COUSSON, Philippe, "Protestants and the Family." Poitiers, France: Conference on Religion and the Family, March 2000

(translated from the French on web :   by Robert Brow).

A Muslim, a Roman Catholic Bishop, a Jewish layman, and a Protestant met to discuss the problem of family disintegration in France. Philippe Cousson's presentation nicely highlights in the messy situations of life the contrast between what we render to Caesar and what we render to God (Mark 12:14-17).

Cousson. "I will offer you a Protestant approach to our topic, as I try to explain how this might differ both from the perspective of other religions and the dominant outlook in our western world.

First of all Protestants take it for granted, though others might not grasp this, that we recognize no ultimate human authority. Nobody can speak with authority in the name of Protestantism. Every believer must discern what to believe and live accordingly. Of course this is not done in a vacuum, as if beginning from scratch. The only supreme authority is the Bible as given to us in the Old and New Testament. It is the Word of God, which each of us interprets in the light of faith, and in communion with others.

As a result there is inevitably a diversity of interpretations, which are often complementary but in some cases might even contradict one another. But emerging from this approach there is a surprisingly common attitude to faith, ethics, and our daily lives.

Another important point is that there is no such thing as a Protestant legal system. Martin Luther formulated the principle of the separation of church and state. As a result, churches may often express their opinion in no uncertain terms, but they make no claim to govern the society they live in. As a result we are committed to democratic principles where the decisions and laws of the state result from a consensus of all the citizens. This means there has never been a code of Protestant family and marriage law.

Although the family has always been the foundation of any society, we recognize that its form varies from culture to culture and generation to generation. This is why missionaries had to decide what to do when they were confronted with family structures which differed radically from what they took to be the norm.

There has however been a characteristic of the Protestant family which has enabled Protestantism to survive some dark periods of our history in France, i.e. the family praying and reading of the Bible (culte de famille).

Based on a false impression of puritanism, people attribute to us a cold prudishness. But for Protestants sexuality is not a vice. It is part of the human condition, and not only for the purpose of procreation. Neither celibacy or sexual abstinence are viewed as more virtuous than marriage.

In a New England puritan community a woman complained to her pastor, then to the whole community, that her husband had abandoned their sexual relationship. As a result the husband was excluded from the community.

This captures the idea that for Protestants women have an equal role with men in their family life. But equality of rights does not mean either sameness or subordination.

There is also the story of the woman who was taken in adultery and brought to Jesus for him judge her. He told any who had never sinned to cast the first stone. The oldest among them left shamefacedly, and the other accusers all followed. "Didn't any of them condemn you?" Jesus asked, and when she said "no one" he said "neither do I. You may go. Do not sin again."

Here then are some typical Protestant attitudes to family life. A family is built around a man and a woman. They are linked by a commitment to each other. And their love is no longer a feeling that grabs you and can just as easily disappear. Love is not falling in love but loving. Loving is an active verb, an act of will, a decision, a resolve.

Since there is no Protestant legal system, there can be no such thing as Protestant marriage. Marriage is a social and civil act. Not only in our day, but throughout human history, people have often lived together without any kind of traditional or official ceremony. Are they married? For some Protestants the answer is yes. A life in common, a sexual life, both involve a reciprocal arrangement. A common roof and sharing a bed are hardly aspirins to reduce pain.

Similarly with children. Each has a role to play for the good of all. And the father, mother, and the children are all involved in voluntary mutual commitments to each other and to God.

You will have seen that from a Protestant point of view two kinds of analysis are needed. One is ethical and theological. The other relates to our social, civil, and citizen status.

Now let us take the case of the many families which have been torn apart and painfully restructured in new relationships, in some cases several times already. From the point of view of ethics we affirm the necessary permanence of the family unit. But we recognize that where it becomes too painful for a couple to share their life together, a separation might be preferable. When that happens, their friends and community must support each of those involved in the new arrangements. For Protestants it is not a question of encouraging divorce by mutual consent that allows each party to look elsewhere. But since that is the way that our society often functions, we must welcome the victims and pick up the pieces.

Some prefer to avoid an official marriage. Most Protestants assume that society must recognize this fact. Society has also begun to recognize relationships, such as those of same sex couples, outside the usual family structure. Where Protestants deny the propriety of such relationships, they also affirm that they are not to be viewed as pariahs. We should welcome them and listen to their story. At the same time most Protestants remain uneasy with the raising of children without a male father and a female mother.

Another cause of family disintegration is the cycle of poverty, unemployment, divorce, and lack of affordable housing. This is unacceptable, and it wounds too many people, especially the children.

Protestants join with those who complain that political and economic decisions are made without considering some disastrous consequences for the families that will be affected by them.

Individualism is therefore characteristic of the Protestant mind, but not in an egoistical sense. It engages the individual in society, in a family, and in the relationships between husband and wife and their children. And in each case in the light of being in the image of God. It is not a question of going to look elsewhere when the going gets rough. The aim is to build solid relationships with others and for others.

But Protestants also rely on the grace of God. This includes the possibility to begin again after a failure. A new beginning is always offered us. It is at the same time promise and engagement, promise and engagement towards a new life, relied on a divine promise.

Note : Le PACS (Pacte civil de solidarit) is a new law in France, by which two persons (sex is not important) goes in front of a justice of the peace to subscribe that pact, which is an engagement and which provides some legal advantages.

For a bibliography see the original French text on

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