“A Man and a Woman”: A Look at the Presbyterian Confessions in Context

By Kenneth L. Cuthbertson, PhD

“Marriage is to be between one Man and one Woman:  neither is it lawful for any Man to have more then one Wife, nor for any Woman to have more then one Husband, at the same time.” – from The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXIV, original 1647 text.  (Book of Confessions 6.131, note q)

“The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind. Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of man’s alienation from God, his neighbor, and himself. Man’s perennial confusion about the meaning of sex has been aggravated in our day by the availability of new means for birth control and the treatment of infection, by the pressures of urbanization, by the exploitation of sexual symbols in mass communication, and by world overpopulation. The church, as the household of God, is called to lead men out of this alienation into the responsible freedom of the new life in Christ. Reconciled to God, each person has joy in and respect for his own humanity and that of other persons; a man and woman are enabled to marry, to commit themselves to a mutually shared life, and to respond to each other in sensitive and lifelong concern; parents receive the grace to care for children in love and to nurture their individuality. The church comes under the judgment of God and invites rejection by man 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.” – from The Confession of 1967 (Book of Confessions 9.47)

These two texts are taken from the two places in the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions where marriage is specifically spoken of as being between “a man and a woman.”  Since those words have become the catch-phrase in so much of the rhetoric in the current debates concerning same-sex marriage in the church, and in society in general, it seems worthwhile to explore some the historical background of both.  This is particularly important for the discussions currently underway in the PCUSA because of how we understand the role of the confessions:

The creeds and confessions of this church arose in response to particular circumstances within the history of God’s people.  They claim the truth of the gospel at those points where their authors perceived that truth to be at risk.  They are the result of prayer, thought, and experience within a living tradition.  They appeal to the universal truth of the Gospel while expressing that truth within the social and cultural assumptions of their time.  They affirm a common faith tradition, while also from time to time stand in tension with each other.  – from The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity (Book of Order F-2.01, second paragraph)

I.  Marriage in the Reformation and 17th Century

The Westminster Confession of Faith comes to us from the mid-17th century.  It was completed in 1647, and adopted by the Church and Parliament of Scotland in 1648.  Although proposed, it was never adopted by the Parliament of England, but it did serve as the basis of the declarations of faith adopted by various English Presbyterian and Congregational dissenting groups later in the 17th century.

During the Protestant Reformation the understanding of marriage had shifted, to a greater or lesser degree, from the “sacramental” understanding of Roman Catholicism toward a new understanding focused on the role of marriage in the social order.  While some churches, such as the Church of England, retained more of a semi-sacramental approach to marriage in their liturgies, the Reformed approach from the outset tended to focus on the aspects of godly discipline and order.  (See, for example, The Second Helvetic Confession, Book of Confessions 5.245-5.251.)  The Reformed approach, particularly in Scotland, sometimes turned toward a harsh legalism, best exemplified in the provisions of The First Book of Discipline (1560s) which include recommendation of the death penalty for those found guilty of adultery.  (See under “Head Nine” of The First Book of Discipline.)

The Reformation era saw its share of innovations surrounding the institution of marriage.  Protestants in all branches of the movement rejected the requirement of celibacy long imposed on clergy, and quickly embraced and promoted the notion that their ministers ought to be married.  Marriage and family came to be viewed as the ideal mode of Christian life, very much in place of the older Catholic idealization of celibate religious (monastic) life.  Nonetheless issues quickly arose as real life fell short of the ideal.  Divorce became an issue, not just in the infamous example of Henry VIII, but also in the controversy that arose when various theologians (including Luther and Melanchthon) consented that it would be allowable for Philip I of Hesse to contract a bigamous marriage rather than divorce his long-estranged wife.

