Reformed and always reforming, according to the Word of God is one of the mantras that emerged from the Reformation in the 1500’s. However, in the last 30 years, the Reformation slogan has been truncated by some who embrace the “always reforming” idea–without actually holding to either the Reformed theology nor the binding of how those reforms might come, the “according to the Word of God” foundation.
The subject then is discernment. Discerning the perfect and pleasing will of God. Discerning the mind of Christ. Discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit as distinct from the spirit of the world.
The case in point is marriage. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the church (Roman Catholic) taught that marriage was one of the seven sacraments. The Reformers, including Luther, Calvin, could find no Biblical evidence to support the continuance of five of the seven sacraments, so they pared them down to two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That is part of what it means to be Reformed: we look to the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments for direction and guidance on issues of faith and practice.
So, when considering the current question of redefining marriage, the Scriptures must be our first source of counsel. And as the Church, we are then obliged to follow God’s Word no matter how much we might like to do something else.
Based on what the Reformers meant by being Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God, being “more reformed” would be to be more fully aligned with God’s will as revealed in the Bible.
But Brian Ellison, Executive Director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians (CovNet) argues that the recent push to redefine marriage in the PC(USA) is “more reformed” because it provides greater clarity on the relationship between the church and state. He says, “Couples marry each other by exchanging promises, not by being awarded a special sacred status that only the church can grant.”
His claim that this is more reformed twists the very definition of the term. To be more reformed means that it is now closer to Scripture’s clear teaching. In both the Old and New Testaments, marriage is always and everywhere defined as a union between a man and a woman. There are lots of pictures of marriage in Scripture that are not monogamous (polygamy is most commonly brought up) but nowhere does God bless this. Instead, all marriage related departures from one man and one woman are attributed to the fall of humanity, that means they are categorically a part of sin. If we read the texts closely we see this. Case in point: according to Jesus, divorce is allowed because of the hardness of heart not because God blesses divorce
Jesus’ AI on marriage
Jesus’ authoritative interpretation of Genesis 2:24-25 is found in Mark 10:6-9. Here Jesus affirms the teachings of the Old Testament and lays out God’s clear design for marriage. Notably Jesus affirms that it is God who designed and blesses marriage. Jesus does not say that marriage is primarily a function of the State, nor does He say that marriage is simply a human institution. Jesus affirms that marriage is instituted by God and then He affirms the one man, one woman design. Jesus offers no alternatives to that design.
The effort to be more reformed requires an interpretation closer to the Scriptures not further from them. Which means that to be more reformed cannot lead where Ellison suggests: a redefinition of marriage that includes expressions that Scripture uniformly condemns.
What do the Confessions say?
The Reformed heritage is not without its own witnesses. The Book of Confessions, which all ordained officers of the PCUSA vow to be instructed and led by, uniformly define marriage as an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman. This is not on the basis of a society’s historical or cultural perspective, but because it is what the Word of God has laid out from Genesis to Revelation. What the Confessions say about marriage is clear.
When Ellison declares that “by honoring the marriages of all people, we lift up the value of covenant commitment, which reflects qualities of the relationship between Christ and the church…. It is time for our constitutional documents to acknowledge the lives and faith of all families, including the many families formed around same-gender couples in our churches.”
I could not agree more. But to be more reformed we would first start with our covenantal relationship with God and be conformed to the promises we made to Him in our baptism:
- to turn from sin to Jesus Christ as our Lord and to be His faithful disciple,
- obeying His Word and showing His love.
Starting at the font we can begin to talk about the realities of sin and grace, the power of the Cross of Christ to free us both from sin’s penalty (death) and sin’s power (proclivities and practices that are contrary to God’s revealed will). To suggest that God would overlook sexual sin and instead bless it as sacred is to completely pervert the message of the cross and strips Christ’s sacrifice of its atoning power.
Here then we see the connection between the contemporary debates about sexual practice and the interpretation of the Bible, Christology, atonement theology and beliefs about salvation itself.
Living in redemptive reality
In redemptive reality (where the very real sin of the very real sinner is atoned for by the very real sacrificial death of the very real Messiah of the very real personal, infinite, Trinitarian God) marriage is not primarily about us. Human joy, human fulfillment, and human desires are not the axis around which the redemptive world turns. That cornerstone, that moral compass, that point of integration is the Cross of Jesus Christ.
So, from that perspective, the redeeming value of marriage is spiritual. God chooses the image of marriage between Jesus, the bridegroom, in union with the Church, His bride, to open a window of understanding into heaven. The Bride of Christ will be presented to Him pure, undefiled and Holy. The exclusively feminine representation of the Bride and the equally exclusive presentation of Christ as masculine is inescapable. If God had wanted to introduce other options He certainly could have done so. But the witness of Scripture is not divided on this subject and the Bible is the final authority for our faith and life as Christians.
Our denominational decisions ought not be guided by our desire for everyone to be happy but instead, God’s holiness and glory. Likewise, our constitutional documents ought not be conformed to our sinful nature, but to the life of obedience into which Jesus leads and calls. The PC(USA) as an expression of the Church of Jesus Christ, is to be reformed and always reforming- in all ways and always according to the Word of God who promises to conform us to Christ’s nature.
Christ made clear the Church’s calling and commission when He sent His disciples into the world “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything” Christ commanded. That “everything” includes what Jesus commands about marriage. He was not silent on the matter. By His presence at the wedding at Cana He demonstrates His blessing of that marriage between a man and a woman. In His answer about divorce He affirms the Genesis text and blesses again male/female design. In His description of the Church as the Bride being prepared for Him, Jesus affirms again God’s perspective on the nature of marriage. For the church to now teach otherwise is to be conformed to the world, not to be transformed or more reformed, according to the Word of God.
“If any persons are joined together, than as God’s Word allows, their union is not blessed by him” (Book of Common Worship, PCUSA, 1948, p. 184).
Carmen Fowler LaBerge is president and executive editor of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. Also visit Carmen at her website, CarmenFowlerLaBerge.com.