St. Clement of Rome: Gender and the Kingdom Come
“Let us wait, therefore, hour by hour for the kingdom of God with love and righteousness, since we do not know the day of God’s appearing. For the Lord himself, when he was asked by someone when his kingdom was going to come, said: ‘When two shall be one, and the outside like the inside, and the male with the female, neither male nor female.’ Now ‘the two are one’ when we speak the truth among ourselves and there is one soul in two bodies without deception. And by ‘the outside like the inside’ he means this: ‘the inside’ signifies the soul, while ‘the outside’ signifies the body. Therefore just as your body is visible, so also let your soul be evident in good works. And by ‘the male with the female, neither male nor female’ he means this: that when a brother sees a sister, he should not think of her as female, nor should she think of him as male. When you do these things, he says, the kingdom of my Father will come.”1
This passage in 2 Clement 12 has both puzzled and charmed me for a few months now. For those of us with canonical New Testaments in hand, it’s interesting that St. Clement quotes a text that found its way into the Gospel of Thomas.2 Whether or not Jesus actually said these words is not a concern of mine in this article, nor am I seeking to rehabilitate the debate about the canonicity of the Gospel of Thomas. What interests me is the fact that St. Clement believed that Jesus said these things; he trusted that the substance of the quote was Christ’s own words and took the time to exegete the text accordingly. In Clement’s interpretation, Jesus tells his followers that the Kingdom will come after certain things have occurred relationally among people within the church (“When you do these things…”). Thus, there are no historical signposts to look for that will hint at the the nearness of the kingdom’s arrival (such as an antichrist, cosmic signs, or wars, etc.). Rather, the kingdom will come after the church has developed its relational ethos. It will only come after members of the Body of Christ mature in the way they interact with other people and with one another. An important aspect of this human maturation is a shift in how gender will be perceived by Jesus’ followers.
The language prior to chapter 12 seeks to cultivate an eschatological imagination within readers, leaving chapter 12 as a signpost pointing toward the kingdom’s imminent arrival. In chapters 10 and 11, we find St. Clement’s exhortation to his readers, directing them to prefer the “promise of the future” over the “pleasure of the present.” This is an important aspect of God’s “will” for them. The reward of living this way is that those who do so “will enter his Kingdom and receive the promises that ear has not heard nor eye seen nor human heart imagined.” In other words, the one who “seeks first the Kingdom of God”3 will receive that Kingdom, a reality which is too grand for description and whose grandeur surpasses the human capacity for intellection.
Building on this foundation, chapter 12 tells us what the church will look like whenever the kingdom of God is close at hand. Chapter 12 begins with a plea to wait for God’s kingdom, alongside the inference that we must resist the seduction of present pleasures. It is not as if St. Clement denies the goodness of the creation and the delight it can bring us when we interact with it wisely. Rather, he warns against short-term pleasure derived from misusing those things which God has gifted to the human creature.
From here, Clement launches into the quote from the Gospel of Thomas. He says the quote is Jesus’ response to the question addressed to him about when the kingdom of God will finally come. Jesus’ response in the quote is this: “When the two shall be one, and the outside like the inside, and the male with the female, neither male nor female.” St. Clement provides an explanation for his readers by breaking the quote down into three sections. In addressing the first part, two people become one whenever they speak truthfully and genuinely with one another. In fact, the relationship is so genuine that it can even be said that one soul abides in two bodies. They are of “one heart and one mind,”4 so to speak. Another way of saying it is that there is no longer anything concealed; no public mask for the Christ follower to hide his secret self behind. The inference here is that the church will mature to the point where it will establish genuine unity of fellowship.
In explaining “the outside like the inside,” St. Clement says that Christ means this: that the inner being of the person needs to shine forth and be visible to the world just as the human body is visible. Thus, there seems to be a conditioning and brightening of the inner person that needs to take place in order for it to shine forth, allowing the soul to be on display through good works. Clement is not rejecting the goodness of the human body. Rather, he would have the inner person be displayed more luminously. The spirit needs to be equally as visible as the material. Again, he would have the authenticity of the inner person be on display, and would have us pursue harmony of body and soul.
Lastly, an explanation is given for “the male with the female, neither male nor female.” Again, St. Clement’s elucidation is quite succinct. He simply says that whenever females and males see one another, they should not think of the other as the opposite sex. In other words, he would have human beings relate to one another in a way that looks past gender differentiation. “When a brother sees a sister, he should not think of her as female, nor should she think of him as male.” It is important to note that he is not saying that humanity will become physically genderless, but that gender will no longer continue to be a primary distinguishing factor in the minds of Christians during the era that prefaces the fullness of the kingdom.
While some may be tempted to argue that St. Clement is talking about nothing more than detachment from lust, I would have to disagree. He is not saying primarily that men and women shouldn’t look upon one another lustfully, although this would certainly be included. Rather, given the theme of union throughout the other parts of the quote (the union of human beings one with another and the union of the human person with herself, body and soul), there is an implied focus on the unity of the sexes. In previous eras the sexes related to one another in accordance with the natural gender binary. On the cusp of the bursting forth of the kingdom of God, however, the way in which the sexes will relate to one another will change. Gender will not make the type of difference that it once did for the church. People will look at the opposite sex differently. In seeing the person, they will not think upon their sex.
