Foundations for a Curriculum on Marriage, Part I

July 11, 2012

This week I am putting on my “Christian Formation and Discipleship” cap to analyze the best approach for a congregational study along the lines directed by the General Assembly. The content of our study, the methods employed, and the desired outcomes will be discussed through this week here. But before we can get to that standard protocol for curriculum development, the question must be addressed: “What will be considered authoritative and foundational for the study?” What can be identified as “information” and “true knowledge” as we start out? I realize this is a Modern approach, but the post-Modern alternative poses some real problems for coming together on an issue, unless the objective is simply to share how we feel about it. It is not good enough, given the constitutional crisis and crying need for clarity we are experiencing, to collapse all arguments into “Everybody can believe and do what they will, so long as it is authentic to them.” The implications of such a statement reach not only to the marriage debate, but into the very nature of denominations and the Church. And I might add, God has been dealing with wayward humanity on this question since the beginning of time.

Friends are sharing their memories of Jack Rogers in his Fuller Seminary days giving an illustration on Presbyterian authorities: The Bible goes on the table first, as the foundation for all that follows. On top of that is placed the Book of Confessions, our “authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do” (W-4.4003c). On top of that falls the Book of Order, how we put what we have learned into practice. What seems to have happened gradually over the last few decades is that this stack of books has been inverted and placed upon another foundation, that of our feelings and “recent discoveries” (however that term might refer). My mother used to call this the “We Now Know” shift, which is itself a fruit of Modernism, especially if it supplants the knowledge we gain from God’s Word.

As noted in yesterday’s posts and comments, our problem lies in what we consider foundational for our theological development. Therefore, I propose to drill deeper on the question and suggest that uncovering and comparing those two underlying assumptions will be necessary for us to get anywhere. I’m going to need some help from the liberal side of the aisle to represent a “progressive” view fairly and accurately. John Stuart’s picture here is not meant to be a taunt but an illustration of how conservatives view the challenge before us. If someone on the other side of the debate could kindly and clearly explain to me how you would alter this sketch, let me know and I bet artist friend John will render it for use here in future discussions.

Somehow we are going to need to understand the question often addressed to me: “How can people reading the same Bible come to such radically different conclusions about what it says?” I have experienced twenty-five years membership in San Francisco Presbytery, served lengthy terms on COM, CPM, a blue-ribbon mission statement task force, and a one-year high-intensity small group with liberals of the presbytery. In the course of this exposure to alternative Bible study methods, I believe I can describe the difference in approach to Scripture that yield such diverse results and will share it in my next post. In the meantime, think about this question: In a study on marriage, what would you want to know (i.e. what information would you need) and what would motivate you to learn it?


20 Responses to “Foundations for a Curriculum on Marriage, Part I”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    Mary, there is a group of us who are reading and discussing your blog posts – even though we rarely make comments- just wanted to let you know that we are out here, pondering and seeking His will.
    Thanks for your work!

    • revmary Says:

      Thank you very much, Rebecca. You are sweet to write. I know there must be a bunch of you out there, because I’m getting 600 hits a day now! Keep pondering these things in your heart 🙂

  2. Count me there, too, as a reader. I sometimes post on Facebook but don’t get responses. The words the Lord brings to you are on target, faithful servant. and I am blessed to receive them and be strengthened to stand in truth. I wonder how many supporters of non celibate ordination and same-sex marriage choose the position because they have friends, family, neighbors who are good people. I often remind folks that we are all created in God’s image so we’d darn well show some goodness!

  3. Lee Says:

    Mary, THANK YOU so much for your insightful blogs & recent coverage of G.A. I’m most interested in what Gen. 1-2 (Adam & Eve) says about marriage. Looking forward to ur upcoming posts.

  4. […] Foundations for a Curriculum on Marriage, Part I – Mary Naegeli is the Director of the Presbyterian Coalition and writes a great article on the differences of perspective as we enter this season of discussion. […]

  5. Linda Lee, mukilteo Says:

    As was true of the Pup, and amendment 10-A ,the conversation will be taken to the local congregation and Presbytery. The court and this GA has said there are two interpretation (or more) and not ONE on this issue. Our congregations are somewhat divided, but probably lean toward the definition of marriage as between a one man and one women. Frankly it will be
    an eye opener if most congregation are expected to discuss this issue because many Session and Pastors have not let their members know about the conflict or had discussions in the past.
    Taking this to the congregations and Presbyteries will further erode peace, unity and purity of the body as Rev. Mary has suggested.
    The only good that might come is a witness to the truth if the orthodox speak up, stand firm, and pray hard.

