The Covenant Network of Presbyterians — the lead advocate for the 2011 repeal of the “fidelity and chastity” standard for Presbyterian Church (USA) officers — is now pushing the 2014 PCUSA General Assembly to take the next step in sexual revisionism: the redefinition of Christian marriage. Toward that end, the Covenant Network sponsored a recent conference on “Marriage Matters.” It is also distributing an “adaptation” of the denomination’s official study on marriage that tilts the table toward affirming same-sex marriage.
The Oct. 31-Nov. 2 “Marriage Matters” conference rallied support for an overhaul of church teaching on marriage. Princeton Seminary professor William Stacy Johnson asserted that “the gospel demands” that the PCUSA “open its understanding of marriage to the gay and lesbian people.”
Louisville Seminary professor Amy Plantinga Pauw denied that the Bible has clear and consistent teachings on marriage. Pauw rejected any linkage between marriage and God’s creation of humans as male and female with the ability to conceive a child when the two come together. Any such linkage, she declared, represents “ways of thinking about sexuality and marriage that are no longer considered normative today.” McCormick Seminary President Frank Yamada claimed that when Genesis 2:24 speaks of how “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh,” the passage is not about “a man and woman, but that God has figured out a way to take away isolation from human beings.”
Young activist Matthew Vines told conference attendees about his “Reformation Project,” which aims to persuade conservative evangelicals that Biblical prohibitions of same-sex relations no longer apply today. A workshop contemplated all the parts of the church’s wedding liturgy that would have to be expunged because they “no longer work as well.”
A subtler approach
The Covenant Network is trying a subtler approach with mainstream PCUSA congregations that may be unsure about same-sex marriage. It is offering “supplemental resources” for the study of marriage in which Presbyterians are supposedly engaged. The 2012 General Assembly, after narrowly turning aside proposals to redefine marriage as between any “two persons,” asked the denomination to step back and “enter into a season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage.”
The official study on “Christian Marriage in the Presbyterian Church (USA),” produced by the denomination’s Office of Theology and Worship, gives good background on what the church has said about marriage in the past. Yet it largely ducks the current controversy about same-sex marriage.
Directing participants to selected passages from the Scriptures, the PCUSA confessions and the marriage liturgy, the study spotlights a “main idea” for each of its six sessions. These themes include:
- that marriage is a gift of God going back to creation;
- that it is a covenant relationship witnessed by the community of faith;
- that it is the setting for “the full expression of love between a man and a woman;”
- that marriage “contribute[s] to the well-being of society,” especially through “the birth and nurture of children;”
- that marriage is “a holy mystery” reflecting the union of Christ and the Church;
- and that “marriage is a means by which Christian spouses live out their lives of discipleship together.”
These teachings are difficult to square with the notion of same-sex marriage; however, the official study does not remark on the tension. It simply asks open-ended questions about “how does the sexual identity of those who marry inform the understanding of marriage” that the church has traditionally held.
The Covenant Network aims to go beyond open-ended questions. It explains that it is “hearing that many congregations would like a study that goes a step further, challenging groups of faithful Presbyterians to consider a wider variety of perspectives on interpreting the scriptural and confessional traditional of the church around marriage.” Such congregations, according to the network, want to “draw on theological reflection, both traditional and contemporary, that is open to the possibility that our understanding of marriage (like all our theology) might be ‘Reformed and always being Reformed.’” The network also reports that “[s]ome congregations are finding that the sessions” of the official study “are difficult to complete in the usual time available on a Sunday morning.”
To fill these perceived needs, the Covenant Network is offering an “adaptation” of the official study on marriage. The adaptation, developed by the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Cuthbertson of Las Placitas Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, N.M., adds some material and deletes some material. As it does not in any way signal where these alterations have been introduced, the only way to find them is to make a phrase-by-phrase comparison of the two documents.
On balance, it does not appear that Cuthbertson’s adaptation is any shorter than the denominational study. The main change is that the adaptation consistently emphasizes arguments for blessing same-sex marriages, while de-emphasizing considerations that might suggest retaining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The “wider variety of perspectives” promised by the Covenant Network turns out to be a single perspective — the perspective that “is open to the possibility that our understanding of marriage” needs to be revised.
