Beyond Complementarianism, Slavery, and Bigotry, to Truth

The great reversal instituted by Christ is expressed in the New Testament as the move from law to grace, from shadow to substance, or from promise to fulfillment.  John describes it in cosmic terms as the displacement of one world for another and Paul describes it as the displacement of the principalities and powers and the dominion to which we were all once subject.  He works it out in detail in his description of how we are freed from the law in Christ.  The metaphors used to describe this are adoption into a new family, redemption from slavery, entering a new kingdom, or being made righteous.  The language of marriage, new birth, and transfer of citizenship gets at the impact of this reversal. I would argue that what is being described is not a series of reversals worked out in different realms but one great reversal which applies to every realm. To miss it at the universal level will mean a misunderstanding of the particulars. There might still be male/female, slave/free, and Jew/Gentile, from the perspective and logic of the world but in the Church these categories mean something different. The slave is now the position to be sought, Jew is no longer an exclusive but a universal category, and female or bride describes those joined to Christ. Gender, class, and ethnicity, are not dissolved but a different logic applies and an alternative grammar transforms their meaning.  If one has missed this deep grammatical shift (and it is missed and obscured both by the closed economy of this world and a theology grounded in this economy) it is to miss the transvaluation (in Nietzsche’s phrase) of Christianity.

Power Over Truth = There is no Sexual Relationship

Paul hits upon the key categories which constitute one world order so as to describe the transition to a new world order.  Gender, class, and ethnicity contain the binaries (male/female, slave/free, Jew/Gentile) foundational to the identity and logic of a closed cosmos or a closed economy.  These are the key categories which serve as the ground from which value and meaning are derived.  Maleness, freedom, and Jewishness are the privileged basis lending meaning to femaleness, slavery, and Gentileness (or whatever ethnic binary might be in play). The mode of value is power – sexual, economic, and ethnic. That which can penetrate, dominate, and exclude, is privileged.  That which is subject to penetration, domination, and exclusion, serves as the difference creating the privileged identity.  Power ultimately is not simply the power to oppress, degrade, or exclude partially.  In an economy of power, the ultimate sexual act, the final ethnic determination, the height of economic privilege, is the ultimate act of violence: the power to kill or the power of death.  In this sense, death is always the coin of the realm circulated in an economy of power.  Thus, Paul will dub the “law of sin and death” the operating principle of this world.

Under this economy, gender, class, and ethnicity are necessarily antagonistic.  They are oppressive, exclusive, and violent in that ultimate value is established through the ultimate devaluation of death.  In a purely theoretical frame the contradiction inherent in identity through difference which would reduce all difference to sameness is obvious. Paul works this contradiction to its logical end in several realms. In idolatry in which the idol is typically portrayed as phallic and male, and the idolater as an adulteress or female, the male and female relinquish desire for the other.  Pursuit of the absolute difference of the idol reduces to sameness.  In the realm of the law where the legalists would reify maleness and the mark of circumcision, Paul recommends they remove the male genitals entirely (just keep cutting, he says). Absolute difference reduces to sameness. The Judaizers would establish the law in the flesh through circumcision. Paul’s ironic but serious point is that the law inscribed on the flesh through pure power renders one powerless (castrated and impotent).

Romans 7 provides insight into this contradictory or self-consumptive logic. The law is pictured as pure power or a force (the absolute Other) that when taken up into the self, pits the will (will power) against the self. Knowing and doing, the law of the mind and the capacity of the will, are necessarily set against one another.  As with Descartes’ cogito (I think therefore I am), thought is pitted against being.  There is the thought – the law of the mind – and there is the thing that thinks – the brain or body, but the two realms are inherently antagonistic.  Thought, language, the law, or the symbolic realm cannot be transformed into an object – the body, ego, or “I.”  Paul dubs this dynamic of absolute difference taken up into the self “this body of death.”  “Life” under the law reduces one to a cadaver – one of the living dead.

