Disruptive Brides and (un)Manly Eunuchs: Reading the Bible as genderqueer to reimagine inclusive faith

“When Christians re-emphasise the ‘feminine’ and gender-fluid images and people which have always been present in the Christian story, it simultaneously creates room for expansive, flexible understandings of gender and Christian identity, as well as pathways towards an inclusive church…”

Rosie Clare Shorter and Steff Fenton
Western Sydney University and University of Divinity 



Rosie Clare Shorter ([email protected]) is a PhD candidate in the Religion and Society Research cluster at Western Sydney University. She is currently writing about gender, sexuality and evangelism in the Sydney Anglican Diocese. She has an M Res and BCA from Macquarie University.

Steff Fenton ([email protected]) is co-pastor at New City Church and Chair of Equal Voices Sydney, a network that connects and equips LGBTIQA+ people and allies across the Church. They are currently completing a Master of Divinity at the University of Divinity, writing about masculinity, male entitlement, and gender-expansiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.


It is often assumed that one cannot be both Christian and queer, or Christian and feminist, yet the lived experience of many individuals complicates this assumption (Jakobsen 2005; Wilcox 2003, 2018). The construction of competing religious, gendered and sexual identities is unhelpful, and instead, more expansive models are needed. In this paper, we draw on Sedgwick’s (2003) model of reparative reading, to consider both our own reading practises, and those of parishioners in the Sydney Anglican Diocese who are (re)reading their religious texts, in order to rethink the limits and future of gender and sexuality within Christianity. We contend that when Christians re-emphasise the ‘feminine’ and gender-fluid images and people which have always been present in the Christian story, it simultaneously creates room for expansive, flexible understandings of gender and Christian identity, as well as pathways towards an inclusive church.



Christianity, sexuality, gender, reparative reading


Steff’s Story

I remember the day I came out as gay to my church minister. After years of hiding in shame, praying I would change, I needed to share my truth. Until that day I felt like I lived a double life. Just as I hid my sexuality, I also hid from harmful teachings I heard at church which suggested that queer people were degrading our Christian faith. I heard this during the Australian same-sex marriage plebiscite when people said, ‘it’s ok to vote no,’ in sermons which mocked resources about gender & sexual diversity, and in the words of my Archbishop who told advocates for same-sex marriage to ‘please leave’ the church (Davies 2019, 11).

As I sat down that day and told my minister I had fallen in love with a girl, it was like someone pulling a rug out from underneath me. The rug encompassed the community I belonged to, my family, the people I drew encouragement, joy and meaning from, and my identity as someone who served and led my church. I received an email which read ‘we have had to move fast on this, Steff. We have made arrangements so you will no longer be leading at church. Please let us know when things change, we are praying for you.’ Everything that I felt most passionate about and everything which energized me was ripped out from underneath me in one very quick moment.


Steff’s experience reflects a commonplace assumption, in both conservative evangelical churches and across academic humanities departments, that one cannot be both Christian and queer, or even Christian and feminist. Living, worshipping and researching in the Sydney Anglican Diocese, we have both experienced this assumption reflected in the preaching and publications of diocesan leadership [1]. For instance, in a Sydney Diocesan Doctrine Commission paper A Theology of Gender and Gender Identity, Mark Thompson (2017) emphatically states that the Bible is ‘unambiguous’ in its condemnation of homosexuality. He contends that, ‘The Bible is also unambiguous in its condemnation of a number of behaviours that best fall under the rubric of “gender bending”’ (5). Prominent Sydney Anglican author Claire Smith (2012, 12) depicts feminism as a ‘dust’ which prevents readers from understanding the Bible. Similarly, American evangelical author, Mary Kassian suggests that, ‘feminism is but one of Satan’s many beguiling lies’ (2005, 278). On the other side of the supposed religion/queer binary, Jack Halberstam (2012, 28) asserts that ‘when it comes to gender norms and sexual mores, religion really is the root of all evil.’ Halberstam’s diagnosis is that ‘religion is a no-no and God has got to go-go’ (2012, 28). This is understandable, but also unhelpful for a queer or feminist person who is also religious, and who wants to live authentically and be recognised by others. Their existence – our existence – complicates a tidy dualism which aligns Christian, conservative and heterosexual on one side, and secular, progressive and queer on the other (Jakobsen 2005; Wilcox 2012). Yet, pushing past this dichotomy proves difficult. Sociologists Sarah-Jane Page and Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip (2021, 4) write that:

one of the most common responses … when explaining the challenges some of our religious participants have in maintaining a sexual and religious identity concurrently, is “Well, why don’t they just leave their religious tradition?” This secularist imperative assumes religious identity is an easily-discarded choice, with the individual free to remove the ‘chains’ of religion with relative ease, thereby retaining their sexual identity which is understood as core to their identity. 

