Learning Goals for a Course on Marriage

July 13, 2012

The second major step in developing a curriculum on marriage for congregations in the PCUSA is to unpack the overall goal, which was stated yesterday:

“The purpose of this course is to arrive at an understanding of marriage that can be affirmed and practiced, with joyful confidence and a clear conscience, in the church.”

A careful examination of this guiding statement points to sub-goals in four areas: what do we want the learners to know (information), to feel (emotional impact), to do (together in class activity as well as in application elsewhere), and to become (transformation). In other words, we want to design a course that fosters learning in four domains:  the cognitive (“an understanding” and “affirmation”), the affective (“joyful confidence”), the behavioral (“practice”), and the existential (practiced with “a clear conscience, in the church”). A comprehensive set of goals reflects the integration of our human nature; if we are going to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, then all these areas must be addressed in Christian teaching. But just two minutes of reflection and a review of the comments to my blog yesterday highlight the deep divisions in the church that show up even at this early stage of planning. The dividing lines will become clear as I line out more concretely what these sub-goals entail.

1. KNOW (cognitive, information)—A study of marriage as affirmed and practiced in the church is founded upon the Scriptures, so we start there. Biblical input on marriage begins in Genesis 1 and 2, the narratives of God’s creation and the significance of Adam and Eve as the prototype of all humanity. Both Jesus and Paul quoted from Genesis 1 in discussions about marriage, so we are following their lead and planting our feet firmly in Edenic soil. We want our learners to have a firm grasp of God’s intention for marriage (which includes “between a man and a woman”), an appreciative examination of those who honored God’s intention for marriage (for instance, early on we have Joseph honoring Potiphar’s marriage vows), a fearless look at the deviations from this norm and their consequences (Solomon comes to mind). We want them to be acquainted with the limits God places on sexual intimacy, including the prohibition of homosexual practice throughout the biblical narrative, and discover through a reading of the entire Bible that nowhere is homosexual activity affirmed. [Before my readers get anxious about this point, please note that even liberal scholars admit that there is no Scripture that specifically affirms homosexual relations.[1]] There are other topics to examine in Scripture as well, including the nature of covenant-keeping, community, and love.

We also must explain and demonstrate a “right handling of Scripture” (i.e. how to exegete the text, interpret it, and apply it), that carries the process from strict observation of what the text says to interpreting it in light of its genre, historical and cultural context, and full biblical context. From this process we gain insight into the principles (norms, commands) to be applied to the present day, and how they are to be carried out in practical, concrete terms. We check our work by examining our affirmations and practices as a church in light of clear biblical commands and go back to the drawing board if the two are in conflict with each other.

And further, it will be important to get a handle on why we have the controversy, a bit of its history in the PCUSA, the sociological dynamics at play, and the hermeneutic that yields a different interpretation of the same Scriptures.

2. FEEL (affective, emotional impact)—I have suggested in my overall goal that joyful confidence is a sign that we have arrived in a right place and can call it “resolved.” But in a classroom setting (or its equivalent in your church), there are many steps and movements to get there. My hope would be that anxiety would dissolve, fear would be banished, hope would be instilled, and joy would be evident, as God’s people yield to the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. I believe what Paul affirmed, “The kindness of God leads you to repentance,” suggesting that teachers and learners alike are to exhibit the greatest kindness and mercy while speaking the truth in love. We all are obligated to repent, even in the sexual area, and it is safe to do so in the loving arms of the Savior.

3. DO (behavioral, learning activities)—The specifics here will reflect the creative teaching methods of the one who takes this curriculum in hand. Learning activities range from the mundane (listening to lecture) to the fun (making posters, acting in a skit), but the point is to offer students the opportunity to reflect what they have learned and confirm that they are getting it right and internalizing it. The “doing” also entails commitments outside of class (working a homework assignment, observing a particular behavior, replacing a bad habit with a good one, etc.) which accumulate to demonstrate the fourth goal

4. BECOME (existential, transformation)—Unlikely to be manifest fully in the course of a six-week class, but the goal toward which everything points, is a transformed life. In the area of marriage and sexuality, a transformed life is one that has faced the areas of sexual brokenness, deviation from God’s intention, and flat-out disobedience, and made new commitments to sexual purity, chastity, faithfulness to one spouse in marriage, refraining from pre-marital sex, abstaining from use of pornography—whatever it is. We have followed the Great Commission, “teaching them to obey everything I have told you” when as a church, as a class, and as individuals, we forsake sin for Christ’s sake and commit ourselves to behavior consistent with God’s design.



[1] On October 28, 2007, Jack Rogers and Marion Soards debated the issue of homosexual practice at Trinity Presbyterian Church, San Carlos. In Q & A they were asked, “Is there any support in the Bible for homosexuality?” Rogers was first to answer “No,” and Soards concurred.


4 Responses to “Learning Goals for a Course on Marriage”

  1. Lee Says:

    Mary, I’m impressed with your initial thots on such a course, & I hope that this will lead to your designing/writing the course, even if u’re not on the official pcusa committee to do so. I believe our church & others would be interested in your course.

    • revmary Says:

      Alas, Bluesky, I doubt that I am even a candidate for a study committee. The motion that passed simply suggested the Office of Theology and Worship distribute materials for study. It’s one reason why I feel we’ve been given permission to create something . . .

  2. Carl Pelz Says:

    With marriage under attack from rampant divorce to singleness, a study of marriage grounded in scripture is a wonderful idea! Yet, what will be our shared approach to interpreting scripture for such a worthy endeavor?

    Many in the PCUSA would agree with Eugene Nida, “… as long as they [conservatives] worship words [of the Bible], instead of worshiping God as revealed in Jesus Christ, they feel safe.” The words in brackets are mine. That view (mine for many years) explains, at least in part, the transition in English Bible translation described by Ryken from “meaning through form” to “meaning not form”. For me that view led to distrust and even disdain for scripture. In truth, all that was revealed was my own rebellion towards God and my attachment to sin.

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