June 28 – More Questions than Answers

DictionaryI have a dictionary on my bookshelf. It is a Merriam Webster Collegiate, the 1974 edition. I’ve had it for a long time, but I rarely use it any longer. So much easier to go to one of the many online dictionaries.

This past Monday as I was preparing for a Session meeting, however, I pulled my old friend from its place of the shelf, blew the dust from the top of the pages and looked up the word “marriage.” Here’s how Merriam Webster answered my inquiry with its 1974 understanding of marriage (and, as it turns out, in the 1993 edition that sits unused on a book shelf at home, as well):

a. the state of being married. b. the mutual relation of husband and wife whereby men and women are joined in a special kind of social and legal dependence for the purpose of founding and maintaining a family.

When I went to Merriam Webster online, this is what I was told:

(1) : the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage>

Earlier this week the Supreme Court issued a ruling in U.S. v. Windsor that said that marriage is whatever the state through its democratic process says it is. As expected, reactions to the ruling have been mixed. There has been conversation about the legal merit, or lack thereof, in Justice Kennedy’s opinion which interests me, but upon which I will not comment.

There is common consensus that whatever the ruling established by way of constitutional law, it did more by way of affirming a cultural shift towards Merriam Webster’s more recent definition of marriage. But it is not that the people at Merriam Webster (or freedicitionary.com who include the possibility of polygamy in their definition of marriage) have redefined marriage. We have. We the people. For forty years or more our culture, the collective us, has been at work redefining marriage. The dictionary editors are simply listening to us and the Supreme Court Justices, still a bare majority, are persuaded by our conversation.

Our cultural understanding of marriage has shifted from a man and a woman for the purpose of family life to the consensual relationship of any two, or maybe more, people. The Supreme Court has yet to catch up with the culture, if, in fact, that is its job.

American marriage in the early Twenty-first Century is an option, a set of rights and privileges  and the government’s affirmation of an emotional bond between persons. That over half of all babies born in our country are welcomed into a home lacking a married father, if any father at all, speaks to our reality.

I write as a Christian pastor. Specifically I am Presbyterian and identify with the historic Reformed and evangelical roots of Presbyterianism as defined by the Creeds and Confessions of our Reformed Tradition. In that tradition we look to the “Word of God contained in Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the only rule God has given to direct how we may glorify and enjoy God” (Answer 2 in the Shorter Catechism, slightly modified).

To put it another way, as a Christian I look to the Bible for counsel, direction and wisdom in knowing how I might faithfully act and live as a Christian. Most Christians would concur with that broad statement. But we have our differences:

  • A Roman Catholic will ask how the church has understood the Word and will seek guidance and direction from the encyclicals of the church. A Roman Catholic trusts his church to continually provide new teaching when new issues arise.
  • A progressive Christian, those often associated with the institutional side of the old mainline denominations, will ask how the ancient principles of the biblical text might provide insight or how they might help inform the kinds of decisions that we alone must finally make as we live life in a modern or even post-modern world.
  • The Evangelical Christian, and especially those of us in the Reformed tradition, will ask what is the whole counsel of God contained in the Scripture of the Old and New Testament concerning a given issue or ones like it, and how might we faithfully obey that counsel and direction in our time and place.

I share that background because I want you to know that my perspective is not the only perspective, but I believe it is faithful to my call and ordination as the pastor of Langhorne Presbyterian Church.

Our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, commonly but not by mandate used in many Presbyterian Churches including LPC, defines marriage as a gift of God:

God created us male and female, and gave us marriage so that husband and wife may help and comfort each other, living faithfully together in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, throughout all their days.

God gave us marriage for the full expression of the love between a man and a woman.

In marriage a woman and a man belong to each other, and with affection and tenderness freely give themselves to each other.

God gave us marriage for the well being of human society, for the ordering of family life, and for the nurture of children.

God gave us marriage as a holy mystery in which a man and a woman are joined together, and become one, just as Christ is one with the church.

