Mere Is Always a Dangerous Word: A Review of “Mere Sexuality” Part Two

August 15, 2018
Title: Mere Sexuality
Author: Todd A. Wilson
Publisher: Zondervan
Publish Date: October 3, 2017
Pages: 192 pages (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0310535355

In the first part of this book review of Mere Sexuality by Todd Wilson, we saw that Wilson’s stated purpose in the book is to recover “the themes that have characterized the Christian vision of sexuality down through the ages” (34). Combing through the tangled mess of Christian tradition, Wilson looks for a key, a central belief that somehow unites two thousand years of Christian teaching on sex. He arrives at biological gender complementarity. As he writes, the “heart of mere sexuality…is the belief that sexual difference, being male and female, is both theologically and morally significant” (35). For Wilson (as it is for many evangelicals), gender complementarity is the last stand of the church against the sexual revolution. It has become a kind of Alamo or Helm’s Deep. And as evangelicals have clung to the “gender-complementary-as-defined-by-biology” belief, they have unwittingly painted themselves into a corner.

Biology, it turns out, is an unreliable ally in the cause of mere sexuality. Throughout the book, Wilson is dangerously inconsistent in his use of biology as a source of authority, using it when it is convenient, and rejecting it when necessary. So, Jesus’ sex, defined biologically, has Christological significance (39-40), and for Wilson the incarnation showed that Jesus “embraced sexual differentiation” (48). So too, marriage is not rooted in divine command or analogical participation with Christ and the Church, but “the historic Christian view of marriage is rooted in biology” (88). On the other hand, intersex, the biological condition of embodying both male and female sexuality (which complicates gender complementarity) is an “anomaly” and can be ignored (70). When speaking of sex, biology is invoked as proof that only a man and a woman can participate in a “one-flesh union,” (80) but somehow ignoring both the biology of sex and I Corinthians 6, adultery and polygamy do not qualify as one-flesh unions (82-83). To be fair, Wilson does also appeal to scripture when making his arguments. However, rather than pressing deeper into how our sexuality relates to the actions of the triune God, again and again Wilson retreats into the defensive posture of defending gender complementarity on the basis of common sense biology.

I am not saying that we should not appeal to what has been given in the created order when we construct our sexual ethic. But by grounding his creational theology in common sense biology, Wilson unhelpfully confuses his sources of authority. Furthermore, he does not adequately grapple with the sinful brokenness of the created order itself, and the way that sin distorts our apprehension of that order. Or, as Calvin says in his commentary on I Corinthians 7, “We must always, therefore, distinguish between the nature of a thing and the abuse of it.”1 This double brokenness does not erase the possibility of knowing what gender complementarity looks like. But it should make us cautious about appealing to our culturally-conditioned interpretation of gender complementarity as the foundation of our sexual ethic. Our understanding of gender complementarity must itself undergo a process of sanctification.

As irenic as Wilson is, the book is still stuck in the doom and gloom of the “us vs. them” culture war box. Grim statistics and sordid anecdotes are waved in the air as causes for alarm and taking drastic measures. As much as Wilson says that he wants to hold forth the beauty and goodness of historic Christian teaching, the book’s invocation of “mere” sexuality is a tactical move designed to circle the wagons of church history and fight off the intrusion of the sexual revolution. No. We need a sexual ethic that is not a reactionary retreat into the citadel of gender complementarity. We need a sexual ethic that is itself a joyful proclamation of the good news. God calls us not to retreat into biological essentialism but to move forward. And the way forward, surprisingly, is to remember anew the acts of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as they are outlined for us in our creeds and confessions.

Positively, Wilson sketches hints of this trinitarian framework. He places his discussion of male and female within a doctrine of creation. His final chapter, on patience as a theological virtue, grasps at the connection between the Holy Spirit and our eschatological hope. But I found myself wanting more. Significantly, the largest lacuna in Wilson’s project is the cross. His Christology, when it appears at all, focuses on Jesus’ biological sex. This is an important topic, to be sure, but it is not the center of the church’s understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ. We need to ask: “How are the cross and resurrection both a rupture and a reaffirmation of the created order?” Our answers to these questions will deeply inform our sexual ethic. Is the cross of Christ a rupture, a “foolishness” (I Corinthians 1), even a transvaluation of our values, as theologian Karl Barth would have it? If yes, then we cannot lean too heavily on common sense biology as the grounding of our sexual ethic. We must let the cross challenge every other field of knowledge. Or, is the resurrection a “reaffirmation” of the created order, as theologian Oliver O’Donovan would have it? If yes, then we still cannot build our sexual ethic on common sense biology. We must ask instead in what ways our biology is itself broken by the fall and awaiting restoration and reaffirmation. Our biology is not the ground of our sexual ethic, but part of the stage upon which the actions of the triune God are played out in glorious display.

