Objection: Christ and the Bride

I'm tempted to call this the most absurd, but unfortunately there is great competition. It goes something like this, "The relationship of the Church and Christ is like a bride and groom. Earthy should mirror Heaven, so earthly marriages should also be heterosexual." This is more often used against homosexuality, but is sometimes applied to transexuality because transwomen aren't "real" women (and the same with transmen). 

The Argument

Neil Whitehead writes one example of this, even including women with AIS.

For the Jews the Law said (apparently very cruelly) that any male with anything defective in his genitalia was not admitted to the temple (Lv 21.20, Dt 23.1). The Law also forbade the confusion of the sexes to the extent that it was not permissible for a man to lie with a man as with a woman, and it was not permissible to cross-dress. Why would laws like these exist? The reason is not given in the Old Testament. From a Christian perspective and considerable hindsight, they may well be in place because earth was intended to mirror heaven – the earthly tabernacle was supposed to mirror the one in heaven and relations between the sexes were supposed to reflect the relation between Christ and his Bride (Eph. 5).

For this reason too, the apparently cruel exclusion law may have an explanation in the mirroring of the heavenly. We may be playing with shadows down here, but even our shadow-theatre is supposed to reflect ultimate realities, and should not add to other confusing shadows. . . .

I find myself rather uncomfortable with this principle, because I can see it can lead to many practical and theological difficulties, but we either say Paul is simply wrong, or work through these.

Thus it is arguable that for a Christian, there could be a case for not allowing transsexual operations, marriage, or even marriage of androgen-insensitivity cases.

Such a principle and teaching needs time for individuals and the church to accept because it is not in their consciousness, and mercy should be applied using a capacious dump-truck!. . . . However among the Christian community, very carefully, I believe we should encourage those with androgen insensitivity syndrome to remain unmarried. (www.parakaleo.co.uk/article3.html)

I agree and commend him for acknowledging that, from a moral perspective, AIS women and transwomen are equivalent; they are both infertile women with XY genes.(See Intersex Conditions.) All other Christians are afraid of acknowledging this similarity. I also agree with Whitehead that the mirroring of Earth and Heaven is a good, Christian ethic.

Finding Symbolism where there Is None

However, I am utterly disappointed at how poorly the comparison is handled. From icons to sacraments, Protestants have a poor understanding of symbolism and comparisons. In fact, this is not a symbol at all! It is a comparison and there is a great difference. A symbol is subtle and complex, requiring interpretation with wide reaching implications; this is how Whitehead uses Ephesians 5. A comparison is simply heard and immediately understood. This is what Paul means in Ephesians 5.  A symbol is always stated clearly ("The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . ") and then applied whereas a comparison, being much simpler, is finished in a single breath.. Notice Ephesians 5 never says the Church is a wife or bride nor is Christ described as a husband or groom. Instead, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church."  Secondly, notice the usage of past tense "loved" not "loves" which limited the similarities of relationships to what Christ has done in the past (cleansing sin). A symbol does not have such strict limitation; the listener is encouraged to apply the comparison to its utmost fullest. The third reason we know this is not a symbol is that a symbol is better known and understand than the actual which it points to. (Thank you, Jung.) Jesus spoke in symbols because listeners could not understand the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven but they could understand a pearl, a feast, a coin, and sheep. Are Christ and the Church better understood than earthly marriage? Certainly not! In this very passage Paul says, "This  is a profound mystery - but I am talking about Christ and the Church."  Symbols have a single direction.  Notice again Paul limits the comparison lest we, like Whitehead, go too far.

If this were a symbol, Paul would be proclaiming heresy! In this passage, he calls Christ the savior of the Church who cleanses her from her sins, but the husband is not the savior of his wife! After a long diatribe, Paul stops himself to provide a disclaimer, "but I am talking about Christ and the Church" and not husband and wife.  The Bible does use symbolism regarding marriage, God, and humanity in Hosea. This symbol is done properly: the similarity clearly established, not limited, and in appropriate direction. Marriage is used to understand God, not vice versa. No one uses Hosea to model human marriage, though by Whitehead's logic we should. If we did, Hosea would be encouraging us to marry someone we know will be unfaithful.

A comparison is more simple and shallow than a symbol. A comparison indicates isolated similarities, in this case, love and submission. How should husbands love and wives submit? As much as Christ and the Church - fully. It neither expands to salvation, as Paul warns, nor to sex or gender as Whitehead believes. It does not compare all of marriage, only part. We are tempted to think that taking biblical instruction more and more extreme is the same as pulling out more and more truth. Sometimes that is true; in this case it is false. In a comparative instruction, only what is mentioned is applied.

