In the creation of humans in Genesis, male and female are the mode in which the image bearing capacity of God is conveyed to humankind. Gender and embodiment seem to function for humankind as part of the essence of who we are in imaging God. The ontological nature of gender is affirmed by Paul when he references Genesis and the mystery of marriage as referring to Christ and the Church. The mystery of sexual union between male and female is on the order of the union and oneness between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:32). Gender is not something we set aside in being joined to Christ but is taken up even in this ultimate of relationships. Whether Paul is speaking literally or metaphorically, gender seems to carry enduring metaphysical importance.
On the other hand, Paul describes male and female, along with slave and free and Jew and Gentile, as something that is suspended or overcome in Christ (Ga. 3:27–28). These verses seem to set gender within an alternative frame in which, like other cultural constructs, it can be set aside among those who “clothe themselves in Christ.” The question is how to reconcile the apparent tension in Scripture between gender as an ontological reality, yet, as bearing a certain plasticity on the order of Jew/Gentile and slave/free.
Part of the answer has to do with the opposed pairs Paul is picturing as being overcome in Christ. Certainly, in the first Church there would continue to be Jews and Gentiles, by some definition, even among those who counted themselves as Christian. This is precisely the tension Paul is addressing, as Jewish Christians, following the example of Peter himself, are withdrawing from eating and fellowship with Gentile Christians. Paul is not suggesting that Jewishness, anymore than Greekness, needs to be obliterated. He is not suggesting that slaves presume to set themselves free, nor is he passing any sort of judgment on any of these social constructs as they exist outside the Church. He is saying these opposed pairs, and identity on the basis of these differences, is no longer the mode of Christian identity. This oppositional mode of doing identity no longer holds sway for those clothed in Christ.
Paul is comparing two ways of doing identity: there is the mode outside Christ in which one finds their identity over and against some Other; and there is identity in Christ in which this sort of antagonism is undone. Identity through difference is the failed identity of the Fall in which all knowing comes through the opposed pairs of good and evil. The knowledge of good and evil describes the mode of knowing – the epistemological possibility – outside of Christ. The image bearing capacity of male and female is the center of the initial impact of the Fall, as witnessed in the alienation between Adam and Eve, and God’s description of the curse this entails. The oppositional mode of doing identity, which arises between Adam and Eve, will manifest itself in an infinite variety of forms – both corporate and individual. Paul’s two “I’s” in Romans 7 and Adams multiple “I’s” in Gen. 3:10 describe an alienation that infects the very mode of perception of self and other. Everything is apprehended on the basis of this failed knowing so that the world and all it contains, including the self, is divided up into various “dualisms” or opposed pairs.
The way this is impacting the Galatian Church might be seen as of minor importance – after-all what does it matter if you are not willing to eat lunch with some folks. Paul pictures the truth and power of the Gospel as being at stake in this minor adjustment to the lunch table. He argues that the end point of doing identity through difference – setting yourselves over against one another – is to be cut off from Christ. And he argues, if you are going to cut yourselves off from Christ by insisting on circumcision or by insisting on Jewish identity, one might as well just keep on cutting. “Just keep cutting so as to sever your manhood” (Galatians 5:12). These people are cutting themselves off from Christ and apparently, in such a circumstance, genitalia might as well be cut off as well. Identity through difference, such as that being advocated by the Judaizing Christians, is mutilating the image bearing capacities intended for maleness and femaleness. Paul poses the choice as one of either loving one another or biting and consuming one another (5:14-15).
Circumcision of the male organ was the sign given to Abraham to indicate that he had entrusted his reproductive capacities to God and not to his own power. God would propagate his name as he is the giver of life, though it may indeed be through utilization of Abraham’s dormant (as good as dead) powers. Circumcision as a sign of the promise was being confused by the Judaizers with the promise itself. Christ is the fulfillment of the promised life in the face of death, so that to continue to cling to the sign is a disempowerment on the order of castration. In Christ, oppositional duality is overcome. “For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God” (I Co. 11:12). The two are one, and this is a great mystery, but it is a unity ultimately brought into effect in Christ (Eph. 5:31-32). Here, the original image bearing capacities are restored, and male/female relationship is no longer couched in antagonism but in mutual subjective love. Entailed in this restoration is the recognition that maleness and femaleness is fulfilled and utilized by God – that is, gender no more than the law or ethnic identity, is an end in itself.
The way that Paul describes this passage from failed to fulfilled sexuality, at the beginning of Romans 7, is by posing two possible alternatives for union with another. The woman who would consort with another man poses the sense in which the law is definitive of anything the woman would do. The same woman doing the same thing can either be an adulteress or a good wife, but whatever she does is defined by the law. If we equate what she is doing with love (love of husband or of her consort) and this love is that element deep within her which is her true essence, the regulation of law or society can only be felt as an imposition on the true nature of the self. Slavoj Žižek maintains that this construct is synonymous with sin: “‘Sin’ is the very intimate resistant core on account of which the subject experiences its relationship to the Law as one of subjection, it is that on account of which the Law has to appear to the subject as a foreign power crushing the subject” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 271). Žižek’s characterization of “this strangely sexualized comparison of the believer delivered from the Law with an adulteress” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 273) does not push the strangeness far enough.
Paul resolves the bind of a sexual love regulated by law by couching sexual union within the union that is had with Christ. In terms of the wife and her dead husband, in v. 4 the “you” in the first half of the verse locates the readers with the dead husband: “You have died to the law through the body of Christ” (7:4a). The dead husband had represented the force of the law and now Paul places his readers within that place from which this force was exercised. Paul had described the law in the instance of the dead husband as being rendered inoperative (κατήργηται, in v. 2). The second half of the verse locates the readers with the wife who has died, remarried, and is expecting: “so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God” (7.4b). Lacan’s cardinal rule (“There is no sexual relationship,” as it is impossible to coordinate the law and sexual love) is here broken. There is a sexual relationship; it is possible to obliterate the dynamic of sin, in which the law and the reality of the gendered body cannot be coordinated. The believer knows Christ, not in the antagonistic sense of the knowledge of good and evil, but in the bodily sense – the full-bodied change of baptism in which we are joined to Christ. This joining to Christ extends the meaning of gender beyond itself, so that being found in Christ reconstitutes gender as a conduit of the image bearing for which it was created.