When the 2012 Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly found itself unable to decide on same-sex marriage, it asked the denomination to “enter into a season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage.” The PCUSA Office of Theology and Worship has now released materials for congregations to conduct that study. The introduction to the six-week study of “Christian Marriage in the Presbyterian Church (USA)” explains:
This is a study of what the Presbyterian Church (USA) has said on Christian marriage. The issue before the PCUSA is whether to say something new about marriage, specifically concerning same-gender couples. This study is to equip the PCUSA for this discussion by giving it a firm foundation in the church’s tradition on marriage.
The office expresses the hope that participants in the study will gain “a clearer view of God’s good will for us in marriage; … a better sense of one another’s views; and a better way forward for the sake of Christ’s church.”
All of these goals are commendable. Presbyterians do need to undertake some “serious study and discernment” regarding marriage. Before we decide whether to redefine marriage, we first should understand the definition we now have. For Reformed Christians, the place to start is the Scriptures, God’s authoritative Word. We might also consider the church’s long history of teaching and practice concerning marriage. Many of these biblical and historical perspectives on marriage are quite foreign to today’s Presbyterians, who unconsciously adopt the prevalent assumptions of U.S. culture — e.g., that marriage is all about emotional attachment between adults, “two people who love each other.”
The sad truth is that very few congregations are studying marriage. Although we have heard loud debates at recent PCUSA assemblies, many local churches try to ignore the issue. Pro and anti-same-sex marriage members alike think they know enough to support their opinions, and further study or conversation is unnecessary. Moderates are afraid to offend by taking a position. The ensuing silence probably benefits same-sex marriage proponents the most, as they are more passionate, better organized, and have the cultural winds at their backs.
Laying a firm foundation
Advocates of the traditional view of marriage will make progress only by engaging the conversation that so many others avoid. Churches will gain the fortitude to stand against cultural trends only insofar as they reclaim the full richness of Biblical teaching on marriage. So PCUSA traditionalists should welcome a study that focuses broadly on marriage rather than narrowly on same-sex relationships; that aims to lay “a firm foundation in the church’s tradition on marriage;” and that turns to passages of Scripture, the PCUSA confessions, the Book of Order, and the marriage liturgy to build that foundation.
The Office of Theology and Worship materials do much to fulfill that promise. They invite study participants to grapple with key Biblical texts, such as the passage in Mark 10 in which Jesus answers a question on divorce by citing Genesis:
But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.
The materials introduce readers to parts of three confessions — most notably the Westminster’s powerful affirmation that “Christian marriage is an institution ordained of God, blessed 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 …” (6.131). Selections from the Book of Order and the wedding liturgy also elucidate key themes of Christian and Reformed teaching:
- that marriage is a gift of God going back to creation;
- that it is a covenant relationship witnessed by the community of faith;
- that it involves “the full expression of love between a man and a woman”;
- that marriage “contribute[s] to the well-being of society,” especially through “the birth and nurture of children”;
- that marriage is “a holy mystery” reflecting the union of Christ and the Church;
- and that “marriage is a means by which Christian spouses live out their lives of discipleship together.”
It is difficult to square these teachings with the idea of same-sex marriage — which was not instituted in Genesis, which does not involve the “one flesh” union of man and woman, which does not so directly contribute to society through childbearing and childrearing, which does not so clearly reflect the “opposites unite” relationship between Christ and the Church. But the study materials do not raise this point. Instead they pose open-ended questions with the intention of stimulating discussion. For example:
- “If you are married, how can your relationship with your spouse deepen your life of discipleship?”
- “What are the implications of Jesus’ statement ‘and the two will become one flesh’?”
- “Why is physical intimacy so important to the marriage relationship?”
- “How are the ordering of human society and the birth and nurture of children connected?”
- “What does it mean for the church to honor marriage today?”
- “Is it important that ministers be agents of the state when they officiate at wedding ceremonies? Why or why not? What would it look like for the church to differ from the state in its understanding of marriage?”
