What is a Doctrine – and is marriage one?

Two collections of essays, by a variety of contributors, discussing Christian marriage. Marriage, Family and relationships – biblical, doctrinal and contemporary perspectives (1)from an evangelical (‘traditional’) publishing house. Thinking again about marriage – key theological questions, reflects from more ‘including’ convictions. (2)

Each contains a discussion on the use of the word ‘doctrine’ in relation to marriage. This is helpful. In the current debates ‘the doctrine of marriage’ is often asserted as something clearly defined and fixed. Those supporting the extending of marriage to same-sex couples are told they are dismantling a core biblical, church doctrine. 

But is this actually true? 

Oliver O’Donovan (writing in 1) and Mike Higton (writing in 2) both begin by unpacking what we mean by the word ‘doctrine’.

O’Donovan starts from two words in the Pastoral Epistles. The first is ‘deposit’ (παραθήκη 2Tim 2.12). This is the essential apostolic message, to be ‘guarded’ as ‘the unchanging, permanent testimony of salvation’. The second word is ‘the teaching’ (διδαχή). This is the church’s continuous work of expounding and communicating the faith to successive generations. Doctrine is therefore both unchanging and changing as the ‘deposit’ engages with each new phase of the church’s missionary experience. ‘It develops out of a critical attention to phenomena, which encourages the whole church and not only the leadership, [to] faithfully discern under the authority of Scripture’. This sounds remarkably like the process the whole CofE has been undertaking in the Living in Love and Faith programme. 

For O’Donovan, doctrine is a reflection on experience, not simply an allegiance to a past declaration. Its work is to make the faithful ‘more equipped to meet the challenges of their contemporaries’. So, the work of doctrinal development is a continuing learning process. It is forward looking and open as it seeks ‘the discovery of what allows humanity to flourish, individually and socially’. ‘Of the future we know only this’, he says, ‘we should be led by the Holy Spirit into new understandings and new practices’.

This means ‘we have to be alert to the possibility, of which the Reformation was an instance, of doctrine being renewed out of scripture in a way that takes the church by surprise’ (all from pps 191-3).

Higton notes the word is used in both general and specific ways. When used generally, the ‘doctrine of’, say, creation, refers to the broad cluster of themes that have accumulated around that particular aspect of faith and belief. This view of doctrine is spacious. No one is tied to the finer details of the how and why. When used specifically, the ‘Doctrines of the Church’, for example, refer to more defined expressions of core belief essential to salvation, such as found in the creeds and historic church councils. 

So, is the doctrine of marriage general or specific? It is found in none of the creeds or formularies deemed essential to salvation. Rather, it is under a broad doctrinal umbrella that the varied and evolving expressions of marriage in scripture and church history are found clustered.  

So when the CEEC* added a statement about marriage being between a man and a women to its core doctrinal basis of faith it was changing a general doctrine into a specific one. This novel development had the effect of immediately excluding numbers of fellow evangelicals who disagreed with making this a basis of faith, questioned this reading of scripture texts and/or held a more including understanding of marriage. But this belief has also now been elevated by some, becoming the measure of doctrinal and biblical orthodoxy. At the very least this is a stretch.     

Higton agrees with O’Donovan in seeing doctrine as a developing task in a missionary church. The work of doctrinal theology is never finished  … [because] we are always in search of better understanding together, discovering more of the abundance of God’s gift to us … there is always more to discover … because we are always finding ourselves in new situations, facing new challenges and possibilities. Each new situation, each new encounter, can help us to see something new of the gift that we have been given in Christ … because all of our thinking is fallible and partial … marred by sin, partly mistaken, and short-sighted. We can be called to account by hearing the voice of God again through the Scriptures … by voices from the Christian tradition, reminding us, or warning us. We can be made to rethink by those in the church who think differently from us … interrupted and unsettled by voices speaking from the margins – the voices of people who have been excluded or ignored or marginalized in the current life of the church, but who have from their vantage point seen in Scripture things that we have missed [including] how entangled some of our doctrinal claims are with the maintenance of power structures in and around the church.’ (3) 

Sam Wells uses the image of a five act play to express this process of development. The first three acts are Creation and Fall, Israel and Jesus. The final act is the Eschaton. But the fourth act is us – the life of the church from the New Testament onwards. He calls this a work of continuing, faithful improvisation. No one is making anything up here. Musicians and actors know faithful improvisation only emerges out of a disciplined immersion in the tradition. But it is expressed in a newness that is creatively responsive, in the Spirit, to the present context and its challenges. (4)

Marriage, in scripture and history, has been a more varied institution than is commonly acknowledged, but one feature is consistent. It has always been between a man and a woman. ‘The idea of a marriage between two people of the same sex is a major conceptual innovation’ (193, O’Donovan). How are we to understand this? 

This is often taken as irrefutable evidence that this is what marriage is meant to be and no other expression of it is possible, still less Christian.

There is another possibility. In our time, committed, loving relationships between same-sex couples have become visible in church and society for the first time. This is posing questions we have not had to ask before. O’Donovan writes, ‘the human race has often seen homosexual behaviour before, in a variety of contexts, but it has not seen anything like this construction of it, with these sensibilities and aspirations.’ In other words, this is new and is asking very new questions of us (5). We are needing time to understand its meaning.

The way we define the doctrine of marriage directly impacts on our freedom to faithfully imagine and develop our understanding and lived experience of it. It is not surprising then that Higton’s essay develops an extended critique of assumptions about complementarity that underpin traditional statements about marriage. 

When written, as they have mostly been, from within the experience and assumptions of a historically majority group they too often betray an inability or refusal to consider experience other than their own when addressing the questions we are now being asked to respond to (6).  

Higton puts it like this. ‘We are still in the process of discovering the ways of speaking about and responding to sexual difference to which we are called by the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. God has given us marriage, but that gift is one that we are still receiving.’ (p24. 2018)

Two voices from different places in this debate, expressing, in very similar ways, the character of Christian belief and how it responds when encountering something significantly new.

Understanding that is always developing. 

Faith that is always learning. 

A church always open to the surprise of God.



*CEEC  stands for ‘Church of England Evangelical Council’. Historically, the coordinating body for varied and various evangelical groups and agencies in the Church of England.  The change referred to happened around 2019. 


1. eds P Johnston, T A Noble, S Whittle. Apollos 2017. Chap 12. ‘One man and one woman’: The Christian doctrine of marriage.

2. eds J Bradbury, S Cornwall. SCM, 2018. Chap 2. Marriage, Gender and Doctrine.   

3. p20-21 Why doctrine matters. Grove 2020. p20-21.

4. Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. Baker. 2018. pp 33-37. He develops the idea of improvisation in chap 4.

5. quoted in The House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality. CHP. 2013. p78.

6. The most recent example would the statement by fourteen bishops ahead of the General Synod debate in February 2023. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1aYyMitqZL7c0ftjxM3_maGmptBzVVz_D/view