Editor’s note: The Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC), the publisher of The Layman and The Layman Online, does not support same-sex marriage. Instead, the PLC “believes with Scripture that God ordained the lifelong marriage of a man and a woman in the very order of creation and that Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, blessed and sanctified this relationship. The article here was posted as a news story about the Covenant Network’s 2013 conference on “Marriage Matters.”
CHICAGO, Ill. – Brian D. Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, said that there was only one answer to the question “Why does marriage matter?’” And that is to “glorify God.”
Ellison was speaking at the closing worship service of the Covenant Network’s 2013 conference on “Marriage Matters.”
Reading the Scripture text – I Corinthians 7:1-11; 25-38 – from the Common English Bible, in a highly sarcastic tone, Ellison addressed the writer, Paul, as a “hopeless romantic.”
At the end of this conference, he said, “We lift up this beautiful gift of God … this framework for faithfulness, this metaphor for relationship between God and humanity, Christ and the Church.”
He then rattled off several slogans – or even bumper stickers – that he claimed were inspired by the text:
- Marriage, better than being on fire.
- Marriage, not so bad since the world is ending soon anyway
- Marriage , like a course of antibiotics, you should finish what you’ve started
- Marriage, if you must
Ellison said that the Corinthians text is “in some ways the anti-wedding text, talking about all the things we don’t talk about in church.”
“It reflects a different time, place, church and society, pretty disconnected from what is happening when two young or not-so-young people today put on a tuxedo and a gown, or two tuxes, or two gowns, and walk down the aisle,” he said.
This text, he said, has been marginalized and caricatured, and would be easy to dismiss. He also commented on how “surprisingly egalitarian this text is, repeatedly asking the same things of women as from men.”
Ellison said that it would be easy for supporters of the Covenant Network to let their views on same-sex marriage skew their reading of the text or even allow them to laugh off the “apostle as hopelessly out of touch with reality,” forgetting that the faith community of Corinth, like another faith community we know, was one where sexual ethics and family arrangements were but one battleground in a rapidly evolving new world, where the church had no choice but to make up its answers on the fly because the questions were changing so fast.”
If that sounds familiar, he said then now seems the right time to ask “the questions that Paul, and the Corinthians, and the Presbyterians and the Americans all have been called to answer in their time: Marriage matters: Why?”
Pete and his lady friend
Ellison told the story of a man named Pete, who came to him for pastoral care, on the second week of his first call as pastor. Pete was a widower, who had been married to Sara for many decades. When she died, “the church grieved deeply and worried about Pete, because he wasn’t very good at self care.”
Ellison said that Pete came to him, because Pete had met a widow and they wanted to be together, but there was a problem. If they married, she would lose her benefits.
Pete wanted to know if Ellison would marry them in the church, in front of their families, but not in a civil sense. “Could we have a wedding at the church to which everyone would come and which would look to all the world like a wedding, but just not send in the license?”
Ellison said “No” to Pete: “It would be inappropriate, maybe even unlawful … He was disappointed, but understood.”
Continuing the story, Ellison said that Pete and his lady friend moved in together, and that she came to church occasionally, and he noticed that Pete came to church less and less.
“The beginning of our relationship was about marriage,” Ellison said, “and so was the ending of it.”
Waiting on the church
Referencing a New York Times article, “Choosing to say ‘I don’t,’” Ellison said that the article was about same-sex couples who supported marriage equality, but themselves didn’t want to get married – for many reasons.
“I admit that my partner Troy and I have thought some of those same things,” he said, but none of those quoted in the article gave his and Troy’s reasons: “We’re waiting for the church, the church we love and the church I serve, to fully stand with us.”
Ellison said that he became a little depressed reading the article, saying that the couples in the article were in reality answering the question “What is marriage?”
The answers they gave included that “It is this oppressive,” and “a risky venture.”
Another answer Ellison mentioned was from a couple who said, “We love each other and have lived together for 30 years; why do we need to get married?”
“Why indeed?,” asked Ellison “Marriage matters, why? What is marriage really for?”
A disarmingly simple response
“I might suggest that Paul has a response that is disarmingly simple,” he said, “not as much an answer, but a critique of it. … He doesn’t say all you need is love. There is no mention of love here in this chapter about marriage at all.”
The simple answer to all the questions about marriage, singleness, celibacy and sex, he said, is “all you need is God.”
“Maybe, we are asking the wrong questions,” Ellison said. “Wherever the question is asked about how to be right and pure, to protect one’s dignity or God’s honor, the retort is to clarify that the right approach is … not to prevent, but to empower. “I’m saying this for your own advantage. It’s not to restrict you but rather to promote effective and consistent service to the Lord …”
Paraphrasing the Scripture text, Ellison said, “So just stop it, church! Paul says. Stop trying to get me to lay out for you something about marriage you can use to restrict or restrain; … stop trying to get me to tell you if you should or shouldn’t marry. How would I know? Marriage matters because you matter. You matter to God. And if God matters to you, well then you already have the thing that matters most.”
The question isn’t, said Ellison, “Why does marriage matter?” The question is: “How is God calling us, through our marriage or our singleness, to live out our faith?”
Pete’s festering wound
Ellison said that 11 years after the first encounter with Pete, that Pete “swore at me in the line after church … that let me know something was wrong.”
He called Pete the next morning, and while meeting with him, Ellison found out that Pete was still upset about “our conversation a decade before, in which he and his lady friend heard me tell him that the church would not honor his relationship … that his faith community, which had sustained him and loved him, could not be a place where he could stand honestly before God and make promises … that his pastor, his new young pastor, would instead follow the rules, read the fine print, and protect his position and standing.”
That anger in the church was the first time Ellison said he saw “the festering wound that I inflicted a long time ago … a wound that never healed.”
“I may or may not have been right in my ecclesiastical and secular legal interpretation, my professional and ethical decision,” said Ellison, “but I know for certain that as a Christian, I was just plain wrong.”
“Why does marriage matter? What is marriage for? There can be but one answer,” he said. “To glorify God … Why does anything matter? To glorify God and to enjoy God forever.”
Ellison said that the “reason we marry is to glorify God and that may be the reason we don’t. The reason we open the doors of marriage to all to enjoy its blessing is to glorify God, not daring to keep any away from what God will do.”
The reason, he said that “we, in our faith and practice of marriage embody abundance and not asceticism, faithful embrace and not fearful resistance, is that in this earthly ordinance and in every other whether we are married or not, we all fulfill our vocation, and so live into the life that is ours in Jesus Christ.”
Ellison told the crowd to “tear off the bumper stickers and strip away the restrictions that diminish or demean God’s calling to all. And let us in humility pray that all our living as individuals and as the church would glorify God.”
Ellison became the executive director of the Covenant Network in 2012. Prior to that, he was the pastor of Parkville Presbyterian Church in Missouri for 13 years.
The Covenant Network’s 2013 Covenant Conference was held Oct. 31-Nov. 2 at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Ill.
Read a response to Ellison’s sermon by Viola Larson at http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2013/11/brian-ellison-reason-for-same-gender.html