Exclusive focus on heterosexual marriage is not biblical or Reformed, Covenant Network told

Theologian Amy Pauw says life in Christ matters more

November 2, 2013


Exlcusive focus on heterosexual marriage runs counter to biblical teaching and Reformed theology, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians was told here today (Nov. 1) at its national gathering under the theme “Marriage matters.”

“Marriage matters to Christians, but life in Christ matters more,” said Amy Pauw, professor of doctrinal theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. “If a Christian marriage is defined by the peace of Christ ruling over hearts rather than by rigid gender roles, then the question [of same sex marriage] doesn’t matter.”

Admitting she has not written or spoken much on same-sex marriage, Pauw said the intensity of theological discussion and political debate worldwide around marriage equality has persuaded her that “It’s time” ― a phrase repeated by the 250 conference participants in typical call-and-response style several times during her presentation ― “that help my church think about marriage in a way that aligns with our ordination standards.”

The Bible is not internally consistent in its teachings about marriage, Pauw said. In the Old Testament, for instance, “The survival of the Jewish people depended on procreation,” she said. “That’s why it’s odd to contemporary Christians to read about polygamy, ‘wasting seed,’ and men marrying their widowed sisters-in-law ― ideas that are no longer regarded as normative.”

Biblical teaching on marriage is “not any clearer in the New Testament,” Pauw insisted. “Who are the role models for marriage? Jesus, who was single and created an unrelated ‘family’ out of his disciples? Jesus was rather dismissive about marriage, telling his followers in Luke to ‘be prepared to hate parents, spouses and children.’ In Jesus’ teaching, marriage is not a sign of the Kingdom but part of the old order of things….Marriage is only for this age not part of the age to come,” she said, adding, “So much for Christian dating sites that promise an eternal partner.”

So what is the role of marriage in the Christian life?

The Bible and Reformed theology seem to prefer the concept of “covenant,” Pauw said. “Marriage matters,” she said, “as a source of stability, as a school of learning how to love our neighbor in the most intimate way, as the living out of our baptismal covenant.”

“We all know that traditional heterosexual marriage is in trouble,” Pauw said. “Fewer young people are buying into it and we see rising rates of single-parent families, divorce and domestic violence. So for Christians, marriage equality is not a matter of straights inviting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people into a healthy institution, but helping the church redefine what healthy marriage really is.”

Healthy marriage, Pauw said, is a matter of faithfulness, not gender. “Marriage is not a sacrament. Calvin calls it ‘an earthly ordinance,’” she said, “like farming, building, cobbling and barter ― a cooperative human activity that aims at creaturely comfort.”

Though such a definition seemingly minimizes the importance of marriage, Pauw said “earthly life matters to God, that’s why it matters to us.” Reformed theology’s commitment to education, nurture, the alleviation of suffering and building of sustaining community, she said, “represents our belief in faithful living to God’s presence now…. Marriage only makes sense in the context of the long middle between our conception and eternal life.”

But damaging views of marriage have been fostered by “all kinds of claims Christians have made about creation, often arguing the superiority of some to others ― women, slavery, purity of Aryan race, apartheid. It’s not surprising theologians have included LGBTs in their creation arguments of exclusion.”

The two most prominent themes advanced in this mistaken theology of creation, Pauw said, are complentarity and fruitfulness.

“Complementarity sees men and women as two halves of a whole ― even reading Genesis that way ― concluding that only females and males together are the image of God,” she said. “So are non-heterosexual couples less of God’s image ― Jesus, for example?”

Whenever theologians make the argument that gender differences are the most important factor in life in Christ, Pauw said, “women know they’re in trouble, that they’re getting the short end of the stick.”

Complementarity ― rigid gender roles, in which men are superior and men and women, mothers and fathers, play mutually exclusive roles ― “is most clearly enunciated in heterosexual marriage,” Pauw said.  

“But what if Christian marriage is defined by the peace of Christ ruling over hearts rather than rigid gender roles?” she continued. “One of the joys of a good marriage, all agree, is that partners are better together. The more mutual, egalitarian and flexible that relationship is perceived to be, the more room one has to embrace same-sex marriage.”

Fruitfulness has always meant procreation, Pauw said. “It’s a wonderful thing when couples bring new life into the world, but is that the only way marriage can be fruitful? My husband and I have three children, but our marriage was fruitful before they were born and has been in the 19 years since the youngest of them was born.”

Trying to define marriage in a way that excludes same-sex couples has produced too narrow a definition, Pauw said. “Are marriages that don’t produce children lesser? Are older adults not to marry? Procreation arguments ignore the fact that the broad sharing of family life occurs in many ways beyond simple procreation. Family life is shared many ways, not just by fertile heterosexual couples.”

Multiplying humanity, increasing creativity, expanding and fulfilling God’s blessing is a vision of fruitfulness that all humans can fulfill despite their marital status; Pauw said. “The strange arithmetic of marriage ― that one plus one equals more than two ― provides a sounding board, a staging area, an anchor, that allows both people in it to venture out, risk, and create space for more love to flourish ― multiplying the fullness of humanity that Christ intends.”

