Friday, October 12, 2012

Why I Believe Marriage is Essential to Humanity and Christian Faith

At the recent PCANZ General Assembly we discussed marriage and matters of sexual orientation—the latter in regards to the ordination of practising homosexuals, the former in relation to current legislation before Parliament and the church’s theology and role in marriage. As I prepared for the discussion I realised afresh how integral marriage is to the whole Christian story and ongoing Christian life. I spoke on this in the debate, somewhat nervously (such an intimidating place), and want to unpack what I said.

1.       Marriage is Integral to Creation and Image Bearing

Marriage is implied in Gen 1:26-28 which is critical to understanding God’s plan for humankind (I see this at the heart of what I call the Great Cosmission, God’s plan to build a world). Humans are made in God’s image, in some senses we are like God. This has a range of ideas in it including relationality and dominion.  In Gen 1:27, both male and female are created in God’s image. In Gen 1:28 they are told to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” There is nothing at this point specifically about marriage, but it implies the sexual union of male and female to produce children—heterosexual sexual relationship. In a world before In Vitro fertilization, which is of course a very recent phenomenon, the creation of a new image bearer requires heterosexual sexual relationships. Even in the case of In Vitro fertilization, conception requires combining male and female elements to produce children and fill the earth. Image bearing depends on the created complementarity of male and female. Indeed, no one can live without this—we are all born of it. God’s purposes to form a people is based at its most fundamental level on heterosexual sexual relations. For the writer of Genesis, God sees this as “very good” (Gen 1:31).

In Gen 2 the story of humanities creation is told again and further clarification is given. Of Adam it is said, “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18) and so a partner is made for him (helper is not a subordinate role, the Hebrew is used of God, e.g. Exod 18:4). The partner made is the female, Eve, made of the same stuff and perfectly complementary to Adam. Marriage itself is instituted in Gen 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Marriage is mentioned twice in this text. First a man will leave his “father and mother,” implying a family heterosexual unit (the first being Adam and Eve). The man will join a women, his wife, and they become one—a new marriage unit who form a family. This clarifies the basis on which image bearers will fill the earth—through marriages and families. Human society, in terms of the pre-fall world, is formed on the basis of the heterosexual marriage relationship.

In Gen 3, at the heart of the Fall is the failure of Adam and Eve to unite around God’s command and live it out in partnership (Gen 3:1–7), and the first impact is contention in the family unit with Adam blaming Eve (Gen 3:12) and God telling the first couple that the result of their failure would be ongoing contention and male dominance (Gen 3:16). This has played out ever since and needs restoration—this is the work of Jesus and now that he has come, his followers. 

2.       Marriage and the Law
While Christians do not live under law and are free from law, the Christian ethic is not antinomian, and the law inscribed on our heart and the life of the Spirit is consistent with the heart of the law. Three of the Ten Commandments, which are the heart of the law, relate directly to marriage. First, the fifth commandment specifically tells a child to obey his or her “father and mother” (Exod 20:12). This implies a family unit and expects children to live obediently to build strong families which will fill the earth. Paul quotes this text in Eph 5–6 (cf. Col 3) and adds that fathers should love their wives, treat slaves well and not embitter their children.  “You shall not commit adultery” implies fidelity within the family unit (Exod 20:17). This is endorsed in the NT (e.g. Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21; 10:19). Sexual relationships are to be limited to marriage units. “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” does the same (Exod 20:17). The notion of family is also found in two of the other ten commandments including Exod 20:5, 10, where members of the family will not continue the sins of their “fathers” (implying forebears in inclusive terms), nor work on the Sabbath. Family is implied in both. When the Shema, the central confession of Israel, is given in Deut 6:5, this is followed by a command to pass this onto the children—marriage and family are all over the Law. The rest of the law affirms marriage, rejects adultery and a range of sexual practises which vary from the marriage relationship (esp. Lev 18, 20). Jesus softened the consequences of these practices, renouncing capital punishment, but did not soften Israel’s rejection of sex outside of marriage. If anything he raised the stakes, challenging it at an attitudinal level (Matt 5:31–32).

3.       Marriage and Jesus
Mark’s Jesus affirms Gen 2:24 in Mark 10:6–8: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Matthew’s Jesus says this, but adds the caveat, “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 19:9).

