What the Gospel Says About Gender-Affirming Care in Matthew 19:12

For there are eunuchs who were born that way [cisgender], and some eunuchs have been made eunuchs by others [sexually assigned] — and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs [transgender] for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it. (Matthew 19:12)

Introduction: Neither male nor female

Gender-affirming care is a tenuous topic of discussion for Christians. The Gospel according to Matthew offers only a glimpse of the instruction Jesus contributed to this debate.

David Hester tells us, “The eunuch of Matthew 19:12 has long been viewed as a symbol of chastity and celibacy,” suggesting that by “eunuch,” Matthew meant “aromantic.” Traditional Bible commentaries insist that Matthew 19:12 supplies a doctrinal maxim about hetero-celibacy, but these commentaries are written by heterosexist theologians who base their interpretations on the commonly accepted notion that Jesus never married.

However, Francis J. Moloney warns that “We must be extremely careful not to take as proven something which remains one of two possibilities,” pointing out “that there appears to be no New Testament evidence either for or against the celibacy of Jesus.”

A social-scientific study of Matthew 19:12 may offer alternative considerations regarding how the Greco-Roman world viewed the gender spectrum during the 1st century A.D. It is my assertion here that Matthew 19:12 offers a counter-cultural perspective on the role of gender in God’s kingdom that will stimulate new dialogue regarding post-genderism within the Church that supports a non-heterosexist theology for gender-affirming care.

Was Jesus married?

Elizabeth Fleischer informs us that “as Christianity has developed, Jesus’s chastity has become increasingly important.” She writes: “The importance of Jesus’s virginal state has become so important that many find any suggestion to the contrary offensive. But without historical accounts definitively written by a contemporary, nothing about Jesus can be stated with certainty,” remarking further that “any attempt to separate the historical Jesus of Nazareth from the mythical Jesus Christ is always met with skepticism.” Nevertheless, an attempt must be made if an accurate portrayal of his embodied sexuality is to be achieved.

Because the canonical gospels are silent about Jesus’s life from the time his family sojourns to Egypt at age twelve (Matthew 2:14) and the moment he encounters John the Baptist at age 30 (Matthew 3:13), Bible readers have no data concerning Jesus’s “missing” 18 years on which to rely other than extracanonical sources, such as Levi Dowling’s Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ, or The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It would probably prove helpful to consult the cultural habits of Jewish males at the time Jesus traveled abroad and what circumstantial evidence is found in the gospels reflecting his acquaintance with the “birds and bees.”

Even though Jesus does not appear with a spouse at his side when John baptizes him, Fleischer affirms “her absence does not mean that she did not exist.” She further states: “With little to no substantial evidence to the contrary, the most logical conclusion is that Jesus had a normal childhood and adolescence. If this was the case, he was almost definitely married.”

“It would have been extraordinarily odd and rare”, says Fleischer, “for a Jewish peasant at the time to remain unmarried.” She concludes: “The fact that Jesus does not appear on the scene with a wife does not automatically mean that he was not married.” Jesus preaching a doctrine of absolute celibacy would have been seen as highly unusual, if not utterly shocking, to all manner of Jewry.

Later New Testament teachings suggest the same. Ogden Kraut reminds us that “celibacy, among other things, was to Paul a ‘doctrine of devils,’ ” to wit:

Now the spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils… forbidding to marry. (1 Timothy 4:1-3)

Celibacy does not appear to be an accepted Christian doctrine during the early centuries of the Church. Therefore, Matthew 19:12 must convey a different message.

A eunuch by any other name

Traditional scholarship imposes the extraneous idea that the word “eunuch” in Matthew 19:12 is being used in a metaphorical sense in context with the discourse about divorce mentioned earlier in the chapter. How the word “eunuch” was understood in the world behind the text compared to how it is understood by the world in front of the text qualifies as what Crystal L. Downing refers to as a “chronotope,” to wit: “By ‘chronotope,’ Bakhtin means the time and place where an embodied self is located.” To a teenage gallus navigating the Greco-Roman world of the first century, the embodiment of the “eunuch” is certainly a distinct chronotope in comparison to how a 19th-century theologian might locate him.

Gallus: A gallus (pl. galli) was a cross-dressing eunuch priest of the Phrygian goddess Cybele and her consort Attis, whose worship was incorporated into Roman imperial practices.

David Turner suggests that the eunuch is used as a metaphor for “those who choose… sexual abstinence because of their kingdom commitment.” Grant Osborne agrees that “Christ is referring to followers who are open to the call of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom.” These two interpretations imply that Jesus is suggesting a non-hetero-conforming lifestyle is preferable to marriage. This would have been blasphemous to Jews.

The Greek word εὐνοῦχοι (eunouchoi) means literally “bed-keeper” or “chamberlain,” and is an office held by castrated males. The Greek word for abstinence is ἀπέχομαι (apechomai) and does not appear in Matthew 19. Matthew 19:12 is not a continuation of the discussion on divorce, but instead a pivoting point in the dialogue about human sexuality. The misjudgment of traditional scholars who conspire to make sense of Matthew 19:12 is that they endeavor to “disembody” the eunuch by making a metaphor of him, dehumanizing his embodied presence in scripture even more so. This is an act of theological violence.

