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Tears in God's Wineskin: A Theology of Hospitality

Part 1: The Love that Dares Now Speak its Name


Christ as Lord of Gender

One of the most striking aspects of Christ’s ministry is his own queer relationships with numerous and varied people from fishermen to adulterers and from tax-collectors to Roman soldiers. The ministry of Christ included the bringing in of the queerest folk into the family of God and in this sense queer theology expresses the queerness of God who is all mystery and at odds with our ‘fallen’ world. The kingdom of God is not a human realm. When God appeared incarnate amongst humanity he was marginalized, ridiculed and murdered, yet he forgave his executioners. They had no power over his life – or indeed their own lives – apart from what had been given to them. It is humanly natural to love one’s friends and family and those who inspire or delight us, but to love one’s enemies deviates from expected behaviour, as Loughlin notes. [1] Queer theology not only recognizes, but fully embraces Christ’s example of queer relationships and therefore, better allows one to understand Christ, ourselves and others.

Elizabeth Stuart considers, “Queer Theology derives its origins not from the fictitious construction of human sexual ‘experience’ as so much modern sexual theology has done with ultimately disappointing . . . results, but from the very life of God incarnate in the body of Christ and particularly in the sacraments.” [2] Baptism may be a means of entering the church and is therefore a challenge to identity, commanding a spiritual death to self and a new creation of identity in and with Christ. Christian marriage challenges certain assumptions about family values and is a means of sacramental union between lover and the beloved and with God rather than merely a tool for procreation. In the Eucharist the Church has the opportunity to most fully understand herself in relation to God and radiate her relationship with God by acting hospitably towards all in the presence of Christ’s body and blood. Queer ecclesiology then, liberates a person from a black and white biological or natural identity in baptism, liberates a person from loneliness through marriage, and liberates all from the constraints placed on it by traditionally patriarchal heterosexism, enabling the church to, according to Eugene Rogers, “lose a sense of entitlement and recover a sense of grace”. [3]

Richard Cleaver considers the experience of receiving LGBT people in the church as analogous to the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church, grafted into Israel yet free of Torah observation. He points out, “The main question for the early church became: Do you have to ‘keep kosher’ to be a Christian? This kind of question still bedevils us in the age of bourgeois religion: Do you have to be respectable to receive the sacraments?” [4]   He notes that this was the struggle in the early church and while the people of God called Israel were defined by their adherence to cleanliness and pollution regulations, the people of God called Christian were to include “polluted foreigners.”  

Incorporating Gentiles into the kingdom of God just as they are, without a need to first convert to Judaism, is a work of the Spirit. In the same way, receiving LGBT people into the church, without a need for them to first adopt heterosexist attitudes or ‘become heterosexual’, is a work of the Spirit, reflecting a requirement to interpret scripture in the light of the way the Spirit is working in the present. Peter recognizes that God has given Gentiles the Holy Spirit and declared them ‘clean’ (Acts 15:8-9), and in the same way the Church must, as Stephen Fowl notes, “become practiced at testifying about what the Spirit is doing in the lives of others.” [5] For this to occur across the Christian community, however, Christians must become open to expressing hospitality and experiencing friendships with gay men and lesbians, enabling them to testify about such a work of the Spirit. We cannot seriously study God’s consistently unnatural acts throughout history while denying the continued work of the Spirit in the world today, which includes the sanctification of certain elements deemed unnatural by particular individuals. Through the sacraments the Church develops holiness, understands holiness and becomes sanctified. Through the same sacraments the Church recognizes each person as a new creation, no longer someoneother’ but a person united in love to the others in the church and this is what needs to determine the direction in which the Church journeys, for in the sacraments there is no us and them, only us.