Jesus then affirms that marriage is instituted at creation (above), is related to creation of gender and image-bearing, reaffirms marriage of both parents and new marriage units and that this relationship should be permanent. It is also in the singular, speaking of monogamy. Jesus’ teaching on love would also indicate that these should be relationships of love (e.g. Mark 12:29–31). While Jesus did not get into detail over a range of sexual practices he challenged disciples not to even contemplate alternatives (Matt 5:27–30), rejected divorce except in the case of unfaithfulness (Matt 5:31–32; 19:9) and sees sexual immorality (porneia) as an evil (porn─ôros) thing (Mark 7:19-21). This Greek word at the time was a summary term for sex outside of marriage, and should include the full range. While polygamy existed in Israel’s history, Jesus gives no vindication to it. Jesus appeared to state that marriage is a part of this age and would not feature in the age to come, likely because humanity will have completed its commission to fill the earth (Mark 12:25). Jesus himself was not married of course, and so marriage is not obligatory for all humanity. One does not have to be married to be a complete. However, marriage remains central to ongoing human existence. He also redefines family seeing those who obey the word as family (Mark 3:31–35) and knew he would divide them (Luke 12:49–53). However, Jesus’ mission to form a new humanity is not about individualism, but the redemption of people, marriages and families. It lies at the heart of God’s vision for a renewed world.

4.       Paul and Marriage
Paul endorses Gen 2:24, using it twice. In 1 Cor 6:16 Paul quotes “the two will become one flesh” in his polemic against the Corinthians having sexual relationships with prostitutes. More directly in Eph 5:31 in his instructions to husbands and wives in his household code he quotes it. In 1 Cor 7 Paul gives a range of instructions on marriage, endorsing it, and unpacking Jesus’ teaching on marriage for his context. He gives room for a marriage to end when an unbelieving spouse wishes to end the marriage. Otherwise, he confirms Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Mark 10/Matt 19. He expects elders to be “the husband of one wife” confirming his preference for monogamy rather than polygamy for Christian leaders (1 Tim 3:2). All over his letters, writing into a world rampant with sexual immorality, he repudiates sexual immorality (e.g. Rom 1:24–27; 1 Cor 6:9–10; Gal 5:19). Romans 1 is most interesting in this regard in that Paul refers to the Genesis narrative consistently as the basis for his argument against homosexuality.  It is a manifestation of human idolatry, a rejection of the creator and goes against nature—heterosexuality which is essential to the created order.

5.       Other Factors
Israel is a family become nation, the family of Abraham (Gen 12:1f). The nations of the world have their origin in families (Gen 10). Marriage is used to define the relationship of God and Israel, with God as a faithful husband and Israel and unfaithful wife (e.g. Isa 54:6; Jer 3:1; Ezek 16:32; Hos 1–2). The church is the bride of Christ (Rev 19:7; 21:2). Paul’s favourite metaphor for church is family, seen in his wide ranging use of kinship metaphor (God as father, brother, sister). The church is the family of God, into which all humanity is adopted as God’s children with full rights (Gal 4:4–7). The church began in family units (oikos), such as that of Lydia or the Roman jailor in Acts 16. The vision of a renewed earth in Rev 21 has no hint of sexual immorality (Rev 21:8; 22:15). Marriage is simply implied.

Across the Biblical narrative which is the genesis and foundation of our story, marriage is endorsed and is central. It is the building block of God’s commission to humanity to fill his earth. Humans are created through it. The coming of Christ was to restore the original creation intention. God’s dream is of a renewed humanity—not merely individual salvation, but men and women finding salvation and forming families built on worship and love. We are called to live out Gen 1:26-31; 2:24 faithfully as God’s people.

When a theological notion is etched into the whole Biblical Narrative including creation, the heart of the law, Jesus' teaching and Paul's teaching, both positively (affirming marriage), and negatively (repudiating alternatives), it should be seen as fundamental to the faith. Indeed, it is hard to find anything that is more fundamental than marriage and family when one considers that God in Christ is forming a new humanity. With all this in mind, it is inconceivable that authentic followers of Jesus who live out of the biblical narrative would contemplate alternative marital constructs and variations of what is central to being human in a Christian worldview. To do so is to live a different story and faith and, in my humble opinion, should be opposed.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Presbyterian Assembly 2012, Reflections

The 2012 PCANZ General Assembly in Rotorua is done and dusted. The highlight for me was catching up with old friends and making new ones. While the Assembly had its challenges, it is networking and relationships that count. I enjoyed the worship, Malcolm Gordon is very gifted and he and his team led us well. The moderator, Ray Coster did a commendable job leading with grace and respect. The business committee were tireless in their efforts, it is far from easy to run an Assembly with our polity! The tone of the business was positive, especially considering the sensitivities around the debates. The hosts were brilliant, the food was especially great! My friend and former colleague at Laidlaw College Tim Keel was sensational and challenging. I love his fresh contemporary missional perspective. That said, I think it was an almost impossible task for him to speak in the midst of intense debate. I would have loved time to gather in groups to consider the implications of what he said for the church today rather than get into the minutae of endless debate. Still, all in all, it was a great experience.

