Why marriage traditionalists are unprotected in PCUSA

marriageThe 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was characterized by radical actions clothed in calming rhetoric. The assembly voted to make the PCUSA by far the largest U.S. denomination to divest stocks in protest against Israel. Yet the assembly commissioners added language reaffirming “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation,” professing continued commitment to “interfaith dialog and partnerships” with the Jewish community, and insisting that “this action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”

Jewish leaders were not diverted by the soft words. They focused on the action of divestment, which they regarded as an offensive targeting of Israel alone. Rabbi Noah Marans of the American Jewish Committee charged that the PCUSA assembly was in fact “align[ing] with the international BDS movement” and “facilitating the delegitimization of Israel.”


Hasty reassurances

Similarly, the Detroit assembly took a momentous step in voting to redefine marriage, the oldest and most basic institution of human society. Yet even as they extended the denomination’s blessings to same-sex marriages, PCUSA leaders hastened to allay the worries of traditionalists. They cited phrases in the new “authoritative interpretation” and the proposed Book of Order amendment that promise protection for pastors who refuse to perform same-sex marriages.

In a comment on a recent Layman article, assurances came from the Rev. Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, the lead organization advocating same-sex marriage in the PCUSA.

“I can tell you with full integrity that I have heard no one – not one supporter of these proposals – suggest that they would force, coerce or pressure a minister to perform a marriage they thought unwise,” Ellison wrote. “No one has suggested that choosing not to perform a wedding, as an exercise of pastoral discretion, would be a disciplinary offense. No one who sought these changes has suggested it would be appropriate to exclude a teaching elder from presbytery membership on those grounds.”

But closer examination reveals that there is no effective protection against the most likely forms of pressure. PCUSA evangelicals would be wise if, like the Jewish leaders, they were not overly impressed by soothing words. They should instead focus on the assembly’s actions and the probable consequences.

The language in the authoritative interpretation and the amendment sounds solid. General Assembly commissioners added a phrase to the proposed amendment, apparently to mollify those whose conscience forbids participation in same-sex marriages: “Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.” Similarly, the authoritative interpretation provides, “In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The same instinct for calming rhetoric underlay another late change to the amendment. Teaching Elder Commissioner John Wilkinson from Rochester, N.Y., a prominent figure in the Covenant Network, inserted a parenthetical remark noting that marriage had been “traditionally between a man and a woman.” But this historical aside did nothing to alter the thrust of the amendment, which was to redefine marriage today as a unique commitment between two people to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” Indeed, Wilkinson’s wordsmithing highlighted the fact that, if the amendment is ratified by the presbyteries, marriage would no longer be “between a man and a woman” in the eyes of the PCUSA.


Other forms of retribution

The phrases about no compulsion of conscience may ensure that a pastor is not forced, strictly speaking, to stand up front at a wedding with which he or she disagrees. Pastors have always had the freedom to say “yes” or “no” to particular couples requesting marriage. The problem is the retribution that might be visited upon a pastor after he or she says “no.” This will be an especially delicate situation if the reason given for declining to officiate is that it was a same-sex couple and the pastor is opposed to all same-sex marriages.

Under the new authoritative interpretation or the proposed amendment, pastors would seem to be protected against one form of retribution: being charged with a disciplinary offense. But there are other more likely forms of retribution.

One scenario surfaced in a question and answer during the Assembly’s discussion of the amendment. This exchange went unremarked at the time, but holds ominous portent for the future. Teaching Elder Commissioner Kenneth Macari from Elizabeth Presbytery in New Jersey asked whether under the new amendment “when someone is either preparing for ordination or taking a call, will they be in full conscience able to express either position [for or against same-sex marriage] and there not be a prejudice against them from either being ordained or taking a call or switching from one presbytery to another?”

Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons responded. Notably, he gave no guarantees to Macari about being shielded from prejudice in the ordination or call processes. On the contrary, the stated clerk said: “The Book of Order guarantees the rights of bodies to determine their membership. So they may determine in examination for membership of that body, whether it is a member or a teaching elder into a presbytery, they may ask questions about this [same-sex marriage] and then they can determine their membership, wherever they are, based on the laws of their state and their understanding of this issue.”

