The theme for the 220th General Assembly is Isaiah 40:31, “but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” This verse is appropriate for an assembly that will deal with 13 overtures concerning marriage, as Christian marriage is a covenant which, if continually renewed and centered in Christ, overcomes all life’s difficulties. Ever since God created man and woman and gave them to each other to become one flesh, marriage has blessed humankind. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “Christian marriage is an institution ordained of 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.”
The 220th General Assembly will consider if the definition of marriage defended by Jesus in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, expressed in our Confessions, and stated in the Directory of Worship, stands in the PC(USA). Four overtures seek to change the wording in the Directory of Worship from “man and woman” to “two people.” Six overtures ask for authoritative interpretations that would allow same-sex marriages. An authoritative interpretation can be adopted by a simple majority of one assembly and would not require presbytery ratification. Three overtures seek to affirm and strengthen the current definition of marriage.
The three of us were appointed by Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow to the Special Committee on Civil Unions and Christian Marriage. In the year preceding the 219th General Assembly, we studied the biblical, Reformed, historical, legal and social dimensions of civil unions, same-sex marriage, and Christian marriage. In time, this led to our committee submitting two reports for consideration by the General Assembly, both of which were recommended to the churches for study.
We believe our committee’s differences stemmed in part from our emphasizing one of two views: the Enlightenment view that marriage is a personal contract based on personal happiness that is constantly evolving, or the Reformed understanding that marriage is a covenant among God, a man and a woman, the church, and the community. Our report stressed the Reformed covenantal view of marriage as expressed through the Scriptures, the confessions, and the Book of Order.
The debate in secular society frames marriage as a right. However, as Christians, we must ask what the Scriptures say about marriage. Marriage is sacred. This is most clearly illustrated in the comparison of the relationship to Christ and his church to a bride and bridegroom. Jesus defends marriage against both polygamy and divorce, drawing on God’s original intent for humanity. “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘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.” Jesus celebrates marriage by performing his first miracle at a wedding and uses marriage as an illustration in parables. Paul writes of the divine gift of marriage and sees it as an antidote against porneia, a Greek term covering sexual misconduct including homosexuality. He instructs the Corinthian church in sexual ethics as one of the first instances of church discipline.
In the Old Testament, marriage is the basis for family, and tragic consequences result when humans deviate from the model given at creation. Polygamous unions are fraught with problems and lead to greater sins as with David and Solomon. Procreation is a natural part of marriage and the gift of children is a special blessing. The covenant is transmitted through the birth of each generation. Marriage is used by the prophets as a symbol of the exclusive attachment of Israel to God, who is called Israel’s husband. Worshipping other gods is likened to adultery, as when the prophet Hosea marries the prostitute Gomer.
God calls us into relationship with God and then with others. The call to love one’s neighbor is a command. In fulfilling this command, we must act in conformity with our relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Then in discipleship to Christ, we are called to become his bondservant: body, soul and mind. Our bodies are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. We must use our bodies within God’s design. Because God’s design is rooted in creation, this is not just for the believer but for humanity. Friendships, of same or opposite gender, which do not violate God’s boundaries of sexual expression as defined in Scripture, can be honored and encouraged. However, those relationships, of same or opposite gendered, although committed and caring, which are outside God’s design of sexual expression, cannot be encouraged or blessed. Pastoral care must be extended to all people. Such care should always conform to the Scriptures as the church works to “gather and perfect” the saints.
When our Confessions address marriage, they do so with the explicit understanding that marriage is between a man and a woman. Marriage is not just about two persons’ personal happiness. Instead, marriage affects our society, churches, and understanding of sex. A recent study by San Francisco State University found that about 50 percent of same-sex marriages were open, and posited that new definitions of marriage would expand marriage within the heterosexual community beyond monogamy.
As persons within whom the Spirit of God dwells, we are to pay particular attention to the ways we use our bodies. Our bodies are precious to God. Even the hairs on our head are numbered. We believe our bodies will be resurrected one day from dust and decay. How we conduct ourselves sexually is extremely important, and God has given us a perfect plan for this — marriage between a man and a woman.
In Genesis, God says it is not good for man to be alone. A woman is made who completes Adam and the two of them become one flesh. Adam embraces Eve and cries out, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” God’s gracious intent for our sexuality is that we would find the one who completes us. Our bodies are carefully designed by the Creator to belong to the one created for us before the foundation of the world was laid. Any sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman violates this beautiful intention of God. We are to be celibate until marriage and to not violate our marriage vows.
Too often in our hedonistic culture, sex is seen as a liberating act. We falsely believe that there is freedom in doing what feels good and what we want. But like all sin, sexual sins have consequences. God’s gift of sex wrongly used causes emotional and physical carnage. As the church, we should call our young people to the empowering freedom of God’s perfect design for sex. We should see celibacy as a gift as Paul did and support and encourage single people.
The Christian life is one of sanctification. We are to be dead to sin and alive to all that is good. We are to transform our culture and offer to all the joy and freedom that come from striving to be obedient to God’s Word. We are to proclaim without exception the all-encompassing power of Jesus Christ to deliver us from any sin with which we struggle. This journey will have times of difficulties, and we will all fail, but the church should be a place of grace, repentance and restoration, as we seek to be molded into the image of Christ.
God has a place for sex: It is within marriage between one man and one woman and that commitment is for life. Let us support and encourage those who are not married and help them know that God’s plan for them is just as important as God’s plan for married people. Let us honor celibacy as a profitable spiritual discipline that may be lifelong or for a season of life. May the 220th General Assembly bear witness to the sacredness of marriage by holding fast to our biblical and confessional standards.
TRACIE MAYES STEWART is associate pastor of Lake Murray Presbyterian Church in Chapin, S.C. BILL TENG is pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Va. LISA COOPER VAN RIPER is an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C.