Sexual identity needs to be identified in theological terms rather than solely biological terms, because sexual difference is “relative and temporal,” Graham Ward observes and it is, “somewhere in the engagement between sight and touch that bodies become sexualized, somewhere in the junction between reception and response within the body’s own knowing, such that desire for knowing or being with the other is simultaneously an attraction to the other.” [6] Sexual difference and attraction transcend what is purely empirical, enabling mutual communication of reciprocal discovery of the self, as David McCarthy Matzko comments, “A person comes to awareness of his or her own embodiment through the bodily presence of the other.” [7]

There is no single universal sexual or gender identity: there are as many different ways to be masculine as there are men, just as Mary McClintock Fulkerton suggests that there is no single essence of woman or an experience of being a woman that is universal, but rather, it is established practices within community that produce the kinds of roles women play and how they understand themselves. [8] Judith Butler similarly asserts that gender precedes and even defines biological sex. [9] Men and women are creatures that have been sexed, but sexuality and character are not defined by their genitalia but rather by their relation to God, the part they play in God’s redemptive work and the way in which they interact in the world.

The Church is called to be a family, a community where each person is loved and taken care of, a work begun by Christ who, during his ministry, was an insidious threat to traditional family values. In truth, there is not and never really has been such a thing as traditional family values; they have been different in each epoch, culture and society throughout human history. Family values in the Roman context in which the early church grew were very different from the family values of the twenty-first century. ‘Familia,’ for example, consisted of everything the male head of the household owned, including slaves, animals, property, their spouse, sons and unmarried daughters, as Rosemary Radford Reuther records. [10] It was the means of maintaining male lineage regarding property and female children would spend most of their childhood being prepared for marriage, usually to a friend or political alliance of the father and often twice the age of the woman. Religion in this context was also familial and leaving the family religion resulted in exclusion.

So called ‘family values,’ espoused by self-proclaimed pro-family groups today, are a construction Radford Reuther considers “ignores three fourths of actual Christian history.” [11]  Christ sought to undo the prevailing family values of his day, telling his disciples to forsake their father, mother, children, brothers and sisters (Luke 14:26) and he showed “a shocking disregard for traditional family responsibilities to the dead father in Jewish culture” when he told the disciple to let the dead bury their own dead. [12]  When Jesus called his disciples they left everything, including their families as reflected in Peter’s leaving his wife (Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law) and James and John their father. Following Christ’s resurrection and ascension, believers in Christ formed a radically different family, living together and having all things in common, selling their possessions and redistributing their wealth (Acts 3:44-5). Such a community would have appeared deeply subversive by the surrounding Roman and Jewish communities.

Today’s family unit reflects the increasing commodity production of capitalism and, Frederick Engels reminds us, “Monogamy arose out of the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of one person - and that a man - and out of the desire to bequeath this wealth to this man’s children and to no one else’s.” [13] Here, the male head does what is best for him and his family, seeing other men as competition to his family and his wellbeing, as Richard Cleaver explains, “We have made the bourgeois family into an idol because it, unlike the living God, gives us permission to confine our concern only to our own kin and kind.” [14]

It may be said that men no longer know how to fully love other men and in today’s politically charged and heterosexist society, the idea of caring for others in the same way the early Christians cared for others is usually written off as socialism. This was certainly reflected during December 2013 when Pope Frances was accused of being a Marxist for decrying “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” and called on the world’s political leaders to consider “an ethical approach which favours human beings.” [15] Sharing home and possessions with anyone other than one’s own wife and children, unless perhaps a paying lodger, is considered to be a social deviation and while we may cite exceptions such as the Iona, Jean Vanier and L’Arche communities, the Church overall has lost its theology of family that mirrors the relationship of the Trinity and consequently also its sense of hospitality that incorporates the whole community into her family, including the marginalized and disenfranchised, the eunuch and the stranger.

In addition to facilitating a broader and more biblical understanding of family values, welcoming LGBT persons into the church may serve to expand our understanding of the sacrament of marriage which is best promoted when seen less as a means for procreation or appropriate control of sexual passions, and more as a reflection of the union of the Trinity. For a lover to view their beloved only as a means to procreate or for sexual pleasure reduces the object of desire to a “mere tool” which “destroy[s their] dignity,” as Paul Evdokimov argues. [16] He points out that procreation should be seen as a joy and a virtue, but it does not determine the value of marriage or how sacramental it is.