The biggest fear of the Reformers, however, seemed to have been the threat of social anarchy.  Henry Bullinger, the author of The Second Helvetic Confession, specifically included a condemnation of polygamy in that document.  (Book of Confessions 2.46)  The reference could be taken, in part, as an echo of the Philip von Hesse controversy.  But, it is probable that the more significant historical event lurking in the background was the 1534 rebellion of Anabaptist radicals known as the Muenster Rebellion, during which its leader, John of Leiden, claimed direct divine inspiration in his legalization of polygamy and his own taking of sixteen wives.  From then on, Protestant leaders were haunted by fears of similar recurrences among sectarian enthusiasts.

All of the preceding helps set the context for understanding the Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter on marriage.  It both contains the ongoing echoes of the concerns of the preceding century, and speaks to the issues of its time.  The focus, again, is godly discipline and order.  The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in the British Isles were times of ongoing struggle within and without.  There were rising rivalries between the Puritans and the more worldly and sophisticated forerunners of the Cavaliers.  Over the preceding years playwrights and poets such as Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the young John Donne had literally “played” upon themes of sexual liberty and license that shocked the Calvinists in particular.  (Since all roles were then played by male actors, the theatre was constantly suspect vis a vis cross-dressing and gender-role confusion, and some – like Shakespeare in Twelfth Night – took advantage of the dramatic possibilities thus created.)  At court there were repeated scandals, and in the case of King James I suspicions surrounding his infatuations with beautiful young male favorites.  In the case of Charles I, his “unequally yoked” marriage to the French Roman Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, was profoundly disquieting to many.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and some now lesser known documents including The Directory for the Public Worship of God, are statements from the Presbyterian – Puritan religious milieu of the mid-seventeenth century.  They were written during the era of civil war between Royalists and Parliamentarians, Cavaliers and Puritans.  The Westminster Assembly of Divines was called as part of the alliance, The Solemn League and Covenant, between the English Parliamentarians and the Scots.

Like their Reformation-era forebears, however, the Westminster Divines and their allies were not just concerned with the decadence and corruption of the upper classes in church and state.  They too, had to worry about sectarianism, and the threats of anarchy posed by a variety of radical groups arising among the commonality.  The theological term applied to the views held by various of these groups was Antinomianism, which is understood to be the belief that under the gospel dispensation the moral law set forth in scripture is not binding on Christians because faith alone is sufficient for salvation.  The antinomian groups varied widely, some advocating for forms of economic communism, others focused on egalitarianism and pacifism (the early Quakers), and so on.  Among the antinomian groups active in England in the early 17th century were the Familists, who – at least according to their Puritan critics – were said to believe in and practice open or group marriage.

Over against antinomianism the Westminster Confession lays particular stress on the “third use” of the moral law as an ongoing rule of life for individuals and society as a whole.  (See Book of Confessions 6.105-6.107, and the section on “Christian Liberty” in 6.108-6.111)  This Reformed understanding sets the context for the exhaustive, and exhausting, dealing with the Ten Commandments in The Larger Catechism in particular.  (The Larger Catechism answers seem to echo another important source from the era, Archbishop James Ussher’s book, A Body of Divinity, which – along with his Irish Articles of Religion of 1615 – is long believed to have had a major influence on the Westminster Confession and the catechisms.)  The concern of the Divines was so great that in laying out their principles of interpreting the scriptures they even neglected to include, whether consciously or not, the historic “rule of love” which teaches that any interpretation of scripture must enhance love and build up brotherhood and sisterhood within the community.  (See John Leith, Assembly at Westminster, page 80.)

All of the foregoing is important for understanding the way in which “marriage” is defined in the Westminster Confession.  And there is one more important fact to bear in mind; that very first phrase – “Marriage is to be between one Man and one Woman” – was actually lifted, almost verbatim, from The Directory for the Public Worship of God, which had been issued two years prior to the Confession of Faith.  The phrase is borrowed from what is essentially a “disciplinary” or (in Anglican terms) a “canonical” document.

The Westminster definition of marriage as being “between one man and one woman” thus needs to be understood, in the context of its times, as a statement concerned with godly discipline and social order, and as addressing particular concerns with the threat to that order posed by the perceived sectarian threat of antinomianism.  It reflects, of course, the assumptions about sex and gender of the time, but the real concern is other.  And because of that, it does not so readily lend itself to use as a confessional “talking point” in contemporary debates on the committed legal and covenantal unions of same-sex couples.

