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A culture war is raging over the primary purpose of marriage. Battle lines have been drawn by those who contend that sinister forces are redefining marriage to be solely about the mutual enrichment of the couple.

They claim this emphasis has led to immaturity and selfishness and that we need to get back to marriage as being first of all about procreation. Otherwise, they say, the divine purpose for marriage is dangerously distorted.

I wondered, how has our Reformed tradition weighed in? Have we in the Christian Reformed Church remained faithful to God's purpose for marriage?

It took only a little digging to find that our red 1934 Psalter Hymnal and blue Psalters of 1959 and 1973 list the primary purpose of marriage as "the propagation of the human race."

But Synod 1977 nudged producing offspring out of first place, approving a new marriage form that listed mutual help as the primary purpose. And that became the form for the gray Psalter Hymnal of 1987.

At first glance it appears that we capitulated to the "slippery slope" of the new views on marriage. Digging deeper, however, I uncovered something quite different.

Prior to the 1934 revision, back to the first Psalter of 1566, there is no mention of "the propagation of the human race." The enrichment of the couple came first, and raising children followed. This was even in a draft for the red Psalter presented to Synod 1930.

Then, after almost 400 years, something unexpected happened.

The propagation phrase suddenly appeared as the primary purpose of marriage in a draft of the 1932 Acts of Synod. The enrichment idea lost ground. And the propagation phrase became part of the marriage form for the red Psalter.

This historic change bears the fingerprints of a man who was added to the study committee by Synod 1930: Rev. Samuel Volbeda. This highly regarded seminary professor had been quite vocal that year on synod's advisory committee regarding the marriage form.

That same advisory committee encouraged synod to mandate the study committee to consult with marriage forms of "other churches in our country." After this, the propagation phrase appeared and the switch in priorities for marriage occurred.

Volbeda had high-church leanings, and "the propagation of the human race" is vintage Roman Catholic theology. The Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Christian Marriage and the Catholic Encyclopedia contain the phrase verbatim as the primary purpose of marriage. That, in large part, explains Rome's absolute ban on birth control and the no-exception clause in its pro-life stance that extends even to situations threatening the life of the mother. Marriage is primarily for the purpose of producing offspring, no matter what.

But not so in Reformed theology.

In our tradition, except for the one aforementioned generation (1934-1977), the enrichment of the couple has always been marriage's primary purpose. So too in Presbyterianism, as evidenced by the Westminster Confession's description of marriage: "Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife."

This clarification, of course, does not resolve the culture war. We must fight courageously for biblical ideals. But the battle ought not be waged on a false premise.

And in the meantime, these insights should come as a blessing to couples who cannot, or prayerfully choose not to, have many or any children. They, and those who remain single, should not feel at odds with God's design for marriage and life in his world. Rather, their unique gifts may contribute something extraordinary for the fulfillment of God's cultural mandate to "be fruitful and multiply" and the Great Commission to tell the world of God's love.

For Discussion

  1. Do you agree with David Shuringa that the purpose and meaning of marriage is under discussion today? If so, in which contexts?
  2. Is marriage first of all about us? About (potential) children? About God?
  3. Shuringa describes changes made to the marriage forms used in the Christian Reformed Church. Are we obliged to agree with what those forms teach? May we amend them to better reflect our own views? How closely or loosely are we bound to what marriage, baptism, public profession of faith, and communion forms state?
  4. So where do you stand on this issue? Do you see the purpose of marriage primarily to be enrichment of the couple or procreation? Explain. What in Scripture supports your view?
  5. Where does your answer to question 4 leave couples who cannot or choose not to have children? How about single people who do not get married?

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