On the other hand, we continue to be tied up as a church on the matter of ordination and homosexuality. We had three motions seeking to overturn previous legislation to block practising homosexuals and those in de facto relationships from ordained ministry. One was based on liberty in non-fundamental matters, arguing that the issue is not of the essence of the faith, and so should not be legislated. The second argued that where 2/3 of a congregation wanted a particular minister whatever their sexuality, they should be free to do so whether gay or not. The third proposed that the PCANZ remove all discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Although many agree with liberty on non-essentials and utterly repudiate discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, each was rejected by about 65 to 35%.

The first of these likely failed because the majority of the Assembly believed marriage and sexuality are fundamental issues to human life and existence, and to Christian faith. I would think this is right with heterosexual marriage essential to image bearing and creation, the Mosaic law, Jesus' teaching and Paul's teaching. The second based on a 2/3 majority I found somewhat ironical. On the one hand, those supporting homosexual ordination believe that 1/3 of the whole church wanting gay ordination should cause the whole church to drop the legislation. Yet at a local church level where 1/3 oppose an ordination, it is not seen as sufficient to stop the ordination.

It is a hard debate because it cuts so deep, especially for those of homosexual orientation. I don't think anyone enjoys the debates. We are victims of our own polity in all this. On the one hand it is great that we can debate these issues, and people have the "right" to continue to challenge. On the other hand, when will it end? I have to say, even though I disagree with their position, I greatly admire the courage and commitment of those working for the ordination of homosexuals. Although the debate was difficult and there were some comments which were a little marginal, I also commend us all for the way we discussed the issue.

The tragedy of the Assembly is the amount of time that continues to be spent on this issue. I ponder whether there is a third way. The difficulty is that if any concession is made, this is seen as a loss to evangelicals and human rights exemption will lapse meaing the church has to ordain homosexuals. As such, it seems to be an all or nothing debate. This means that the stand-off will likely go on and future assemblies will continue to be hamstrung by this issue. That is unless we agree to some sort of truce for a given period, but that is hardly likely with so much passion in the debate. For many too, it is a justice issue, and I respect that.

What puzzles me is why those who are so strongly in favour of the ordination of gays, lesbians and people in de facto relationships don't move to set up their own church -- as some conservatives have done in recent imes. Were I one of those advocating in this way, I would far rather be a part of a fresh movement rather than bash my head decade after decade trying to change the mind of the PCANZ Assembly -- especially with the need to get a 60% majority to reverse previous legislation. This may be decades away if at all. After all, we have been at it for 25 years now! Separate presbyteries or synods within the church is not likely to work. I ponder whether it is time for an amicable divorce, and what that might look like. Property becomes the touch stone issue at this point. But I still ask, is there a way? Can we work this out? The only way both "sides" will be free to "be" will be some kind of separation. This idea is somewhat ironical though, when we are talking about marriage, fidelity etc!

I admit to being more than a little stunned by the stand made against same sex marriage by the Assembly. In our polity, a motion must get 60% to be passed, and I expected them to be very close, even to be lost. Yet, the votes endorsing Christian marriage, rejecting same-sex marriage and that the PCANZ would speak as one voice to Parliament were all passed by between 70-77%. With my theology which sees marriage as central to God's vision of humanity, I admit to being encouraged by this outcome and that the PCANZ will now speak to Parliament on this matter. I am surprised that this has not featured in the mainstream media since the Assembly. I am not sure why?

There were other things that delighted my soul. Particularly encouraging were the statement to support vulnerable children and to work from the bottom up for a living wage. What a great idea. Awesome work here from the Wellington Presbytery. As one who grew up in the Pacific Islands, I think it is great that the Pacific Island Synod was set up, giving PI Presbyterians a place to stand and be heard. A motion was passed in support of the climate change refugees in the Pacific. I admit to not really having realised how critical their situation was. I hope future Assemblies reflect even greater concern for social justice. I hope evangelicals will get more involved in initiating these in the future and reflect an understanding of a broader gospel. I also love our bi-culturalism, and the way we take it really seriously.