Commentators like Turner and Osborne define “eunuch” only in contrast with a heterosexual marriage pool in which eunuchs were restricted from participating. (Deuteronomy 23:1) Although eunuchs were allowed to marry and adopt children on occasion, it would not have been to a female whose transactional value would bring her eager father or warden both a dowry and prospective heirs; it would have been to another eunuch who together might adopt an orphaned eunuch. Exploring these possibilities, we may have stumbled upon a classical justification for same-sex unions.

144,000: A generational re-signing

“In Byzantium,” Emmanouil Magiorkinis instructs us, “the eunuchs represented the holy powers… and therefore held a social standing well above that of eunuchs in eastern countries. Eunuchs represented “angels on earth,” at a symbolic “God’s court;” thus, the eunuch was regarded as a divine embodiment in the Western church.

In the Revelation of John, it is written:

These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the first fruits unto God and to the Lamb. (Revelation 14:4)

Their number is “… an hundred forty and four thousand.” (Revelation 14:1) Greek textual analysis shows the word for “redeemed” in verse 4 as ἠγοράσθησαν (ēgorasthēsan), meaning one who has been “purchased” from another, or one who has been “emancipated” from a condition of slavery and occurs in the New Testament only once, in this context. It is clear, that John is describing individuals who remained outside the common marriage pool, “virgins” who were “not defiled with women,” and who are redeemed (ēgorasthēsan) from servitude. One wonders if Domitian’s Lex Cornelia prohibiting castration was a fulfillment of John’s vision.

Nevertheless, this passage elevates the station of eunuchs in the Kingdom of Heaven. The role given to these non-gender-conforming souls includes composing a “new song” (Revelation 14:3), “which no man could learn,” and are described as persons in whose mouth “was found no guile,” who are “without fault.” (Revelation 14:5) This re-signing of the eunuch is a stark contrast from how Deuteronomistic narrators scornfully depicted the occupants of Sodom and Gomorrah. The heterosexist theology of a gender binary, religiously enforced to marginalize the social victims of hegemony and sexual domination, portends an irreconcilable social tension.

David Leong, remarking on Georges Florovsky’s reflections about the Primitive church, writes, “This peculiar fellowship of people who radically reshaped the social world around them was deeply embedded in the cultures, lands, and communities of their local geographies. Even as they affirmed their heavenly citizenship [Philippians 3:20], they did so as dual citizens in the Roman world.” Understanding how the Christian eunuch, like the Ethiopian apostle (Acts 8:27), reshaped his social environment is a matter of cultural literacy rather than theology. In Matthew 19:12, Jesus is not just re-signing how Christ-followers must see eunuchs, but how eunuchs must see themselves.

Gender affirmation in the context of Matthew 19:12 becomes a vehicle of social transcendence that urges the eunuch to leap beyond the boundaries of dogma and doctrine to inspire new sexual paradigms wherein a gender-affirming individual may find “It is better… to lose one part of [the] body than for [the] whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29). To those who suffer from gender dysphoria, gender dysphoria without gender-affirming care is hell; thus, gender-affirming care becomes the pathway to their embodied salvation.

Ministry application

The Reformation Project, whose mission is “to advance LGBTQ inclusion in the church,” deems this topic important because “non-affirming beliefs about same-sex relationships and transgender people contribute to serious harm in LGBTQ people’s lives.” Post- gendered interpretations of the biblical text must become part of the Christian dialogic to be authentic in its mission to bring “good news” to LGBTQIA+ people, whom I identify as “ultra- gendered.” Heterosexists making decisions for non-heterosexuals have only resulted in social gridlock, one that nurtures friction rather than freedom.

Although there have been many Mormon LGBTQIA+ advocates throughout LDS history, our Family Proclamation remains a barrier to gender-affirming communication. It reads: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” The LDS Church endorses a binary spectrum defined by patriarchal structuralism promoting order. However, as bioengineering and human cloning are perfected, the anthropological chain will no longer depend on gender complementarity to evolve. Humans will be free to express their embodied identities without encumbrances, to wit:

There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. (1 Corinthians 15:40)

Not knowing how his words would one day manifest epigenetically, Paul may have unwittingly predicted a new era in quantum biology that scientists themselves have yet to foresee.

Effective communication surrounding this topic can begin with the use of gender- affirming pronouns. Jae Sevelius states that the term “gender affirmation” is the process by which individuals affirm their gender through social, legal, and medical pathways. We learn further that “Gender affirmation… is affirmed through social interaction.” Gender affirmation does not involve at-risk behavior of any kind. Sevelius asserts, “gender affirmation is critical to the health and well-being of… gender diverse people.” because disaffirming experiences can discourage care seekers from acquiring the proper healthcare.

Gender-affirming care is as ancient as the galli themselves, who upon castration would have required urgent medical attention to survive. If urgent gender-affirming care was offered to eunuchs in earlier centuries, why should the church today discourage it care for the gender-dysphoric as a pathway to their individual liberation? With his words “the one who can accept this should accept it,” Jesus encourages gender autonomy. Self-expression is a choice, one that belongs to the care-seeker, not the caregiver. What are the lyrics to this new song “which no man could learn” if not an anthem whose chorus is: “Celestial, ancient, life-supporting maid, fanatic Goddess, give thy suppliant aid”?

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