We agree with Page and Yip (2021, 4) when they suggest that like any identity category, religious identity is a core part of subject formation. We know, that leaving a faith community isn’t always tenable We also know, from lived experience and the existing research, that the Bible can be weaponised against women and gender and sexually diverse people (Jones, Brown et al 2018; Paynter 2020; Powell & Pepper 2021). Additionally, the Bible can be a resource for healing (Rambo 2020, Powell & Pepper 2021), and several international studies show that feminist and queer Christians do still read the bible, often negotiating gaps and conflicts between official church teaching and their own lived religious, gendered and sexual experiences, with some still turning to the Bible when they no longer attend church (e.g., Yip 2002; Gross & Yip 2010; Llewellyn 2017). Our question, for those who choose to stay in their Sydney churches, is: how can we read the Bible as genderqueer to reimagine a safe and inclusive faith?

We answer this by offering an example of a genderqueer reading of the bible and we do so by engaging in a form of reparative reading (Sedgwick 2003). Sedgwick places a reparative reading position as an alternative to paranoid reading. For Sedgwick, paranoid readings highlight or expose a problem, hurt or harm, but they do not necessarily open a reader to find ways of healing, repairing and living. Because paranoid reading positions are (often rightfully) fearful of harm and ‘terrible surprises,’ they can be closed to good surprises, to new possibilities and ways of being (Sedgwick 2003, p.146). According to Sedgwick, a reparative reading can provide the tools for living well, as it opens a person to the possibility of new surprises, allowing them to draw ‘sustenance from the objects of a culture – even a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them’ (Sedgwick 2003,150-151). 

Reparative reading, allows us – a queer pastor doing theology and a Christian woman doing feminist research – to return to our religious text, and find sustenance, not harm.  First, we reflect on Steff’s thesis on Eunuchs in the Gospel of Matthew. Then, we consider interview data gathered during the course of Rosie’s PhD fieldwork [2]. We focus on a (very) small selection of responses in which participants spoke about the image of the church as a bride.  We present this as a step towards expansive and inclusive ways of understanding and doing gendered, sexual and religious identity. 


The story of Matthew 19:3-11 depicts a group of religious male elites asking Jesus if they can divorce their wives for any reason. In response, Jesus rebukes them saying, ‘there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can’ (Matthew 19:12). The major exegetical tradition of Matthew 19:12 has interpreted the eunuch as a model of celibacy. That is, eunuchs refrain from sex, marriage, and procreation. This interpretation has been used to tell LGBTIQA+ people (including Steff), not to pursue relationships. The Sydney Anglican Diocese also uses Matthew 19 to reinforce a doctrine of binary gender:

Scripture nowhere presents eunuchs as a third sex… notwithstanding the fact that all kinds of things can and do go wrong with us, both physiologically and psychologically, biblical anthropology leaves no room for the idea that one can actually be a man trapped in a woman’s body or a woman trapped in a man’s body. (Thompson, 2017, 4 & 5).

However, socio-historical and queer scholars, who pay attention to gender, spotlight how these readings reinforce an ancient masculine ideal of domination and control, expressed through sexual renunciation (Kuefler 2001, 266–67). Self-control and self-mastery over passions – which were gendered feminine – was a core way of upholding patriarchal masculinity in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Conway 2008, 24).  We can counter this by attending to the ways Roman patriarchy has influenced the exegetical tradition of Matthew 19:12, including the dismissal of the eunuch’s confronting gendered identity.  