I yearn for more focus on other areas of mission at General Assembly. There was one speech, rather late in the evening and so lost in tiredness, on evangelism. We need to reframe evangelism for this context, yet we speak little of it. Many missional moves in the area of money and missional leadership from the Council of Assembly were held in great suspicion and sent back for more discussion. The delay disappointed me, but it will come back better I am sure. I long for the day when we gather and discuss how we are going to share Jesus to the world, rather than being embroiled in ethical debate. Not that the two are disconnected of course, but there must be a way to deal with these things more quickly and get to matters of the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed at a local church level. I like the idea of an Assembly week with more time on worship, inspiration and equipping. I hope we can find ways to sharpen our business, and not retrace the same old debates endlessly.

Finally, with all the negatives, it is great to be part of a church that will discuss hard issues, a church where people can question things. The funniest moment of the Assembly was Martin Stewart's motion that we have annual assemblies. The moderator put the motion, and there was total silence from the 270 commissioners! The "nos" were resounding in contrast! Has there ever been a motion completely rejected in this way? Martin took it brilliantly! Well done.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Reflections on another Hong Kong Adventure

Two years ago I went to Hong Kong to do ministry. I have just got back from another eleven day Hong Kong jaunt, fellowshipping and ministering at the Vine at the invitation of my great friend and ex-Laidlaw student, Andrew (and Christine) Gardener ( This one involved two Saturdays lecturing at the Vine Bible School (Manna) on Paul, preaching at the Vine mid-week African, S.E. Asian and Nepalese refugee gatherings, and some time with the Vine staff. Here are some reflections.

First, Hong Kong is relentless. People work long hours (often 10am to 10pm each day). The Christians in ministry are no exception. I sometimes feel busy here in NZ, but it is nothing in comparison. Not only is it busy, but the pace of life is full on. For those at the Vine, when they get to work they have to stay often late at night because public transport is the only real option and some come to work by ferry or long bus trip. It is a corporate material culture, and work is highly valued. For the non-Christians, work will get a better “next life.” For the Christians to engage, they have to incarnate in the relentless pace. It is a hard place to work, especially for those with young families. Pray for those caught up in it.

Second, Hong Kong accommodation is crazy expensive. We have a four bedroom home with a pool in Albany, Auckland, and that would get you a small moderate two-bedroom, one kitchen-lounge and bathroom high rise in Hong Kong. Rentals are also comparable to this. This is a huge challenge for those on low incomes, with the minimum wage $28 HK dollars an hour (that’s about $6.70 NZ). Education is expensive too. Christian workers face real challenges here.

Thirdly, the gospel is going crazy in Hong Kong. One mission worker who works in mainland China says that it is estimated 28,000 Chinese are converting to Christ a day! That’s around 850,000 per month, and 10 million a year! There are now some 120m Christians in China, and growing. Their greatest need is bibles. In Hong Kong, even in English, bringing Christ into the conversation is never a problem. They are wide open. They might not become Christians, but they are happy to talk about it. The shroud of cynicism and criticism we encounter especially among westerners is not evident. There is a hunger for God. Everything feels spiritually elevated. The Vine in Hong Kong has a big ministry to the many asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong; they are so hungry. One expects to see people come to Christ when you speak and one is not surprised that people experience Christ directly in power. It is very refreshing after ministry in what is often barren NZ. They also need theological teaching big time. Asia is a path more with post-grad degrees should consider. More and more should also learn Mandarin at school and university. Perhaps that’s a word for you.

Fourthly, the “Back to Jerusalem” movement is fascinating ( This is the idea that God is raising up Chinese Christians to evangelise the countries between China and Jerusalem. The vision is for Chinese Christians to go as tentmaker to live in these nations either side of the Silk Road, and to establish businesses and set up house churches. Most of these are Islamic countries, and so the challenges are great. However, they are prepared to die for the cause, as many have done so in China in the last century or so. Many of them believe that in so doing, they will complete the Great Commission, the great movement west of the gospel from Jerusalem and back. Whether this is true or not, it is most definitely the work of God to raise up tens of thousands of missionaries in this way. We talked to some Americans who are involved in training these missionaries. They said that westerners are now compromised as missionaries. Even as workers, people see us coming and know why we are there. On the other hand, the Chinese can get into these nations and are not seen as a threat. The next wave of mission in the world will not be western inspired, it will be Asian, especially Chinese and South Korean. We need to get behind them and support them.

Finally, if you are at a loose end for Jesus and considering where you can make a difference, consider Asia and especially China and Hong Kong. Go and work and take Christ with you.