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Religious Tolerance logo

About the Presbyterian Church (USA) & homosexuality

2000 until now:
Statements about homosexuality.

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Statements on homosexuality:

  • 2000: On 2000-DEC-6, 113 presbytery executives and other officers signed "A Call to the Church." It acknowledges an attempt by the Presbyterian Coalition, the Covenant Network, and the More Light Presbyterians to sit down together and "seek the mind of Christ Jesus for our life in the PC(USA)." They continue:

    "We believe the Church we love has a future, but it will not be by determining winners and losers. It will be determined by seeking a third way. We envision a third way which can come only from an openness to the Spirit. We will rely on God's grace and refuse to leave the table until a way is discovered. We believe seeking a third way is critical and is already present among us."

    Their document cites Isaiah 43:18-19, James 4:1-2a and Philippians 2:1-5 from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

    "We urge all leaders and members to continue what has begun and to help us find a third way. That way cannot be dictated by deadlines. The direction we seek will not come by judicial or legislative actions. It will come only by seeking the mind of Christ in prayer and discussion together. Such efforts will help us prepare for the General Assembly meeting in Louisville and take us far beyond.

    We, ourselves, covenant to look for a third way. In each of our presbyteries and with each other, we will gather at a common table to pray and talk together We promise not to leave the table before a direction emerges. We believe that the peace, unity and purity of the church becomes a reality as we all gather around God's Table in communion as sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus." 1

    2001: The initiative "A Call to the Church." which was created by presbytery executives and other officers was welcomed by the gay-positive Covenant Network 2 and More Light Presbyterians.

    It was rejected by the five Presbyterian Coalition leaders involved in the Coalition-Network Bible study meetings. Their leaders issued a statement saying: 

"Involvement in the issues of our day and church, including meeting with those with whom we disagree, has never been, nor is it now, about our way, or their way, or some other third way which might be mutually satisfying. Rather it is about Christ's way. Alone. Therefore, we have not, and we will not, engage in any search for an alternative to Scripture's clear and plain teaching." 3

  • 2004: The General Assembly called for "theological reflection groups" to study issues troubling the denomination. These have been established within congregations, among ministers, affinity groups, and presbyteries.

  • 2006: The 2001 General Assembly had authorized the creation of a "Theological Task force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church." Their final report, titled "A Season of Discernment" was approved by the 2006 General Assembly. In section III (C) of their report, they devoted over 100 lines (7.5% of the total report) to the topic of "Sexuality and Ordination." The Task Force concluded that the matter of homosexuality is not a simple topic where people are either for or against equal rights for sexual minorities. They cited one resource that defined six different approaches to homosexuality. They found that theologians who interpreted scripture similarly had different views of homosexuality.

    They noted that they:

    "... still hold most of the views and perspectives we brought to the task force. From the beginning, some of us had ties to affinity groups (groups in the church that have specific stands on some task force issues) and have maintained those ties during the life of the task force. ...

    "We did invest considerable time and energy in conversation, seeking to understand one another‚€™s points of view. We did not try to convince fellow task force members of our own perspectives or to decide whether the church‚€™s current position should be changed.

    They did reach agreement on some matters:

    • The church cannot deny baptism, church membership, or pastoral care to homosexuals.

    • Ordination should be denied to anyone who demonstrates licentious behavior.

    • Sexual behavior is not a purely personal matter. It is integral to Christian discipleship, leadership and community life.

    • Celibate homosexuals and bisexuals are not barred from consideration for ordination.

    • An up-down vote leading to a winner-take-all resolution to controversial can escalate conflicts rather than resolve them.

    • Ordaining bodies in the denomination cannot "dispense with the church's [ordination] standards or promulgate their own."

    • "Every ordaining/installing body, in every case, must decide what departures can be tolerated and which are so serious that essential matters of faith and practice are compromised."

The last agreement, in essence, is a form of a local option, allowing bodies in different areas of the country to ordain candidates who are involved in same-sex committed relationships.

They did note in Section IV that:

"Recent debates about sexuality, ordination, Christology, and other controversial topics have been especially contentious, but the dilemma these issues pose is not unique. Most of the debates that have threatened to break the church apart in the past have followed a similar pattern:

  • A range of possible positions exist on the issue at hand, but pressure to make decisions, especially about eligibility for church office, forces the choice into a binary format that divides governing bodies into two parties.

