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‘Christian Declaration on Marriage’ voices religious leaders’ concerns

WASHINGTON (BP)–Representatives of Southern Baptists, evangelical Christians, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics promised to strengthen their commitment to marriage in a statement released Nov. 14 in Washington.

“A Christian Declaration on Marriage,” which calls on churches to provide support for married couples in the face of high divorce and cohabitation rates, was the result of an unusual collaborative effort among leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, National Association of Evangelicals, National Council of Churches and National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The group that produced the statement consisted of Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Kevin Mannoia, NAE president who initiated the project; Robert Edgar, the NCC’s general secretary; and Anthony O’Connell, chairman of the NCCB’s committee on marriage and family life.

The statement affirms marriage is a “holy union of one man and one woman” for a lifetime. Marriages that are faithful to God’s plan produce benefits not only for couples and families but also for the church and culture, the document states.

Church leaders have an “unprecedented need and responsibility” to strengthen marriages in the face of a “high divorce rate, a rise in cohabitation, a rise in nonmarital births, a decline in the marriage rate, and a diminishing interest in and readiness for marrying,” according to the statement.

“With three quarters of marriages performed by clergy, churches are uniquely positioned not only to call America to a stronger commitment to this holy union but to provide practical ministries and influence for reversing the course of our culture.”

The declaration calls for churches to strengthen marriage by, among other things, educating young people about its meaning, preparing engaged couples for marriage, providing mentor couples and upholding the institution of marriage in society. The statement also urges churches to join with other churches in their communities to reduce the divorce rate and to increase the marriage rate.

It is critical “churches redouble their efforts to encourage strong marriages,” Land said at a news conference where the declaration was released. God has ordained the church “to teach his truth to the entire world and to model those values that honor him,” he said. “If the churches fail in either of these responsibilities, society will suffer.

“We’ve not done nearly as good a job of providing the support structure that we should,” Land 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.”

The institution of marriage is “under severe assault,” and failures in marriage “occur with equal frequency among churchgoers and nonchurchgoers,” Land said. “Consequently in our day the very foundation of society is threatened.”

Statistics from the U.S. Census, Land said, show from 1970 to 1998 the number of children living with unmarried couples rose 665 percent, the rate of nonmarital births increased 224 percent and the number of single-parent families rose 190 percent.

Land, Mannoia and William Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, spoke at the news conference. O’Connell was unable to attend because of illness.

The motivation for the document was primarily to seek to remedy the undermining of marriage, rather than to provide a response to the call by some for approval of homosexual marriage, Land and Keeler said. “But we certainly don’t shy away from asserting … that God ordained marriage as between a man and a woman … not between two people of the same sex,” Land said.

The declaration is the first step in a process that calls for faith groups to work across divisions to strengthen marriage and is expected to result in a marriage summit for church leaders, Mannoia said.

The speakers cited as examples of efforts among churches to preserve marriages the Community Marriage Policy, the covenant marriage movement and True Love Waits, the SBC-initiated sexual abstinence campaign for young people.

The Community Marriage Policy, which has been adopted by churches in 133 communities, is an agreement by which clergy commit to follow specific guidelines in preparing couples for marriage and in helping them after marriage. The divorce rate has fallen in 25 of 28 communities with such a policy and where data have been confirmed.

Other efforts to undergird marriage also have been announced in recent months. Among them are:

— A June statement signed by more than 100 marriage authorities that called for a reconsideration of no-fault divorce laws and the promotion of covenant marriages.

— “The Religious Declaration on Human Sexual Morality,” a document affirming sex is reserved for “heterosexual, monogamous marriage” and signed by more than 600 Christian leaders

— The “Oklahoma Marriage Covenant,” a commitment to follow guidelines similar to those of the Community Marriage Policy in order to reduce the incidence of divorce. Gov. Frank Keating initiated the effort, and many Southern Baptist pastors signed the covenant in an October meeting.

Among others endorsing “A Christian Declaration on Marriage” were Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

The declaration, as well as Land’s prepared statement, are available at the ERLC’s Internet site, www.erlc.com.