What the Covenant Network added
First, note some of Cuthbertson’s additions to the study:
1. “How does the sexual identity (orientation) of those who marry inform the understanding of marriage as …?” [emphasis added] Into this key question that is repeated in the official study for each of the “main ideas,” Cuthbertson has inserted in parentheses the term “orientation” as a putative synonym for “sexual identity.” But “orientation” is not the same as “sexual identity,” and equating the two totally alters the thrust of the question.
In the original question, “sexual identity” would be understood naturally as referring to the identity given by God. “Male and female He created them,” according to Genesis 1:27. For Christians, our truest identity is always a gift of our Creator and Redeemer.
Yet the modern term “orientation” points in a different direction. It suggests that our “sexual identity” is rooted in our desires — for partners of the opposite sex, of the same sex, or of whatever characteristics attract us. But if these desires drive us toward actions that violate God’s will, is it right to embrace the desires as our “sexual identity?” The Covenant Network resource seems unaware of this dilemma, apparently assuming that any “orientation” constitutes a proper basis for one’s “sexual identity.”
2. The Covenant Network adaptation points study participants to two Old Testament passages describing descendants of a common ancestor as having the same “bone and flesh.” It then asks the leading question, “How do these references inform our understanding of the metaphor ‘one flesh’?” The obvious intended implication is to undermine the traditional interpretation of Genesis 2:24, in which “the two become one flesh” is understood as not just a metaphor but also a physical description of the union of a man and woman in sexual intercourse. The effect is to minimize the importance of that sexual union of opposites and to reduce marriage to a more metaphorical closeness among any persons.
3. The adaptation cites Old Testament practice of “levirate marriage — requiring the brother of a man who died childless to marry his widow and father a child to carry on his brother’s name” as “one example of how different the worldview of the Biblical writers is from our own.” It then asks, “How do we discern which Biblical admonitions are timeless principles and which are culture-bound?”
Cuthbertson provides no answer to that question. He thus sows a generalized suspicion that many Biblical commands, such as the prohibitions of same-sex relations, might be “culture-bound” and no longer applicable. He ignores a principle by which the church has long discerned which Old Testament commands still apply: the ones that are reiterated by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament. The requirement for levirate marriage is not repeated in the New Testament. By contrast, the honor shown to man/woman marriage and the disapproval of same-sex and other nonmarital sexual relations is, if anything, clearer and stronger in the New Testament than in the Old.
Readers of the Covenant Network study guide are not informed of this important distinction. They are left with the possible impression that much of the Biblical teaching on marriage is as obsolete as levirate marriage.
4. The adaptation similarly tries to relativize the Scripture passages comparing the relationship between God and His people to a marriage. “How do these metaphors reflect the understanding of marriage at the time they were written?” it asks. “What about the relationship between Christ and the church is represented by the metaphor of marriage? Do any of these qualities depend on gender?” The assumed answer is no. Cuthbertson never turns the question around to ask how our understanding of the love between God and his people might shape our view of marriage. For example, he might have considered how the bridging of the gap between God and humanity might offer a model for how the two sexes unite in marriage. Note also his preference for the term “gender” rather than “sex,” implying that differences between men and women are artificially constructed rather than ordained providentially by the Creator.
5. The Covenant Network document inserts another Bible passage into the study: Galatians 3:23-29. It is here that the Apostle Paul famously proclaims, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Cuthbertson asks “what is the relevance” of this text “to the church’s discernment about the meaning of marriage.”
But Galatians 3 is not about marriage. Paul’s point here is that all believers belong to God on the same basis: “[F]or in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” In saying that “[t]here is no longer Jew or Greek,” the apostle is not suggesting that the church should ignore all differences of language and culture. Likewise, in saying that “there is no longer male and female,” he is not suggesting that biological sex is a meaningless category. Paul is not proposing to reconstruct marriage as a “gender-neutral” institution.