Let’s translate Parsons’ abstract words into a specific scenario: A candidate for ministry comes up for examination in a presbytery committed to redefining marriage. Presbytery members, exercising their rights as a body, ask the candidate about his or her willingness to perform a same-sex marriage. The candidate answers no, that her conscience is captive to Scripture and will not permit her to participate in such a ceremony. The presbytery then, based on its “understanding of this issue,” exercises its right to “determine its membership” by voting down the candidate. There would be no place for that candidate among the teaching elders of the PCUSA, and she would have to go to another denomination to be ordained. The same thing could happen to a teaching elder seeking to be transferred from another presbytery.

These scenarios are not far-fetched. Proponents of redefining marriage already have declared that they regard this doctrinal revision as “the civil rights issue of our generation.” They see the denial of marriage to same-sex couples as an unconscionable form of discrimination that can have no rational justification. In their eyes, opponents of same-sex marriage are today’s equivalent of racist bigots who in an earlier generation refused to allow African Americans into their churches. None of us would want a racist bigot admitted into ministry in our presbytery. So, by the same reasoning, same-sex advocates might feel it imperative to exclude a candidate who was unwilling to marry same-sex couples. We can expect to see similar scenarios played out in a number of presbyteries over the coming years.


Small disturbance brings in the presbytery

Here is another likely scenario: The adult daughter of a prominent family in a congregation comes to the pastor, desiring a church wedding with her same-sex partner. The pastor refuses, saying his conscience will not permit him. The prominent family raises a ruckus against the pastor, complaining of his hurtful treatment of their daughter. The presbytery steps into the situation, invoking its power under G-2.0904:The presbytery may inquire into reported difficulties in a congregation and may dissolve the pastoral relationship if, after consultation with the teaching elder, the session, and the congregation, it finds the church’s mission under the Word imperatively demands it.” The presbytery, committed to same-sex marriage and supportive of the daughter’s desire, ousts the offending pastor because “the church’s mission under the Word imperatively demands it.” The dismissed pastor may have difficulty in finding another call within the PCUSA, and may have to go to another denomination to continue his ministry.

A pastor of this author’s acquaintance has already experienced a similar situation. (We share his story with permission.) My acquaintance had accepted a call to serve a congregation in a state where same-sex marriage is recognized under civil law. When it came out that he could not in good conscience officiate at same-sex weddings, a few members of the congregation mounted strong opposition to the call. Our acquaintance did not wait for the presbytery to intervene, but rather backed out of the call to spare himself and the congregation from this brewing conflict. All this occurred when he had the full support of the PCUSA constitution in limiting marriage to a man and a woman. We can imagine how much more frequently such conflicts may arise when the Book of Order affirms (or is interpreted to affirm) same-sex marriage.

It is possible that, with same-sex marriage still a new phenomenon in the denomination and the amendment still being debated, proponents of the change will go easy for a time on those who oppose it. Perhaps incidents like what my acquaintance experienced will not become common overnight. This kind of tolerance is what Brian Ellison’s comment seems to suggest.

Nevertheless, the logic of the pro-same-sex marriage position pushes its proponents eventually to make the redefinition of marriage universal and mandatory. If extending marriage to same-sex couples is a “justice issue,” then traditionalist pastors cannot be allowed to perpetrate injustice against vulnerable LGBT people. Action must be taken against such pastors. Even the language in today’s amendment and authoritative interpretation apparently granting immunity from prosecution could be altered by a future General Assembly. If the denomination and its presbyteries are of a mind to enforce “marriage equality,” there is nothing to stop them and nothing to shield those who stand in their way.


A train of logic has left the station

There is precedent for this movement from permissiveness to coercion. The same process occurred 40 years ago with women’s ordination, which today’s same-sex proponents frequently compare to their cause. At first women’s ordination was allowed but not required. Pastors could participate, or not participate, in ordaining women elders as their consciences dictated.

