by Brian Ellison and Alex McNeill
Perhaps you know this couple. Maybe you’ve never met them … but they go to your church. They met through mutual friends. They made each other laugh in a way no one had for a long time. They met for coffee, then dinner; they knew in their gut what they would continue to discover over the next few months and years: this person was the one. It was love. There was just one problem. The church they started attending together a few months after they met couldn’t be the place where they stood before God and their community to covenant together in marriage. When they approached their pastor about marriage, he said that he couldn’t officiate at their wedding — his denomination’s policies wouldn’t allow it. Heartbroken, the couple faced a decision; they were deeply committed to one another and wanted to be married, honoring God with vows of faithfulness and covenant love. Would they search for some other minister — a stranger — who could marry them? Would they find a congregation that could celebrate their commitment rather than hide it? Or would they stay and make the painful decision to hold off on marriage and the community affirmation it gave to so many of their friends?
What is at stake?
The conversation underway in the church about marriage matters because it speaks to the core of our claims about God’s love and what love demands of us in response. It has profound importance for our witness in a world that increasingly rejects Christian faith as hypocritical, irrelevant or even harmful. And we believe the most faithful conclusion to that conversation at the upcoming General Assembly is to take steps to affirm the discretion of ministers and churches to provide marriage for all couples seeking to be legally married — including those of the same gender.
Additionally, we are approaching a critical point in the life of our churches. With 17 states (and the District of Columbia) now permitting legal same-sex marriage, faithful church members in as many as 65 presbyteries may be calling on their pastors asking them to provide the same ministry they would to anyone else: discernment and reflection together, counseling and a wedding that celebrates God’s gift of love and faithfulness. But through no fault of their own, they are also plunging the teaching elder into a pastoral and constitutional crisis — one that every day is undermining the church’s witness and standing.
Outside of the legal battles, in the hearts and minds of Americans and youth in particular, the statistics are stark: Three out of five Americans —and 70 percent of “millennials” (ages 18-33) — say religious groups are “alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.” One quarter of those who have left the faith and now practice no religion — and one third of millennials — say the church’s treatment of gay and lesbian people was a “somewhat” or “very important” factor.
This alone does not justify change, of course. The last thing we would suggest is that the church should change its views to accommodate the shifts in culture. But it would also be unfaithful to ignore these numbers. Scripture is full of examples, from Moses to the apostle Paul, where those who would proclaim God’s Word had to take stock of the world around them, react and adapt their presentation of the timeless truth to new realities.
Here is a reality: People are turning away from the church and its message of love and grace because we are sending a perverse alternate message of exclusion. People are coming to believe there is more grace outside the church than there is among those who worship Jesus Christ. And our own members, raised to believe they are children of God, are given reason to question whether that label is equally true of them as it is of those sitting around them in the pews.
Why marriage matters for all couples
Let us be clear. We believe the church should affirm marriage for all people because it is God’s gift for all humankind, just as our Directory for Worship says. The blessing is too great, the recognition too important, the act of faithful discipleship too serious for us to withhold its celebration for some part of the people of God.We believe the scriptures provide a rich understanding of the meaning of marriage. The biblical image of two people committing to one another in mutual submission and sacrifice, the consistent affirmation that marriage should be understood as an encouragement to one’s discipleship, the serious treatment given to matters of fidelity and divorce — all of these require Christians to think carefully about the biblical witness on marriage.
But an honest reading of the Bible honors the complexity of that witness. There is not, in truth, one model of marriage that is affirmed in Scripture. There are several permitted or even commanded by God at various points in history — many of which we would no longer regard as beneficial.
Scripture’s authority, in our tradition, compels us to read it thoughtfully, contextually, honestly, openly. We do not pluck out verses and apply them without heeding their original context, nor do we try to interpret words apart from the presence of God’s Spirit. We humbly believe that nothing in Scripture’s teachings precludes — simply on the basis of gender — the possibility of the blessings of marriage being extended to two people who love each other. Instead, what Scripture and our tradition lift up as most essential about marriage —faithfulness, commitment, shared discipleship and a faith that deepens for both partners as a result of their life together — are not gender-specific and, on the contrary, should be available to all regardless of gender or orientation.
The couple discerning whether they can bear to wait to marry in the church they hold dear, or whether they must make the heartbreaking choice to seek outside of their beloved church community for their marriage to be celebrated and honored is not a hypothetical case. They aren’t just a statistic. Indeed, both of the authors of this article had to make that difficult choice when considering marriage to our partners. We each made different decisions, but none was ideal—one married outside of the PC(USA), another has foregone the blessing of marriage until the church will recognize it. We believe no one else desiring to celebrate a lifelong commitment in our church should be forced to make such a choice. Marriage matters in our denomination because Christ welcomes us into the church in the fullness of who we are: whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, single or married.
We can continue to be church together
We are deeply grateful for the deepening relationships that have led to this exchange of perspectives of God’s call for the PC(USA) and of theological foundations underlying those perspectives. The church is stronger when those who disagree can move forward together admitting substantial difference but sharing an even more substantial faith.
It may be that we will all continue to grow to refine and revise our understandings on these matters. It may be that we will persist in disagreement. But either way, it is not a disagreement that need divide us. As one of our colleagues “across the aisle” often wisely says, even when our views seem irreconcilable, we are still called to be reconciled to one another.
Our prayer is that the authoritative interpretation and amendment proposed to this General Assembly will allow exactly that. The range of permissible marriages will be widened, but no minister will be forced or expected to perform a marriage that is contrary to his or her conscience. We hope that this freedom allows us to move forward together, learning new ways of being church together even with our serious disagreement, focused on the mission and ministry we have been given to do together in our communities, our nation and our world. We believe it is possible. In fact, we believe the gospel demands it of us.
And we dare say that we may emerge from these difficult conversations even stronger. Our understanding of marriage is (and is not), the building of friendship, and, hopefully, our Christian witness will have been strengthened, enabling us to present to a new generation that we hold divergent view together with love and grace..
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