Presbyterian Church (USA) Moderator Heath Rada, in a recent column, told of questions he receives about the 2014 General Assembly votes to redefine Christian marriage to include same-sex couples. Rada cited one question he heard many times: “How do you get away with changing the wording of the Bible when it comes to marriage, which clearly states that marriage is between a man and a woman, to saying something else?” He recounted that one woman had written him asking “why the committee dealing with same-gender marriage at General Assembly did not pray nor read the Bible.”
Rada reassured the woman, and his readers, that the committee had “prayed and read the Bible with great care.” The issue, as the moderator explained it, was that there were different interpretations of the Bible. Some Presbyterians still believe that “same-gender marriage is a sin,” while others have come to the conviction “that a committed marriage between two adults who love each other is consistent with their understanding of God’s word.”
Rada cautioned, “I am not trying to say that we can just sit back and interpret the Word of God in any manner that feels good to us.” But he wanted his audience to “[r]emember that the way we read and understand the Bible has been evolving throughout Christian history.”
The moderator pointed to the example of divorce. Remarking that there are divorced people in the church, the moderator said, “[W]e don’t believe that because it says in the Bible they should be taken out on the street and stoned to death, that is what God wants us to do.” He urged PCUSA members to “keep the dialogue going” about marriage and “seek to broaden our understanding of the faith.”
“It is not my job as Moderator of the denomination to defend the actions of the church,” Rada wrote in his column. “It IS, however, my job to make sure that the work of the General Assembly is correctly interpreted.” So how well did Rada interpret the Detroit assembly’s actions to redefine Christian marriage from “a man and a woman” to any “two people”? Not so well. Let’s look more closely at his assertions in this column.
“I assured her that they [commissioners] prayed and read the Bible with great care.” It is true that commissioners in every General Assembly committee had daily devotional times when they read passages of Scripture, prayed, and sang hymns together. But neither the Marriage Issues Committee nor the assembly as a whole took the time to study key biblical passages on which church teaching on marriage has been based—e.g., Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19/Mark 10, 1 Corinthians 6-7, and Ephesians 5.
Supporters of same-sex marriage did not put forth comprehensive new interpretations of these passages. Their appeals in debate were light on Scripture and heavy on other arguments: that marriage is all about people loving and supporting one another and has nothing to do with the sex of the spouses; that there is a “right to marry whoever one wishes”; that ministers can claim “pastoral discretion” to marry whichever couples they choose; that it is “discrimination” to treat the lifelong union of man and woman as different from all other relationships; that persons in same-sex relationships are “denied pastoral care” if they aren’t able to marry in church; that the church needs to catch up with public opinion and state laws in accepting same-sex marriage. These were the arguments that carried the day at the Detroit assembly.
“Some Presbyterians believe same-gender marriage is a sin. Others believe that a committed marriage between two adults who love each other is consistent with their understanding of God’s word.” Rada presents the alternatives as two opinions held by individuals, of equal standing and validity. But the two do not have equal standing in the PCUSA or the Christian tradition.
The teaching that “Christian marriage is an institution ordained by our Lord Jesus Christ, established and sanctified for the happiness and welfare of mankind, into which spiritual and physical union one man and one woman enter” (Westminster Confession, 6.131) is expressed repeatedly and consistently in the PCUSA Book of Confessions. The Book of Order, unless and until it is amended by vote of the presbyteries, still states, “For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship” (W-4.9001).
This has been the teaching of every major branch of the Christian faith worldwide for the past 2,000 years. It also remains, officially, the teaching of the PCUSA. By contrast, the view that marriage can unite any “two adults who love each other” is an opinion held by some U.S. Presbyterians in the early 21st century.
The moderator misconstrues the position of marriage traditionalists. It is not that they “believe same-gender marriage is a sin”; rather, they believe it is an impossibility. Two members of the same sex can have a deep friendship; however, they do not fit the requirements for marriage as God established it.
Rada fails to mention that traditionalist Presbyterians, following the Book of Confessions and Book of Order, base their position on Scriptures such as those cited above. It is not just that they feel that their view of marriage is generally “consistent with their understanding of God’s word,” as is the case with their opponents; marriage traditionalists go further in affirming that man-woman marriage is specifically mandated in the Bible and same-sex relations are specifically forbidden. This is another sharp contrast between the two positions.
“Remember that the way we read and understand the Bible has been evolving throughout Christian history.” It is certainly true that interpretations of the Bible have changed over the years. Scholars propose new readings all the time. People in the pews come to believe all sorts of things about the Bible. Some of these new interpretations stand the test of time; most do not.
By casting change as “evolution,” Rada smuggles in an implicit assumption: that more recent opinions are more likely to be true because they represent a higher stage of theological development. This assumption obviously gives the advantage to proponents of same-sex marriage, since their views have arisen more recently.
“Chronological snobbery” is a name some have attached to this progressive vision of history as an ever upward “evolution.” In Scripture we do sometimes see fresh or clearer revelation of God’s will. Jeremiah prophesies, “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when … I will put my law within them [Israel], and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:31-33). The New Testament teaches that this promise is fulfilled in the Holy Spirit sent out by Christ.
Yet we also see another scenario in the Old and New Testaments: God gives a clear revelation at one time—on Mount Sinai, in the life of Jesus—but later generations forget God’s revelation and choose instead to “do what is right in their own eyes.” And they suffer greatly, as individuals and as a people, because they have departed from God’s truth. Is what we are seeing in the PCUSA today a positive “evolution,” or is it this latter scenario?
“Yet we don’t believe that because it says in the Bible they [divorced people] should be taken out on the street and stoned to death, that is what God wants us to do.” Where in the Bible does Rada find this purported commandment? Under Old Testament law, it is true, adulterers were to be stoned (Leviticus 20:10). But divorce was freely available and without penalty (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). On the other hand, in the New Testament, Jesus warns his followers that “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). But the same Jesus steps in to halt the stoning of a woman caught in adultery, challenging the crowd: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
In truth, revising the church’s understanding of marriage is a much more radical step than any previous shifts regarding divorce, slavery, or other issues offered as comparisons. In some of these cases, behaviors that were previously regarded as morally questionable were measured against a higher standard and found to be unacceptable. In other cases, behaviors that had been strictly prohibited were reassessed as permissible (but not encouraged) in limited circumstances.
But the proponents of same-sex marriage would have the church undertake a 180-degree reversal: A behavior (same-sex relations) that is condemned whenever it is mentioned in Scripture would become something that the church would celebrate and bless as a gift of God. This is the radical nature of the decisions made in Detroit, which the moderator failed to convey in his column. This kind of reversal goes far beyond just “broadening our understanding of the faith.”