II. Marriage in the Confession of 1967

In a unexpected way, the statement on marriage in the Confession of 1967 comes closer to the concerns of the Reformers and Westminster Divines than might be anticipated.  Godly behavior (discipline) and social order are once again the themes at the forefront, set over against the perceived threats of social anarchy.  New and different factors are cited – the advent of artificial birth control, readily available drugs to treat sexually transmitted diseases, the pressures of urbanization and overpopulation, and the cultural promotion and exploitation of sexual imagery in mass media – but the concerns are as old as the Reformed tradition.

As with the Westminster Confession, there is a historical context to the Confession of 1967, and it is broader than just the concerns of the late 1960s.   Jack Rogers, in his book Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, does a masterful job of setting forth the shifting of social and religious understandings about marriage and divorce that arose in the wake of World War I and the cultural shifts of the “Roaring 20s.” (See Rogers, page 42ff, etc.)  That shift in understanding had already led to the 1953 revision of the Westminster Confession contained as one of the two official versions of Chapter XXIV in the Book of Confessions.  (The other is the text adopted by the PCUS in 1959.)  These had already shifted, somewhat, the Presbyterian stance on marriage.

There is, however, a third confessional statement from that pre-C67 era that Jack Rogers did not choose to include in his treatment, and it deserves a quick look.  That statement is from the 1925 Confessional Statement of the United Presbyterian Church of North America.  (The “UPNA” united with the northern Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1958 to form the former UPCUSA.  The complete text of the 1925 Confessional Statement is found in Appendix 1 of my book, The Last Presbyterian?)  The statement includes the following:

Art. XXXVI. Of the Family.—We believe that the family is the unit [sic!] of society and is fundamental to human welfare; that marriage is ordained of God, and is therefore an institution which involves a religious as well as a civil contract; that the law of marriage, requiring monogamy, governing the prohibited degrees of consanguinity or affinity, and establishing the permanence of the tie, is laid down in the Word of God, upon which the enactments of the State may not transgress rightfully…. We believe that since the standard of marriage is a lifelong union of one man and one woman, its dissolution is not to be lightly regarded; that, where warrantable, this can be effected only by competent civil authority; and that the remarriage of divorced persons is permissible, while both parties are living, only when the divorce has been obtained on the ground of adultery, and then for the innocent party alone.

It is a strong, and stern, statement.  As in the two subsequent revisions to the Westminster Confession by the larger northern and southern streams of the church, the issue is order, and the presenting issue is divorce.  Here, however, the focus is, if anything, more explicit:  “The family is the [basic, or foundational] unit of society.”  Here, as elsewhere, the “one man and one woman” language of the original Westminster document is echoed, but it is not the primary focus.  Social and familial order is.

This background of the Confession of 1967, and the immediate context that it directly refers to, attest to the concerns of the times in which it was written.  What also needs to be borne in mind, however, as part and parcel of the current discussion in the PCUSA, is the context that did not yet exist in 1967.  The confession was finally approved in the same year as the “Summer of Love” just as the sexual revolution of the time was really taking off in earnest.  Over the next few years traditional socio-cultural understandings of both marriage and gender roles would change in profound ways.  (See Stephanie Coontz’s book, Marriage, A History, for an excellent study of this transition.)  When the Confession of 1967 was written there was just one woman on the committee of fifteen that prepared it, and it appeared prior to the emergence of the feminist movement of the 1970s with the many works of theology and biblical studies that followed.  The confession was adopted before the Stonewall riots of 1969, which mark the beginning of the “gay liberation” movement in the U.S., and thus before the many studies (bio-genetic, psychological, sociological, biblical, and theological) that have appeared in the years since.  Many, if not most, of the questions raised by all of these groups and movements over the last five decades had not yet been raised.  The Confession of 1967 came at the outset of those socio-cultural transitions, and it really does not address them.  But it does address something else… it addresses the issue of change.

