Monday, February 4, 2013

Brian Ellison: conforming the Church to the State

Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, an advocacy group for LGBT ordination and same gender marriage, begins a series of postings by various writers on same gender marriage.  The series is found at

Ellison’s posting is entitled “SameSex Marriage: The Church’s Next Big Thing.” While I could quibble with even the title, after all the Church is more than the PC (U.S.A.) and same sex marriage might better be described as the denomination’s next ‘Big’ aberrant undertaking,  I want to focus on one paragraph. After quoting from President Obama’s inaugural address, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Ellison wrote:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), however, has not spoken such a clear gospel word. The Book of Order, in passages reaffirmed at the 1983 reunion and rooted in language adopted much earlier, when gay marriage was hardly on anyone’s radar, stubbornly maintains that “Marriage is a civil contract between a man and a woman,” even though the statement is flatly inaccurate in nine states and the District of Columbia. It proceeds to limit its definition of covenantal love to a woman and a man, without articulating why it must be exclusively so. The widely used liturgy for a “Service of Christian Marriage” in the Book of Common Worship likewise reflects its 1993 publication date, waxing poetic about the purpose and blessing of marriage in exclusively heterosexual terms.

To begin with Ellison has chosen his adjectives carefully, stubborn rather than biblically faithful! So those who insist on marriage between a man and woman have tenacity or firmness of purpose. I sometimes tease my husband that his tenacity (which is great) has gotten him into trouble. But praise God for the tenacity of the saints—they were troubled also—it often meant their blood was (and is) shed—but the Church is watered by that blood and grows.

Next, words about equality, such as the president spoke, are not the gospel. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus, fully human, fully God, lived, died and was resurrected for our salvation which includes forgiveness of our sins, an abundant life and eternal fellowship with the Creator of the universe, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, the understanding that “marriage is a civil contract between a man and a woman,” can easily be changed without giving way to cultural decadence even when it is embedded in state law. Try “Although in several states marriage is now a civil contract between two persons, for the Church it will always be a civil contract between a man and a woman.” Or the denomination might simply remove the statement all together, knowing that a time may have arrived when, for the Church, true marriage, that which joins a man to a woman, must be referred to as Christian marriage, and as the Roman Catholics insist, performed only in a Church.

Finally Ellison comes to the crux of the matter when he writes, “It [the Book of Order] proceeds to limit its definition of covenantal love to a woman and a man, without articulating why it must be exclusively so.” So support the wall that some are attacking with the words of Christ:

"Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate. (Matthew 19:4b-6)"

Ellison fails to deal with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s Book of Confessions which in both Reformation confessions and a modern confession speak of marriage between a man and a woman. And he is oblivious to the words of the Theological Declaration of Barmen which insists that, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.” It matters not what either the political views of the President or the ideological views of the culture, the Church is called to stand, in love, “joined and knit together” with the lord.

And Barmen warns those, such as Ellison and the Covenant Network, who wish, in place of the clear admonitions of Bible and Confession, to join with the State in their sinful behavior:

“The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and Sacrament. (8.26)

We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans. (8.27)”

Ellison’s posting is deeply troubling; writing as a Reformed Christian he turns his posting into a political tract which aligns the Church with the State in matters of faith. As Hans Asmussen stated in his address before the Barmen Synod on the two above points from the Declaration, “we have to stress we know no earthly law by which God’s law could lawfully be broken.”[1] We must not give to the state the right to define the meaning of Christian marriage. God makes the covenant with a man and a woman.

[1] Hans Asmussen, “An Address on the Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation in the German Evangelical Church,” Found in The Church’s Confession Under Hitler, Arthur C. Cochrane (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1961) appendix VIII 248.


Anonymous said...

Ellison doesn't care what you or the Bible says. He wants what he wants and Christianity be damned.

Viola Larson said...

I'm not writing this thinking that I might change Ellison's views. Instead I am writing for brothers and sisters to know and understand what is happening. I am also writing because it is important to speak truth & in particular, truth to power.

Please next time you comment leave your name and city. I do not allow anonymous comments.

Robert Wm Lowry said...

I would argue that those who favor limiting marriage are the ones conforming to government and society. 30+ states have enshrined marriage inequality in their constitutions and DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) has essentially the same effect on the national level. Continuing to rely on any definition of civil contract for marriage is a mistake. The church should be in the blessing of covenant business not the affirming of a civil contract business.

I am not a great supporter of simply changing the definition of marriage. Just saying 2 people rather than man and woman misses the point. This is about far more than mere semantics. The Spirit is speaking through great parts of the church that it is not merely accommodation that is needed but a rethinking about what it means to love another in covenant relationship.

I wish that you had addressed the issues that Ellison raised with something more than boilerplate rhetoric. And I also wish that he had made a more sound theological argument. As long as our intra-church debate and discernment focuses on the definition of a word, marriage, and not the larger issue of understanding covenant love as a reflection of God's love for the world and Christ's love for the church, I fear that we will continue to talk past one another.

Viola Larson said...

It seems to me that the relationship that is marriage must be a covenant relationship between three, a man & woman & God—see Malachi on this (2:13-16) and once again Matthew 19:4b-6 along side the Genesis account which is the account Jesus uses thus bypassing all rabbinical arguments on marriage.

You have written, “The Spirit is speaking through great parts of the church that it is not merely accommodation that is needed but a rethinking about what it means to love another in covenant relationship.” Covenant love as shown in both the Old Testament & the New is always ensconced in the work of Christ, his life, death and resurrection. And it does not change.

You suggest that it is those who disagree, on biblical grounds, with same sex marriage who are conforming to the state. Not so—the state has always followed the Church in this area-not because it necessarily agreed with Christian doctrine but because it was what had always been acceptable even in secular society. Ellison and others want the church to conform to the changes in state laws whether those laws agree with scripture or not. The church must not change its biblical teaching in order to conform to culture or State.