  • Each party, often substantial in size, struggles long and hard for control of the policy of the whole church. The result is a church both preoccupied with and weary of conflict." 4

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2012-OCT: Poll of PCUSA members and pastors shows increasing support for same-sex marriage (SSM):

This essay primarily deals with church statements, not polls. However, perhaps a poll of the beliefs of the PCUSA membership and clergy can be considered to be a type of church statement.

A poll conducted in 2012 by Presbyterian Research Services showed that changing the Church's definition of marriage from "a man and a woman" to "two people" was supported by:

  • 34% of the membership; an increase from 23% in 2005.

  • 49% of the clergy; an increase from 35% in 2005. 5

Support for SSM is increasing by about 1.6 percentage points per year for the general membership, and about 2.0 percentage points per year for the clergy. These rates of increase are similar to that shown by national surveys of all American adults. However, support by the general membership lags national figures by about 13 percentage points.

These data compare to the 48% support by delegates to the denomination's 220th General Assembly that was held during 2012-Summer. They narrowly voted to reject a motion to change the Church's definition of marriage. Support by the Assembly delegates appears to match that of their clergy. However, the delegates and clergy are much more progressive than the general membership.

Perhaps the most meaningful prediction of future support is a comment by Jack Marcum, who was coordinator of Research Services at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. He said:

"This result indicates a broad-based shift in opinions across the church in only a few years. Longer term, the effect of generational change will be felt: 75 percent of young adult advisory delegates at the General Assembly supported the redefinition of marriage."

"Hence, the next effort to change the marriage definition might well succeed. Indeed, it's possible that this year's effort would have succeeded, save for arguments that such a radical redefinition was too much change in the denomination, too soon."

[Emphasis ours]

Dr. Paul E. Detterman is the executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal -- a conservative group within the denomination. He said:

"There is a substantial number of conservative individuals and congregations ... who have disengaged from these debates within the PC(USA) or who are now in the process of departure [from the denomination].

This survey is probably quite accurate in reflecting the views of people responding in the PC(USA) in 2005 and in 2012. As different from the U.S. demographic analysis, however, these are not people who have changed their views. These are simply not the same people.

Sadly, I am confident that every effort will be made by the proponents of this change to see to it that 'marriage' is re-defined in the PC(USA)'s constitution at the next General Assembly [in 2014].

The great deception is that this change in the church's core theological identity is an act of love and acceptance toward the LGBT community. Ultimately, and at many levels, nothing could be further from the truth." 5

He did not elaborate in the Christian Post article on how making the definition of marriage more inclusive would be an act of hatred and rejection.

Some members of the PC(USA) appear to have left the denomination and joined the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative Christian denomination which broke away from the PC(USA) decades ago during the battle over female ordination.

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Web-master's note:

Intense conflicts within the denomination historically seem to be all related to human sexuality. They include debates about:

  • Whether women should be allowed to be ordained. This caused a split in the church as conservatives who were opposed to sexual equality left to found the Presbyterian Church in America, a more conservative denomination.

  • Whether members who are in same-sex civil union can be ordained. This was settled in 2011 when the Fidelity and Chastity section of the church's constitution was changed to allow gay ordination.
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  • Whether the denomination should recognize same-sex marriages. That came close to being settled at the 2012 General Assembly.

I wonder if future years will see the denomination tackle the acceptance of transgender persons and transsexuals, and cause more members to leave and join the Presbyterian Church in America, or other conservative denomination. This could happen because theological conflicts over persons with a transgender sexual identity are similar to those over persons with a homosexual sexual orientation. However, the numbers of transgender persons and transsexuals are smaller than the total of lesbians, gays and bisexuals by a factor of perhaps 10. Polls of U.S. adults typically show 5% have a homosexual orientation, 5% have a bisexual orientation, and 0.6% have a transsexual gender identity.

I suspect that the PCUSA membership might want to take a few years off from controversy and let healing take place before tackling the next controversial topic.

All mainline denominations, including the PC(USA) are faced with a serious problem. Most of their youth and young adult members favor marriage equality; most of their older members -- who provide most of the funding that keeps the denomination afloat -- reject marriage equality.

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2014-JUN-19: The denomination's General Assembly voted to accept gay marriages:

At their 221st General Assembly in Detroit, MI, delegates took a major step. They voted in favor of changing the marriage definition in the church's Book of Order from "a man and a woman" to the union of "two people." The vote was 429 to 175: 71% in favor.

A second vote was taken on whether clergy in the church should be given the freedom to decide whether to solemnize gay marriages. It was also passed, by a vote of 371 to 238: 61% in favor.

