The 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.”
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.