The way ancient discourses gendered eunuchs demonstrates to us how troubling their ambiguous bodies were. Sean D. Burke (2013, 107), says:

In some discourses, eunuchs are gendered as not-men, effeminate males, or half-men/half-males (semiviri/semimares). In others, eunuchs are gendered as girls (puellae), or as beings that have actually changed, or are in the process of changing, from male to female. In still others, eunuchs are gendered as hybrids of male and female, or as neither male nor female. In yet other discourses, eunuchs are defined by the loss of masculinity or manhood, or even the loss of humanity itself.

When ancient descriptions of the eunuch’s gender are compared with contemporary understandings, the eunuch can be understood as gender-expansive. Gender-expansive is a phrase first used in a 2012 study to capture youth who described themselves as neither male nor female (Baum, Brill, et al 2012). It has become commonly used to signal those who embody ‘a wider, more flexible range of gender identity and/or expression than typically associated with the binary gender system’ (Baum, Brill, Brown, et al 2012, 3). 

In a sociohistorical, reparative reading of Matthew 19:12, the eunuch is understood to expand notions of gender beyond societal expectations and portray the possibilities of a life lived outside of patriarchal or binary gender categories. Their gender-expansiveness is characterised in Matthew 19:12 as being for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The “kingdom of heaven” is a repeated literary motif used throughout the gospel to indicate an alternative empire governed by Jesus, which subverts the Roman patriarchy. The eunuch as a gender-expansive exemplar establishes a revolutionary philosophy of dismantling patriarchal gender ideology. An ideology we know leads to increased gender-based violence across the globe and to LGBTIQA+ discrimination.  When Matthew 19 is read reparatively new ways of reading the past are opened, and at the same time futures for Christian communities can become possible. As Sedgwick (2003, 146) writes:

Because the reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.

Reparatively reading the Bible as genderqueer disrupts toxic masculinity in the text, in the exegetical tradition, and potentially in church communities. In Steff’s personal experience of being genderqueer, a reparative reading of Matthew 19 allowed them to heal from shame in which they thought their queerness was a sin and, instead, see their gender-expansiveness as a positive spiritual gift. In their work as Co-Pastor of New City Church, this reading allowed other transgender Christians were able to embrace their full selves in the context of their church community. A reparative, expansive reading confronts readings that pit queerness and Christianity against each other to reimagine an inclusive faith where LGBTIQA+ people are exemplars for the broader faith community.

Disruptive Brides 

The Christian bible depicts the whole faith community both as ‘sons’ of God, and as a greatly loved ‘bride’ [3]. In our own experience of church, we have noticed a move to talk about ‘sons and daughters’ but hardly any mention of being simultaneously a son and a bride. What would happen if we remembered and spoke about this feminine image that has always been present in the bible? 

In early March 2020, Rosie asked an Anglican minister if Christians should talk more about the church as a bride. He replied, ‘We could certainly do this more’.  Then immediately added that for men, there can be ‘something disturbingly feminising about being a Christian.’ To explain this, he referenced John Donne’s poem, ‘Batter My Heart Three Personed God,’ in particular, Donne’s prayer that God ‘ravish’ him. If this is what it is to be feminine in the church, then it is unsurprising that men find a call to be a bride ‘very difficult’. Still, he concluded that ‘you’re always the bride of Christ. We’re all brides. So, get your dress on.’

The next Sunday, attending church as part of her PhD fieldwork, Rosie heard a (different) minister give a sermon which addressed this image. This minister said:

For men and women alike to be considered a bride – maybe it is a little too gender-bending, too confusing, too confronting, and … I wonder if in the 21st century … the label of bride which is a heavily gendered term, even when applied to the whole church, has again, felt a little uncomfortable.

Later, he would tell Rosie:

I actually think one of the most important things for masculinities, of all kinds in our culture, is to acknowledge ourselves as bride …  [the] language dismantles some of the expectations that patriarchal men have for themselves. There is something powerful, that has the potential to undo.