These are the kinds of questions that Presbyterians and other U.S. Christians should be asking, quite apart from the issue of same-sex marriage. If this study did nothing else but encourage couples to think of themselves as “one flesh” and see their marriage as a form of Christian discipleship, it would be well worth the effort. And we desperately need to prepare ourselves for the day, which has already arrived, when the church will have to say to society and the state: “We Christians believe something different about marriage. It’s bigger than you imagine.”
The Office of Theology and Worship is cautious in touching the sensitive issue of same-sex marriage. The issue crops up only in a cumbersome question at the end of each session: “How does the sexual identity of those who marry inform the understanding of marriage as covenant relationship …” (and each of the other understandings about marriage enumerated above)?
If the objective is to gain “a clearer view of God’s will” and “a better way forward,” some more pointed questions might help: Is marriage related in some basic way to humans being created male and female, and to the importance of bringing together the two sexes? Is the traditional requirement for one man and one woman in a marriage related in any way to the fact that it takes precisely one man and one woman to conceive a child? Do we still believe that the “well-being of society” is best served when children are reared by their mother and father married to one another? Or should we give equal honor and preference to any combination of adults living together and caring for a child? Does everyone have a right to marry whomever he or she pleases, or is it proper that all have a limited pool of potential spouses?
Does the Bible give us warrant to say that God has ordained the sexual union of two members of the same sex in the same way that he ordained the union of husband and wife? Does it make any difference that two members of the same sex are unable to “become one flesh” in the same “full expression of love” by which a man and woman consummate their marriage? Is eros the proper form of love between two members of the same sex, and are sexual relations the proper way to express that love? Does the biblical analogy of husband/wife to Christ/Church work as well when it’s two members of the same sex that are attempting to unite?
A major omission: marriage as norm
These are among the crucial questions the church will have to answer if it is to decide whether to recognize same-sex relations as marriage. But the study materials do not provide enough tools to address those questions. There are some major omissions. Study participants do not read Ephesians 5:21-33, the passage that draws out the comparison between marital love and the love between Christ and the Church. They are given only a snippet from 1 Corinthians 6:12-7:40—Paul’s extended discussion of marriage, singleness, and sexual sin—as an alternate reading. (The other alternative is 1 Corinthians 13, which is about the selfless agape love rather than eros.)
Oddly, the materials cite the Confession of 1967’s paragraph on the kingdom of God, but not its paragraph on marriage and sexuality. That paragraph (9.47) speaks of how “[t]he relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind.” It decries “[a]narchy in sexual relationships” and warns, “The church comes under the judgment of God and invites rejection by men when it fails to lead men and women into the full meaning of life together, or withholds the compassion of Christ from those caught in the moral confusion of our time.”
This is the note that is missing from the Office of Theology and Worship materials: that marriage is God’s norm for human sexual relationships, and that we sin and we suffer when we depart from that norm. This is why the stakes in the same-sex marriage debate are so high. Either same-sex relations remain a departure from the norm of marriage, and therefore something that the church must discourage rather than bless—or they become a new norm of marriage, deserving the highest honor. There can be no middle ground, unless we displace marriage from its position as the norm for Christian sexual behavior. In any case, same-sex marriage would represent a radical redefinition of the institution that Westminster declared to be “ordained of God.”
It would be well, therefore, for Presbyterians to contemplate the stark alternatives before them in the same-sex marriage debate. They should learn the strongest arguments for and against the redefinition of marriage. The new study materials, fortunately, offer congregations that opportunity if they will consult some of the “additional resources.” These include the two contrasting reports on marriage from the 2010 General Assembly. Neither the majority report, which pointed toward permitting same-sex marriage, nor the minority report, standing in opposition, was adopted. Both were commended for study and continue to serve that purpose. But it would be wise first to build “a firm foundation” in the Scriptures and the confessions, as the new study materials seek to do.