We believe the Presbyterian Church’s approach to marriage must faithfully reflect the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures, regardless of whatever society or the State may do. The Church is not at liberty to put aside the teachings of its Head. As a denomination derived from the Reformation, we are meant to be subject not to human ideas but to Scripture. Constitutionally, the Presbyterian Church recognises the Word of God in the Scriptures as the ‘supreme rule of faith and life’. We need to take that seriously. We shouldn’t try to reinterpret the teachings of Jesus and Scripture to make them mean something else.
The 2012 General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand strongly declared “that it upholds the historic Christian understanding of marriage as the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman (reflecting the complementarity of male and female created in God’s image), which is grounded in nature and in Scripture, is supremely revealed in Jesus’ teaching about marriage, and is given by God for the well-being of human society…”. General Assembly also resolved that it “does not support same-sex ‘marriage’”.
We believe the 2012 General Assembly got it right. Christian understanding of marriage reflects the profound truth that God made us both male and female in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27) – with both genders necessary to reflect the image of God. Marriage is grounded in God-given nature, in basic male-female physiology. Marriage is the good and purposeful gift of God (Genesis 2:18, 24). In marriage, God intends that male and female come together in love and mutuality, trust and faithfulness, and the two became one – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. No other type of contractual, covenantal or legal sexual relationship – no matter how loving, stable or sincere – can ever be regarded by the Christian Church as marriage in the true biblical sense.
Out of that unique male-female union, God brings new life (Genesis 1:28). We are to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”. Male-female complementarity is therefore foundational – not only to bearing the image of God, but to human flourishing. It is at the heart of what it means to be human. Right across the biblical narrative, marriage is endorsed – and is central to human life.
Jesus’ teaching on marriage reinforces the indispensable core of the Bible’s understanding of marriage: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4–5). Jesus also rejects sexual immorality (Mark 7:21–22) and lust (Matthew 5:28).
Some claim there is no one model of marriage in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, for instance, we see many examples of polygamy, a defective form of marriage which was common in Ancient Near Eastern culture. But while polygamy is tolerated in the Old Testament, it is never endorsed by God or by Scripture, and it plays no part in the teaching of Jesus or the New Testament.
The reality of marriage, in Scripture and in human experience generally, includes not only blessing but also an inevitable falling short of what God intended – sometimes in major ways such as cruelty, adultery, neglect or divorce. In our sinfulness, we all need God’s forgiveness and grace.
Some argue that marriage is just a human arrangement, a largely secular matter. Certainly, marriage is a “civil contract”, but it is also much more than that. For followers of Christ, prayerfully entering into a marital covenant and making solemn promises before God, marriage is also sacred. The sexual union of a husband and wife in marriage is more than just physical, and can also have something of a “sacramental” character.
The idea of recognising homosexual relationships as “marriage” is completely foreign to Scripture. While some disagree with what the Bible teaches, there can be no question that the Bible consistently forbids the practice of homosexuality (eg Romans 1:22–28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, Jude 7). Like all other sexual immorality, homosexuality reflects humanity’s fallenness.
Same-sex “marriage” finds no place in the historic Christian doctrine of marriage, or in the teaching of our Subordinate Standards. The Church’s classic Reformed standard, the Westminster Confession, devotes a whole chapter to marriage. This begins: “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman …for the mutual help of husband and wife [and] for the increase of mankind.” The Presbyterian Church’s Directory of Worship (1995) states that Christian marriage is “a commitment for life made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed before God and acknowledged by the community of faith”.
We must be guided by the resolutions of General Assembly that “God’s intention for sexual relationships, as affirmed by Jesus Christ, is loving, mutual and faithful marriage between a man and a woman, and that intimate sexual expressions outside of that context fall short of God’s standard” (1991), and that marriage is “the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman” (2012).
The Bible’s teaching on marriage is not the absolute core of the Gospel, like the Cross and Resurrection, but it is still very important. It is not optional. Three of the Ten Commandments, for instance, are related to marriage.
The Word of God is the “supreme rule” of both “faith and life”. Some argue that the Church should just proclaim salvation in Christ, and allow freedom (diversity) in all other matters of belief and life – including matters relating to marriage and morality. But such a view is a distortion of New Testament teaching. Christ is both Saviour and Lord. The gospel is not just about salvation. It is also about following Christ, and about transformation. Having received salvation by grace, we should then honour God in how we live (eg Matthew 7:17–23, Romans 6:13, 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, Ephesians 4:1, Colossians 1:10). Grace does not abrogate truth, or the call to holiness.
