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Religious Tolerance logo

Homosexuality and Christian denominations

Part 1:
The Presbyterian Church (USA) & same-
sex couples' civil unions
, committment
ceremonies & marriages: 2008 to 2010

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This is a continuation of the previous essay

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2008: The General Assembly creates an expert committee:

The 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), held in mid-2008, passed an overture (resolution) proposed by the Presbytery of Denver. It commissioned the creation of an expert study group, called the "Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage."

Their mandate was to study:

  • "The history of the laws governing marriage and civil union, including current policy debates.

  • How the theology and practice of marriage have developed in the Reformed and broader Christian tradition."

  • The relationship between civil union and Christian marriage.

  • The effects of current laws on same-gender partners and their children.

  • The place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community." 1

The instructions to the Committee also included a statement that to change the wording of the definition of marriage in the Church Constitution -- the Book of Order -- is outside their committee mandate. The definition restricts marriage to a voluntary union between one woman and one man. The definition is apparently considered fixed and change is non-negotiable. 1

It would seem reasonable to assume that people's beliefs about most of these five questions are heavily influenced by their interpretations of statements in the Bible. Curiously, the committee was not charged with the study of the six or seven "clobber" passages in the Bible which many people believe discuss same-gender sexual behavior. Perhaps such a study would be too divisive for the committee. Even if it were undertaken, such a study would not be a simple task, because many religious conservatives believe that all of the passages discuss God's extreme condemnation of all same-gender sexual behavior, while many liberals believe that the Bible is silent on loving, committed same-sex relationships. That is a rather wide gulf to bridge.

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2009-FEB: The committee is formed with a chairperson and 12 members:

In early 2009-FEB, The Reverend Bruce Reyes-Chow, Moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) had extended an:

"... open invitation to submit names – promising to select people that I believed could bring passion, thought, intellect, experience, foresight and vision" to the task.

Rev. Reyes-Chow selected a total of 13 members of the Church for the committee, including ...James Szeyller of Charlotte Presbytery as chairperson.

He said:

"Those who have been chosen have a deep commitment to the church, a deep love for Christ, and are seeking and yearning for a way to be church in new and discerning ways. ... We owe our deepest gratitude to those who have accepted this calling ..." 1

They were chosen to satisfy two criteria: they were knowledgeable in these matters and they represented the full range of belief systems present in the denomination. They were charged with attempting to reach a concensus and producing a report for submission to the 219th General Assembly in mid-2010.

As one would anticipate from the internal divisions within the PCUSA on all matters related to sexual orientation, the committee was unable to reach agreement. They produced a "final report" signed by ten committee members and a "minority report" signed by three.

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2010-JUN: The final and minority reports were both approved for distribution by the 219th General Assembly:

By a vote of 429 in favor, 208 opposed, and 6 abstensions, the General Assembly approved both the final and minority reports and had them distributed as a single document for study among the general membership. No changes were made in the Constitution's definition of marriage or to any of the denomination's policies.

The Office of the General Assembly said:

"By sending both reports to the wider church, it is the hope of the Assembly that Presbyterians will find helpful background information on civil unions and marriage, as well as material to help individuals and groups remain together as they work through these difficult issues."

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Excerpts from the final (majority) report:

  • 1. Introduction:

    "As members of Christ’s church, we differ profoundly; but can we see that those who disagree with us are seeking to love one another with God’s grace, advance the gospel in all its far-reaching inclusiveness, and promote greater faithfulness to the Triune God under the authority of Scripture and guided by the confessions? Though we reach very different conclusions, we can rejoice that our church is willing to wrestle together prayerfully with the question: How do we extend the grace of God to all, calling all persons to repentance, transformation, and discipleship—regardless of [their] sexual orientation—so that all will experience God’s gracious intention for humanity?

    In many ways, life in the body of Christ is not unlike a marriage: In the course of our life together, we have good days and bad days, good times and challenging times, great joy and wrenching pain. We talk, we laugh, we cry. We agree and disagree. Occasionally, we get angry and are tempted to walk away. But like Christian marriage, in the body of Christ we know that the One who holds us together is more important than the arguments that threaten to tear us apart. That One is Jesus Christ, who said:

    'I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (Jn. 13:34–35)'." 3

  • 2,3: Historical summary of marriage practices:

    The Committee described how marriage was a fluid concept that continually changed during the Christian era. Some of the points that their report discussed are:

    • "Early Christians understood themselves as set apart and distinct from the culture around them. In Ephesians and elsewhere, the ideas of mutual submission and love distinguished Christian marriage from the absolute rule of the paterfamilias characteristic of Graeco-Roman marriage."

    • "In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council decreed the absolute prohibition of 'clandestine weddings' — the longstanding practice that if two people had privately consented to marry, it was a valid marriage. By so doing, the church claimed jurisdiction over marriage by insisting that all marriages be held in the church building and before a priest."

