In December, 2009, Carmen Fowler, the President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and Executive Editor of its publications wrote an article in The Layman: Raising the Standard entitled “What the PCUSA confessions say about marriage.” (find the article at http://layman.org/Editorials.aspx?article=26597)
In this article, Fowler uses the analysis of Alan Wisdom of the Institute of Religion and Democracy to note that the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s “General Assembly Task Force on Christian Marriage and Civil Unions ‘pays no attention to major sections on marriage in three of the church’s confessions.’”
Portions of the Second Helvetic Confession (5.246), the Westminster Confession (6.131-.136), and one paragraph (9.47) of the Confession of 1967 were cited, all of which support heterosexual norms as expressed in Euro-American culture.
Fowler then writes,
“Our Confessions could not be more clear. We are not free to lead the people of God according to our personal preference or even our conscience. We are bound to lead the people of God according to the Scriptures, and our interpretation of the Scriptures is to be instructed by our mutually agreed upon confessional standards. I took a vow and so did you. As we consider the definition of marriage inside the Presbyterian Church (USA), let us be found faithful.”
It is easy and convenient for Fowler to mention what the Confessions say about marriage, but she neglects what the scriptures themselves say, and leaves out an important part of the Confession of 1967, which also places marriage among those relationships within society where injustice and discrimination, both racial and sexual orientation discrimination, occur. The Confession of 1967 (9.44) reads,
a. God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his (sic) reconciling love he (sic) overcomes the barriers between brothers (sic) and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all men (sic) to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen (sic), however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.
The way I read this, we are called to defend the civil rights of all people, including overturning the discrimination written into U.S. law with the “Defense of Marriage Act” which separates LGBTQ couples from the 1,138 Federal benefits and responsibilities that come with Federal recognition of their marital rights. As American Christians, taking any other stance denies our equal protection under the law and the social equity and justice to which Jesus called us. We already have good policies on employment and housing protection for LGBTQ persons in the PC (USA), but you wouldn’t know it since our policies haven’t been shared widely by the denominational leadership.
Fowler also fails to mention that the form of marriage that is almost a biblical universal is polygamy, specifically, patriarchal male polygyny (multiple wives). Jews didn’t begin to decrease the practice until the 10th century CE, and then mainly in Europe. While there is a complex polemic in scripture about how such polygamist families struggle to find harmony in such relationships, especially around legitimate heirs to the throne, the practice of polygamy explains Mark’s recognition of Jesus’ siblings, most likely by another of Mary’s “sister-wives.”
Mark 6:3 “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” (NRSV)
In fact, instead of marriage, both Jesus and Paul encourage celibacy unless one cannot control their sexual urges. See Matthew 19:10-14 and 1 Corinthians 7:8-9ff. Marriage, then, was the backup position for the weak.
What Fowler and others argue with their facile conflations of scripture is a cultural argument to uphold heterosexual privilege and superiority. To pretend that the scripture is univocal in its support of heterosexual monogamy is to impute one’s own cultural biases into not only the confessions, but our present conversation about the authority of scripture. The scripture is the higher authority, after all, and if the confessions contain historic, cultural misconceptions about the meaning and forms of marriage in the Bible, then they must be reconsidered, first in the light of the love of Christ, and then in light of the witness of scripture.
This conversation is most meaningful right now as the Presbyterian Church (USA) is on the verge of removing the most discriminatory language in its Book of Order (part 1 of the constitution) which attempts to bar same gender loving people and people of minority gender identities and expressions from leadership in the church as Ministers, Elders, and Deacons.
As we stand at the precipice of ordination equality in the PC (USA), let us prepare our hearts as a denomination to extend the full hand of fellowship to our LGBTQ siblings by fully accepting and celebrating the baptismal covenant of each and every child, by blessing and rejoicing in the covenant faithfulness of all couples seeking marriage, and fully embracing the gifts of all those called by their congregation or Presbytery for service and leadership.
For then, we may just be able to express “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” (G-1.0200) For we are called as a church “to a new openness to its own membership, by affirming itself as a community of diversity, becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, and conditions, and by providing for inclusiveness as a visible sign of the new humanity;” (G-3.0401b)