    Your leadership, Mary, is instrumental in helping us have the energy and power to move into the battle. THANKS!

  6. Jodie Says:


    I can’t possibly represent the “progressive” side of the isle, but I probably don’t represent your side of the isle either.

    I am curious though, where you are going to take this. On several questions. Is marriage to become enshrined as a sacrament? I think many on the (how far?) right wing of the church do see it as a sacrament, at least in practice. They see ordination as a sacrament as well. Are you going to propose that we make that official?

    I am curious about the attempt to limit the definition of marriage to being the covenant that exists only between a man and a woman. The Bible most emphatically (and most beautifully) does not limit the definition of marriage to this one particular type of relationship. I hope you are not going to dumb that down, or throw it away somehow.

    And regarding the piece of art you showed, I think the basis of marriage became feelings (the heart suggests romantic feelings) round about the Romantic Period, not the latest GA. Romanticism made romantic love as the basis for marriage, and the Church has blessed that perception. But it came with fine print. When people fall out of love they feel miserable, and in the last 50 years the Church has accepted divorce as a solution to their misery. And that happens across both sides of the “Isle” equally. The other bit of fine print is that it effectively erases any claim that marriage can be withheld from gay couples who love each other. You have to prove that being gay is somehow a disease or willful deviance, and that assumption, held by many in the over 50 generation, is turning out to be demonstrably false. A myth. People are born gay. It happens. They fall in love. It happens.

    So why can’t they get married?

    Personally I think the acceptance of divorce as a simple remedy for when the romance goes out of marriage is a much deeper problem in our society. Because with it, we have lost the sense of commitment, trust, and responsibility to a covenant that used to be attached to the vows we take. And that has led to a fundamentally fractured society with no real sense of community, where everyone is basically broken and alone.

    The Christian community was supposed to be the antidote to brokenness.

    So I think that any discussion of Christian marriage needs to start with the problem of divorce, the problem of commitment, and the role it plays in building Christian community. What is the fundamental basis for our life together? What is a marriage vow if it can be easily broken? And what does it really say about marriage if the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church is a marriage relationship?

    And finally, what should we do about Romanticism as the basis for marriage in Western society?

    Jodie Gallo,
    Los Angeles, CA

  7. Whit Brisky Says:


    Reading Jodie’s comment fit in with James Taranto’s Best of the Web post yesterday:

    His point was that the Left does its best to never acknowledge the language, ideas or arguments of conservatives. While this is frustrating for us on the Right, it weakens the ability of those on the Left to convince the Middle. Taranto concentrated on the issue of abortion but his point can clearly be generalized. Thus, Jodie simply rejects your conclusion by stating her own opinions which are unsupported either by relevant empirical evidence or citations to authority (and along the way raising and then knocking down a couple of straw men), and never reaches the substance of your argument which addresses how we can ever have a meaningful discussion with the Left over the issue of marriage when we can’t even agree on a frame of reference.

    I join you in hoping that someone from the Left will propose an alternate picture of the hierarchy of authority for Presbyterian/Reformed Christians, but I doubt anyone will come forward. The very phrase “hierarchy of authority” is repugnant to the Left. The question of what weight to give any particular “authority” in the “hierarchy” is nonsense to them since the Left does not recognize the existence of authority, and rejects hierarchy.

    The question that comes to my mind is whether the Left is really without authority, that is, everyone doing what is right in his or her own eyes (which is what your picture suggests by putting feelings as the foundation), or whether they have some authority to which they respond even if it is unacknowledged and which causes opinion on the Left to be so uniform across so many different issues and so intolerant of opposing opinions. I think it is the latter, and would propose a picture in which the base was “unacknowledged authority of the Left” with Scripture, the Confessions, the Book of Order, and feelings equally on the second level – that is all these other authorities must be read in light of this unacknowledged authority. And I would suggest further that the “unacknowledged authority” might be referred to as “Justice” which is the Left’s code word for how they think the world should be.

    And by the way Mary, my heartfelt gratitude for your work, and that of the Coalition, in connection with the last GA whose decisions turned out to not be as bad as they might have been.


    • Jodie Says:


      If you want to be effective as a change agent, you are going to have to learn to listen to the question. You are going to have to differentiate between ideology and reality, political propaganda and root cause. Throwing rocks just leads to throwing more rocks. Don’t for a minute convince yourself that your own house is made of anything else but glass.

      Conflict resolution comes through collaboration. Collaboration starts with listening.


  8. Whit Brisky Says:

    I’m not sure, Jodie, that I want to be a “change agent.” It would be more accurate to describe me as wanting to uphold the faith once delivered to the Saints.

