Brownson rightly asserts that the phrase “one flesh” in Genesis 2 is not simply a euphemism for sexual intercourse, but speaks of the “kinship bond”—Brownson’s key phrase here—forged between husband and wife. I agree. Sexual union is the union of two bodies that points to something deeper and greater—the union of two persons, two lives. As Brownson helpfully puts it, “Sexual union is conceived in the Bible as profoundly metaphorical—it points beyond the physical act to the relational connections and intimacy that undergird and surround it” (89). Sex says something, and Brownson rightly asserts that “we cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives. Bodies are not indifferent, and what we do with our bodies is not indifferent” (102).
So far, so good.
But the central focus of this chapter is not sex, but kinship—the lifelong obligations to care for another person and live in a relationship of commitment and care. Thus, in Brownson's view, “one flesh” has little if anything to do with gender complementarity, biological differences of male and female, or procreation; in short, with anything that might suggest that “one flesh” implies that the male-female relationship is exclusively normative. The Bible may largely assume male-female marriages, but there's nothing in the concept of "one flesh" that logically entails it.
However, at a certain point, Brownson recognizes that focusing on a committed kinship bond alone can’t be enough to define marriage. If this were the case, Ruth and Noami’s relationship would certainly qualify, as well as celibate spiritual friendship relationships. If “a committed kinship bond” = “one flesh,” then a man could have a “one flesh” relationship with his sister, grandma, son, or good friend. But clearly Brownson needs and wants “marriage” and “one flesh” to be more specific than a general committed kinship bond. So while he begins the chapter by rightly wanting to avoid “oversexualizing” or “overgenitalizing” the term “one flesh,” he also acknowledges that one-flesh relationships must be connected to sex and genitals (otherwise, we’re back to questioning why I don't have a legitimate one-flesh relationship with my grandma and celibate friends). And this is where things get interesting and, in my reading of Brownson, a bit convoluted.
In order to emphasize the sexual nature of the “one flesh” relationship, Brownson makes recourse to 1 Corinthians 6:16 and Paul’s language of “one flesh” to refer to a man having sex with a female prostitute (107). Paul’s use of “one flesh” here is clearly and overtly referring to sexual intercourse. So, yes, says Brownson, “one flesh” clearly has to do with sex and genitals, not just a committed kinship bond.
But, Brownson asks, why doesn’t Scripture refer to same-sex relationships as “one flesh” relationships? Well, he says, same-sex relationships were “marked by differences in social rank and status, and they were always described as episodic rather than permanent” (107). Furthermore, same-sex relationships were often unilateral and one-sided, with one partner being dominant and the subordinate partner serving the other’s sexual needs. For the sake of summary, note the characteristics again:
- Difference in social rank and status
- Unilateral and one-sided
I can understand why Brownson makes this strategic move. In this chapter, he’s simply trying to establish that “one flesh” relationships might include same-sex relationships. He imagines an objector saying something like “But the Bible never refers to these relationships—including their sexual component—as ‘one flesh’ relationships!” So Brownson responds in two steps: first, one-flesh relationships are more than just sexual and second, that same-sex relationships in Bible times didn't live up to what the Bible means by "one flesh." To this second point, I imagine him saying something like, “Well, these relationships were abusive in Bible times, so that helps us see why the Bible would never use the term ‘one flesh’ to talk about one-sided, episodic, power- and status-driven relationships!”
Except that’s what Paul just did. In 1 Corinthians 6, the very passage to which Brownson has just appealed earlier in the very same paragraph (107-108). Prostitution clearly involved these characteristics:
- Difference in social rank and status
- Unilateral and one-sided
What’s the point here? Precisely this: less-than-ideal sexual relationships are not a barrier to biblical authors referring to sexual relationships as “one flesh” relationships. This being the case, Brownson’s main response to the objector noted above loses its force. In the Bible, the concept of "one flesh" is a prescriptive concept--it shows us what should be. The one-flesh sexual union should take place only within the context of the one-flesh lifelong kinship bond. But Paul can also use it as a descriptive concept--simply to describe the nature of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. That objective act still says something (as Brownson agrees) and you shouldn't say with your body what you aren't saying with your whole life. But Brownson's argument depends on treating "one flesh" as a purely prescriptive concept; if it can work merely descriptively to talk about the act of sexual union, regardless of the other factors in play, his argument breaks down.
So, if Brownson’s explanation doesn’t hold up, why don’t the biblical authors refer to same-sex relationships as “one flesh” relationships? One possibility is that two people of the same sex can't actually be "one flesh" in the most basic physical sense. In other words, the biological complementarity of male and female is actually necessary to the concept of "one flesh," and thus to marriage. One can certainly be committed in a life-long kinship bond with someone of the same sex (friendship), but it can't be the specific form of life-long kinship bond that involves sex and genitals.
The historic Christian view of marriage would say something like this: the one-flesh marriage relationship entails the union of a woman and man. It unites their bodies, emotions, lives, selves, and souls. But this communion of persons includes the one-flesh sexual union that requires male-female difference: in the ‘marital act,’ their love can literally become personified in the one flesh of the child produced as a result of their life and love. In other words, the metaphorical meaning of sexual union--the union of two lives, not just two bodies--is built on the literal sexual union of male and female (Brownson's view would want to keep the metaphorical meaning while jettisoning the literal meaning; I want to say that they're distinct but inseparable). The one-flesh sexual union is a sign and seal of the whole-life one-flesh union of the couple, which brings forth, with God’s help, the one flesh of the child. The term ‘one flesh’ is thus a theological concept rich in meaning and one that has a view toward the unitive meaning of sexual union—that it unites husband and wife not just as bodies but as persons—but to the procreative meaning—it is fruitful and participates in the mystery of life.
And here is where Brownson has to avoid or erase the particularities of male-female difference as somehow inherent to the meaning of ‘one flesh.’ He alludes to the fact that our bodies say something and that sexual intercourse says something, but he doesn’t explain what different bodies say. In other words, do two male bodies or two female bodies involved in sexual activity ‘say’ the same thing as a male body and female body involved in sexual union? He does say this: "People are not to say with their bodies what they cannot or will not say with the whole of their lives" (109). He doesn't seem to consider this statement from a different angle: people may be able to say something with the whole of their lives that they cannot say (or should not attempt to say) with their bodies, i.e., sexually. I have life-long, committed kinship bonds with numerous people, but there's only one person with whom it's legitimate for me to have a specifically sexual relationship. Historically, part of the reason that same-sex couples were not treated as married was because it’s literally impossible for them to engage in the ‘marital act,’ the act of sexual union that actually says, with our bodies, that we give ourselves fully, faithfully, freely, and fruitfully to one another. Is this exclusionary and prejudicial? It may be, but it seems as though we here simply come up against the scandal of particularity, the limits of our bodies, and the limits of the givenness of creation (limits and givenness that modernity hates). But for his argument to work, Brownson would have to disagree; for him, male and female bodies may not be identical but they must be fundamentally interchangeable to the meaning of sex, which means in part that children have nothing to do with the meaning of sexual union. Said differently, the historic view affirms that marriage is the peculiar kind of kinship bond aimed at least partially (but essentially) at creating more kin; Brownson’s revisionist position has to say that marriage as kinship bond has nothing to do with procreation, i.e., producing more kin. But that’s another chapter in his book and a post for another time.