Why is our prime minister so poor on matters of gender and sexuality? Why won’t he clearly state that no institution in Australia, including schools, should be able to discriminate against children on the basis of their sexuality? Why won’t he condemn gay conversion therapy, despite widespread agreement within the medical community that it has no therapeutic value and is likely to harm?
This week, Morrison has hidden behind the phrase “it’s existing law” to defend religious schools’ right to discriminate against LGBT+ students.
He has previously stated that he is open to “preventative legislation” to protect religious freedoms and has talked about sending his daughters to an independent Christian school because he doesn’t want the values of the Safe Schools program imposed on them.
Some colleagues even claim Morrison has a “blind spot” when it comes to debate about religious freedom.
As a Pentecostal Christian, Morrison’s faith has already received much commentary. Yet, Pentecostalism alone does not explain Morrison’s views on gender and sexuality.
The Pentecostal movement was once at the vanguard of Christianity for its inclusion of women (and black) preachers, precisely because of its belief that the Holy Spirit endows gifts on whomever she chooses, not on the basis of gender, race, education, or any other criteria. Hence, it is not unusual to see a woman preaching in a Pentecostal church.
The key issue, as always, is how the Pentecostal church understands and interprets the Bible (hermeneutics). On this matter, the Pentecostal church sits within a wider strand of Christianity that reads the Bible in a “plain sense” or rather literalistic way. That is, it doesn’t have a robust scholarly tradition when it comes to the interpretation of this complex, ancient text, which can lead to pretty simplistic interpretation and a misunderstanding about the nature of biblical knowledge and truth.
Take, for example, the very first chapter of the Bible, which is often a basis for Christian conceptions of gender. Genesis 1 famously describes six “days” of creation and one day of divine rest.
Scholars agree that it is a form of Hebrew poetry that ultimately makes Sabbath/Shabbat the pinnacle of creation. The days are not literal 24 hour periods, but rather reflect the weekly pattern to life that undergirds Jewish life and laws about Shabbat. It was never intended to be a description of the science nor mechanics of creation. Instead, Genesis 1 offers a deep theological statement about the goodness of creation and God’s gift to that creation in mandating and blessing rest (for humans, animals, and land).
Yet, many Christians have and do interpret Genesis 1 in a more literalistic way: as actual action over six days that decrees the way God intended things to be or, worse still, as a scientific description of creation. So when they read “so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” they interpret it to mean God intended only two genders. It seems pretty straightforward, right?
Well, no. Genesis 1 is full of poetic binaries: light and dark, day and night, land and sea, male and female. Just because we have light and dark does not mean we don’t have dusk and dawn. Just because we have land and sea does not mean we do not have beaches and tidal plains. These are not absolute categories, but rather a shorthand for the breadth of creation.
By extension, then, just because humans are created male and female, does not mean we don’t have diverse gender expressions that lie somewhere in between, nor that these diversities are not also part of the creation God declared to be good.
The Horizon church that Scott Morrison attends has no statement about gender or sexuality on its website. It is affiliated with the Australian Christian Churches, which also does not have an explicit statement on gender or sexuality. But it does say this about the Bible:
We believe that the Bible is God’s Word. It is accurate, authoritative and applicable to our every day lives.
Another statement claims the Bible is “infallible”. Words such as “accurate” and “infallible” commonly denote a worldview that considers the Bible to be the supreme authority on all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, putting it in fundamental conflict with science. It is a misunderstanding of what the Bible claims to be and the complex diversity of perspectives and genres therein.
The problem is, the Bible is neither accurate nor infallible on several measures. It is inconsistent, repeatedly historically inaccurate, and a text that reflects the cultural assumptions of its time (slavery is assumed, for example).
If you were to keep reading Genesis, you’d discover that Genesis 2 also describes creation, but this time it occurs in the opposite order (a human first) out of a dry dusty place (not watery chaos). Which is true? It can’t be both if “accuracy” means something measured in literal, factual, or scientific terms.
Herein lies the problem. Beliefs about biblical “accuracy” are faith claims and are best framed in terms of theological truths about God. Taken in this light, biblical stories about gender and sexuality are not scientific evidence that sets Christianity against current medical and scientific knowledge, but rather ways that ancient believers expressed their understanding of God, life, and one another.
Morrison’s conservatism about gender and sexuality implies a worldview shaped by a conservative approach to the Bible where “biblical truth” is viewed as at odds with medical and scientific knowledge.
The dichotomy does not need to be there. One can hold belief in biblical authority and give credence to scientific knowledge on matters of gender, sexuality, or even climate change if one understands what the Bible does and does not claim to do. It is simply a matter of better interpretation.
Reverend Dr Robyn Whitaker is a biblical scholar and historian with a particular interest in the contemporary use (and misuse) of the Bible in debates about sexuality, gender and ethics. Robyn has research expertise in apocalypticism and the related topics of end of the world speculation, martyrdom, and images of evil. Robyn is published in the areas of the visual culture of the Graeco-Roman world, its impact on biblical rhetoric, New Testament, and Judeo-Christian apocalyptic literature.