The Presbyterian Church and Marriage: An Interpretation
On March 24, a sufficient number of presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted in the affirmative to amend the Book of Order and expand the definition of marriage so as include same-sex couples. Our statement on marriage now reads: “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community. In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the rights and obligations of the married couple in society. In the Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and acknowledges.”
This language (which becomes official on June 21, 2015) opens the way for all couples (same-sex and opposite-sex) to request a service of Christian marriage, and it makes it possible for Presbyterian ministers and congregations to grant those requests.
The final paragraph of the amendment, however, provides an opportunity for the exercise of conscience by either a minister or a congregation: “Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.” Frankly, the hope is that this will enable some ministers and congregations to remain in the PC(USA) after the change by assuring them that they would not be forced to approve something they deeply believe is wrong.
This is a momentous day for our denomination. While I know that many still struggle with this concept, I am personally deeply pleased and proud that we have come to this place. Here are a few ways to interpret and understand why our church has acted as it has:
1. Because our church acknowledges that marriage is a civil contract, we believe that this change is a matter of fairness. We believe that same-sex couples are entitled to the same protections and benefits conferred by society on opposite sex couples, and that they should be held accountable to the same obligations. We believe that ultimately this protects family life and especially children of same-sex couples.
2. Many argue that the foundation of marriage biblically rests on the creation stories in which God makes humankind male and female and commands them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). But Reformed theologians from the very beginning of our movement in the 17th century argued that marriage was about more than procreation. Marriage, they said, was for the mutual care, support and up-building of two persons. They based their argument in part on Genesis 2:18: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the human one [man] should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’” This view argues that partnership in life is as much a “reason” for marriage as the birth and nurture of children. This emphasis in our tradition on the importance of mutual support as the heart of marriage opens the door to same-sex couples in an important way.
3. A Christian marriage is more than a civil contract, however; it is a solemn covenant made between two people in the presence of God and the Christian community who gathers as witnesses. The covenant of marriage is itself grounded in God’s covenant with us, God’s people. The story of the Bible is the story of the covenants, the binding relationships that God has made with humankind from Noah to Abraham and Moses to Jesus Christ. Covenant faithfulness is the defining characteristic of who God is. In marriage (and in other vows we make, especially ordination), we are invited to become covenant-making people. In Christian marriage, we invoke God’s blessing on those who promise themselves to one another, and we pray for God’s presence in their lives so that the two are able to fulfill the promises they make. When same-sex couples come to the church with the desire and intention to live into a covenant of fidelity grounded in God’s faithfulness to them, the church does well to rejoice with them and acknowledge God’s working in their lives.
We do not know what will happen once this amendment is finally approved or when it takes effect. Some congregations and ministers have already left the PC(USA) because this action is deeply against their conscience. Others are glad that there is room for the free exercise of conscience on this matter and will find it possible to stay. Personally, I hope we will be able to walk together into a new future with decades of debate behind us. Most of all, I am glad that gay and lesbian members and friends within our church will be able to receive the kind of welcome and acceptance that we all hope for when we come into the church.
Cynthia M. Campbell, Pastor