Monday, July 6, 2009
The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage has invited feedback from the denomination as they begin to tackle their mandate from last year’s General Assembly. According to a Presbyterian News Service piece, Jim Szeyller, the committee’s moderator, is inviting the denomination’s feedback on one particular question: “What is the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community?” Below is my response, which I have e-mailed to the committee. And I encourage anyone who has an opinion to offer their feedback; that the committee is inviting democratic input is commendable and needs to be rewarded! (Responses must be fewer than 1,000 words; e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org by August 16, 2009.)
What is the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community?
Those who wish to provide an affirmative answer to this question—What is the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community?—need to overcome three primary obstacles: biblical teaching regarding marriage and sexuality, our confessional testimony, and the continuous practice of heterosexual marriage in Judaism and Christianity for thousands of years, not to mention the consensus of the universal church today.
Unlike many biblical subjects that are presented with nuance and exceptions, the Bible is rather blunt about God’s design for sexuality. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27 NRSV). This ideal of a male-female-counterpart union (Genesis 2:24) is never overturned but remains the standard for human sexual and reproductive activity throughout the Bible. The male-female complementary model is not merely some outmoded prescription of the Mosaic law that has been discarded with the advent of the New Covenant; nor is it a remnant of premodern patriarchy. But it is an element of creation itself, how men and women reflect the divine image together, and a continuing moral norm in the body of Christ. The only deviation from this standard in Scripture are the frequent cases of polygamy in the Old Testament, which apparently was tolerated (neither endorsed, nor prohibited) as the nation of Israel was being built up.
I have not heard any case from same-gender proponents that even addresses this core biblical teaching. The minimum I have heard is a case for tolerating same-gender sexual intercourse with the rather arbitrary feature that it must be in monogamous, two-party, “covenanted” (whatever that means, precisely) unions. It seems that pro-gay advocates have only a vague notion of fairness fueled by recent gains in the secular gay-rights movement.
Our Confessions only strengthen the biblical pattern of heterosexual marriage. A glance through our Book of Confessions underlines the truth that marriage “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 accord” (5.246). The declaration that “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” leaves little room for including homosexual unions in the body of Christ (6.131). On the contrary, The Confession of 1967, often thought of as a progressive statement of the Faith, torpedoes any chance of so-called “covenanted” same-gender unions: “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…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” (9.47).
Unless the advocates of same-sex “marriage” can somehow undo this weighty confessional evidence, this is an open-and-shut case.
Tradition and Consensus
Too often we American denominationalists engage in narcissistic, parochial monologues. We live in a narrow myth of progress: that because we live in purportedly the most enlightened age the world has ever experienced, we then have the wisdom to speak definitively and to correct former “errors,” regardless of how rooted they are in our faith tradition. The vast majority of Christians in the world today would probably scratch their heads in bewilderment to hear that we (a mostly white European-American denomination whose clout has contracted dramatically) are entertaining such a foreign idea as promoting same-sex partnerships within the church. More often than not, our self-absorbed navel-gazing gives rise to imperialistic, unbiblical proclamations that only drive a wedge between us and other Christians—which is even more tragic when we consider Christ’s passion for true, visible unity in his body.
Unfortunately, this monologue about same-sex unions is just another example of our elitist, Western paternalism where we assume that we are setting the pace for our backwards neighbors and leading the way into a brighter future. It serves to demonstrate how far we have wandered from the larger flock and how worldly we have become.
The proponents of normalizing homosexual unions in the church have done us a service by encouraging us to reconsider exactly what marriage is and what role it plays in our life together. Positively, we have been forced to clarify the distinction and commonality of civil marriage versus Christian marriage, and we have been invited to re-examine the theological underpinnings of the ordinance of marriage. It has also been helpful for us to consider how those who deal with same-sex attractions may live faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately for those proponents who wish to make space for same-gender unions in the Christian church, they have fallen short of overturning the substantial biblical evidence, the durable confessional testimony, and the historical consensus of the church throughout the ages.