Sunday, June 16, 2013

"A Man and A Woman": are the words important to the Confessions

Dr.  Kenneth Cuthbertson whose article, “A Man and a Woman”:  A Look at the Presbyterian Confessions in Context,” is posted on the Covenant Network of Presbyterians site, has an interesting and but simplistic understanding of the history of several of the Presbyterian (U.S.A.)’s Confessions.  He provides a rather wooden view of the problems the confessors faced. And he throws away some of their words as though they have no real meaning.
Cuthbertson writes about the context of the wording of “a man and a woman,” in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Confession of 1967.[1] He uses other confessions to make his point, that the terms man and woman are simply used to combat other kinds of historical problems and have nothing to do with reinforcing the definition of marriage as that covenant which exists between a man and a woman.

Leading up to the Westminster Confession, Cuthbertson refers to the rejection of celibacy for ministers, divorce and polygamy. He refers to King Henry VIII’s divorce of his first wife and of King Phillip of Hesse’s “bigamous” marriage which he states both Luther and Melanchthon agreed to[2] But Cuthbertson sees as the most important influence the rebellion of Muenster whose participants were neither pacifist nor biblical. Cuthbertson writes:

But, it is probable that the more significant historical event lurking in the background was the 1534 rebellion of Anabaptist radicals known as the Muenster Rebellion, during which its leader, John of Leiden, claimed direct divine inspiration in his legalization of polygamy and his own taking of sixteen wives.  From then on, Protestant leaders were haunted by fears of similar recurrences among sectarian enthusiasts.

One might question the importance of Muenster for the writers of the Westminster Confession, Muenster was after all a German event which would eventually lead to a counter group, the biblical Anabaptist, the Mennonites.[3] But beyond that what is not acknowledged by Cuthbertson is that the occurrences of the wording “man and woman” in the Confession, as well as the other words about marriage, while they may have been directed toward certain historical events were shaped by the author’s biblical faith and knowledge. The men who wrote the Westminster Confession were forming their thoughts and words from the word of God.
It wasn’t just the Roman Catholic’s ban on priests marrying, it was the Bible’s words that there would be false teachers who with a seared conscience forbade certain foods and marriage ((1 Timothy 4:1-4). Or the Bible’s words that “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord (Proverbs 18: 22). It wasn’t just King Henry’s divorce but Jesus’ words about divorce. It wasn’t just about King Philip’s bigamous marriage but the Genesis’ story of God’s creation of the first man and woman and Jesus’ reference to it as authoritative when speaking about marriage.

And finally anyone who reacted to the Muenster event was reacting to sexual sin within their Christian culture. (They were also reacting to some very crude political views.) Some, sadly, reacted by continuing the persecution to death of any with the label Anabaptist. The Dutch Anabaptists reacted by forging new and tighter communities, enforcing more biblical standards and encouraging pacifism.
And perhaps the Westminster Confession’s section on marriage carries these concerns. But the more important point is that the Confession was answering the historical context with Holy Scripture, and because it does answer historical sexual sin from a biblical point of view it has relevance for the Church. And man and woman are a part of that relevance. They are integral parts of what the Confession states.

Cuthbertson moves on to the Confession of 1967. He reminds his readers that the Confession came before the flower children and their new (but old) understanding of sexuality. It came before the sexual revolution was finished. It came before the LBGTQ revolution. So, according to Cuthbertson it does not address our contemporary issues. But he goes further.
Cuthbertson believes that the important part of the Confession of 1967 is that it addresses change and the need to change. Some of the quotes he pulls out of the confession concerning this are:

“In each time and place, there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act.  The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations.” – C67, 9.43


“Confessions and declarations are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him.  No one type of confession is exclusively valid, no one statement is irreformable.  Obedience to Jesus Christ alone identifies the one universal Church and supplies the continuity of its tradition.  This obedience is the ground of the church’s duty and freedom to reform itself in life and doctrine as new occasions, in God’s providence, may demand.”  – C67, 9.03

These quotes are very important for the discussions the denomination is having about same gender marriage. The latter quote reminds the church that everything, confessions and declarations, are subject to Jesus Christ the Word of God—and this is very important—“as the Scriptures bear witness to him.” The Scriptures are the word of God written—they are the word of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  And part of that bearing witness to Jesus is Jesus speaking of the creation account of marriage between a man and a woman. Part of that bearing witness is Jesus reminding his listeners that he did not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” One may not dismiss lightly the words of Scripture. To do so is to become “least in the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5: 14-19)
So to face the change that has come and is coming to our culture one must take seriously the word of God written since all of it bears witness to Jesus. It is after all his words.

The first quote that I have listed is God’s call to the denomination to act. We are complacent in allowing the decadence of our culture to enter the Church and bring ruin to God’s people. This quote is only pointing to one kind of change, the change that comes to and from a repentant people. God never calls the Church to a change that endorses sin, but rather a change that puts away sin. In this case too, a man and a woman are relevant to the problem. They are much more than descriptive words.
The world wants the Church to endorse sexual sin. God calls the church back to his holiness. The world wants the Church to leave the LGBTQ community to their own desires and devices. God calls the Church to lovingly and prayerfully guide those in the LGBTQ community to repentance, new life in Jesus and transformation—to his community of the redeemed.  

[1] Interestingly Cuthbertson does not use man and woman as it appears in another confession the Second Helvetic Confession in the very place he refers to it for a different reason the text is, “For marriage (which is the medicine of incontinency and continency itself) was instituted by the Lord God himself, who blessed it most bountifully, and willed man and woman to cleave one to the other inseparably, and to live together in complete love and concord (Matt. 19:4 ff). 5.246
[3] William R. Estep, “Menno Simons and Dutch Anabaptism,” The Anabaptist Story, revised, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans 1975) 108-129.


Walter L. Taylor said...

Viola, my response to the piece you responded to, which I sent on to the CovNet site. I will be interested to see if it is posted:
So, since you are saying that the man-woman basis of marriage is no longer required, what about number? You have not addressed that, which it seems to me is directly connected to the man-woman union. So, are you advocating polygamy now, because you have just destroyed any basis not to? This is sophistry that is blasphemy as well.

Walter L Taylor

Viola Larson said...

I hope they post it; sometimes they post what I write but are so slow that I don't see it till much later, after they have moved on to something else.

Yes, using only historical context for the confessions means that everything is up for grabs.