Exlcusive focus on heterosexual marriage runs counter to biblical teaching and Reformed theology, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians was told here today (Nov. 1) at its national gathering under the theme “Marriage matters.”

“Marriage matters to Christians, but life in Christ matters more,” said Amy Pauw, professor of doctrinal theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. “If a Christian marriage is defined by the peace of Christ ruling over hearts rather than by rigid gender roles, then the question [of same sex marriage] doesn’t matter.”

Admitting she has not written or spoken much on same-sex marriage, Pauw said the intensity of theological discussion and political debate worldwide around marriage equality has persuaded her that “It’s time” ― a phrase repeated by the 250 conference participants in typical call-and-response style several times during her presentation ― “that help my church think about marriage in a way that aligns with our ordination standards.”

The Bible is not internally consistent in its teachings about marriage, Pauw said. In the Old Testament, for instance, “The survival of the Jewish people depended on procreation,” she said. “That’s why it’s odd to contemporary Christians to read about polygamy, ‘wasting seed,’ and men marrying their widowed sisters-in-law ― ideas that are no longer regarded as normative.”

Biblical teaching on marriage is “not any clearer in the New Testament,” Pauw insisted. “Who are the role models for marriage? Jesus, who was single and created an unrelated ‘family’ out of his disciples? Jesus was rather dismissive about marriage, telling his followers in Luke to ‘be prepared to hate parents, spouses and children.’ In Jesus’ teaching, marriage is not a sign of the Kingdom but part of the old order of things….Marriage is only for this age not part of the age to come,” she said, adding, “So much for Christian dating sites that promise an eternal partner.”

So what is the role of marriage in the Christian life?

The Bible and Reformed theology seem to prefer the concept of “covenant,” Pauw said. “Marriage matters,” she said, “as a source of stability, as a school of learning how to love our neighbor in the most intimate way, as the living out of our baptismal covenant.”

“We all know that traditional heterosexual marriage is in trouble,” Pauw said. “Fewer young people are buying into it and we see rising rates of single-parent families, divorce and domestic violence. So for Christians, marriage equality is not a matter of straights inviting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people into a healthy institution, but helping the church redefine what healthy marriage really is.”

Healthy marriage, Pauw said, is a matter of faithfulness, not gender. “Marriage is not a sacrament. Calvin calls it ‘an earthly ordinance,’” she said, “like farming, building, cobbling and barter ― a cooperative human activity that aims at creaturely comfort.”

Though such a definition seemingly minimizes the importance of marriage, Pauw said “earthly life matters to God, that’s why it matters to us.” Reformed theology’s commitment to education, nurture, the alleviation of suffering and building of sustaining community, she said, “represents our belief in faithful living to God’s presence now…. Marriage only makes sense in the context of the long middle between our conception and eternal life.”

But damaging views of marriage have been fostered by “all kinds of claims Christians have made about creation, often arguing the superiority of some to others ― women, slavery, purity of Aryan race, apartheid. It’s not surprising theologians have included LGBTs in their creation arguments of exclusion.”

The two most prominent themes advanced in this mistaken theology of creation, Pauw said, are complentarity and fruitfulness.

“Complementarity sees men and women as two halves of a whole ― even reading Genesis that way ― concluding that only females and males together are the image of God,” she said. “So are non-heterosexual couples less of God’s image ― Jesus, for example?”

Whenever theologians make the argument that gender differences are the most important factor in life in Christ, Pauw said, “women know they’re in trouble, that they’re getting the short end of the stick.”

Complementarity ― rigid gender roles, in which men are superior and men and women, mothers and fathers, play mutually exclusive roles ― “is most clearly enunciated in heterosexual marriage,” Pauw said.  

“But what if Christian marriage is defined by the peace of Christ ruling over hearts rather than rigid gender roles?” she continued. “One of the joys of a good marriage, all agree, is that partners are better together. The more mutual, egalitarian and flexible that relationship is perceived to be, the more room one has to embrace same-sex marriage.”

Fruitfulness has always meant procreation, Pauw said. “It’s a wonderful thing when couples bring new life into the world, but is that the only way marriage can be fruitful? My husband and I have three children, but our marriage was fruitful before they were born and has been in the 19 years since the youngest of them was born.”

Trying to define marriage in a way that excludes same-sex couples has produced too narrow a definition, Pauw said. “Are marriages that don’t produce children lesser? Are older adults not to marry? Procreation arguments ignore the fact that the broad sharing of family life occurs in many ways beyond simple procreation. Family life is shared many ways, not just by fertile heterosexual couples.”

Multiplying humanity, increasing creativity, expanding and fulfilling God’s blessing is a vision of fruitfulness that all humans can fulfill despite their marital status; Pauw said. “The strange arithmetic of marriage ― that one plus one equals more than two ― provides a sounding board, a staging area, an anchor, that allows both people in it to venture out, risk, and create space for more love to flourish ― multiplying the fullness of humanity that Christ intends.”

One day marriage equality will be the law in all 50 states, Pauw predicted. “It’s going to happen. But even when that happens the vast majority of marriages are going to be heterosexual. That’s central in our society,” she said.

“But the centrality of one kind of relationship does not exclude the creation of other kinds of relationships,” she said. “[Heterosexual marriage] has never been the only example of human flourishing and won’t be in the future.”

The push for same-sex marriage represents the desire for integration and commitment and responsibility in human relationships, Pauw said. “All who care about this should be eager to get on board.”

A summary of her position on marriage, Pauw said, can be found in a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his fiancé (he was executed by the Nazis before they could marry): “Our marriage shall be a ‘yes’ to God’s earth.”