Under this economy of pure power, there is an incapacity to coordinate (complement) the self, let alone coordinate the self with another.  One might describe a meeting of the minds but there could be no sexual relationship. Relation, under identity through difference, is relegated to the symbolic, the law, or the realm of thought. The body and gender fall outside symbolic possibilities.  In Paul’s description, the “body of death” pits “the members of my body” against “the law of my mind” and this makes “me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (Ro. 7.23-24). The body of death does its work, as the body itself, with its members, stands outside the law of the mind or the symbolic, and this constitutes the antagonistic work of death.

Truth Over Power = Joined Together in Life-Giving Love

The economy of truth, in Paul’s description, is inaugurated for the Christian at baptism. Baptism is a direct counter to the tendency to set part of the self against the other as body or flesh. Baptism intervenes in the self-alienation of the “body of death,” as there is a joining to Christ’s body as a new Subject. The meaning of being “baptized into his likeness” (Ro. 6.5) is that the Christian is united with Christ himself or his body. Where the Subject of death has joined herself to death, the Subject of Christ has been joined to the ontological reality of God in the body of Christ. Baptism into his death is a real participation in the body of Christ and it inaugurates resurrection life which is inclusive of a manner of life that presumes control over the body – as “by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body” (Ro. 8.13).

Paul weaves the marriage relationship throughout his description of sin and salvation.  In the first instance is one who is constrained by law and power and who is in a failed relationship. In the second, is one who has passed beyond law and power and who has achieved the end of the marriage relationship – a joining to Christ. In the tomb/womb of baptism the dynamic of the “body of death” is undone through a fusion or joining of two bodies.  “You also have died” not just any death but “through the body of Christ” that you might “belong to another” (Ro. 7.4).  As Graham Ward describe it, baptism creates a liminal condition where bodies can merge and where gender and materiality are no longer the stable defining factor.[1]

The Meaning of Headship

The body of sin has been entombed by means of baptism into death, but in this way, one is joined to Christ as the head of the body. This joining is simultaneously the suspension of a death dealing power relationship as one is joined to the source of life. The head lays down his life in a continual mode of sacrifice in order to nourish the love relationship. Where the head accomplishes this purpose, there is no space of separation (alienation, power).  In this sense the husband is to be the head of the wife.

Power or law works in and through degrees of separation which the Christian life exposes as death dealing. The ultimate separation, the attainment of final power, means the obliteration of that over which one has power and which empowers.  Love is nourishing and life-giving and it depends upon oneness just as power depends upon antagonism – the former is unifying and the latter is alienating.  The former is characterized by necessity: inescapable and necessary power relations; a necessary constraint and constriction. The latter does not adhere to any such necessity. Like the world itself, created ex nihilo from a place of total freedom, love moves outward in a continual creative incorporation.[2]

The irony/tragedy is that much of Protestant theology operates under notions of divine sovereignty in which the economy of God and the economy of redemption are understood under the auspices of will and power.  The failure is to recognize the law as a marker of a universal economy of power (the law of sin and death – the work of a deception) and then in turn failing to recognize grace operating through truth. To recognize how this came about is less important (and I am not up to the task) than acknowledging that it did.  The implication of Christians in white supremacy, bigotry of every sort, and overt sexism are the most visible signs that the logic of the New Testament and of Paul remain incomprehensible for many. I am not sure where complementarianism stands in comparison to bigotry and slavery, but where notions of headship in the home are understood in terms of power, decision making (exercise of the will), and male dominance, it is clear the economy of death is the frame of reference. The choice is a constricting lie, or the profound truth of a life-giving sacrificial love which opens up the world through the body of Christ.

[1] Graham Ward, “The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ,” in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward (London, New York: Routledge, 1999), 164. Ward states that, “Patristic theologies of both the incarnation and the circumcision emphasize the instability of Jesus’ gendered corporeality.”   So this gendered liminality of his death points to the condition in which bodies can merge.

[2] God is not compelled to create or save; faith is such that it does not adhere to the necessities dictated by time and circumstance (decay, death, and futility) as God has changed up the visible circumstance of an imminent frame of reference, revealing an alternative (resurrection, heavenly Jerusalem, etc.).

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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