Marriage and Covenant

A simple declaration by the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage in response to the question “What is the place of covenanted same-gender partners in the Christian community?”:  

“The members of the PC(USA) cannot agree.”   

Hardly a startling conclusion.  [Fortunately, the report goes on to “affirm that individuals in same-gender relationships, no differently from any persons in the Christian community, are to be welcomed by the church …”]

 Acknowledging the disagreement, the Special Committee’s approach to their Final Report was to recognize divergent interpretations of Scripture, honor differing viewpoints, and lay out a covenant for staying together in the church.  The Committee decided to be primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive, seeking to concentrate on what they could affirm together and to provide unbiased background information as Presbyterians continue to discern God’s will.  [See the previous article.] 


However, three committee members chose to submit a minority report, which also acknowledges that “there truly exist variant interpretations of Scripture, which in turn dictate different pastoral models and advocacy models,” yet proceeds to absolutize one of these and attempt to impose it upon all: 

It is the intent of this report to represent the church’s biblical, historic, and confessional position that, among all varieties of sexual relationships, only marriage between a man and a woman is ordained by God and blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ. 

It is common for adherents of this position to appeal to a theory of “complementarity” derived from a particular interpretation of Genesis 2; as the minority report states: 

In Genesis, God says it is not good for man to be alone.  A woman is made who completes Adam and the two of them become one flesh.  Adam’s joy knows no bounds as he embraces Eve and cries out, “This at last is flesh of my flesh, bone of bone” (Gen. 2:23).

However, the presumption that “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” refers only to monogamous heterosexual union ignores the use of variations of the phrase in other passages, such as Genesis 29:14 (Laban greeting Jacob), 2 Samuel 5:1 (all the tribes of Israel to David), and 2 Samuel 19:12 (“You are my kin, you are my bone and my flesh,” David to the elders of Judah).  

As Frank Moore Cross writes in an essay describing the biblical “continuities between the institutions of kinship and of covenant”:

In Israel… the legal compact of marriage introduced the bride into the kinship group or family.  This is the proper understanding of Genesis 2:24…  Flesh refers not to carnal union but to identity of “flesh,” kinship, “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”  Obviously offspring of the marital union will be of one flesh;  what is asserted is that the covenant of marriage establishes kinship bonds of the first rank between spouses. [i]

This is why the Old Testament practice of polygamy is not inconsistent with becoming “one flesh” – because the man and all his wives were “one flesh,” kin to one another.  (The Special Committee’s report does not discuss polygamy but does cite passages that presume it;  obviously this is but one example of how “biblical values” about marriage have changed.)

Same-gender partners are as capable as heterosexual partners of being kin to one another, and of creating a nurturing family together.  Many Presbyterians rejoice with two men or two women when they experience the unbounded joy of intimate companionship and commitment, for “it is not good that the human being should be alone”  (Genesis 2:18).

Janet F. Fishburn has written more about the history of the theory of “complementarity.”   For further exploration, see the articles by Patrick D. Miller and Mary McClintock Fulkerson in the Covenant Network publication Frequently Asked Questions About Sexuality, the Bible, & the Church: Plain Talk About Tough Issues.

[i] “Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel,” in From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp.7-8.

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