Readers of Life Site News web site, from which the above data was extracted, recorded 139,000 "likes" of the article. 6

A conservative group within the denomination, the Presbyterian Lay Committee, strongly supported retaining the text in the Book of Order that limits marriage to opposite-sex couples. They responded with a strongly-worded protest written by Carmen Fowler LaBerge on behalf of the Committee and which appears in their their publication "The Layman". She didn't pull any punches:

"... the General Assembly has committed an express repudiation of the Bible, the mutually agreed upon Confessions of the PCUSA, thousands of years of faithfulness to God’s clear commands, and the denominational ordination vows of each concurring commissioner. This is an abomination.

The Presbyterian Lay Committee mourns these actions and calls on all Presbyterians to resist and protest them. You should tell your pastor and the members of your session that you disapprove of these actions.¬ You should refuse to fund the General Assembly, your synod, your presbytery and even your local church if those bodies have not explicitly and publicly repudiated these unbiblical actions.

God will not be mocked and those who substitute their own felt desires for God’s unchangeable Truth will not be found guiltless before a holy God. ¬ The Presbyterian Lay Committee will continue to call for repentance and reform: ¬ repentance of those who have clearly erred at this General Assembly and reform of the PCUSA according to the Word of God." 7

The protest article received 121 comments, many of which demonstrated the split in opinion within the denomination. For example:

  • "Rob" posted: "The Lay Committee’s statement is both sad, and frankly, frightening. Instead of speaking for the Divine maybe you should be listening!

  • "L.Lee" posted: "Thank you for standing firm, speaking wisdom, and continuing in the face of persecution. I appreciate the Presbyterian Lay Committee!"

Mark Tooley is president of the conservative group, the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He wrote:

"By overturning natural marriage the PCUSA is only accelerating its already fast-paced demise." 7

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2015-MAR-17: Ratification of the General Assembly's decisions by the individual Presbyteries:

After three decades of debate over homosexual orientation, the denomination's 171 Presbyteries started to vote on whether to ratify the previous year's decision by the General Assembly to change their definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. The Presbytery of the Palisades cast the deciding vote. Their vote meant that a majority of Presbyteries had accepted the decision, thus ratifying the decision. 8

Paul Detterman is the national director of The Fellowship Community -- a group of conservatives within the church. He said:

"Our objection to the passage of the marriage amendment is in no way, shape or form anti-gay. It is in no way intended as anything but concern that the church is capitulating to the culture and is misrepresenting the message of Scripture.

We definitely will see another wave, a sizable wave, of conservative folks leaving. ... This conversation is dreadfully important to be a part of."

Rev. William Blake Spencer, pastor of Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church in Egg Harbor Township, NJ is openly gay. He took part in the final vote, and said:

"Some of us are calling it liberation day. It will be the last LGBTQ issue that we debate and fight about, and finally our welcome comes without a 'but' or an 'if'."  8

Other major denominations that had attained marriage equality before the PCUSA include the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Quakers, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Churches and the Jewish Reform and Conservative movements. Also, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has given their individual ministers the freedom to decide whether to solemnize the marriages of same-sex couples. 8

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References used:

  1. "113 Presbytery executives call for a way out of sexuality debates," PCUSA News, 2000-DEC-21. It is available online at: http://www.covenantnetwork.org/
  2. "Covenant Network welcomes Executive Presbyters' call to the church," at: http://www.covenantnetwork.org/
  3. Jerry L. Van Marter, "Vote on same-sex union amendment will be close, early returns indicate. Presbytery executives' 'third way' proposal gets mixed reaction," 2001-JAN-23, at: http://www.concordtx.org/
  4. "A Season of Discernment: The Final Report of the Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church," http://apps.pcusa.org/
  5. Michael Gryboski, "Poll: PCUSA Members Increasingly Favoring Same-Sex Marriage," Christian Post, 2012-OCT-04, at: http://www.c'hristianpost.com/
  6. Ben Johnson, "US Presbyterian Church votes to redefine marriage, offer gay ‘marriages’," Life Site News, 2014-JUN-20, at: https://www.lifesitenews.com/
  7. Carmen Fowler LaBerge, "Presbyterian Lay Committee Board of Directors repudiates action of PCUSA General Assembly," 2014-JUN-19, at: https://www.layman.org/
  8. Laurie Goodstein, "Largest Presbyterian Denomination Gives Final Approval for Same-Sex Marriage," The New York Times, 2015-MAR-15, at: https://www.nytimes.com/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Latest update 2018-FEB-17
Author: B.A. Robinson
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