Marriage may actually be better understood as the means through which God draws sexuality and partnership into his triune life, transforming them through grace in order for the marriage to reflect the love between Christ and his church. It is through prolonged vulnerability to the object of desire that grace works, sanctifying the lover and beloved each through the other. If marriage is about mutual sanctification then, “gay and lesbian Christians who desire it can hardly be accused of self-centeredness” [17] Eugene Rogers notes. Rather, through a mutual self-giving of the body’s grace marriage becomes sacramental and sex is for the discovery of desire and exclusive intimacy with another person. The business of the church is to order our relations in such a way that, as Rowan Williams observes, “human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy,” and one’s desire for another must be recognized and “perceived as desirable by the other.” [18]

Violations of this, such as rape, paedophilia, and bestiality are brutal and sinful, not because they are anti-biblical or because they do not inherently create offspring, but because they have no consideration of the other’s desire and are wholly selfish and self-serving. Such sexualities are therefore perverse and abusive. Rowan Williams provocatively suggests that such acts imply how, “[I]n a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a ‘perversion.’” [19]  Desire, then, must be allowed to be vulnerable and given time to be returned. One can “only fully discover the body’s grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other.” [20] Consequently, the goal of marriage is the allowance of time for sanctification and the time it takes intimacy to become holy. So, “monogamous, committed gay and lesbian relationships are also gifts of grace, means of sanctification, upbuilding of the community of the people of God. They are means, bodily means that God can use to catch human beings up into less and less conditioned acts of self-donation, finally into that unconditional response to God’s self-donation that God’s self gives in the Trinity.” [21]

Viewing marriage from a Trinitarian vantage also redirects the conversation surrounding procreation which, while an important aspect of a sacramental marriage, when procreation becomes the telos of marriage, the grace of children is distorted. Love should not and must not be a compulsion and viewing procreation as mandatory denies the real experience of those genetically infertile or who choose to adopt. In our world where so many children are orphans, it seems completely misguided to condemn a gay or lesbian couple who want to adopt; a couple who want to bring a third person into the Trinitarian ideal of love.  Gay and lesbian families ‘procreate’ socially through adoption or IVF, or through the inclusion of the church family or wider extra-church family.

Graham Ward recognises that the maleness of Jesus is a curious thing. Since he lacked a human father, Jesus presumably received no humanly produced Y chromosome, yet he is circumcised. [22] The language of monastery piety during the Middle Ages called Jesus the mother of monks and male monks were invited by their priests to suck milk from Jesus' breasts, as expressed in one of the songs of Anselm of Canterbury:

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
You are gentle with us as a mother with her children;
Often you weep over our sins and our pride:
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
in sickness you nurse us, and with pure milk you feed us.

They were also encouraged to edge their way into Christ’s wounded side in order to enter Christ’s womb and be born again through him. Medieval authors consistently used masculine pronouns for Jesus, but did not confine him to only masculine images. Christ was bridegroom to both women and men, and while Christ's body was male in Jesus, it could yet be female in the church of Christ. Abbots and prelates were encouraged by Bernard to see themselves as mothers of the monastery, nurturing the monks as if they were breast-feeding, going so far as to encourage a young convert to consider Christ’s wounds as nurturing breasts [23] and in his sermon on the Song of Songs he urges monastic leaders to be maternal, “Show affection as a mother would, correct like a father. Be gentle, avoid harshness, do not resort to blows, expose your breasts: let your bosoms expand with milk, not swell with passion.” [24] In the Middle Ages an abbot might be physically gendered male, yet he could be female as a member of the church, male as a priest, female as a mother of monks and even female at prayer, as a soul before God. At that time, gender varied according to circumstance and necessity, so the theory of the complementarity of male and female and the restriction of men and women to specific genders is undoubtedly a modern day phenomenon and not as traditional as might be believed. This of course does not dismiss the harsher, discriminatory features of medieval gender appreciation, such as men disregarding the suffering of women while considering their own to be Christ-like.