What we need is not a fictional historical consensus of the past. Instead, following Richard Hays’ reading of Paul, we need our sexual ethic to be “shaped by the gospel of the cross and illuminated by the eschatological setting of the church between the cross and the final day of the Lord.”2 This careful attention to the drama of the Trinity will lead us deeper into the rich resources of the church’s past, particularly the complementary vocations of marriage and celibacy. As erotic desire is partially fulfilled (in marriage) and deferred (in celibacy), these vocations witness in their own unique ways to the cross of Christ and the eschatological horizon of the Spirit. Marriage and celibacy are each a unique “gift from God” (I Corinthians 7:7). As gifts, they are means by which God plays out the double grace of justification and sanctification in our lives. Let us ground our sexual ethic in this reality.

But perhaps this is too much to ask. Can anyone really be expected to map out two millennia of Christian wrestling with sexuality in such a short book? Wilson does an impressive job, given his space constraints. His writing is pithy, clear, and easily readable. His spirit is humble and gentle, pastoral. He is a hospitable writer, naming different types of readers in the introduction and inviting them into his writing. The importance of the beauty of the gospel plays a part in his argument, which is heartening.

However, we cannot say that gender complementarity, in and of itself, grounded in common sense biology, is the heart of the church’s historic (“mere”) teaching on sexuality. It is in many ways a given in the argumentation, but it is not the foundation. We cannot start with the logical coherence (or even aesthetic beauty) of gender complementarity and from there find our way to the rest of the gospel in our sexuality. We must start with the drama of the Trinity centered on the cross and place our historically contingent, socially constructed understanding of gender complementarity under the cross. This is not to reject gender complementarity, but to place it in its proper context of the process of sanctification. Maybe we need to hear the minority report of Jovinian after all, continually submerging all of our questions about male and female, marriage and celibacy, eros and hesed, in the waters of baptism. In our union with Christ by the Spirit, even our sexuality is joined to Christ in his death on the cross and raised to new life. And as we wait for the final glorification of the created order, our eschatological hope pulls our baptismal calling toward its completion as the Spirit daily sanctifies our embodied existence. Can we ground our theology of sex not in a historically contingent understanding of gender, but in this beautiful, glorious, doxological drama of the Trinity?

About the Author
  • Steven Rodriguez is the pastor of Lakeview Community Church, a congregation of the Reformed Church in America. He lives in Rochester, NY. You can follow him on Twitter @smarcorodriguez.

  1. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 242.  

  2. Richard Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997), 111.  

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  1. I’m only a casual reader of this site and know little of the larger subject matter, but I find Rodriguez’ comments potentially troubling.

    While he insists that “we cannot say that gender complementarity, in and of itself, grounded in common sense biology, is the heart of the church’s historic (“mere”) teaching on sexuality”, I do not see him reference scriptural or historic church teachings showing that complementarity is not assumed to be the heart of sexuality. Like gravity, it is assumed by authors and left unstated.

    When Rodriguez’ asks “can we ground our theology of sex not in a historically contingent understanding of gender, but in this beautiful, glorious, doxological drama of the Trinity?” it sounds orthodox. But how could we ever proceed with any action or understanding if every syllable of scripture and every atom of creation were subject to debate over its correct theological understanding in the doxological drama of the Trinity?

    Rodriguez seems to propose full employment for ivory tower theologians – and a life on uncertain inaction from every other believer.

    1. What other unstated assumptions of (which?) biblical authors should we assume today are “biblical” and therefore valid in a scientific, empirical sense? The biblical authors did not assume gravity or heliocentrism or germs — the list goes on. I can’t make any sense of Rodrguez’s trinitarian idea either, but even more direct attempts to mine ancient texts for insights superior to modern science are no better, unless they restrict themselves to the moral domain. Wilson is creating a pariah, like lepers, imperial tax collectors, eunuchs, slaves, and prostitutes when he says people who don’t fit into “commonsense” sex and gender binaries (in the right combinations) are anomalies that can be ignored. It’s quite clear what Jesus’ attitude toward pariahs and pariah creators was.

      1. Hey there, sounds like you two really did not like my essay. That’s too bad. Is there a clarifying question you can ask? I would be happy to try to be more clear.