But that diversity of permitted views ended with the 1975 Permanent Judicial Commission decision in the case of Walter Wynn Kenyon. Kenyon was willing to work with ordained women, and to arrange for other pastors to conduct their ordinations, but did not feel that he in good conscience could participate in such ordinations. The commission ruled that Kenyon would be refusing to carry out the duties of his pastoral office, and therefore he was not eligible for ordination into that office. “A candidate who chooses not to subscribe to the polity of this church may be a more useful servant of our Lord in some other fellowship whose polity is in harmony with the candidate’s conscience,” the commission declared.

A similar train of logic regarding LGBT ordination and same-sex marriage is easy to imagine. Indeed, if equality for persons in same-sex relationships is on a par with equality for women, as same-sex advocates repeatedly assert, justice will eventually require that the same course be followed as in the Kenyon case. A teaching elder who discriminates against same-sex partners and denies them access to ordination or marriage will be “choos[ing] not to subscribe to the polity of this church.” He or she will be refusing to carry out the duties of the pastoral office. And the conclusion will be the same: Such pastors have no place in the PCUSA. They belong in another denomination.

Of course, this course of events is not inevitable. The PCUSA and its presbyteries could choose to handle the issue of same-sex marriage in a new way. Perhaps some presbyteries will be more tolerant of marriage traditionalists, at least for a time. Perhaps some local congregations will stand strong behind their pastors in upholding biblical and confessional teachings on marriage, and presbyteries will be unable or unwilling to face down the congregations.

None of these considerations determines the response of conservative pastors who now must decide what to do about marriage. Another denomination may seem more attractive if it retains the traditional definition; however, there will be no place safe from our culture’s challenges to Christian teaching on marriage. Same-sex couples (and cohabiting couples) are in conservative denominations too, and they are owed a faithful response.

Many evangelical pastors will decide to stay in the PCUSA because that is where God called them to minister, and the door remains open (at least for now). But they should make this choice with their eyes open to the challenges ahead. They will need to strengthen themselves and their congregations, especially with the Bible’s beautiful teaching about marriage. They will need to be ready to give witness to that teaching, in the church and in society. And they will need to be prepared to pay a price, if that is what is required in God’s providence.




Comments 32

  • I don’t see women leadership questionable. Mary as a disciple was thrown out by orthodox construction. Women are in harmony with nature.
    Same sex sexual relationships wishing a religious legal contractual Union is hard to relate to the issue of women. Some also may not see the position of deeming intentional abortion as a question of when does life begin. It seems to be when the baby is permitted to take its first breath.
    The Presbyterian Church USA seems to have been dominated by Progressive ( Liberal- Marxist) politics in my life long experience.

  • The Bible is the only book of order that I follow there is no other. Raised in the Presbyterian Church it was a sad day when I left. But to me there are no regrets. You either follow GOD or the crowd. As in the days of NOAH only 8 people got on the boat and were saved. And we again are living in the days of NOAH.

  • No PC-USA church will be able to deny a gay couple getting married without opening itself up to a discrimination lawsuit. The LGBT community is well funded and got plenty of lawyers. They will file the same as if the church had denied a wedding because the couple was interracial.

  • Wait. Even the Layman has to understand that protection for marriage traditionalists is literally written into the proposed language for the Book of Order. And the differences between this debate and the one on women’s ordination (which had conservatives on the wrong side of course) seem pretty clear. Sessions will control how buildings are used, and pastors will decide whether to perform marriages on a case-by-case basis.

  • Effectively this is already happening. I know of a pastor head of staff who was asked by members NOT to baptize their child, rather would like the AP because of the pastors stand on gay marriage. They are not gay, but they have relatives who would attend who are and they did not want the pastor representing “them” at “their family event.”

  • All of these arguments were made during the discussion(s) leading up to this point in our history, including in one way or another the now-extant examples offered by Mr. Wisdom. They obviously were not persuasive to a majority of delegates to our several General Assemblies, unfortunately. As a result, I can only conclude that God will allow the PCUSA to continue receiving the full benefit of this decision – fewer people whose hearts are captive by the Scripture will become candidates, fewer still will become minister and the denomination will continue to reap the whirlwind of falling membership, falling finances, empty church buildings and heavy mortgages that the trust-clause from the abandoned property now makes them responsible. The denomination is already standing in the strictures of Matthew 23:38.

