by Jerry Andrews
The church has a faith without which she cannot live faithfully. That faith, and the faithfulness it both informs and invites, enlightens all of human life including marriage. We are grateful for the gift of the faith and the grace of God that works faithfulness in the church.
Our need The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been asked to reconsider its commitment to teaching as part of the faith, and to practicing as part of its faithfulness, marriage as a gift of God and a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman. Members, congregations and presbyteries have asked that same-sex partners may form marriages blessed by the PC(USA). They have asked this on behalf of themselves, members of their families, loved ones within the congregation and those in their communities. This request, we trust, is made with a genuine empathy for others and a sincere desire for justice. Love moves them to ask for this rethinking. We hear that, appreciate that, and trust that. The external prompts for reconsideration also are powerful and persistent. Our society, with a swiftness seldom seen before, has altered its sense and practice of marriage and continues to alter its legal structures that regulate marriage. While cultural shifts are not to be recognized as the word of God, they may provoke us to rethink our hearing of the word, and thus bless us by the role they play in prompting fresh commitments to reading the word. We know that, appreciate that, and willingly respond to that. We note that the language of rights and equality are central in the discussions in our society. These terms and the ideas behind them have blessed millions, including us; they have carried us far. Again, we are grateful. We also note that this is not the vocabulary of the gospel. Creation, sin and redemption are the heart of the vocabulary among the people of God, and it is only the gospel that can bring us all the way home. Silence on the part of the PC(USA), whether toward its own members, which seek a sure guidance, or toward society, which may or may not be listening, will serve neither us nor our society. Here, the Reformed instinct to publicly confess our faith and announce who we are, what we believe and what we resolve to do will serve best. In speaking now, we neither attempt to follow our culture’s current mores, which will again shift, nor make absolute the understanding of any previous generation. We are a church that is Reformed (grateful for the truth God already revealed to us) and Reforming (ready to amend our thinking and living as God changes our understanding of the truth), all according to the word of God.
Our foundation We believe the PC(USA) rightly desires to follow Christ on these and other matters. This gladly requires us to hear and obey his word. Christ’s prophets and apostles have spoken his word in Scripture. So, toward the end of serving the PC(USA) and neighbor, we offer the following outline of the faith of the church and the faithfulness it invites by offering an overview (all too brief) of the church’s understanding of that word — an understanding we believe will continue to serve us best, even now. As part of the faith that the church teaches, and the faithfulness that the church practices, is the teaching that God has created and commanded us that human sexuality be expressed fully only within the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman. Within that teaching of the church is the understanding that Scripture teaches a quite uniform prohibition of sexual relationships and acts outside of that covenant — this prohibition is repeated and made clear so that the benefits of marriage between one man and one woman may be received in succeeding generations, even if God’s intentions in so creating and commanding us are never fully understood. The creation stories speak foundationally of humanity being made male and female in the image of God; blessed in their intimacy to fill the earth; given to one another with gender specificity for mutual help; and that this gift is for the generations as men and women leave father and mother and cleave to each other. Jesus affirmed this perspective when he reintroduced this Genesis passage as authoritative, saying “Haven’t you read that at the beginning it was said … .” Jesus connected the creation of humanity as male and female with the marriage union and announced that it is an act of God not to be undone. Scripture shows us what marriage should and should not be. Immediately after the fall of humanity, a new tension between husband and wife was announced. The remainder of Genesis shows how far we have fallen from God’s design and, as a result, how far we have fallen away from each other. Noah’s sons, Abraham’s ambiguous denial of his marriage, Sodom’s sin, the anarchy of polygamy — all are heart-breaking narratives of pain and suffering within the world and within the family. From Exodus on, the simple prescriptive command of the law not to commit adultery is accompanied by stories of the complex consequences of our failure to keep the commandment. These portraits of varied relationships are descriptions of brokenness. Sexual relationships outside marriage have no favorable treatment — same-gender relationships no more or less so than others. Within the Holiness Code (from which our Savior approvingly quotes the second great commandment to love our neighbor), a clear prohibition against same gender relations is repeated. Scripture’s poetic and wisdom books celebrate marital love between a man and a woman and give us instruction and inspiration to live wisely and well in that relationship. The prophetic books reveal the parallel between God’s covenantal relationship with Israel and that of a husband and wife, thus dignifying the purpose of those relationships. Jesus affirms all this in his teaching on marriage and in the process eliminates the dual standards for obedience that had arisen in Israel regarding men and women. His reaffirmation of the Law is heard in his announcement that all these laws are summed up in love toward God and neighbor. The descriptions of the early church in Acts and the prescriptions of the letters of the apostles bless marriage between a man and a woman and prohibit sexual relations outside of marriage. In a more extended passage, the first chapter of Romans shows the continued fallen nature of men and women by citing homosexual sin — a sin neither more or less egregious than others, but as particularly apt to illustrate the result of sin in all humanity. We rejoice when we hear that our fallen nature and habits are not the final word in Scripture. Not nearly. The gospel announces that God always comes to us in grace, forgiving sins and helping us to amend our lives. Baptized into Christ we are his now; our identity is in Christ. Again, this summary is all too brief and itself can be challenged as an inadequate restatement of the church’s teaching on the matters of same or dual gender in marriage. Nonetheless, that the church relying on the word of God has so taught, and has by the grace of God attempted so to live, is acknowledged by all. We believe such an understanding of Christ’s word to be true and a continued gift, however much challenged, in our own generation.
Our task Whatever are our individual understandings, the task of the church in any moment of proposed revisions is to study God’s word with open hearts and rigorous minds. This study is to be a commitment to re-engage with Scripture, which is the authoritative word of God. Our study of Scripture is aided by conversing with the confessional heritage, and with others around the world and throughout time so that we may hear God’s word fully and deeply. The church asks again that the Holy Spirit who inspired and illuminates God’s word lead us into truth. Then, acknowledging Christ’s word and thus discerning his will, the church examines its own life in the light, relying on God for mercy and grace to amend. These things take time and prayer. Until such time as a new understanding of the word may be judged by the church to be more sure and it approves that understanding to replace what has been taught since the beginning, it is strongly and sincerely advised that the teaching of the church neither be abandoned nor ignored. The urgency of the matter must not trump its importance or the wisdom and witness of those who have lived and died the faith before us.
JERRY ANDREWS is pastor, First Presbyterian Church, San Diego.