their biological parents.  This does not make that preferable to adoption by two loving parents regardless of gender.  Further, being an adoptive parent is no less parenting than biological parenting.  A father and mother do not inherently make better parents simply by being male and female.  A step-mother who adopts her husband’s kids is not inherently less of a mother, these children are capable of having two moms who they love equally in these situations.  It also may be that their mother was abusive, or an alcoholic, or drug abuser and their step-mother is the first real motherly love they’ve ever experienced.  It is absolutely an absurd concept that the ability to express love to a child is rooted in sexual attraction along a normative heterosexual gender binary.  You have literally claimed it is impossible for a person with same-sex attraction to embody your version of imago dei.

6). Same-sex sexual activity, whether between consenting adults or through some other sort of relationship, is clearly defined as a sin in both the OT and the NT, indeed a serious sin. If this is correct, then gay marriage is a non-starter.

All sexual activity outside marriage as participation in a culture antithetical to identity in Yahweh, through Christ and his church, is a serious sin.  Same-sex relationships as participation in Roman cultural norms or pagan deity worship, or separated from identity in Christ is sin. But Adultery between men and women and divorce are also a failure to participate in “one flesh” love as identity in Yahweh and through the cross of Christ.  Consider, in Romans all sin is rooted either in worship of creation/self or in failure to fulfill covenant by obsessing with law over love.  The claim to special emphasis on same-sex relationships as a more serious sin is biblically dishonest.

Also, the leveling of “consenting adults” and “other relationships” is disconcerting.  I assume this is a reference to 1 Corinthians 6, where it is often held that at least one of the two Greek words viewed as related to same-sex sexuality – malakoi and  arsenokoitai – refer to some sort of same-sex sex acts.  But the fact that malekoi means simply soft, and serves as a euphemism for “effeminate,” is almost surely a reference to the forced effemination of young boys, such as those in pederast relationships, and men, such as male sex-slaves.  

Further arsenokoitai literally means man bed and is derived from the LXX of Leviticus 18 and 20, both of which tie same-sex acts to idolatry and participation is pagan societal values.  That being said, the strong indication (especially when taking Romans 1 into consideration) is that Paul is here referring to cultic same-sex acts, such as temple prostitution or some other form of ritual sex worship.

This makes your statement about consent deeply problematic.  We cannot condemn non-consensual sex acts – by the very nature of the term non-consensual this would be rape and sexual assault – with those which are consensual between two loving and committed adults.  To place those on the same level is to dehumanize gay and lesbian couples, denying them any true notion of consent and thus any notion of agency over their own bodies.  In this ways, then, you are again denying the image of God in fellow human beings in order to preserve your own ideological agenda.

This is also troubling because it entirely ignores the significant psychological damage done to people who are raped and sexually assaulted.  By their very nature, such acts are violating.  The perpetrator seeks to dominate and humiliate his victim, reduces them to an object for consumption.  To imply that both partners in a non-consensual relationship are equally condemned is truly offensive.

The rapist and sex predator are condemned for their actions, but their victims do not bear any moral complicity.  To imply otherwise is to misunderstand entirely the dynamics of power in the Gospel.  If the cross stands against oppressors, and offers liberation to their victims (c.f. Luke 4, 1 Cor 1) then to entrap victims of sex assault ii guilt and shame is unthinkable.

7). There is an irreducible biological or gender component to being a man or a woman. One does not get to choose one’s biology, one’s XY chromosomes. The creation story in Gen. 1-2 makes perfectly clear that the only ‘suitable companion’ for the man was a woman, and this is because God created us male and female in his image. Only so could we perpetuate the human race. Only so could we be mini-creators of more human beings, so mirroring one aspect of God the Creator.

Is this really the image of God as you understand it?  Is the image of God for men to deposit their sperm in a woman, so that the woman can fulfill her purpose in letting her ovum be permeated by sperm producing a fetus in her womb?  You have made the argument for Woman as incubator, Man as impregnator existing in a binary relationship as opposites whose God given identity is only realized in relation to one another. I find it hard to believe you have done any careful exegetical work to arrive here.  After all, the word companion is better rendered as “helper” a word used in reference to divine intervention and military aide. It is unlikely this word implies a merely procreative role for women, unless you reduce the biblical purpose of humanity to procreation.

Unfortunately, you also confuse gender with Sex and sexuality, ignoring a great deal of science showing that individuals are not simply biologically determined to desire sex and procreation in every relationship (that is Freud speaking). Instead, humans are the product of many biological and environmental factors.  The existence of intersex persons points to anatomical possibilities that call your assertion into question and points to at least the possibility that internal, unseen biological circumstances makes gender nonconformity an actual possibility.

As such, these are admittedly murky and dangerous waters to tread. There is a great deal of nuance required in considering the relationship between gender, sexuality, and Scripture. However, I want to emphasize a point one last time.

It is dangerous theology and dishonest exegesis to reduce the imago dei to procreation.  Doing so does not reveal any careful thought on your part, but rather the depths of your bias and the lengths to which you are willing to go to “confirm” them.


4 thoughts on “Cross Gendered: An Open Letter to Ben Witherington III

  1. Well written and argued. I think that the crux of the thing is that sexual relationships (heterosexual or homosexual) that are loving, unselfish, and committed (to each other and Christ) are probably acceptable. At least that’s how I’m coming to see it. Jesus calls us to love, to give ourselves to others. Anyway, your piece is helping me think through this difficult issue.


    1. Thank you. I’m glad it helped. I also wrote a response to Kevin DeYoung’s 40 questions (it was my first post ever) that goes even more in depth. Also my posts “Who I Am” and “What I believe” cover some aspects.

      Thank you for reading and engaging. It is a difficult issue, I’m happy I can help you think through it.

      Grace and Peace to you.


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