  • The comparison of marriage or ordination of “LGBT people” to ordination of women, asserting a “civil right”, is a false argument. Men and women have no choice about the gender with which they are born, and it is objectively observable. (So-called “sex change surgery” is mutilation, and makes no genetic change in a person.) Engaging in sexually disoriented behavior is a personal choice, as with all other behaviors, and one’s preference for such behavior can only be revealed by personal declaration, not by any objective observation. If behavioral preference were a legitimate ground for civil rights, then left-handed people would be legally entitled to drive on the left side of the road. The ultimate consequence of such a principle is anarchy, which leaves everyone with no “rights” at all.

    • There are two issues: Legal rights for gay people and the right for the majority to continue traditional marriage definition. Yes gay people should have legal rights, example visitation in hospital critical care units. On the other hand why must gay people have the right to use the term “marriage” to affirm their choice in establishing a relationship?

      The reasonable solution seems to be for government to select another term for establishing gay relationships. Government should not change the meaning of marriage; this has been affirmed by several states and a federal law. But nothing has been proposed as an alternative for gay people so they can get their civil rights.

      • On the right track. I thought the gay community originally just wanted their CIVIL UNIONS recognized by our government, not marriage.

  • These apostates are using religion as a tool to promote their politically correct pet ideas, in this current era of God’s creation.

  • This is an excellently written, well-presented analysis which I, as a progressive Presbyterian, believe is “spot on”. No matter how loving we may try to be in living out our respective notions of God’s wishes for us, I really can’t conceive of a scenario in which this evolution (which the conservative among you may prefer to call “devolution”) would not eventually take place.

  • The Indian Nations presbytery has been actively practicing this for 10 years. What the author suggests is 110% true. Evangelicals you are kiddin yourselves – you will get filtered out by the liberals. Waiting for your sign from God to leave the PCUSA? Consider this your sign.

    • Yes, I was black-balled by the Presbytery when I tried to accept a call there. Ugly stuff.

      • “Yes, I was black-balled by the Presbytery when I tried to accept a call there. Ugly”

        Start your own ministry if u have not already.

  • This article is an accurate predictor of the future. How soon? That is the question. PCUSA has vacated its role in keeping the moral candle lit. It will be a struggle down the road.

  • Conservative/traditionalist pastors will soon (if not already) be locked into the churches they now serve. I barely got into the church I now serve and that was three years ago! It’s time to wake up. The thing’s over and if you trust the word of those in power that they will protect you, even after so much evidence that they despise you and want you gone, then you are either deluded or already a “company man”.

  • The Book of order has always had an honored place, as it was based on Holy Scripture!
    Now that is a comedy that deserves our laughter! However I doubt that God is laughing.
    God does ask to be obeyed. And we are given choices, guided by Holy Scripture and Theological text that are backed by that very same Scripture. When the PCUSA confuses that, there in lies the ‘sin’ against The Holy God! About the Holy Law that The Holy Son said we was not here to replace. All this said, this is about matrimony or Holy Matrimony and there seems to be a difference. One is guided by the Bible the other is not.

  • Even though a pastor, church, denomination or state allows “same sex marriage” ,
    when someone says they Are married the next question will be
    “is that a traditional marriage or a same sex marriage?”.
    Years of marriage being defined as between a man and a woman will not allow the Union of Same sex partners to be the new normal in defining marriage. just like can’t say an orange is an apple, so you can’t
    say the Union of man/man or woman/woman is the same as the marriage of a man/woman.
    They are different in essence and one will always be considered traditional.

  • What PCUSA pastors need to be aware of now is heightened vulnerability to civil lawsuits if they decline performing a same-sex “marriage” ceremony. When one’s denomination says it’s okay to officiate such services, then it is easy for a civil court to reason that only personal bigotry on the part of the pastor could cause a decision not to officiate; it cannot be attributed to legitimate religious convictions. In court, faithful evangelical PCUSA pastors will be stabbed in the back by their own denomination. It’s inevitable.

    • Maybe you would be a slightly more convincing if it was possible to cite even one instance where a clergy person has been successfully sued for refusing to perform a wedding, even though there have been many, many millions of instances where that has happened.

