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A [conservative] CHRISTIAN DECLARATION ON MARRIAGE

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Background of the statement:

It is normally impossible for the various sections of Christianity to reach a consensus on anything. Conservative Protestant, liberal Protestant, Roman Catholic and other Christian denominations, disagree on essentially everything, from abortion to physician assisted suicide; from the death penalty to equal rights for homosexuals. Even agreement within Protestant denominations is usually impossible. But, somehow, representatives of the major divisions of Christianity in North America were temporarily able to agree on a marriage statement on 2000-NOV-14. 1 It was signed by:

bulletBishop Kevin Mannoia, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing conservative Protestant denominations.
bulletBishop Anthony O'Connell, chairman of the Committee on Marriage and Family Life, of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, representing the Roman Catholic Church.
bulletDr. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, (NCC) representing 36 mainline and liberal Protestant denominations and Orthodox churches. He later withdrew his name.
bulletDr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's (SBC) Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, representing the Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.

The project was initiated by Kevin Mannoia of the NAE.

The writers emphasized that "marriage is a holy union of one man and one woman," established by God. It brings benefits to the individual couple, to churches and to the wider culture. The framers of the document are concerned about a number of developments related to marriage in the U.S.:

bulleta high divorce rate.
bulletan increase in couples living together before marriage or with no intent to eventually marry.
bulletan increase in births outside of marriage.
bulleta decline in the marriage rate.
bullet"a diminishing interest in and readiness for marrying."

They call on the churches in America to provide:
bullet"Prayer and spiritual support for stronger marriages.
bulletEncouragement for people to marry.
bulletEducation for young people about the meaning and responsibility of marriage.
bulletPreparation for those engaged to be married.
bulletPastoral care, including qualified mentor couples, for couples at all stages of their relationship.
bulletHelp for couples experiencing marital difficulty and disruption.
bulletInfluence within society and the culture to uphold the institution of marriage." 1

They call on churches to cooperate locally by developing policies and programs aimed at increasing the marriage rate and reducing the divorce rate. The statement involves efforts only by Christian groups. There was no mention of an inter-religious effort involving non-Christian religious groups or the involvement of secular groups. "A summit of church leaders is being planned to emphasize the importance of marriage and mobilize local church participation." 2 This will apparently be restricted to Christian leaders only.

At a press conference, Dr. Land of the SBC took the opportunity to attack committed unions that are widespread in North America and which exist outside of marriage. He said: "By their very nature, broken marriages and counterfeit alternative relationships such as cohabitation and same-sex unions fail to impact and benefit society in the manifold ways that society is blessed by intact, committed heterosexual marriages." In an apparent reference to suggestions by others that marriage be expanded to include gays and lesbians, he asserted that the institution of marriage is "under severe assault." He quoted data from the U.S. Census which indicate that between 1970 and 1998:

bulletThe number of children living with unmarried couples rose 665%.
bulletThe rate of non-marital births increased 224%.
bulletThe number of single-parent families rose 190%.

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Collapse of the agreement:

In a very rare show of unanimity among all major Christian groups, the statement was issued on 2000-NOV-14. It only survived for three days. On NOV-16, Dr. Edgar issued a letter to the delegates to the NCC's General Assembly. He explained that the purpose of the statement was to "support Christian men and women in marriage—especially in our 'disposable society...' " 3

There is unanimity within the NCC to advocate equal civil rights for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons in most matters. However there is no consensus on whether these individuals should be allowed to enjoy the basic human right of marrying the person that they love and are committed to. There has been a lack of consensus among the NCC's 36 denominations over the recognition of same-sex, monogamous, committed relationships, both within the churches and by the government. Dr Edgar commented: "I would not want this statement to be misconstrued as if it were an oblique comment on same-sex unions. Even more importantly, it would be unconscionable if support for married couples, so desperately needed today, were to be twisted into a weapon that can be used to attack gays and lesbians, their families and friends and all in our churches who love and care for them...In our dangerously fragmented society, I regret and will resist any attempt to interpret support for one beleaguered segment of society as an attack [on] another." 3

Three days after the statement was issued, Dr. Edgar withdrew his name as a supporter and co-author. 1 On NOV-17, he expressed "concern that a statement meant to support married couples is being misused to attack gays and lesbians." In a letter to the other signatories, he wrote: "A number of the NCC member communions interpret the document more as a condemnation of same-sex unions than as an affirmation of marriage," he said. "The fact that the declaration omits mention of same-sex unions is taken by some as proof that all of the signatories disapprove of such unions." He apologized for having signed the document without first adequately consulting with the 36 member communions of the NCC. 4

According to the Atlanta Journal, Kevin Mannoia, the individual who had initiated the negotiations leading to the joint statement, was "very disappointed." The committee had initially agreed that the statement was to be "about marriage, not about homosexual relationship." Mannoia said. "There was no conversation nor any printed comments that were in any way derogatory to persons practicing homosexuality." 6

According to Maranatha Christian Journal, "Dr. Richard Land of the SBC said that he had been more surprised that Edgar had signed the statement in the first place than he had been that he later changed his mind. 'I thought either he was a bolder leader than I previously thought, or he was out of touch with his constituency.' " 6

Mark Cowan, a correspondent for Focus on the Family stated that "After much hoopla and promises of future cooperation, the current head of the National Council of Churches has decided he cannot stand by the traditional understanding of marriage. 7