Beginning with the 1925 UPNA Confessional Statement, and then moving on to the Confession of 1967, there was among Presbyterians a growing recognition that times change, even in church, and that the classic statements – confessions of faith and even the scriptures – are products of their own times that have to be understood anew and re-contextualized in the new times and circumstances in which the current church is reading them.  The Confession of 1967 expresses it in this way:

“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

 “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

Those statements are foundational to the PCUSA’s self-understanding, and nowhere do they more readily apply than in the current season of study and reflection on the subject of Christian marriage in general, and to the presenting issue of same-sex marriage (both civil and religious) in particular.

III. The Confessions and Marriage in the 21st Century

For Presbyterians in the PCUSA the confessions are integral to our church’s process of reflection and discernment regarding marriage.  But what do they really have to say?  Firstly, it seems clear that the use of the phrase “a man and a woman” in the confessions seems to have always been descriptive, not intentionally prescriptive, when used.  The focus in those instances was elsewhere.  Secondly, the historic confessional statements on marriage are essentially concerned with two things:

  1. Godly/Christian discipleship
  2. The maintenance of a good and just social order, and especially the family

What the confessions do not address is what that means in relation to how we have come to new understandings of sexual orientation and gender, and of the nature of marriage itself, over the last half century.  That task of discernment is ours to do, with the guidance of the Spirit, and the best attainable knowledge at our disposal.  What the confessions actually provide for us are questions, not answers.

Regarding same-sex marriage, the two confessional questions to ask would seem to be:

  1. Is same-sex marriage an authentic expression of discipleship for and by LGBT Christians?
  2. Does same-sex marriage contribute to a good and just social order, and especially to healthy and stable families?

The answers to these questions are not to be found in the current confessions, but only in the careful study of scripture and “the best attainable knowledge” available to us from all the sciences, and through mindful and prayerful discernment.  (At present, evidence from the overwhelming majority of unbiased studies seems to indicate that the answer to the second question, at least, is pretty clearly “Yes.”)

As Jack Rogers pointed out several years ago (in Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality) there is a discernible pattern in the red flag controversies over the last two hundred or so years, controversies over slavery and race, divorce, women’s ordination, and, now, over sexuality, gender identity, and marriage.  The pattern begins with proof-texting and ardent defense of the status quo, and, unfortunately, with widespread condemnation of the group in question and of the changes proposed.  Then, as the discussion/conflict proceeds other, broader and deeper, questions arise, questions about our shared humanity, the love and justice of God, and the inherent implications of the gospel.  Finally, in the end, previous Presbyterian churches have found and eventually embraced newer and fuller understandings of the scriptures and of the gospel.  For many, that is the hope we hold in our current process.  Whether or not it ever gets formalized into a document in our Book of Confessions, it is confessional work, and it is the task we are now about in the PCUSA.

Ken Cuthbertson, a Presbyterian minister, is the author of  The Last Presbyterian? Remembering the Faith of My Forebears.  See also his “Confessional Affirmation on Christian Marriage” and “Apologia for a Marriage,” about his own marriage to Doug Calderwood.

Resources:

PCUSA: Book of Confessions Book of Order.

Stephanie Coontz: Marriage, A History, Penguin Books, 2005.

Kenneth L. Cuthbertson: The Last Presbyterian?, Resource Publications, 2013.  See the book flyer here.

Edward A. Dowey, Jr: A Commentary on the Book of Confession of 1967 and Introduction to The Book of Confessions, The Westminster Press, 1968.

John H. Leith: Assembly at Westminster, John Knox Press, 1973.

Robert S. Paul: The Assembly of the Lord, T & T Clark, 1985.

Jack Rogers: Jesus, the Bible, & Homosexuality, Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

The First Book of Discipline.

Westminster Confession of Faith [& other documents including The Directory for the Public Worship of God], John G. Eccles Printers (for the Free Church of Scotland), 1976.

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