Speaking Prophetically about Gender and Sexuality Today
Emily Hunter McGowin
In her book Places of Redemption, theologian Mary McClintock Fulkerson says, "Creative thinking originates at the scene of a wound. Wounds generate new thinking. Disjunctions birth invention.” If she’s right, then no place is more (providentially) opportune for creative thinking today than the “wound” of gender and sexuality. And yet, because it is so fraught, I must confess that, given the choice, I’d prefer to avoid it. But, the prophetic vocation of all who are in Christ will not allow us to do so. Moreover, my position as an undergraduate professor requires me to find some way forward.
What does it mean to speak prophetically about gender and sexuality today? For many on the evangelical side of our increasingly polarized debates, it seems that speaking prophetically about gender and sexuality means simply to quote Bible verses in an increasingly louder voice (or in a series of ALL CAPS tweets). It is the communicative version of a picket sign. For many reasons, this approach doesn’t work in the classroom. One could do it, of course, but no real learning would take place.
My colleague, Dr. Theon Hill, argues that the prophets of the Bible are both conservative and progressive. Prophets seek to conserve God’s truth and then call upon God’s people to submit themselves to the God of truth. But prophets also seek to progress; that is, they push God’s people to a place they’ve never been before—because prophets recognize that God’s people have never fully embodied God’s truth. Put in these terms, the mistake of the verbal picket sign approach becomes apparent. If we want to speak prophetically about gender and sexuality today, then we must come to terms with what exactly is being conserved and to what destination we must progress.
What must be conserved in the discussion of gender and sexuality? Above all, I think, is the truth that the Creator God made humankind and he made us very good. The goodness of our created nature as human beings includes our sexed bodies. Our bodies, male and female, are good. Moreover, because God is our Creator and because the minds of humankind have been, at least in part, darkened by sin and death, we need God to reveal to us the meaning and purpose of our bodies. For this, the sacred scriptures must be our primary guide.
To what end must we progress in the discussion of gender and sexuality? Or, to put it another way, what truth has the church failed to fully embody? The church’s teaching on gender and sexuality has often been entangled with sub-Christian notions of women and women’s bodies. Anywhere women are viewed and treated as less than fully human the church is failing to embody God’s truth about humanity. In addition, the modern church has failed to understand, include, and love those who find themselves outside of the heterosexual norm. Without a clear-eyed recognition of and repentance from these failures, the church cannot bear witness to the goodness of humankind as male and female. Indeed, repenting of the ways we have failed to embody the gospel in these ways is central to our prophetic work.
So, where does this leave me? Avoiding the subject of gender and sexuality is not an option. It is an area of great need in our culture today and a part of God’s good creation. In the classroom, I must seek to conserve the truth of God’s word about the meaning of our bodies and what it means to be male and female, while also pushing my students to progress in the areas where we have undeniably failed. This will be slow, difficult, and painful work. But, Christ will not abandon his church. The Wounded One will be with us as we seek to embody a faithful response to the world’s wounds today. And we need, above all else, to trust him.