Gender, then, does not restrict Christ in any sense. As God and Creator, he is the wellspring and affirmer of all gender and as fully human, he assumes the femininity and masculinity of all humanity and not maleness alone. Indeed, if, “what is not assumed is not redeemed,” and Christ was male alone, then womankind could not benefit from his salvific work; either that or Jesus would have required a woman to complete his being and his work. Gendered language does not require gendered representation. If it did, then only women could lead a church gendered as female, and only men could lead men after the pattern of Christ as the Son of God. Depending on the denomination, most churches today do permit men and women to represent the church, and all in the church are children of God, not only the sons. Rigid interpretation of gender serves only to shackle the reading of scripture, while confining the resources of tradition and making a complete nonsense of salvation. The simple truth is we do not have a gender-established complementarity of men and women in the church, but rather, a Christologically inspired and disciplined complementarity.

This invites the question: Do bodies therefore still matter? The simple answer is yes. Same-sex couples recognize that bodies matter because they find themselves committed to someone of the apposite, rather than opposite, sex. Transgendered people recognize that bodies matter because they find themselves electing for hormones and surgical correction. Parents recognize that bodies matter, because they have the responsibility of raising children. Debates centered on sexuality never teach us that bodies do not matter, but that they matter in more ways than one and a Christological account of gender provides our bodies with more, not fewer, ways in which to matter. The medieval Christ preserves his circumcision and acquires a womb and so resembles an intersex person; since Christ’s body is historically male yet female in the history of the church, he resembles a transgendered person; and because Christ is the bridegroom to a male believer, he resembles a same-sex spouse. Christ cannot nor should be limited by gender because he is ultimately the Lord of gender.

If Christ orients all desire to himself in order to satisfy all things living, then it becomes clear that a sexual orientation is a natural aptitude and Christological condition that shapes our ways of participating in the body of Christ. With sexual orientation, Christ calls our desires God-wards through our various capacities to desire others. The Spirit prepares us for particular patterns of invitation, placing our bodies on the line for others and whether gay or straight, sexual orientation is the aptitude for turning limitations into positive sexual living in order to practice the love of Christ within the church through a commitment to our embodied neighbours. Sexual orientation is the condition that enables eros and agape to interchange, allowing us to follow the incarnation by placing our bodies on the line for others as Christ did for his bride when he said, “This is my body, given for you.” Christ made an embodied commitment and fulfilled it when he refused to abandon the cross and save himself, choosing solidarity with the other victims of crucifixion who had no choice but to remain crucified. In faithfulness to them and particularly in his promise of Paradise to the thief, Christ maintained fidelity with his bride.

The cross speaks of the blood of atonement and reconciliation, yet theologies of Christ’s blood may be difficult for women, since men may invoke them to impose sanctions, denying women their place in Christ. Similarly, they may be difficult for those in same-sex relationships when they are told that their sex lives insult the blood of Christ. Despite this, Christ’s blood provides a further symbol that must be reclaimed, and significantly it stands in the context of marriage. Christ’s words, “This is my body, given for you,” tell us what bodies are for - commitment through embodied gift. His words are a marital comment telling us he commits himself to be where his body is and he commits his body to death for his bride. This is the same commitment Christian spouses undertake when promising “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death us do part,” with both same and opposite sex couples aspiring to this declaration as an act of grace and the church needs to recognize its place of witness. Rogers asserts much the same thing in Sexuality and the Christian Body, saying, “Marriage and the Eucharist are connected, because in the love between spouses is an image of the heavenly Jerusalem, the church adorned as a bride for her bridegroom, Jesus Christ our Lord, who loves her and gave himself for her, in order to make all things new.” [25] He further reminds us that Karl Barth expressed this simply as, “Because God loves Israel, there is such a thing as love and marriage.” [26]

The Eucharist, then, becomes the wedding feast of all couples, accommodating all genders as part of Christ and his church and since, “in Christ there is no longer male and female,” gendered language in the marriage rite should be understood as including same-sex couples. Our sexuality is a sacrament of God’s intimate, faithful, imaginative and creative love, and our identity as social beings has its basis in our being made in the image and likeness of God. Consequently, we have not been created as genderless creatures, but as women and men with an embodied appetite for completion and the ability to love and be loved. Our sexuality plays a crucial role in enabling us to answer the call to love God and one another and be holy as God calls us to be holy and here, the mystery of marriage is not about becoming one mind or one soul, but one flesh, encompassing the totality of humanity before God. Over this, Christ is both Lord and supreme groom.