This segment of 2 Clement raises vital, and somewhat scandalous, questions. If we aren’t to think of maleness and femaleness, what are we to think of whenever we see people, especially members of the opposite sex? If gender’s significance will lessen greatly during the era that will preface kingdom fulfillment, how would this implicate existing cultural norms? Does Clement’s thought have any bearing on how we can approach issues like women’s ordination, or the role of males and females in the family? Is it still appropriate to think of the male as the “head” of the female if St. Clement envisions a time whenever human beings will no longer think upon the maleness and femaleness of one another? If, in seeing people, we ought not dwell upon their maleness or femaleness, how might this inform the way we hold our debates about the place of LGBTQ persons within our churches and cultural spheres? I certainly do not have the answers for all of these questions, but I am grateful that St. Clement has caused me to to take a step back in order to think about gender from a different angle. While his teaching is a far cry from modern progressive ideologies, this particular passage wouldn’t sit well for many in the church either. He poses a challenge to the way gender tends to be both perceived and discussed by all sorts of people these days.
What is most interesting to me is that St. Clement puts an eschatological spin on the very concept of sexual differentiation, and eschatological maturation is certainly implied all throughout the pericope. In his mind, Jesus teaches us that whenever his followers learn to have genuine fellowship with one another, and when they accomplish a symbiosis of body and soul, and when they transform the way men and women relate to one another, then the kingdom will appear in its fullness. As they pursue the kingdom in these ways, then it will burst forth into the world. As he says in the last line of 12, “When you do these things, he (Jesus) says, the kingdom of my father will come.”
To look at the topic from another Patristic angle, St. Gregory of Nyssa gives the argument in his On the Making of Man that the human being is composed of two parts: the rational and the irrational, or the animalistic and the divine. The irrational side to our nature is something we hold in common with animals. This part of our nature is important to Gregory because we are gendered to show our commonality and connection with irrational created things. We are also gendered for the sake of procreation.5 Yet, this aspect of our being must be submitted to and channeled through the rational/ divine part of us,6 and this divine aspect of our nature mirrors the God who is genderless (“for the distinction of male and female does not exist in the divine and blessed nature.”7). Gregory’s theology has an eschatological element in it; there is path towards perfection that needs to be pursued, and the telos of this path is perfection in the image of God. The irrational-gendered side of us must submit itself to the rational-genderless side if we are to make any progress towards this telos. Thus, as we strive to live in the likeness of the image of God, certain dynamics of gender are transcended in a way. It is not as though we are stripped of gender. Rather, for Gregory, gender simply is not the most noble aspect of the human being. Eschatologically speaking, as we seek to conform ourselves to the image of God (by cultivating the divine part of our nature) we will find that gender matters less than it did whenever we were living in accordance with our animalistic nature. Whereas St. Clement would have human beings refrain from thinking too much of gender in light of the kingdom come, St. Gregory would have us look past gender to the image of God in the person. To use Clement’s words, in seeing a member of the opposite sex, Gregory would have us think of them in terms of the image of God (which, again, is genderless).
These eschatological notions of gender remind me of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s work. She, too, believed that human beings were meant to mature in how they theologize gender. This line of thought is quite evident in Behr-Sigel’s approach to feminist theology. As Sarah Hinlicky observes in reflecting on Behr-Sigel’s thought,“her proposal to this conversation within Orthodoxy is the idea that the gospel itself takes time to do its work. Even while she described herself as ‘patiently impatient,’ she did not assume that the gospel would have fully transformed society within a century of Christ’s resurrection, setting the parameters of possibility forever after. Again and again she used the metaphor of the gospel ‘leaven,’ slowly raising and enlightening ancient pagan societies. In her judgment, it has taken 20 centuries for the gospel’s leaven to permeate relationships between men and women. The secular women’s movement is the long-time-in-process outcome of Gal. 3.28. Therefore, one need not infer either that the church has faithlessly suppressed women’s calls or that God has neglected the cries of women all along. The gospel works in and through history. It takes time.”8
This Gospel “leaven” is one way to think about the practical outworking of Clement’s theology of gender. Paul says in Galatians 3.28 that in the oneness of Christ, “there is no slave or free, Jew or Gentile, female or male.” Just as the kingdom always anticipated the equal inclusion of the Gentiles, and just as all traces of slavery will be abolished in the kingdom, so will all forms of female subordination to males be done away with in God’s kingdom come. The era in which“there is neither…male or female” is not to be dismissed as just some deferred eschatological state that we will passively receive in the New Creation, though. Instead, it is an aspect of Gospel living that we must strive for in the here and now if we want to witness the kingdom’s fruition. For St. Clement, the coming of the kingdom is contingent upon how Christians learn to relate to the opposite sex. “When you do these things, Jesus says, the kingdom of my Father will come.” While many may see the equality of women as a threat to societal and church structures and the traditions they carry, perhaps St. Clement would urge us to look at it differently. Perhaps the fact that women have achieved greater equality in our day than in previous eras means that the kingdom of God is closer to us than we realize. Perhaps things like women’s ordination, equal opportunity, and equal pay are not deviations from tradition as much as they are signs that the kingdom of our Lord is drawing ever closer. Maranatha!
1. Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. 3Rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 153.
2. See The Gospel of Thomas 22. A segment of the quote also comes up in Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata 3.13.92. Clement of Alexandria attributes the origin of the saying to the Gospel of the Egyptians.
3. Matthew 6:33
4. Acts 4:32
5. The passage I am referring to is 16:9 in On the Making of Man. The Translation used:
Schaff, Philip, and Henry Wace. A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church : Second Series. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1979.Holmes, Michael W. 2007. The Apostolic Fathers : Greek Texts and English Translations. 3Rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
6. On the Making of Man, 18:5.
7. On the Making of Man, 22:4
8. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, Woman, Women, and the Priesthood in the Trinitarian Theology of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (T & T Clark Theology. London: Bloomsbury, 2013): 150.