“Marriage and the family” was the theme around which more than 700 theologians gathered Nov. 17-19 for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in Atlanta.
Southern Baptists David Dockery and Gregg Allison were among the slate of officers elected, with Dockery, president of Trinity International University, elected vice president and Allison, professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, re-elected secretary/treasurer. Traditionally, the vice president has gone on to serve as ETS president.
In keeping with the meeting’s theme, ETS members adopted four resolutions on human sexuality authored by Owen Strachan, associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Rob Schwarzwalder, senior vice president of the Family Research Council. Strachan also serves as president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
The resolutions affirmed “that marriage is the covenantal union of one man and one woman, for life,” that “sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage as defined above” and “that God created men and women, imbued with the distinct traits of manhood and womanhood, and that each is an unchangeable gift of God that constitutes personal identity.”
Professors from all six Southern Baptist Convention seminaries presented papers at the meeting, with many addressing themes related to the marriage and family theme.
Donated eggs & sperm in marriage
Evan Lenow, assistant professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said it constitutes “reproductive adultery” for a married couple to conceive children using donated eggs or sperm from a third party.
Infertile couples increasingly are turning to donated eggs or sperm as an accepted form of assisted reproductive technology, Lenow stated, with nearly 20,000 uses of donor eggs or embryos in the U.S. during 2013, not to mention additional uses of donated sperm. Noting that Christians are among those using donated eggs and sperm, Lenow described a conversation he had with a male seminary student whose wife had donated eggs for use by her sister and brother-in-law.
The use of donor eggs or sperm, Lenow said, violates three purposes of marriage traditionally identified by Christians: fidelity, procreation and unity.
“Despite the lack of sexual intercourse between the parties, sexual reproduction does occur in this procreative process,” Lenow wrote in the paper he presented. “Thus, the offspring of this sexual process come from a union other than the husband and wife. In every other context before [assisted reproductive technology] was available, such a union would have been declared adultery. Taking the sexual union out of the bedroom and into the medical lab simply changes the location of the union, not the fact that a union has occurred.”
Marital conflict in church history
Robert Plummer, professor of New Testament at Southern Seminary, said learning about the marital struggles of couples in church history can encourage Christians to persevere through trials in their own marriages. In a paper presented with Matthew Haste, associate professor of ministry studies at Columbia International University Seminary and School of Ministry, Plummer recounted notable Christian advice on marriage conflict spanning from the fifth century to the 20th.
The paper was drawn from Plummer and Haste’s 2015 book Held in Honor: Wisdom for Your Marriage from Voices of the Past. Their sources of advice included an anonymous fifth-century commentator on the Gospel of Matthew, the sixth-century pope Gregory the Great, Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus, Puritan Richard Baxter and 20th-century missionary and author Elisabeth Elliot.
“As I have counseled married couples both at my seminary and at my local church,” Plummer wrote in the paper, “one common theme that encouraged struggling couples is to learn of the marital struggles of others. Ironically, how life-giving it is to know that disagreement and disappointment in marriage are both normal and expected (though not without sin).”
Among the historical advice presented by Plummer and Haste, Baxter advised couples to avoid “dissension” by:
Mortifying “their pride and passion, which are the causes of impatience”;
Becoming “no more offended with the words or failings of each other, than you would…if they were your own”; and
Avoiding “all occasions of wrath and falling out about the matters of your families.”
Mutual submission or wifely submission?
Benjamin Merkle, professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said some major Bible translations wrongly group Ephesians 5:21, and its command of mutual submission, with Ephesians 5:22, and its command about the submission of Christian wives. That error may cause believers to conclude incorrectly that the type of submission God demands of Christian wives is identical to the “mutual” submission described in the previous verse, he noted.
After arguing from the passage’s grammar that a new section begins in verse 22, Merkle noted that no critical edition of the Greek New Testament placed a break before verse 21 until 1979. “One wonders what new evidence would have caused this shift,” he wrote in the paper he presented.
“In the end, I don’t know the motivation or the decision behind the choices made with regard to the division of the text,” Merkle wrote. “I simply urge both the editors of the Greek New Testaments, along with Bible translators and commentators, to let the grammar of the … text speak for itself.”
Marriage in the Baptist tradition
Jason Duesing, provost and associate professor of historical theology at Midwestern Seminary, said Baptists have always defined marriage as one man and one woman in a covenant bond.
Surveying Baptist statements of faith from the 1600s to the present, Duesing argued Baptists “have consistently addressed marriage and family in light of cultural concerns” – a point he believes should encourage contemporary Baptists to persist in their opposition to same-sex marriage.
Duesing cited the Second London Confession of 1689 as an example of Baptists’ early support for biblical marriage.
“Marriage,” the confession stated, “is to be between one man and one woman; neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same time.”
A “great cloud of witnesses” constituted by men and women who supported biblical marriage throughout Baptist history “surround us and stand with us,” Duesing wrote in his paper.
‘God first, family second, ministry third’?
Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Seminary, addressed “unfortunate aspects of the maxim, ‘God first; family second; ministry/career third.’“
“Though I’m all for God, family and ministry,” Coppenger wrote in his paper, “I think the maxim is unwieldy if not cringeworthy. At least, I hope we can use it with caution, for I think it can take us down unfortunate paths.” Among them:
“It can play into the old sacred/secular distinction” by implying wrongly that “once you satisfy God, you can move on to other concerns.”
“It can make the family a jury, whereby one skeptical or cranky juror can put a developing Christian’s growth on hold. This is the sort of thing that keeps a budding disciple from going on a life-changing mission trip, because the spouse doesn’t like the idea.”
The maxim “can suggest that the realms of family and ministry are distinct.” Yet “happy is the pastor whose wife is deeply invested in the ministry of the church he leads, and whose kids are part of the team.”
It can provide “the slacker” with an excuse for ministerial laziness. “It is becoming ministerially fashionable to plead family conflict or carve out non-negotiable family commitment zones when one could easily show more flexibility,” Coppenger wrote.
The maxim can put family “on the bucket list to be checked off before we get to what we really want to do.”
Next year’s ETS annual meeting is scheduled to convene in San Antonio, Texas.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)