    The point of my post was not particularly to throw rocks at you, but to suggest that Mary’s desire to know how the Left views the hierarchy of authority in the Church was one which the Left either cannot or will not answer for the reasons I stated and to suggest that discussions will only bear fruit if there is a common frame of reference. Otherwise we will continue to talk past one another as we have for decades.

    Perhaps if you answered Mary’s question about authority, there might be progress. That is, upon what authority or basis do you decide theological, moral and eithical questions?

    I will answer for myself that I take Scripture as God’s Word for all time and try, as best as I can, to apply objective criteria to its interpretation. That does not mean that I always get it right. I am sure that I do not. What it does mean is that I try, to the extent possible, to remove my own outlook and opinions from the mix. And it means that I can hold a rational discussion with someone else who has the same view of Biblical authority, but who disagrees with my conclusion, and hope to reach a resolution.

  9. Jodie Says:


    Mary is taking about marriage. My answer was that when it comes to marriage, the ‘post 2012 GA’ picture has been the picture for at least two centuries, not just since the 2012 Ga, but since long before there even was a right or left wing.

    Pick any wing you want, the basis for marriage in American society is romantic love. The State decrees a couple married or unmarried, but the only authority held by the State is the power to make decrees. When a minister declares a couple married, he or she does so only as an agent of the State (which itself is acting as an agent of a fickle society). No other authority is involved or invoked.

    If you want something else, then you are asking for change.

    For example, the Masai define marriage on the basis of wealth. Ten cows will get a man a wife. Twenty will get him two. Or one really pretty one. Women can’t buy anything. Men can’t buy husbands because that’s called a slave.

    If we want to introduce the Bible (or the Church) as an authority in the matter of defining marriage, nobody has any idea what that looks like. Nobody remembers the last time marriage was defined that way. Nobody even knows if such a definition can be articulated.

    That is the unvarnished objective truth of the matter.


  10. Whit Brisky Says:


    Mary stated that she had been taught that in Presbyterian/Reformed theology and polity, the ultimate authority is Scripture, secondarily the Confessions, and most subordinate, the Book of Order. She assereted that the Left now put “feelings” as the foundational authority, the Book of Order as guidance, the Confessions as irrelevant and Scripture as unimportant. She invited anyone on the Left to dispute that assertion and offer a different hierarchy of authority – that is suggest a different “picture” of that hierarchy.

    I suggested to you that you explain how you arrive at moral and ethical conclusions as a way of asking the same question in a more general way. Your response was, more or less, whatever we as a culture actually do is what is moral and ethical. This response would seem to deprive you of the ability to be critical of our culture, or any culture, in any respect.

    Take the Masai, for example. If, as you suggest, any two people who are romantically “in love” should be allowed to be “married” because that is what our culture has done for 200 years (not quite true but that is your argument), it is also perfectly moral and ethical that in Masai culture (if this is indeed the case) wives are purchased and a man can take more than one of them. Once one takes culture as the criteria, one cannot escape cultural relativism.

    And, of course, Mary’s whole discussion is not about how the State defines marriage, but how the Church defines it for people of faith.

    • Jodie Says:


      Who, exactly, is the Church that she can define something for people of faith? And did your really think you could escape cultural relativism?


  11. Chas Jay Says:

    We are called to be in the world but not of it. You are calling for the church to be a part of the world and its culture, which Christ said we are to be seperate from and to be under His authority.

  12. Jodie Says:


    I am not. I am calling for the Church to love the World as God does, and show the World, by word and deed, that Jesus is who He says he is.


    PS: Do you remember what Jesus did for his disciples to indicate his authority over them?

  13. Whit Brisky Says:


    I presume that by loving the world you mean letting the people of the world do whatever they want, that is, doing what is right in their own eyes. You do not love a person by allowing that person to continue in sin without attempting to encourage that person in right behaviors – as described in Scripture.

    And one other point from a prior post, I presume you know what a metaphor is. When Jesus is described in Scripture as being married to the Church, this is a metaphor used to equate the love Christ has for His people, and the love of a husband for a wife. It has no definitional aspect and does not mean that Christ is literally married to the Church. And even if “love,” romantic or otherwise, is a necessary condition for Christian marriage, it is not necessarily a sufficient condition. We clearly do not permit brothers and sisters to marry, or an adult and a child, regardless of whether there is “romantic love.”

  14. Jodie Says:


    I think the way Paul put it, marriage between a man and a woman is only metaphor for the real marriage which is between Christ – the second Adam – and the Church.