The Church is not able to dictate the beliefs and laws of society at large. But we must also insist that the Church cannot be dictated to by society. In all matters, including marriage, we believe the Holy Spirit calls the Church to remain authentically faithful to the teachings of Jesus and Scripture.
Whatever else marriage may be, it is at its most fundamental level a relationship between two parties. It is a relationship established in virtue of God’s pronouncement that it is not good that man should be alone (Genesis 2:18). We human beings have need of companionship. According to the Genesis account (Genesis 2:18–25), marriage is a divinely instituted provision for that need. While the Genesis text indicates a complementarity in the companionship of male and female, it becomes clear as the biblical story unfolds that the need for companionship may also be met by other means, above all in the fellowship of the Body of Christ. The Church, in fact, is set forth in the New Testament as the paramount form of community in which all should expect to find, whether married or not, the unconditional love, forgiveness, and companionship to which the marriage relationship also aspires.
A secondary feature of marriage occurring between a man and a woman is the procreation of children. Genesis 1:28 and 3:16 are commonly taken as biblical warrant for this procreative function of marriage. The Old Testament, however, records numerous instances in which the fathering of children is thought to be more important than the maintenance of a monogamous relationship (eg Genesis 16:1–2, Deuteronomy 25:5–6). A husband may take additional wives or engage the childbearing services of a slave in the household in order to secure progeny. Adultery, however, is condemned (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 22:22). Whether or not the arrangements seen in the Old Testament for the procreation of children outside of marriage should be approved of, they do suggest that procreation is a secondary good associated with marriage rather than its primary purpose. In accordance with the view that procreation does not belong to the essence of marriage, the absence of offspring does not undermine the good of marriage and so provides no justification for divorce (Matthew 5:32, Mark 10:6–9).
What then does constitute the good of marriage? In formulating a response to this question, it is helpful to attend to the fact that the language of marital relationships is often used in the Bible to speak of the relationship that God has established, first with Israel (eg Ezekiel 16: 8–14, Jeremiah 2:2, 31:32, Isaiah 54:5), and then with the Church (eg John 3:29, Matthew 9:15, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Revelation 19:7–9). Although it is commonly supposed that the term “marriage” applies primarily to the covenant commitment made between a man and a woman and only secondarily, by way of analogy, to the relationship God establishes with Israel and the Church, we may learn better about the essence of marriage by attending first to the marriage God establishes with his people, before then considering what this may imply for our understanding of human marriage.
The first thing to notice about the relationship between God and Israel, and between Christ and the Church is that it is a covenant not a contract. Talk of marriage as a covenant rather than a contract is derived from this divine precedent. A covenant is “a promise binding two people or two parties to love one another unconditionally.” This accounts for the steadfastness of God’s commitment to Israel in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Leviticus 26:44). We observe, secondly, that the covenant God makes is grounded in love. Again, we learn best what love is by attending to the divine love, especially as it is revealed to us in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because the true nature of love is revealed in Christ, Paul enjoins husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). It is in this context too, that Paul speaks of a man and his wife becoming one flesh just as Christ unites the Church in his body and tenderly nourishes and cares for it (Ephesians 5:28–32).
Further explanation of what love consists of is found 1 Corinthians 13. A third characteristic of the divine covenant is that it operates according to grace rather on the basis of deserts. God loves Israel and Christ loves the Church, not because they deserve to be loved, but simply because it is love’s way to embrace the other in spite of the other’s weakness and imperfection — even in spite of the other’s sin. Marriage is an act of gracious hospitality, of unconditional openness to the other, and of self-giving. The operations of divine grace in the marriage God establishes with his people should discourage us, I think, from conceiving the marriage relationship in terms of rights. Marriage is established in virtue of the unconditional gift of oneself to the other, not on the basis of rights held over against one another.
These theological observations suggest that marriage is a covenant relationship that is motivated by love and operates according to grace. It is, furthermore, a form of human relationship that mirrors, however imperfectly, the relationship that God desires to have with us.
We should take note, however, that spousal relationships are listed in Luke 14:26 among various forms of kinship that take second place to the disciples’ relationships with Christ. Marriage between one human being and another is good, but it is not the ultimate good. The ultimate good is the fellowship with God and neighbour that is being perfected by the Spirit in the Body of Christ. Marriage, and, by extension, the life of the family, is an important and divinely instituted means by which people may be formed for the kind of relationship that is ultimately to be perfected in the communion that Christ establishes with his people. Despite their many failings, and despite the tragic dysfunction that sometimes afflicts them, marriage and family relationships remain the place, subordinate only to the Church, where we are most likely to learn the gestures of unconditional love, of forgiveness, and of grace that, under divine command and enabling, are to be extended to all.
