Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Descriptions of Marriage

I wasn't waiting for the Presbyterian Church (USA), in which I serve as a teaching elder (pastor), to ratify Amendment 14-F, (which establishes marriage equality in our constitution) to write my second post here. But since that is what happened a little over twelve hours ago, here goes.

A lot of ink has been spilled over what constitutes "the biblical definition of marriage"-- by which the writers are usually referring to "marriage between one man and one woman." And yes, that notion appears in scripture. What a lot of folks either don't notice or don't understand is this: scripture is many things. In terms of marriage, for the most part, scripture is not proscriptive, it's descriptive.

proscription:   noun

1. the act of proscribing or the state of being proscribed
2. denunciation, prohibition, or exclusion
3. outlawry or ostracism

description: noun

1. a statement, picture in words, or account that describes
2. the act or method of describing

Scripture describes marriage as it occurs during the biblical period. Occasionally, it makes specific judgments about those descriptions. However, for the most part, the bible is not telling us anything useful about what God believes marriage should be.

So when we read in Genesis 2:24 that "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh," that is a description of marriage as it was practiced several thousand years ago, and is still, in many ways, practiced today. (Except, anecdotally and from the perspective of one who counsels and marries some of these couples, nobody's "leaving" anywhere-- they already live together.)

And when we read, in Genesis 16, of Abram (Abraham) taking a concubine, Hagar, in addition to his wife, Sarai (Sarah), that is also descriptive of biblical marriage, as it was practiced once upon a time, and is also practiced in some areas today. Similarly with Jacob, and his two wives and two concubines (Genesis 29-30). Also, Solomon, with his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Biblical marriages, all.

Also biblical? Marriages used to solve the problem of rape.

"If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives."   ~Deuteronomy 22:28-29

All these passages constitute "biblical" marriage. And all these passages are descriptive of the way marriage was practiced at the time the biblical writers were committing their accounts to papyrus, parchment, or paper.

What we don't see in the bible?
  • Marriages which grow out of compatibility and love
  • Marriages which the parties decide to enter into as adults and equals 
These qualities do not exist in biblical marriages. Compatibility can grow in marriages arranged by family or law (see Ruth and Boaz). Passionate attachments can be rewarded by the family consenting to the union (see Jacob and Rachel). But the qualities we moderns most value (again, from a Western perspective) either never existed or were considered entirely beside the point to the biblical authors. So they are not visible to us in the collection of 66 books we call the bible.

Yesterday, by achieving a majority concurrence of its presbyteries, the largest Presbyterian denomination (PCUSA) has changed its constitution to allow for marriages between members of the LGBTQ spectrum. It has also allowed for its pastors to perform these weddings, as our consciences permit us, and for churches to host them, again, as the conscience of the church leadership allows.

Nowhere in this change is anyone mandated to perform a wedding ceremony against the dictates of their conscience. We pastors have always had the discretion to say "no" to performing weddings we considered ill-advised for any reason. That does not change.

Here's the full text of the change, because I think it's important that we know what it does and does not say:

"Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.
In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the rights and obligations of the married couple in society. In the Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and acknowledges.

"If they meet the requirements of the civil jurisdiction in which they intend to marry, a couple may request that a service of Christian marriage be conducted by a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who is authorized, though not required, to act as an agent of the civil jurisdiction in recording the marriage contract. A couple requesting a service of Christian marriage shall receive instruction from the teaching elder, who may agree to the couple’s request only if, in the judgment of the teaching elder, the couple demonstrate sufficient understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and commitment to living their lives together according to its values. In making this decision, the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church property for a marriage service.

"The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under the direction of the teaching elder and the supervision of the session (W-1.4004–.4006). In a service of marriage, the couple marry each other by exchanging mutual promises. The teaching elder witnesses the couple’s promises and pronounces God’s blessing upon their union. The community of faith pledges to support the couple in upholding their promises; prayers may be offered for the couple, for the communities that support them, and for all who seek to live in faithfulness.

"A service of worship recognizing a civil marriage and confirming it in the community of faith may be appropriate when requested by the couple. The service will be similar to the marriage service except that the statements made shall reflect the fact that the couple is already married to one another according to the laws of the civil jurisdiction.

"Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God."

Marriage is a gift of God involving a unique commitment between two people. Our constitutional change wisely describes marriage as we have witnessed it-- just as our biblical forbears have done. Those of us who are or know LGBTQ people have seen it. Years, even decades of loving commitment between two people who do not fit into the "one man and one woman" paradigm, but whose lives are clearly, joyously enriched, and who, in the strength of that love and commitment, are thus able to live more fully and authentically as God's people in the world. We've seen marriages like this. They exist. And we are describing them, and affirming them, and welcoming them into our churches.

As a result of this, the denomination in which I serve is now saying to all its members: You are welcome here. Your relationships are real and valid. God has made you who you know yourself to be, and we rejoice with you in what that means for the world. In your marriage we see-- not pie in the sky perfection, but real human beings, children of God, striving to live with meaning and joy. Just like all the other married people, in the PC(USA), and beyond.

Thanks be to God.

I know there are folks who do not feel thankful today. I know there are those-- including people I know and dearly love-- who are not able to let go of the idea that Genesis 2:24 mandates that marriage be between one man and one woman only (despite the bible's descriptions of other permutations of marriage). This story is for them.

A few years ago I was taking a continuing education class at my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, taught by none other than the eminent Old Testametnt scholar and UTS professor emerita, Phyllis Trible. We were reading the creation accounts in Genesis. A participant in the class asked about 2:24, and said, "What does that have to say to the debate about marriage equality, so-called same-sex marriage?" Prof. Trible looked at us all for a moment, and then asked us a question.

"In order for this passage to speak to the debate around LGBTQ marriage, there would have to be WHAT or WHO in the passage?"

And we all nodded our understanding, and someone said it aloud. "Another man or another woman."

She pushed the point home. "This passage says nothing about same-sex marriage. It does not address it, one way or the other."

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