One day marriage equality will be the law in all 50 states, Pauw predicted. “It’s going to happen. But even when that happens the vast majority of marriages are going to be heterosexual. That’s central in our society,” she said.

“But the centrality of one kind of relationship does not exclude the creation of other kinds of relationships,” she said. “[Heterosexual marriage] has never been the only example of human flourishing and won’t be in the future.”

The push for same-sex marriage represents the desire for integration and commitment and responsibility in human relationships, Pauw said. “All who care about this should be eager to get on board.”

A summary of her position on marriage, Pauw said, can be found in a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his fiancé (he was executed by the Nazis before they could marry): “Our marriage shall be a ‘yes’ to God’s earth.”

  1. Amy Pauw is basing her theology on culture. We are restricted as people on all kinds of sexual activity. In fact, we are restricted on all kinds of activities, period. Our primary covenant is with God, not with each other, and that covenant will cause us to do our best to honor God by living -FIRST according to his physical design. As for the intangibles of our emotions, including romantic love, self control should be practiced. Same sex marriage is wrong before God, not because two people of the same biological sex can't genuinely be in romantic/emotional love with each other, but because it is NOT the way God designed us. When our feelings dictate truth, we are doomed, no matter how strong those feeling are. Remember, we are a fallen people living in a fallen world, but God has redeemed many, and one day the earth, too will be redeemed.

    by agathos

    December 22, 2013

  2. I read Kathy's blog below & it expresses the conclusions I came to this year. I think I was a Christian Pharisee in this before I actually had real life experience with LGBT folks in my life. I was a Sunday school teacher for over 25 years, but have left the church where they were overly harsh on this topic. I saw error in myself when one said they considered suicide because they didn 't think their religious family would accept their sexual orientation. That was when I heard Mary Wallner's story - teach-ministries.org Some have left Christianity for other beliefs because of religous scrutinty & I feel I have been part of that stumbling block in the past, but no longer.

    by Kay

    November 15, 2013

  3. Thank you for possibly the most intelligent Christian response I've ever read on this topic. My thoughts here: http://kathyon.blogspot.com/2012/04/b36-sexual-orientation-its-not-sin.html

    by Kathy Vestal

    November 11, 2013

  4. To Bob I must say that heterosexual couples also have oral & anal sex so that argument is a moot point. If you eat bacon, play football or have intercourse while having menstruation, those things happen too. God sent the Gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch (basically a black gay man) showing God is not wanting exclusion wheras before his type would have been excluded. But if religion is about perfectly doing rules then no one fits in. Dr Cynthia Chappell's videos on the biology & science of sexual orientation have been helpful to me as a straight Christian to understand them better & gave me compassion to hear Matthew Vines & Jeff Chu as well. I am a straight Christian also concerned with the gay youth disowned by religious parents. As a straight Christian I believe in giving them love & compassion.

    by Kay

    November 10, 2013

  5. Professor Pauw states it is time she help her church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), think about marriage in a way that aligns with our ordination standards. Where is the mis-alignment? In what way does the definition of marriage included in the PCUSA Confessions and Book of Order as guides to the teaching of Scripture not align with our ordination standards? The revised language [G-2.0104b] clarifies the current determination that our standards are to be applied to each individual candidate for ordination to ordered ministry, The standards did not change, for indeed the constitutional questions remain the same since Reunion, and are still the basis for councils to examine candidates as they have historically been. Since the standards did not change, our constitutional definition of marriage continues to align with our ordination standards and with Scripture and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Those few hundred attendees of the conference are out of the mainstream and orthodox, historic view of the millions of Presbyterians and Christians around the globe on the definition of marriage, and I regret, the Professor has joined in that vocal minority.

    by Thomas L. Fultz

    November 7, 2013

  6. when Christ comes again, I can think of nothing I would rather he find me doing than expressing my love for my beloved; whether it be caressing her or changing her (adult) diaper.

    by ron obenchain

    November 7, 2013

  7. Let's see... What book of the Bible does it indicate anal sex or oral sex between between two men is sanctified by God? Nowhere! Homosexual practice is not part of God's plan for humankind. Imagine yourself engaged in gay sex at the time of Christ's Second Coming. Oh, sorry Lord, I was just messing around. There is nothing holy about homosexual activity. It's a sin. Period. Get a life, a new life, in the saving and redeeming union with Christ. Repent. Turn around. Ask for forgiveness. Be free, redeemed, whole. A new creation.

    by Bob Battenfield

    November 4, 2013

  8. God gave us holy scripture to protect us and define boundaries. Will we now embrace marriage or sex with a mother, father, sister or brother? Those could also fall under the description of relationships that exclude the "creation of other kinds of relationships." We get these boundaries from scripture and we break them at our peril. We have nothing but scripture to guide us. Could we at least agree on fidelity in marriage? Why did our denomination have to throw that out along with chastity in singleness?

    by Carol Robinson

    November 4, 2013