According to Focus on the Family, Kevin Mannoia, the president of the NAE, said that Edgar's about-face has caused a breach of trust concerning future collaborative efforts with the NCC. 7

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Sponsored link:

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Impact of the NCC withdrawal:

According to Maranatha Christian Journal, "The about-face by the general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC) is likely to set back what had been growing hopes for stronger ties between evangelical and mainline groups. Later at the NCC meeting, the organization agreed to press ahead with talks with Roman Catholic and evangelical leaders about forging closer ties. Edgar said that his change of heart about the marriage declaration 'should in no way be seen as a weakening of my commitment to building the larger ecumenical table about which we have talked.' " 6

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About the document:

There appear to be three changes to the Christian Declaration that might have made it more acceptable to the mainline and liberal denominations within the NCC:

bulletAs written, it discusses only heterosexual marriages. It contains no mention of homosexual partnerships or civil unions. By ignoring homosexual committed relationships, some feel that the document denigrates those partnerships. Some might feel that the statement reduces homosexuals to a sub-human status, and makes them more vulnerable to verbal and physical attacks. It is clear that with the current conservative/liberal division within Christianity over the nature of minority sexual orientations, that no definitive statement could be made of homosexual committed relationships that was agreeable to all parties. Dr. Land of the SBC stated in a subsequent press conference that these partnerships are "counterfeit." He and the two other religious conservatives on the committee might have objected to any mention of homosexual relationships, fearing that this might legitimize their existence.  Meanwhile, many within the NCC regard gay and lesbian committed partnerships as structures that are parallel to and equivalent to marriage; to ignore them is to denigrate them.  
bulletThe statement is also silent about committed, monogamous heterosexual partnerships that exist in preparation for (or in place of) marriage. For at least the past decade, most heterosexual couples in North America who marry have first gone through a period of living together -- a form of trial marriage. There are also some heterosexual couples who have chosen to remain together for many decades without having been married. They have raised a family and maintained an intimate, monogamous and loving relationship. It could be argued that their unions make significant contributions to society. The document refers to spouses growing "in love of one another." It talks about "the procreation, nurture, formation and education of children." It refers to couples "loving one another (John 13:34), forgiving one another (Ephesians 4:32), confessing to one another (James 5:16), and submitting to one another (Ephesians 5:21)." Marriage is seen as bringing "spiritual, physical, emotional, economic, and social benefits not only to a couple and family but also to the Church and to the wider culture." It can be argued that these factors are also present in long-term "living together" relationships. Yet, they too were not mentioned. Again, some feel that to ignore them is to denigrate them. 
bulletThe statement discusses the role of Christian denominations and local ecumenical church networks in the promotion of marriage. But it does not recognize any role that non-Christian or secular organizations might play. Again, it might have been difficult to obtain a consensus on this point. Christians have a wide range of beliefs about other religions: some consider them to be faiths which promote alternative routes to God; others consider them to be forms of Satanism. 

There are some lessons that might be gained from this failed attempt to obtain a Christian consensus on marriage:

bulletDifferences of belief among conservative, mainline and liberal denominations within Christianity might make a Christian consensus on marriage impossible to achieve.
bulletJoint statements on almost any major social problem may also be impossible to develop.
bulletPerhaps, observers could be invited to attend any future attempt to craft joint Christian statements on marriage. Individuals from homosexual rights groups, representatives from non-Christian religions, observers from secular and religious organizations which promote families, and individuals who have chosen a living together relationship rather than marriage might have been able to contribute useful material to the committee, and have helped them to avoid pitfalls. Alternatively, the document could be submitted to such groups and individuals for review before it is edited into its final form.
bulletAdding a preamble to this statement might have avoided some of the criticisms that the document received. It could have state frankly that the report deals solely with heterosexual marriage. The wide diversity of beliefs within Christianity prevents the writers from reaching a consensus on any aspects of homosexual or heterosexual, committed, non-marital relationships. Such a preamble might have saved this document. It might have prevented a Christian statement on marriage from becoming a conservative Christian statement on marriage.

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Related essays on this web site:

bulletText of A Christian Declaration on Marriage
bulletRelations warm between the NCC and NAE

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References:

  1. The text of the statement is online at: http://www.ncccusa.org/news/2000GA/marriagedec.html    
  2. News Summary Archive, 2000-NOV-14, ReligionToday at: http://www.religiontoday.com/Archive/ 
  3. "NCC General Secretary, in a letter to the Council's Assembly, warns against inappropriate use of 'Marriage Declaration'," at: http://www.ncccusa.org/news/2000GA/marriage.html 
  4. "Edgar removes name from 'Christian Declaration of Marriage'," at: http://www.ncccusa.org/news/2000GA/marriageapol.html 
  5. " 'Christian Declaration on Marriage' voices religious leaders' concerns," at: http://www.baptistpress.org/Archive/BaptistPress/
  6. "Stand on marriage set back by co-signer's withdrawal," Maranatha Christian Journal, 2000-NOV-20, at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/00b/20001120d.htm
  7. Mark Cowan, "NCC removes endorsement from marriage statement," Focus on the Family, 2000-DEC-6, at: http://www.family.org/cforum/fnif/news/A0014001.html  

Copyright © 2000 & 2001 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-NOV-20
Latest update: 2001-JUN-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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