Would churches be safer and more welcoming for women, if men welcomed feminine qualities (whatever they might be) in their own lives? Their own bodies?  Or is the image of a bride too enmeshed with heterosexual marriage, and – shockingly – gendered violence? A paranoid reading might insist that we either shy away from the image of the bride (or indeed any ‘gendered’ biblical image) lest we encounter harm or reinstate the bride (and mother) as the ideal form of Christian subjectivity for those of us who are not men. It might lead us to think that church could be reformed ‘if only [we] could finally, this time, somehow get [our] story truly known’ (Sedgwick 2003, 138). Yet, we have known of the exclusion of women in the Anglican church for some time (Rose 1996) and reports of domestic violence and the weaponization of Christian gendered norms have been slowly surfacing (Aune and Barnes 2018; Baird and Gleeson 2017; Hamence 2018; Truong et al 2020). We now know that Anglican women experience domestic violence at rates which are least the same, if not higher, than their non-Anglican counterparts (Powell and Pepper 2021). We also know that ecclesial discourses and practices which focus on heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles are limiting and harmful to women and to gender and sexually diverse Christians (Jones et al 2018; Truong et al 2020). Paranoid readings which expose this violence are important, and we do not wish to be heard as ignoring this record. Rather, because we have heard it, and because we know that despite such violent legacies women and gender diverse Christians are still seeking to live faithfully and hoping to worship safely, we must do something else with the biblical text. Sedgwick (2003, 146) contends that, “Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organise the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates”. What then do we do with this bride imagery? We approach it reparatively, with an open, curious, and even hopeful energy, allowing it to show us renewed and reformed ways of doing faith, marriage, gender and Christian community. 

Two Anglican women told Rosie that hearing a minister speak about the church as a bride, or dwelling on feminine images in the bible, such as Jesus’ describing himself as a mother hen (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34) helps them grow in their faith. Listen to what one parishioner, Catherine, had to say: 

It gives us a fuller picture of who God is. I think we can quickly assume by the way that people have taught about God in the past, that he is overly masculine …[but] the beauty of seeing God as a mother hen, or the church as a bride, it elevates the beauty of women and femininity and that is actually a part of the image of God, and a part of his who his people are meant to be, as a collective, not just women.

Catherine may be employing strategic essentialism, and celebrating inherent feminine difference, still, she feels valued. For Catherine, re-reading the feminine images in the bible certainly contributed to a fuller, more robust faith. It may be possible that remembering this bride is an image for the whole faith community, not just heterosexual cis-gendered women, leads to a more inclusive, gender-expansive church. We can all be ‘sons’ and we can all get our (wedding) dresses on.

Returning to Steff’s Story

Through my reparative reading, I approached a text traditionally used to suppress me as a queer person and instead came to see the gift of queerness to a world suffering from oppressive gender norms, particularly our church communities. I think back to the rug that was pulled out from underneath me, how it pushed me outside of a version of Christian faith that perpetuated patriarchal gender ideology where women were subjugated, and queer identities feared. Out here, I have come to understand my queerness as a foundation of my faith. My genderqueer identity examples the subversive community of God. 

Concluding Remarks

In church communities where gendered and sexist harms exist, we can counter these harms by reading the bible reparatively and as a genderqueer text. If we do this, we see a God who is at times a mother, a father, a lover, a king and an old woman. We see a church that is gender-expansive, it is simultaneously eunuch and bride and son. While more research is necessary to know how widely genderqueer, reparative reading practices are being adopted in our church communities, we are confident that if we read the Bible as resisting a tidy gender dualism, we can also resist ecclesial and cultural narratives which assume you cannot be Christian and queer or Christian and feminist. Reading the Bible as genderqueer breaks tidy dualisms, and openly, hopefully, reparatively sits in the messiness of lived experience. Engaging in a reparative reading of the Bible indicates that there should be space in church communities for more flexible, inclusive and expansive models of gender and Christian identity. 



[1.] The Sydney Anglican Diocese has been described as ‘famously conservative’ (Maddox 2005, 292).  Parishes and Diocesan leaders usually adhere to a reformed evangelical theology, and are socially conservative, however, there is diversity of belief and practice across the diocese (Giles 2020; Jensen 2012; Shorter 2021). We are aware that churches outside of the Sydney Anglican Diocese engage with various queer, feminist and decolonial theologies. 
[2.] Rosie’s PhD explores gender, sexuality and evangelism in the Sydney Anglican Diocese. Ethics approval for this project was granted by the Western Sydney University Human Ethics Research Committee in June, 2019, approval number: H13296
[3.] See Megan K DeFranza (2015, 284) for a discussion of the ‘mixed metaphors’ of sons and brides which apply to the full congregation, regardless of sex or gender identity

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