Whitehead aptly brings in the Torah which further proves my point. Some of the Torah uses both symbols to understand Heaven, not to understand Earth. The Tabernacle was meant to symbolize Heaven so that the Hebrews would see the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) and stand in God's awesomeness. But the Tabernacle instructions were very specific and Moses (nor Solomon later) did not copy the buildings after Heaven. It would be inappropriate for Moses to improvise, thinking, "Heaven is full of angels, so I'll build lots of angels in the Tabernacle." The second commandment even forbid such an act. Symbols are not copies. Whitehead's frequent use of "mirror," which not necessarily incorrect, is potentially misleading. Observing the Sabbath is an instruction inspired by God's rest of the seventh day but if we patterned our activities exactly after God, we could not observe the Sabbath because God is always at work (Jesus being an obvious example). Murder was another activity God performed but humans could not (except in situations specified by Torah). The best counter example is when Jesus explains there will be no marriage after the Resurrection (which most Christians equate with Heaven)! If we were to truly mirror Heaven, we should give up marriage altogether (as Jesus practiced and Paul encouraged).

The most goes back and forth between instructing followers to act like God but not act like God. To be God is both the highest goal (theosis/glorification) and the greatest sin. We must take great care not to confuse the two!

More Problems

If it were not bad enough that Whitehead makes finds a symbol where he should not, he makes the would-be symbol literal. Literal interpretation almost always destroys a symbol. He does so by interpreting that Christ's bride (which is not even mentioned in the passage) is female, not merely a woman or feminine. He stops there instead of coming to the obvious conclusion: the Church is made of both females and males. If you assign a sex to it (instead of gender, as you should) the sex is intersex! (C. S. Lewis approaches this exact topic correctly saying, "In relation to God we are all feminine.")  I don't advocate this intersex interpretation, but using Whitehead literal symbol interpretation, this is the inevitable conclusion.  Further, in The Gender of Jesus I demonstrate Jesus cannot only symbolize men and not women because Jesus is androgynous.

Further, Ephesians 5 refers to gender and not sex. The wife in Ephesians 5, the person with AIS, and the transwoman are all women.They are all fully capable of submitting and respecting their husband. Certainly the XY genes of the AIS women do not prohibit that!

As an egalitarian, I believe Ephesians 5 is not a description of differing gender roles but of similar roles. Verse 21 clearly and perfectly indicates this. There is no love without submission nor submission without love. The only difference is who is the head of whom which  was necessitated by the then-present unequal status of the genders which, if we had followed Paul, would have ended 2,000 years ago. Taking such a view will also deconstruct Whitehead's belief.

Even further, the Bride-Christ metaphor, if anything, is an argument for more marriage, not less, the marriage of the whole Church. All of Scripture concerns itself with the relationship between God and humanity, emphasizing that God desperately craves relationship and the more inclusive the better. God invites Gentiles, murderers, prostitutes, and greedy tax collectors. Hosea uses the same imagery of marriage to show God would rather have a broken covenant than no covenant at all. Likewise, it is better that humans have imperfect marriages with each other than no marriages. If we prohibited every marriage that does not precisely mirror Christ's love for the Church, we would have no marriages at all! Recalling Whitehead's words, "In our admittedly imperfect state, we are still to model the heavenly as best we can." If the AIS woman and transwoman could change their genes, they would; because they can't they are doing the best they can.

Including Intersex

Most Christians would disagree with Whitehead not necessarily on the basis of his simplistic exegesis, but because Christians have decided that AIS women are "really" women. "What kind of horrible man would prohibit marriage to a woman because she has a genetic condition?"  When considering trans people, Christians are obsessed with genes, but concerning AIS gender identity and appearance suddenly becomes predominant. Whitehead is not so hypocritical; he realizes AIS women and transwoman in the same category. Whatever is moral for one is moral for the other. Whitehead and I only disagree about what that "one thing" is. If Christians eliminate marriage for everyone who is not fully female or fully male, they exclude millions of intersex people too.

Whitehead's mention of Deuteronomy 23:1 is appropriate where only "full" males were allowed into the men's holy Tabernacle/Temple space. If we are consistently mirroring Earth after Heaven, we should retain this law and prohibit Christians with damaged genitals (micropenis, clitoromegaly, etc) from holy spaces like ordination and marriage. What about Klinefelter's syndrome that produces genes that our male and female? Where is the line? Should we play it safe? It was once standard to kill babies with ambiguous genitals; perhaps we should resume? Should infertile people be removed from marriage too because a mark of being female is being able to carry a child? The subtle continuum of of sex and gender conditions make any line arbitrary.

I am reminded of words my priest once told me concerning divorce and remarriage, "Do not let a dubious prohibition prevent Christian charity." This is good advice.


For all those reasons, using Ephesians 5 to inform us about genes and marriage is utterly bankrupt, to say  nothing of being anachronistic.

However, I sympathize with Whitehead because he is following his (faulty) reason faithfully regarding marriage and the Church will never accept his idea. Someone who looks like a woman and talks like a woman is considered a woman, regardless of her genes. We ought not to be so shallow, but we are. The Protestant Church, by its democratic nature, will never be ruled by thinkers wise enough to go much beyond this.

See Also

Gender and Symbolism