After reading through “The Final Report of the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage,” several times, I do have some thoughts.1 My thoughts are focused around faithfulness to historical research and the proper use of the Bible for Christian discipleship.
My beginning thoughts have to do with a paradox. The report in its material seems to suggest that marriage norms, even Christian ones, have changed over the centuries. The theme of change runs subtly through most of the report and might be helpful to those people who advocate for same sex marriage, but the paradox here is that in all of those marriage scenarios there is absolutely no record of same sex marriage. Marriage has always been between a man and a woman.
But here is another paradox, the Committee, which is a Christian Committee, looked at the Bible’s historical accounts of marriage. But in doing so rather than using the Bible as the word of God they simply used at as any other kind of historical document. That is they used it as a primary source that you would read to understand how a certain group or groups understood laws and customs in their time. To understand how this works as opposed to using the Bible as the word of God the reader can look at one particular statement.
Under the passage which lists four benefits of marriage, the fourth benefit is:
“A political tool to form alliances between nations and advanced political ambitions (1 Sam. 18:17-27; 19:11-17; 25:44; 2 Sam. 3:13-15; 6:16-23; and 1 Kings 11:1-4).”
Now it is true that people in ancient times, and really through all times have used marriage as a political tool. The Biblical writers tell the truth, they record how people actually lived. But does God’s word insist that this is a proper way to understand the benefits of marriage?
The truth is that Solomon in his attempt to gain many political alliances with other nations married numerous wives and lost his heart to their gods. In Deuteronomy God’s word to Israel about future kings includes, “He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away …” (17:17)
In at least this case in Scripture there is a prohibition about marriage alliances but there is never approval. We are not hearing “thus says the Lord” in this study.
Some help is offered in the latter part of the Old Testament section. There the Committee looks at how marriage is used as analogy concerning Israel’s faithfulness to God and at least allows the reader to see what unfaithfulness means in marriage. But even here one does not hear straight forward words from the Committee about sexual faithfulness in marriage between a woman and a man. The text is still used as simply a primary source.
Looking to the New Testament the Committee uses the text in a slightly better way as they study the words of Jesus, Paul and others. But even here the text is seen more as a primary source concerning what people thought about marriage rather than the Church’s guide about marriage.
And the idea that marriage, even among Christians, is always in flux, is supposedly reinforced by suggesting that ideas about marriage changed somewhat when the Church realized that Jesus’ return would not be imminent. (Although it could be argued that the Church has never let go of their understanding of the imminent return of Christ that is for a different posting.)
One has to laugh somewhat about the first thought given after suggesting that “several trends emerged” as the “church prepared itself to be a continuing institution.” The authors write, “Qualifications for church leaders (ministers) included being married, but only to one wife (3:2).” 1Timothy 3:2 is used and it seems the thought is that now that we know Jesus isn’t coming back so soon instead of telling disciples not to marry we should tell them they must marry.
But that isn’t the emphasis of the text. It is instead about monogamy; if you are married, you can’t be married to more than one woman. As Greek scholar, Dr. William D. Mounce, in his Word Biblical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles translates the verse, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he is desiring a good work. Therefore, it is necessary for an overseer to be above reproach: a ‘one-woman man’, clear-minded, self-controlled, dignified, hospitable, skilled in teaching, not a drunkard, not violent but gracious, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, managing his own household well, having submissive children with all dignity ….”
These were attributes contrary to the cultural norms in this particular place and the church was struggling against that culture. This is not a command for overseers to be married.
Another area in which one perceives attempts to push the idea of marriage norms in flux is the history of the Church. The Reformation era at one place in particular bothered me. The authors write, “Some radical reformers extended the principle ‘Scripture alone’ to justify polygamy using the example of the Patriarchs and Old Testament laws. Others understood Christ’s redemptive act as freeing true believers from sin, so that nothing done in Christian love was sinful.”
The Committee goes on to explain that “Reformed church leaders distanced themselves from such unorthodox beliefs and unruly behaviors.” That part is good but the information about the ‘radical’ reformers is so twisted that one can make all kinds of misconstrued suggestions from it.
For example one might think that many, many radical reformers saw marriage differently. That wouldn’t be true, and was a lie that plagued the radical reformers for years causing them exceeding grief and persecution. One might think from the statement that God’s law approves of multiple marriages. But it does not. One might think that ‘Scripture alone’ was what the radical reformers used to justify their actions of both polygamy and freedom in sexual issues. But that would also not be true.
There were three kinds of radical reformers. The Anabaptist, the Inspirationists and the Rationalists, were all considered radical reformers. Only the Anabaptist appealed to Scripture. The Inspirationists appealed to the spirit, the Rationalist to reason. Almost all the extreme radicalism of that period can be attributed to what those involved considered personal revelations of the Spirit. (see: The Anabaptist Story by William R. Estep)
All through the historical part there are problems such as the above. I am disappointed that the Committee didn’t spend time explaining and even using the Scriptures that uphold Christian marriage. If they were going to apply Scripture to the problems it should have been used as God’s word. If they were going to apply history to the problem it should have been done in a more careful and complete manner.
I am praying for those who are preparing a minority report.
1. Read the report and recommendations in their entirety. (from the OGA)