With respect to the question of whether marriage may be entered into by partners of the same gender, it seems to me that the precedent of God’s relationship to Israel and of Christ to the Church yields insight into the nature of marriage that does not preclude such a relationship being established between partners of the same gender. It remains an open question however, whether the complementarity of male and female indicated in Genesis, should be taken as normative for the marriage relationship between two human partners. That is the question that is now before the Church.
In the following paper I offer my reflections on what I believe lies at the heart of a doctrine of Christian marriage. As a woman in her mid-fifties who recently married for the first time, I have found myself engaging with this question on a very personal level. Marriage, as revealed in both Scripture and Jesus’ teaching, is initiated by God as an expression of love in community. Sacred and permanent, it offers protection and exclusivity for the expression of fidelity and conjugal love between a man and a woman. It is fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage that it be a union between a man and a woman, as both are made in God’s image, therefore it is their complementary, but different natures, that reflect most authentically the mystery of the divine nature.
The divine nature is presented in the Scriptures as both feminine and masculine. God speaks of her conception, nurture, and birth in the continuing story of Israel. Yet God is also warrior, king, and father. God’s nature transcends gender, but by creating both male and female and joining them together as one God’s nature is “captured”, so to speak. Therefore when man and woman become one, it is their union (their becoming one) that reflects the complete/divine nature.
The physical/biological differences of men and women are obvious, but there is also a spiritual/emotional difference between them that is well attested in our churches, marriages, and relationships in general.
The “complete” nature of God, as expressed by both man and woman becoming one, finds its roots in the Genesis account of creation: Man (Adam) was created in the image of God, but finding him incomplete in/by himself, God created a specific helper/companion (ezer; Eve). Out of the one species, but creating a separate, distinctive and complementary being, God created the ideal reflection of the divine nature. Creativity, procreation, and abiding companionship all find their expression on the two beings becoming one. My reading of the creation account is that humanity was the pinnacle of creation. When the two complementary beings become one, their unity creates and perpetuates the image of the divine. I believe that it was God’s desire for the creative, spiritual and physical cycle of creation to continue through the mystery and sanctity of marriage.
Jesus also affirmed marriage as a divine institution laid down by God at the very beginning of creation. United by God two (man and woman) become one, and remain so until death (Mark 10.6–7, 9; Genesis 1.27; 2.24). The mystery of this sacred union between man and woman is that it offers a reflection of the image of God in community; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By this I mean that God is more than one, yet the same essence. The three persons of the trinity are separate, yet one. Each person of the trinity has a different expression, but they are the same! For me that means that in the Genesis account of creation the trinity was already present, and reflected in the creation of man and woman. Therefore marriage, at its heart, is an expression of God’s love/nature lived out in action for creation to be witness to, and benefit from.
The starting point for my position on a Christian doctrine of marriage is the concept of covenant. Biblically the marriage relationship was used as a distinctive metaphor for the covenantal relationship God had with Israel (Ezekiel 16.8). Permanence, faithfulness and self-sacrificing love are the pillars of God’s covenant relationship. Marriage, as a covenant relationship between two complementary natures made in God’s image, reflects the ideal of God’s relationship of love and fidelity with his/her people.
Pauline material develops this tradition by proclaiming that the sacred and permanent status of marriage is an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5.32). Marriage, in New Testament terms, is portrayed as the perfect example of covenantal oneness; a union created between a man and a woman by the unifying power of love.
The commitment to love unconditionally, as Christ loved the Church, implies self-sacrifice. Christ’s love led him to the cross, so biblically marriage becomes a vehicle for living out Christ’s self-sacrificing love. For me the concepts of obedience and discipleship are fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage. God’s covenant love and Christ’s self-sacrificing love fit within a context of relationship. Marriage cannot be removed from this setting; it finds its expression only in relationship with God’s revelation (Jesus and Scripture).
The biblical vision for marriage, as a reflection of God’s love and unbreakable faithfulness, lies at the heart of my understanding of Christian marriage. Creator God created two complementary beings in his/her image to become one flesh. The purpose for such a union is, I believe, not only to offer human companionship, or produce children, but also to reveal the divine nature and character of an unseen God. Love by its very nature can only be authentically expressed in community, therefore marriage becomes the most complete expression of divine love.