    • "John Calvin (1509–1564) ... stressed marriage as a covenant between individuals, God, and the community. Calvin’s three reasons for marriage were mutual love and support, the birth and nurture of children, and protection from sexual sin. Regulation of marriage in Calvin’s Geneva was shared between church and state."

    • In early America, marriage became viewed "... as a social contract ... focused upon personal happiness and self-fulfillment and being seen increasingly as a bilateral personal contract."

    • Not mentioned by the Committee was the banning of marriages by deaf couples. Laws were passed in some U.S. states during the late 19th century and were repealed in the early 20th century.

    • In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional state laws that prohibited interracial marriages.

    • "Since the late 1970s, issues related to homosexuality have been debated in the PC(USA) and its predecessor denominations."

    • Their report compared civil marriages, civil unions, and and Christian marriages. 3
  • 4: How laws affect same-sex parents and their children:

    The Committee described four perspectives that are widely held among Presbyterians:

    1. Laws that deny equal treatment to families led by same-sex parents are discriminatory, create "legal, financial and social hardships" that may adversely affect children. They violate the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

    2. Treatment of same-gender couples is a low priority relative to other social issues. Determining the appropriateness of a relationship is a matter for God, not humans. Children in families led by same-gender parents should not be discriminated against. They should be fairly treated by society and the church.

    3. It is not necessary for same-sex couples to be treated the same as opposite-sex couples. "Marriage between one man and one woman is foundational to the stability of society and is the best possible context for the nurture and flourishing of children. ... the law should encourage relationships that are optimal by granting particular benefits to a woman and a man who marry."

    4. Sexual activity is only acceptable by a married opposite-sex couple. "Behavior that is explicitly proscribed by Scripture cannot be encouraged. Providing legal benefits equal to marriage for same-gender couples makes society complicit in encouraging this behavior." 3
  • 5: How should covenanted same-sex partnerships be recognized?

    The General Assembly held in 1978 by a predecessor church to the PCUSA heard a report calling on a continuing "process of internal reconciliation" within the church to resolve conflicts over "the issue of homosexuality." However, the Committee noted that:

    "... during the thirty years since the expression of those hopes and prayers has not been a gradual harmony, but an increasingly strident and rigid disharmony that threatens once more to tear the church asunder. ... Some believe acceptance of same-gender partnerships to be tantamount to approving homosexual practice, which they find at odds with Scripture and our confessions. Others have no difficulty accepting same-gender partnerships, pointing to biblical principles of love and justice. ... We believe that it is our Christ-given calling to stay in relationship with one another, especially when we disagree. ... We must seek a way to live together as the body of Christ, not through peaceable uniformity, but by exercising mutual tolerance and forbearance in those areas where people of good faith differ. ..."

    "We must seek a way to live together as the body of Christ, not through peaceable uniformity, but by exercising mutual tolerance and forbearance in those areas where people of good faith differ. The sacrifice required to do this should be evenly distributed and shared across the whole body until Christ the Head brings clarity, which may not come quickly. And even when clarity does come, we must understand and accept that it will sooner or later be followed by yet another conflict. ..."

    "... while these conversations are difficult and intense, our disagreements do not negate our unity. Threats of departure or coercive ways of achieving uniformity are ultimately unhelpful and do little more than draw lines and force us to become more deeply entrenched in our positions and prejudices."

    "We recognize that our interpretations of Scripture lead us to different conclusions regarding homosexual behavior and same-gender partnerships. We hold that the Christian life is one of sanctification, and we confess that Scripture holds out a transforming hope of radical change in Jesus Christ that requires us to be dead to sin and alive to all that is good. For some of us, that means same-gender couples should be encouraged to abstain from sexual relations; for others of us, that means that same-gender couples should be encouraged to enter into faithful, covenanted, lifelong partnerships." 3

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Rev. Andy Little, "Presbyterians to Study Civil Unions and Christian Marriage," Ministry from two poles, 2009-FEB-05, at: http://revandylittle.com/
  2. Office of the General Assembly, "Civil union and marriage issues questions and answers," PCUSA, 2010-JUL-14, at: http://www.pcusa.org/
  3. The text of "The Final Report of the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage to the 219th General Assembly (2010) Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)" is at: http://www.pc-biz.org/
  4. The text of "The Minority Report of the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage to the 219th General Assembly (2010) Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)" is at: http://www.pc-biz.org/
  5. Meezan and Rauch, "Gay Marriage, Same-sex Parenting, and America’s Children," The Future of Children, Vol. 15, no. 2, p. 110 (2005).

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Copyright © 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2014-JUN-24
Last update: 2014-JUN-24
Author: B.A. Robinson
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