6. The Covenant Network version of the marriage study poses the question: “How does Paul’s acknowledgment in 1 Corinthians 7:7 that ‘each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind’ inform the consideration of varieties of family structure?” The implication is that any “family structure,” including same-sex relations, can be “a particular gift from God.” But in the very next verse, unremarked by Cuthbertson, Paul presents Christians with a choice between only two family structures: marriage to an opposite-sex spouse, or chastity in singleness. “To the unmarried and the widows” the apostle advises “that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.” There is no option, here or elsewhere in Scripture, for same-sex relations that are blessed by God.
7. Regarding the same passage, Cuthbertson’s adaptation asks: “Why does Paul honor celibacy over marriage? Is Paul’s preference important for today’s Presbyterians?” The obvious answer is that today’s Presbyterians do not share the apostle’s preference for celibacy over marriage. And the implication is that perhaps modern church members may be justified in ignoring other moral instruction from Biblical writers.
8. The same thought surfaces in another leading question: “How is Jesus’ condemnation of divorce [in Mark 10:1-9] interpreted in the church today, and how is that relevant to consideration of who is allowed to marry?” Once again, it is obvious that many current Presbyterians are quite ready to overlook Jesus’ strictures against divorce. And the unspoken implication is that they might be equally ready to dispense with the male/female prerequisite for marriage that is stressed by Christ in the same gospel passage. The Covenant Network does not turn the question around and ask how Jesus’ challenging words might reshape our modern views of both marriage and divorce.
9. “How do the changing roles of men and women in heterosexual marriage affect the discussion of marriage between two men or two women?” the adaptation asks. The suggestion is again clear: changing cultural mores should dictate changes in Christian teaching. Because society’s marital practices are shifting, the reasoning goes, the church’s definition of marriage also should be revised. Cuthbertson does not broach the possibility that some cultural trends might be contrary to God’s will while others are in accord, and therefore Presbyterians must go to the Scriptures to distinguish between the two.
10. “Adoption and a variety of other reproductive technologies (in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, etc.) have expanded the number of persons who can be parents beyond a fertile heterosexual couple, and children can be nurtured in a variety of family structures,” asserts the Covenant Network study guide. “What factors are most important to the well-being of children?” Cuthbertson is obviously fishing for a functional answer like “love and stability,” thus ratifying his suggestion that “family structures” have little importance for child well-being. He does not mention the possibility that one family structure — a married biological father and mother — does in fact offer the best environment for children to flourish. He assumes that because techniques exist for same-sex couples to obtain children using sperm donors, surrogate mothers, and the like, there are no significant moral or practical problems with these practices that deliberately separate a child from its biological mother or father.
11. Cuthbertson’s adaptation frames questions with loaded terms that almost force participants to affirm same-sex marriage. “In what way does the opportunity to enter into marriage represent, for same-sex couples, the opportunity to enter into a new way of life?” he asks. This phrasing smuggles in the assumption that marriage (rather than friendship) is a possible and proper relationship between two members of the same sex. It also assumes that sexual relations between the two could constitute “a new way of life” demonstrating the Christian Gospel. But if same-sex relations are forbidden to Christians, as every major branch of the church has taught for 2,000 years, then neither of those assumptions is valid.
12. “What is the effect of denying marriage to a couple who wishes to live out their discipleship in their relationship?” This question presupposes that the church is arbitrarily “denying marriage” to a couple otherwise qualified to marry. But the church has no authority to “deny” or grant marriage. Marriage is defined by its Creator. The church merely decides whether to hold a service celebrating and blessing a marriage. According to the PCUSA Book of Order, the decision is to be based upon the Christian faith and emotional maturity of the couple, and whether they meet the Biblical and civil requirements for marriage.
In the case of same-sex partners, the couple does not fit the definition of marriage as the church understands it from Scripture. There may be a deep friendship between members of the same sex; however, God has not given the church power to declare that relationship a marriage.
What the Covenant Network deleted
Perhaps even more telling are the parts of the official study that the Covenant Network drops or de-emphasizes.
A. References to the two complementary sexes. The passages of Scripture, the confessions, the Book of Order, and the wedding liturgy cited in the denominational study are replete with references to “male and female,” “woman and man,” “husband and wife,” and the like. Cuthbertson’s adaptation retains these passages, at least as “background”; however, his questions scrupulously avoid any mention of all this “gendered” language about marriage. He drops questions in the official study such as “How would you describe or interpret the creation of man and woman in this passage [Genesis 2]?”
