The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) takes a middle way on marriage, between a secular minimum and a sacramental maximum. The Presbyterian position is representative of most mainline Protestant denominations, and really of Protestant denominations in general. Catholic practice is not that far from this standard, though the Catholic theory of marriage is a little different.
“Marriage – A Theological Statement” was adopted by the church in 1980. A Q and A section makes clear that the church’s view of marriage is high in its aspirations, but reasonable in its actual requirements.
1. Should everyone be married? No. Marriage is good, but so is singleness. Jesus and Paul weren’t married.
2. Is divorce legitimate? Yes, but bad. It is a concession to sin.
3. Is intimacy outside marriage legitimate? Yes, but marriage is best. Intimacy without sex is possible and good. Sex within a merely private commitment is not really marriage.
4. What is the appropriate structure of marriage? This is the headship question. Husbands model what Christ does for church, wives model what Christians do with God. Both husbands and wives are supposed to submit to God and lead by service to others.
5. Is a wedding ceremony necessary for marriage? No, but something like it before the Christian community is.
6. Must a marriage involve the intention to have children? No. God wants humanity to be fruitful and multiply, but this does not mean that every marriage must be.
7. Is monogamy the necessary form of marriage? No, but only barely – if polygamy is the local norm and the mission church accepts that the married partners are trying to live in intimacy, fidelity, and forgiveness. But these will be “strained” by multiple spouses.
8. Must both partners be Christian? No, but we should encourage everyone to Christian commitment, and marriage is a powerful way to do that.
Sometimes Christians, especially conservative Christians, elevate the importance of marriage almost to the point of idolatry. It is important, therefore, to see how modest the actual requirements of Protestant marriage really are.
The Presbyterian marriage statement argues that God made men and women different, but created marriage so that they might unite in love and become one flesh. Yet sin infects even marriages, and sometimes they dissolve, especially due to adultery, desertion, or relations that actually harm the people in the family. This is not good, but the church works together with the divorced to encourage them to give and accept forgiveness and to maintain fidelity in their other relationships. And marriage, though a very good state, is not better than singleness, and will not be continued or repeated in the life to come.
Marriage is, for Protestants, primarily a social institution. The main rules of marriage are made by the state. Being married within the church can sanctify the marriage, calling on the aid of the Christian community and of God to help the couple. But marriage is not a sacrament.
The mainline Protestant standard for marriage is a modest, workable, and centrist approach. Knowing that may take some of the fear out of “Christian family values” for liberals and secularists.