The decision raises marriage’s meaning and malleability

It was a Justice of the Peace who officiated at my first wedding, as I was a student minister and not yet ordained. He signed the license, but I was called upon a few days later after the couple disagreed on how to discipline their acting-out stepson.

It seems that there is no guarantee that those who marry in the name of the church and state will act like Christians.

But because the family of the couple quickly called upon my faith community and me to discuss the moral issues, I learned that getting married “before God and this witnesses” was a very serious matter. This is something I want to be available to every couple who believes.

Marriage may begin between two people, but it does not end there, neither in the law nor in society.

Presbyterians (USA) redefine marriage.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), through its presbyteries (local ruling bodies), has just passed a vote that defines marriage to be between two people. The poll also allows sessions, the ruling body of a congregation, to host weddings of same-sex couples and to have the clergy perform these ceremonies.

Some Presbyterians were quick in arguing that this broke with the model of Biblical Marriage. As a historian, I am more inclined to ask, “Which biblical marriage model?” Is it Old Testament patriarchal monogamous marriage, Mosaic monogamous marriage, or the view of a single savior, who said that in heaven, “they do not marry nor are given in wedding”? Or is it that of the apostle Paul who dismissedly said “It’s better to marry than burn.”

As a person of Christian faith in the 21st Century, I believe it’s a healthy sign that people want to give their all to the community, even if they’re making a life-long commitment, and ask for God’s guidance and the help of the community to make these commitments successful.

The church’s actions have a larger meaning

Recently, my friends from outside the church, as well as my students studying to take ordination exams at Vanderbilt Divinity School, asked me what the greater significance of the Presbyterian Church action was. What was the Presbyterian Church doing? The majority of presbyteries in this theologically diverse, highly educated, and demographically older Christian church were saying several things simultaneously.

We cannot, first, imagine preventing churches from hosting and ministers from officiating at same-sex marriages where it’s legal. Our denomination has made a difficult peace with Presbyterian churches who wish to ordain gays as elders and call them to the ministry. It is only fair to allow these leaders and members to celebrate their lifelong relationships.

This vote also does not require any minister to perform a marriage that offends their conscience.

This should allow conservative churches to stay within the Presbyterian fold without being disturbed, right?

The “power of one” can change hearts and minds.

On this second point, the logic of recent actions falls apart in relation to conservative churches and pastors. Although it’s true that the church action doesn’t bind the conscience of any church or minister on the issue of same-sex married, I’m going to go on a limb here and predict three things for the Presbyterian Church in the USA and many other mainline denominations over the next decade.

First, congregations that are worried about being associated with the Presbyterian Church will attempt to leave. Rural churches are already aware that their ministers and they are not bound to perform gay weddings. However, they are afraid that their neighbors will think less of them if they are seen as being part of a church that allows same-sex marriages.

The wedding registry office in St. Petersburg, Russia, on November 7, 2014, was the venue for two brides to exchange vows. Reuters/stringer

Second, larger churches within the Presbyterian fold may use conscience provisions to maintain local status quo for five, six, or seven years, until one favorite daughter returns to her congregation with the intended life partner she has chosen and requests to be married. It will be a new crisis of conscience due to the congregation’s love and knowledge for the young woman and/or pastor’s conscience on the same issue. The LGBT community has taught us that the “power one” can change minds and hearts.

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