B. The official study asks, “What does it mean to you that Jesus [in Mark 10] rehearses words from Genesis as a way to describe marriage?” The Covenant Network version omits this question. Instead it presents Mark 10 as narrowly about divorce, as if Jesus did not also speak more broadly about marriage. Study participants are not informed that Jesus gave His own authoritative interpretation of Genesis 1-2. He set forth God’s original intention for marriage by highlighting the verse in Genesis 1 about how “God made them male and female” and then linking it to the verse in Genesis 2: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” In other words, Jesus identified the union of the two sexes as the central element of marriage. This insight is, of course, quite inconsistent with the Covenant Network’s contention that marriage has nothing to do with humans being male and female.
C. Cuthbertson’s adaptation deletes the official study’s observation that “[t]he understanding of God’s covenantal relationship to a particular people as being like that of a marriage is a theme that runs throughout the Bible.” The effect is to diminish the importance of marriage in the Scriptures, and the way in which it is viewed as the coming together of two unlike parties.
D. The Covenant Network guide includes the same texts from the Book of Confessions, Book of Order and wedding liturgy as the denomination’s study. But it demotes those texts to a “background” handout and asks no specific questions about them. Consequently, study participants may not be aware of the consistent teaching on marriage that appears throughout these historic PCUSA sources. They may not hear the Westminster Confession teach that “Christian marriage is an institution ordained of God … into which spiritual and physical union one man and one woman enter.” They may miss out on the Book of Order declaring, “For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship.” They may overlook the wedding liturgy proclaiming, “God gave us marriage for the full expression of the love between a man and a woman.” They may not pick up the insistent echoes of all this teaching: “God ordained,” “God gave,” “man and woman,” “woman and man.”
E. “How do you see same-gender marriage as an image of Christ’s relationship to the church?” the adaptation asks. It drops three crucial words from the original question: “How do you see or not see same-gender marriage …? [emphasis added] The result is that the Covenant Network has eliminated the option for study participants to say that they do not see same-sex relations as an appropriate reflection of the love between Christ and His Church. The uncontested assumption is that they must be a reflection.
F. The Covenant Network version deletes these questions: “How can marriage be a good thing for society and for those who are not married? What do good marriages contribute to society?” Apparently, it does not wish to stress the Biblical and traditional Reformed conviction that marriage is not just for the emotional satisfaction of the spouses, but also for the godly ordering of society—especially through the birth and nurture of children in the lifelong embrace of their father and mother.
G. “What would it look like for the church to differ from the state in its understanding of marriage?” This provocative question from the denominational study disappears in Cuthbertson’s adaptation. The question raises the possibility that even though states may redefine marriage as any “two persons,” the church might continue to reserve special honor for the lifelong union of one man and one woman.
But the overtures promoted by the Covenant Network take the opposite tack. They demand that the church keep pace with politics, so that Presbyterian ministers could marry any couple holding a civil marriage license. These overtures do not mention the possibility that the PCUSA might choose to “differ from the state in its understanding of marriage.” And neither does the Covenant Network study guide.
H. Cuthbertson’s guide also makes curious alterations in the prayers found in the official study. A beautiful prayer prescribed for the opening of each session — “Loving God, as Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana, change our sorrow into joy, our weakness into strength, and our fear into hope….” — is dropped entirely. Perhaps the reminder that marriage figured at several points in Jesus’ career and teaching is unwelcome to the Covenant Network.
Same-sex advocates can assert that Jesus never said anything directly about homosexuality — it was not a topic of debate among Jews of His time — however, they cannot claim that Jesus never addressed marriage. Nor can they deny that the theme of marriage as the two created sexes “becoming one flesh,” imaging the union between God and His people, runs powerfully through Scripture and the Reformed tradition. But they can de-emphasize and obscure that theme. The purpose of this smoke screen is to prepare the way for a revised teaching that reduces marriage to just an emotional attachment between any two (or more?) individuals. This is the strategy pursued by the Covenant Network in its adaptation of the PCUSA marriage study.