A Confessional Affirmation on Christian Marriage

Ken CuthbertsonThe Rev. Dr. Kenneth L. Cuthbertson is a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a scholar of church history and historical theology, and a spiritual director.  He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of Sterling College, Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and the School of Religion at the University of Iowa.  His new book, The Last Presbyterian?, is a historical-theological-spiritual memoir about the “psalm-singing, Sabbath-keeping” strain of old-time Scots-American Presbyterianism from which his family came, and includes reflections on how we might carry key elements of that faith heritage forward into an inclusive, emergent, and missional church for the 21st century.  Ken and his spouse, Doug, live in New Mexico.  

Ken offers a draft of a confessionally-based statement about marriage for our day and time:

Preface:

We affirm the following principles set forth in The Confession of 1967 of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

“The church confesses its faith when it bears a present witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” – C67, 9.01

“In every age, the church has expressed its witness in words and deeds as the need of the time required….” – C67, 9.02

“Confessions and declarations are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him.  No one type of confession is exclusively valid, no one statement is irreformable.  Obedience to Jesus Christ alone identifies the one universal Church and supplies the continuity of its tradition.  This obedience is the ground of the church’s duty and freedom to reform itself in life and doctrine as new occasions, in God’s providence, may demand.”  – C67, 9.03

“The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ.  The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of [humans], conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written.  They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current.  The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding.  As God has spoken [God’s] word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that [God] will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.” – C67, 9.29

“In each time and place, there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act.  The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations.” – C67, 9.43

“The church falls under the judgment of God and invites rejection by [humankind] 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.”  – C67, 9.47

An Affirmation on Christian Marriage:

Since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century the Reformed Tradition of Christianity has understood and defined marriage primarily as a civil institution and contract, to which the Christian community gives its support and offers blessing in God’s name.  In our time the extension of the rights and privileges of civil marriage to same-gender couples by an increasing number of states and other governmental authorities in the United States and around the world, along with the calls from many within the church itself to embrace new modes of thought and practice concerning Christian marriage, impel us to look once again at the sources of our faith and life seeking God’s wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Throughout history the Jewish and Christian traditions have taught that the ordering of interpersonal relationships is exemplified in marriage between a man and a woman.   In the institution of marriage men and women are, with God’s help, enabled to commit themselves to mutually shared life, responding to one another in sensitive and lifelong concern, loving and caring for any children that may be given to them.  (Based on C67, 9.47)  This we affirm.

At the same time it is our responsibility in our day to be instructed and informed by the knowledge attained through the sciences – bio-genetics and physiology, psychology, sociology, etc. – as we seek to understand what is a right relationship of persons to each other and to God.  (See: Edward A. Dowey, A Commentary on The Confession of 1967, p. 140)  In this regard we find that the overwhelming and consistent findings of unbiased research conducted over the last half-century leads us to new understandings of sexual orientation, gender identity, and the socio-cultural ordering of relationships.  In the context of these new understandings we are called by God to respond in the light of God’s work of reconciliation in Christ.

We therefore affirm the following:

1. God’s Creation is good, and all humans are made equally in God’s image.  (A Brief Statement of Faith, lines 29-30)  Sexuality is integral to our humanity, and a good gift of God.  Although long misunderstood, variation in sexual orientation is part of the natural order originating in God.

2.  Sin is failure to live in right relationship.  As sinners humans turn from God and violate the image of God in ourselves and others (BSoF, line 35) as we fail to act in loving ways or to live in true integrity of being.  The Church sins when it requires anyone to deny the truth of their sexual identity and rejects those who live their lives in loving and responsible relationships.

3.  The witness of Scripture reveals a progressively broadening and deepening understanding of human relationships, diversity, and inclusivity.

a. While the Bible forbids particular homosexual activities – rape, idolatry, prostitution, etc. – in several instances, it never actually speaks to same-gender mutual, consensual, sexual relationships.  (We would also note that rape, idolatry, and prostitution are equally forbidden for heterosexuals.)

b. On the other hand, the Bible strongly affirms close affectional relationships between various persons of the same gender.  But, again, it does not speak to any sexual aspect of such relationships.

c. In the second creation story (Garden of Eden) it is said to be “not good” for the man to be alone, and the focus is on the creation of a “companion” and “helper” for the first human, not on procreation and reproduction.  Human companionship thus lies at the essential core of the “good” in marriage.

d. The progress of revelatory understanding about God and the extent of God’s realm is repeatedly shown to be directed away from exclusive categorizations toward inclusivity and the breaking down of divisive barriers between people.  In several instances earlier provisions of the divine law itself are set aside in the process. (See Isaiah 56, Acts 10, Galatians 3:28, etc.)

e. The emphasis of both Jesus and Paul concerning morality and ethics was on “love” and on just and caring relationships in the community, not on ritual “purity” or “clean” vs. “unclean” behaviors prescribed by their religious tradition.

