What the PCUSA confessions say about marriage
By Carmen Fowler, The Layman, December 14, 2009
Recognizing that what is not said can be as instructive as what is said, it is interesting to note that the General Assembly Task Force on Christian Marriage and Civil Unions “pays no attention to major sections on marriage in three of the church’s confessions,” according to Alan Wisdom’s analysis for the Institute on Religion & Democracy.
As ordained servants in the Presbyterian Church (USA), elders, deacons and ministers of the Word:
We sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and we commit to be instructed and led by those confessions as we lead the people of God; and
We commit to fulfill our office in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and to be continually guided by our confessions. (W-4.04003 c and d)
So, exactly what do our confessions say about marriage?
Chapter 29 of the Second Helvetic Confession offers instruction on singleness, marriage and parenting. Paragraph 5.246 reads:
For marriage (which is the medicine of incontinency, and continency itself) was instituted by the Lord God Himself, who blessed it most bountifully, and willed man and woman to cleave one to the other inseparably, and to live together in complete love and concord (Matthew 19:4ff). Whereupon we know that the apostle said: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4). And again, “If a girl marries, she does not sin” (I Corinthians 7:28).
In its 1647 text, The Westminster Confession of Faith covers marriage and divorce in chapter XXIV. What now appears in our Book of Confessions are two columns of edited text, one representing changes made by the former PCUS and the former UPCUSA. What we now have appears as paragraphs 6.131-.136, which read:
The United Presbyterian Church
in the United States of America
Christian marriage is an institution ordained by God, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, established and sanctified for the happiness and welfare of mankind, into which spiritual and physical union one man and one woman enter, cherishing a mutual esteem and love, bearing with each other’s infirmities and weaknesses, comforting each other in trouble, providing in honesty and industry for each other and for their household, praying for each other, and living together the length of their days as heirs of the grace of life.
Because the corruption of man is apt unduly to put asunder those whom God has joined together in marriage, and because the Church is concerned with the establishment of marriage in the Lord as Scriptures sets it forth, and with the present penitence as well as with the past innocence or guilt of those whose marriage has been broken; therefore as a breach of that holy relation may occasion divorce, so remarriage after a divorce granted on grounds explicitly stated in Scripture or implicit in the gospel of Christ may be sanctioned in keeping with his redemptive gospel, when sufficient penitence for sin and failure is evident, and a firm purpose of and endeavor after Christian marriage is manifest.
The Presbyterian Church
in the United States
Marriage is a union between one man and one woman, designed by God to last so long as they both shall live.
Marriage is designed for the mutual help of husband and wife; for the safeguarding, undergirding and development of their moral and spiritual character; for the propagation of children and the rearing of them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
All persons who are able with judgment to give their consent to marry, except within the limits of blood relationship forbidden by Scripture, and such marriages are valid before God in the eyes of the church. But no marriage can be fully and securely Christian in spirit or in purpose unless both partners are committed to a common Christian faith and to a deeply shared intention of building a Christian home. Evangelical Christians should seek as partners in marriage only persons who hold in common a sound basis of evangelical faith.
Marriage for the Christian has religious as well as civil significance. The distinctive contribution of the church in performing the marriage ceremony is to affirm the divine institution of marriage; to invoke God’s blessing upon those who enter into the marital relationship in accordance with His Word; to hear the vows of those who desire to be married; and to assure the married partners of God’s grace within their new relationship. (paragraphs 6.137-139 deal with divorce and remarriage)
Question 20 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created?” The answer includes among the litany, “ordaining marriage for his help.” (7.130)
The Confession of 1967 addresses the subject in paragraph 9.47, which reads:
d. 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 of 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.
Our Confessions could not be more clear. We are not free to lead the people of God according to our personal preference or even our conscience. We are bound to lead the people of God according to the Scriptures, and our interpretation of the Scriptures is to be instructed by our mutually agreed upon confessional standards. I took a vow and so did you. As we consider the definition of marriage inside the Presbyterian Church (USA), let us be found faithful.
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