    I think if there is such a thing as a Christian marriage, it has to be based on, and a copy of, the literal marriage between Christ and the Church. I would go so far as claiming that all Christian relationships start with the literal relationship we each have with Jesus Christ, and seek to extend that relationship to the rest of our lives.

    I think you might be missing my point regarding romantic love as the basis for marriage in our society. My claim is that that is the “is” condition that prevails in and out of the Church, with no distinction between conservatives and liberals, not the “should be” condition. And I further claim that that reality is so deeply ingrained and accepted that it would be a huge undertaking to modify it even a little bit. And finally I claim (without proof) that the first (but not only) indication of a community moving away from the Romantic definition of marriage to a Christian definition of marriage would be a radical drop in the divorce rate.

    And only then would I begin to consider trusting that alternate definition as an ethical guide.

    Regarding God’s love for the World, which was so great that He gave the world his greatest possession, our job is to be the witness that in fact God did what He says He did, and Jesus is whom he says he is. I think that’s a somewhat different paradigm than the one you describe.


  15. Whit Brisky Says:


    I am not missing your point. I am trying to demonstrate why your point is non-responsive to what Mary is trying to do.

    Whether the “marriage” between Christ and the Church is a metaphor for the marriage between people, or vice versa, my point was that they are not the same thing, that Paul was using a metaphor not creating a definition. If, as you assert, human marriage should be defined by the relationship between Christ and Believers then, first, while love certainly is present, it is not romantic or sexual in nature, and second, marriage should be of one man to many women.

    You insist on looking at society as would an anthropologist, merely describing what is, and never going beyond to what should be. So if a society holds slaves then, for that society, slavery is fine. If a society forbids women from driving and forces them to cover themselves in black whenever they leave the house, that’s ok for them as well because that is what “is.” Your approach leaves you unable to condemn slavery or this sort of treatment of women.

    We are all sinful human beings falling short of the glory of God. This is true both of Believers and the unsaved. So the fact that there is divorce among Believers does not prove that divorce is not a product of sin.

    That is why my first challenge to you, to which you did not respond, was to identify how, or upon what authority, you decide the moral questions of what should be, that is, what is morally right and morally wrong, apart from what is.

  16. Truth Tolife Says:

    It appears Jodie has a problem with authority, even the authority of definitions. She insists that the modern basis for marriage is “love”, which she says means “romanticism”; “love is merely a second-hand emotion. She then sidesteps into the deconstruction of marriage itself: if love is merely an emotion, one experienced by gays, too, then why can’t they marry? This devolves the emotion to a physical reaction. But of course, even using Jodie’s anthropological approach, the word “marriage” has always had a meaning, and it does not include the union of two people of the same sex.

    The great philosopher, Tina Turner, started with the same presumption as Jodie–that love is merely a second-hand emotion–and then asked the very pertinent question: “what’s love got to do with it?”

    But both Tina and Jodie make the same mistake: love is not an emotion; it’s not a fuzzy-lensed Hallmark card. Scripture tells us what love is:

    “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

    Love is sacrifice, even martyrdom, not romanticism.

    The distinction is important. Words mean things; or they ought to. Words are shorthands for concepts. Obliterate the meaning of a word and one destroys the concept. If the meaning of the word “blue” is expanded to include the color of the noon-day sun, the result is not greater understanding, but less, for then there would no way to distinguish between the color of the sea, and the color of the sun, both would be “blue”. Thus, by offering a more inclusive definition, the concept of “blue” is lost.

    Jodie presumes to redefine marriage to mean “the union of any two people who experience romantic elation with each other”. By such slight of hand, on purpose or not, the result is to destroy the concept of marriage. By “expanding” the definition, marriage is not expanded; rather, the concept, and with it the societal construct, is lost.

  17. Jodie Says:

    Except for Truth Tolife’s attempt to mislead where I am going with my thesis on Christian marriage, he is quite right in quoting I Cor 13 – the Way of Love – as an appropriate basis for Christian marriage. It is also the basis for the marriage of Christ and the Church.

    When Christian marriage becomes based on the Way of Love, instead of romantic love, we will see a significant drop in the divorce rates in the Church, among both conservatives and liberals. We will probably also see much less bickering, fighting and division among members of the Church as well.

    Christian marriage must first become a common practice before we can venture to discuss whether it applies to same sex partners. We need to find out what it is before we can say what it is not.

    Until then, the question of gay marriage will remain only a question of civil rights. Far be it from God’s people to deny, yet again, a person their civil rights on the basis of some kind of empty religious affirmation.

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