The action of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in issuing an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) on marriage does much more than you probably think. Yes, it authorizes pastors who live in states where it is legal to do so to perform same-sex marriages. But it does more than that. I tried to warn them, but to no avail. The AI issued by the General Assembly is now the rule of law in the PCUSA. It authorizes a teaching elder to take part in any such marriage that is legal in the state where they serve. Not only can a pastor marry a same-sex couple, the AI authorizes PCUSA clergy to participate in any such marriage that the state legalizes. As polygamists are now advocating for the right to marry and a throuple (three women) have wed in Massachusetts, this is not fear-mongering. This is projection further down a path where the PCUSA now says her people may wander. Not only is this ruling contrary to all of the foundational documents of the Presbyterian church including Scripture, the Confessions and Order of Worship, it is also contrary to the idea that the state does not govern the church in matters of faith.
But the commissioners of the General Assembly would not listen. Not to the counsel of the Scriptures, not to the counsel of the Confessions and not even to the counsel of their own Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC). The ACC recommended against the proposed AI and the General Assembly knew it.
The Advisory Committee on the Constitution advises that the 221st General Assembly (2014) disapprove Item 10-03
This overture proposes an authoritative interpretation which would allow the exercise of pastoral discretion and freedom of conscience in conducting a marriage service for any couple as permitted by the “laws of the place where the couple seeks to be married.” It suggests an interpretation contrary to the clear statement of W-4.9000.
Section W-4.9001 and related citations (W-4.9002a, W-4.9004, W-4.9006) limit marriage to couples who are “a woman and a man.” Because these statements are clear and unambiguous, they can not be interpreted in a manner that is inconsistent with their plain and ordinary meaning.
The Book of Order is not based upon state and civil law, but the church’s understanding of Scripture and Reformed theology. As noted in Southard v Presbytery of Boston (GAPJC 2012, 220-02), “While the PCUSA is free to amend its definition of marriage, a change in state law does not amend the Book of Order.”
Freedom of conscience is a foundational principle of the PCUSA (G-2.0105) but must be exercised within certain bounds. The exercise of freedom of conscience in and of itself is not necessarily a violation of polity or an obstruction of constitutional governance. Such freedom of conscience, however, is not freedom of action. All persons in ordered ministry have a duty to fulfill constitutionally mandated responsibilities.
If it is the will of the assembly to change the definition of marriage, such a change is better accomplished by amendment of W-4.9000 rather than by authoritative interpretation.
The assembly was committed to a course of action that was aligned with the express desires of certain individuals without concern that they were on the wrong side of a Holy God. But theology aside, the legitimate purpose of an AI is to clarify ambiguous language in the constitution. Clearly the AI issued by the 221st GA exceeds this legitimate purpose. If you’re not alarmed by the substance of redefining marriage through an AI maybe you will be alarmed by the fact that the action of fewer than 500 people is now binding on 1.8 million. The AI on marriage was an expedient way to achieve a contrivance that demonstrates an abuse of power and the manipulation of the General Assembly’s otherwise laborious legislative process.
Some will argue that the AI doesn’t really affect all that many people as it only applies to pastors serving in states where the definition of marriage has been expanded beyond one man and one woman. But that, my friends, is a list that grows everyday. Nearly half of all PCUSA clergy serve in states where same-sex marriage is now legal. One final point. The AI includes a sentence that is designed to protect pastors from being compelled or forced to perform same-sex marriages. It reads,
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 problem here is the whole issue of “private interpretation.”
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
For if I mistake not, I have given a summary of religion in all its parts, and have digested it into such an order as may make it not difficult for any one, who is rightly acquainted with it, to ascertain both what he ought principally to look for in Scripture, and also to what head he ought to refer whatever is contained in it. Having thus, as it were, paved the way, I shall not feel it necessary, in any Commentaries on Scripture which I may afterwards publish, to enter into long discussions of doctrines or dilate on common places, and will, therefore, always compress them. In this way the pious reader will be saved much trouble and weariness, provided he comes furnished with a knowledge of the present work as an essential prerequisite.
This is the approach to Biblical interpretation that inspires the production of study Bibles with marginal notes and other helps that assist the lay person in apprehending the plain meaning of the Scriptures for themselves – that the Bible might be applied to life. But “private interpretation” was never intended to be “private” in the way we think of that term. Private interpretation was intended to be done in open, active Christian fellowship, alongside other believers and in conversation with a more mature disciple (pastor) shepherding along the way. But what do you do when the leadership of the church itself has clearly departed from the way and contrived a “private interpretation” that is contrary to the plain teaching of the Word of God? You raise the alarm, you protest and then, if necessary, you “come out from among them.”