In marriage, husband and wife are called to a new way of life, created, ordered, and blessed by God. This way of life must not be entered into carelessly, or from selfish motives, but responsibly, and prayerfully.

I like this definition very much and tell the couples who come to me to officiate at their weddings, that it is non-negotiable. It will be said.  It is a glorious description of a beautiful gift by which a man and a woman become one flesh, raise children to flourish in the admonition and nurture of the Lord and help communities and nations thrive.  The alternate definitions being offered by dictionaries and our democratic processes pale by comparison.

Not as of U.S. v. Windsor, but sometime fairly recently, the agreed upon definitions of civil and Christian marriage began to part, to become so distant as to no longer be able to easily work  together for the common good. This separation is bound to grow and without undo anger or malice, Christians will, as they often must, find themselves traveling the road less traveled.

For those of us who ascribe to some sense of the binding authority of Scripture, the normative definition of marriage as a life-long, one flesh union of a man and a woman by which families are made and societies prosper stands. We do well to work hard to understand its foundations and test its beauty, but the Word has not been misunderstood.

Look for a Faith Acts Class this fall that will probe and explore the Biblical witness to marriage, asking as many hard questions of the texts as we can. We will challenge our assumptions and submit to change as the Spirit speaking through the word directs.

This week’s Supreme Court ruling, then, answered a question that had already been answered. For many of us our Christian conviction is in serious conflict with culture consensus. That should not surprise us, we have been here before and will be here again.

The answer to a question about LPC’s view of marriage is given in our Statement of Faith and our understanding of Scripture’s direction for enjoying and glorifying God. “We rejoice that marriage is given by God, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, and sustained by the Holy Spirit.” We give thanks for this one flesh union between a man and a woman, for the nurture of children and the well-being of the human family.

Our answer is good and faithful, but how might we answer other questions?  In this fall’s class and elsewhere we will continue to listen to the Word of God in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as we ask:

  • If the culture reflected in dictionaries and textbooks understands marriage differently than those of us on the road less traveled, how can we best teach and model Christian marriage to our children and youth? And how can we best emphasize what we offer and not what we oppose?
  • How do we assure that all those who come to the church seeking God’s blessing on their marriage understand that increasingly ours is the way of the road less traveled?
  • Just as God’s people from the time of Moses on have struggled to hear God’s voice as to ways we might accommodate those situations that are outside of the normative definition of marriage – marriages ended by divorce or desertion and strained by unfaithfulness and inattention, children deprived of parents by death or other circumstance , and more, are there ways to accommodate other relationships that are intentionally outside that normative definition? Same-sex unions are but one example, and not the most common or, I think, most vexing.  We find marriage to be regarded as mostly a feeling-defined option among some in the church. How might we respond most effectively?
  • How do we best encourage and support those who are not able to enter into marriage by circumstance or condition?  A young gay Christian, Wesley Hill, asks these questions in his recent book Washed and Waiting. Most singles, gay or straight, ask the question. Are we willing to embody a faithful answer?
  • How do we respond in love to our friends, family members and coworkers whose civil marriages – or no-marriage lives together – and wedding celebrations do not conform to the understanding of this way of the road less traveled, this way of a Word that directs us how we may glorify and enjoy God?
  • How do we “pray for the welfare of the city where we live in exile” (Jeremiah 29:7)?
  • How do we share mission and ministry, fellowship and worship, with brother and sister Christians who we sense have compromised the gospel by cultural accommodation and who feel we have lost cultural relevance for the sake of rigid allegiance to an outdated text?
  • How do we travel the road less traveled but still befriend and love those on the broader path “not seeking our own advantage, but that many might be saved” (I Corinthians 10:33)?
  • How can we best find the still more excellent way of love in a culture and a church where division and fracture have become so common that we no longer notice them?
  • How does the Word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments direct us to glorify and enjoy God in these days of turmoil?

I am looking forward to conversation in classes and elsewhere as we continue our journey together, even, especially, on the road less traveled.

Bill Teague
June 28, 2013