4.  Even as the socio-cultural forms of marriage change over time, Christian marriage is consistently characterized by the distinctive relational qualities of loving mutuality and reverence.

a. Although specific gender roles are noted according to the socio-cultural norms of the times, the essential underlying teaching concerning Christian marriage in the New Testament is about mutual submission, mutual esteem, and love, undertaken out of reverence for Christ.  (Eph. 5:21, etc.)

b. The vows and promises of the historic Christian marriage covenant – “to love, honor, and cherish, to have and to hold, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live” – are neither gender-specific nor gender-exclusive.  They are simply about how two people relate to one another in committed relationship.

The witness of the Jewish and Christian faith traditions has had a profound influence on the formation of the socio-cultural understanding of marriage in the western world over the centuries as it has evolved from an emphasis on sexual reproduction and property rights towards a focus on it being a mutual consensual union of two people.  A basic understanding of the marital relationship from a distinctively Christian perspective thus seems to be consistent with current socio-cultural expectations of marriage as being a partnership of equals, grounded in love, mutual esteem, and a commitment to sharing life together.  The one distinctively Christian aspect is the undertaking to do this “out of reverence for Christ.”

Instructed and informed by the witness of Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we therefore affirm our understanding and belief that there is now no good reason to restrict marriage solely to heterosexual couples in either the civil or religious context.  Equality, mutual consent, love, esteem, and intention are not gender-specific or gender-exclusive.  Nor is reverence for Christ.  The word “marriage” and the institution are means by which our society historically recognizes and affirms this type of committed covenantal relationship.  So, if this type of relationship occurs between persons of the same gender as it does between heterosexuals, then we believe we are called to acknowledge that they are married.  And as Christians, if we truly believe that “Love is of God, and anyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (I John 4:7), then we must affirm that these marriages are something sacred to be blessed and honored in God’s Name.

 

Comments

  1. Well done, Ken. I’d be proud to sign it.

  2. Thomas L. Fultz, Ruling Elder says

    The Rev. Dr. Cuthberson’s statement on marriage is well crafted and addresses the issues of the day directly, but not correctly. His approach would mirror that of Mr. Doug Nave as expressed in the essay Blest Be the Ties? posted on May 17, 2013.
    I affirm with Cutherberson’s paragraph: ”Throughout history, the Jewish and Christian traditions have taught that the ordering of interpersonal relations is exemplified in marriage between a man and a woman. In the institution of marriage men and women are….” Unfortunately he fails to offer the word from Jesus related to the breakup of marriages that shall inform Christians until time is no more: “ ‘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.” (Mark 10:6-9 NRSV)

    A most important element in the Cutherberson statement is the avoidance of the questions of permanence and monogamy which Mr. Nave indicated were problematic among Presbyterians who attempt to resolve differences with the prevailing cultural norms and the PC(USA)’s doctrine, governance, and polity. Cuthberson skillfully avoids permanence and monogamy with terms such as “a commitment on sharing life together (4.b)”; “relational qualities of loving mutuality and reverence (4.0)”; “close affectional relations (3.b)”; and “how two people relate to one another (4.a)”. The dimension of “couples” raises another unspoken issue of socio-cultural norms – whether the Christian view of marriage must be exclusively between two persons (3.b; 3.d; 4.a; 4.b). Mr. Cuthberson’s references to couples is an exclusion of other expressions of sexual relationships and thus is at odds with his basic affirmations. A question he must answer is: Are “equality, mutual consent, love, esteem and intention” numerically-specific or numerically-exclusive? Obviously the Cutherberson affirmation is an attempt to make a culturally driven perspective (same-gender marriage) govern the PC(USA) in the place of Scripture. While it is a masterfully composed document, it fails to pass its own test of “reverence for Christ”.

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