[1] Loughlin, Introduction, in Queer Theology, p.9.

[2] Elizabeth Stuart, Sacramental Flesh, in Queer Theology, p.65.

[3] Eugene F. Rogers Jr., Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p.64.

[4] Richard Cleaver, Know My Name: A Gay Liberation Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p.104. 

[5] Stephen Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), p.116.

[6] Graham Ward, There is No Sexual Difference, in Queer Theology, p.81-82.

[7] David McCarthy Matzko, The Relationship of Bodies: A Nuptial Hermeneutics of Same-Sex Unions, in Theology & Sexuality (No. 8, 1998), p.110.

[8] Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Changing the Subject: Women’s Discourses and Feminist Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publications, 1994), p.7.

[9] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London and New York: Routledge, 1990); see also Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), esp. p.28.

[10] Rosemary Radford Reuther, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family: Ruling Ideologies, Diverse Realities (Boston: Beacon, 2000), p.14-15.

[11] Radford Reuther, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family, p.4.


[12] Radford Reuther, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family, p.26.

[13] Frederick Engels, Origin of Family, Private Property, and State, in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels: Selected Works (New York: International, 1986), p.524.  

[14] Richard Cleaver, Know My Name: A Gay Liberation Theology (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p.78.

[15] Reported by Business Week 16th December 2014, Available online at: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-12-16/pope-francis-says-hes-not-a-marxist-dot-others-arent-sure

[16] Paul Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love: The Nuptial Mystery in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1985), p.43.


[17] Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body, p.73.

[18] Rowan Williams, The Body’s Grace [1989], in Moral Issues and Christian responses, 8th Edition, Patricia Beattie Jung and L. Shannon Jung [eds.] (Nashville TN: Fortress Press, 2013), p.108.

[19] Williams, The Body’s Grace [1989], in Moral Issues and Christian responses, p.109.

[20] Williams, The Body’s Grace [1989], in Moral Issues and Christian responses, p.111.

[21] Eugene F. Rogers Jr., Sanctification, Homosexuality and God’s Triune Life, in Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Eugene Rogers [ed.], (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publications Ltd, 2002), pp.223-24.

[22] Graham Ward, Uncovering the Corona: A Theology of Circumcision, in George J. Brooke [ed.], The Birth of Jesus: Biblical and Theological Reflections (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000), pp.35-44 and 125-26; most of this work is reproduced in Ward’s, Christ and Culture: Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), pp.159-80.

[23] Bernard of Clairvaux, Epistola 322, in Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Vol.182, J.P. Migne [ed.] (Turnhout: Brepols, 1969), 322.1. The Latin reads, “Si tentationum sentis aculeos, exaltatum in ligno serpentem aeneum intuere; et suge non tam vulnera quam ubera Crucifixi. Ipse erit tibi in matrem, et tu eris ei in filium.”

[24] Bernard of Clairvaux, Song of Songs Sermon, in Cantica Canticorum, Vol 183, 23.2 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1969), p.27. The Latin reads, “Discite subditorum matres vos esse debere, non dominos; studete magis amari, quam metui: et si interdum severitate opus est, paterna sit, non tyrannica. Matres fovendo, patres vos corripiendo exhibeatis. Mansuescite, ponite feritatem; suspendite verbera, producite ubera; pectora lacte pinguescant, non typho turgeant.”

[25] Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body, p. 254.

[26] Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body, p.31: referencing Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III, 1, 183-206.