    • 501-C3 needs to be turned in, and churches need to start paying their taxes on church property, since the Fed. Gov’t grants tax exempt status to a religious organization, and with the gay issue reaching the level of marriage, the Fed. Gov’t can require churches to perform same sex marriages or else churches will lose their 501-C3 status. I say to churches, start preparing to pay taxes rejecting your 501-C3 status.

    • “then it is easy for a civil court to reason that only personal bigotry on the part of the pastor could cause a decision not to officiate; it cannot be attributed to legitimate religious convictions. In court, faithful evangelical PCUSA pastors will be stabbed in the back by their own denomination. It’s inevitable.”

      Leave the pcusa now to another denomination that stands for the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Bible.

  • You know there’s are of states where the trust clause is not considered legal, Kansas, Missouri for example, it’s time to move on and those who disagree with the GA need to consider leaving. For those who are staying and fighting, good luck.

  • As many of our brothers and sisters – down through the ages and NOW- have experienced, following our Lord is and should be profoundly counter-cultural. All cultures have features that are at enmity with God and His ways. We in the USA have been blessed in the past in that we have not seen religious persecution such as has been seen all over the world through the ages. There are many things faithful followers of Christ must hold in order to remain faithful; however ‘the times they are a’changin!’ Perhaps more emphasis on how the early church lived and witnessed instead of ‘your best life now’ is in order?? [After all, I’ve seen photos of people ISIS has crucified in the Middle East-perhaps some of them being middle eastern Christians?-even if those photos are faked, does anyone believe there are no people in the world now who would not resort to this for real?] NO, I don’t think anyone in the US will be literally crucified but we have an overheated inflammatory world which loves to hate its adversaries. It frightens me to think where, save for the Grace of the Lord, we’ll all be in 15-20 years.

    Signed: a ‘lurker’ in Florida who grew up in a Northern Presbhterian church, now PCA

    • ” It frightens me to think where, save for the Grace of the Lord, we’ll all be in 15-20 years.”

      WAR on the body of Christ and persecution which can be prevented IF we obey and Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and HIS Blood.

  • This article is helpful. As with so much “tolerance” since the Enlightenment, the GA’s supposed tolerance for pastors who are obedient to Biblical standards is little more than an attempt to smile at them politely while they are moving away or dying out. Even the supposedly mollifying phrase, ‘traditionally between a man and a woman,’ treats the biblical view as a backward (merely “traditional”) thing beyond which the PCUSA has now “evolved.”

    As with so much that congratulates itself as being an evolutionary advance, this is really devolution. The PCUSA–glorifying its appetites and feelings as if they were movements of the Holy Spirit–has enacted not the selection of the fittest, but the selection of the most popular.

    Overall, the PCUSA is now–so to speak–a new “animal.” Those forces that have determined that animal’s new nature are the same forces that, if permitted, will shape its future behavior and character.

    Pastors, please take heed for yourselves and for your flocks:
    The prudent sees the evil and hides himself,
    But the simple go on, and are punished for it. (Prov. 22:3)

    • Overall, the PCUSA is now–so to speak–a new “animal.”

      The pcusa is apostate, and has been since 1929 for starters, and the ship is sinking as is our nation.

      • Very seldom pointed out. I doubt if most people even know what Apostate is. Any break from Holy Scripture is Apostacy.(Beginning with Roman Catholics, etc.)

    • “Overall, the PCUSA is now–so to speak–a new “animal.”

      No, the pcusa is filled with sons and daughters of the devil being prepared for the Lake of Fire as written in the Holy Bible, Rev. 20 and 21 chapters. Time to get out.

  • Brilliant, cogent analysis, Mr. Wisdom, which shreds the soothing artifice of Mr. Ellison and the progressives that no PC(USA) pastor will ever have to compromise his/her conscience on marriage. I support full inclusion of women and gays in ordained office and marriage equality in the church. However I want no part of dishonestly sugar coating liberal nostrums. I have pointed out to Mr. Ellison on the Covenant Network website that the evolution of women’s ordination in the PC(USA) from discretion to coercion makes a mockery of progressives’ assurances on gay marriage but he has steadfastly refused to address the issue.

  • This can be said of any issue the pastor takes a stand on.

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