While one Presbyterian denomination celebrates last Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriages legal in all states, another one grieves, a third states that it does not regard the decision “to be in keeping with God’s intentions for marriage,” and a fourth affirms that marriage is a gift from God between one man and one woman.”
The Presbyterian Church (USA)
“The Presbyterian Church (USA) is celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that same-gender couples have a constitutional right to marry nationwide, striking down bans in 14 states,” read the opening paragraph of a June 26 Presbyterian New Service (PNS) article. “Church leaders believe today’s ruling is a step in the right direction as society’s views have continued to change in recent years.”
The PCUSA’s Stated Clerk Grayde Parsons told the PNS that the denomination has “advocated for almost four decades for civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is in keeping with that work.”
Another PCUSA leader, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, director of the denomination’s Office of Public Witness said that it’s “always good when the church is at the front end of a movement such as this and catches the spirit in the wind of where people are attempting to move society and give voice to those who have long been silenced … Our task now is to educate congregations and address how the church is to engage society and our differences. It’s much more than a gay/lesbian issue. We are seeing laws overturned in favor of communities that have not always been represented.”
The Office of the General Assembly, which is the constitutional/legal arm of the PCUSA, posted a document to answer questions about how the ruling will affect clergy and congregations.
“Same Gender Marriage after Supreme Court: Obergefell v. Hodges,” clearly states that “Nothing in our Constitution shall compel a teaching elder to perform a marriage service that the teaching elder believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and understanding of the Word of God.”
In response to five questions concerning the new law of the land, the document does include some worrying statements that will only be answered as the courts continue to hear cases and issue further rulings on these issues. The questions and some of the troubling answers include: (Emphases added)
- “What does this mean for marriage in the state in which I live?”
- “What does this mean for clergy performing marriage ceremonies? … The Supreme Court recognized that religious individuals and institutions may continue to teach and practice sincerely held religious beliefs so we presume that clergy may not be compelled by the state to perform or officiate a marriage between two people that violates the sincerely held religious belief of the clergy…”
- “What does this mean for congregations? Will congregations be required to host a wedding ceremony that violates their sincerely held religious belief? … This is a fluid area of law and any congregation concerned about the use of their buildings should consult with a licensed attorney in their state.”
- “What if a teaching elder (pastor) in a called or temporary position disagrees with a session on the use of church property for a same gender wedding? … It is possible that the effectiveness of a teaching elder in a particular call to congregational ministry may be affected by any ongoing disagreement between a session and a teaching elder.”
- “Will the tax-exempt status of our congregation be affected by our decision not to open the building to same-gendered marriage? The case does not go to the question about tax-exempt status of congregations. The tax exempt status of a congregation will probably not be affected by any decision about the use of property as long as the congregation’s policies and procedures are clear that they are based upon a sincerely held religious belief.”
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee commented that “proving a local congregation has a ‘sincerely held religious belief’ that is no longer shared by the denomination with which it is affiliated will mean that there’s no larger ecclesiastical backstop for PCUSA churches. The statement says as much in #3 where it is evident that the denomination does not intend to assist its congregations in defending their conscience in this matter. The presumption indicated in the answer to question #2 is equally troubling. If you are a PCUSA teaching elder, you may currently have protection under the denomination’s constitution but it does not sound as if the denomination is prepared to defend you in civil court should the state determine to compel you.”
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church
In its statement about the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church firmly stated “a church we must adhere to the biblical definition of marriage, rather than a cultural one.”
The court’s ruling was announced during the EPC’s 35th General Assembly meeting. Upon hearing the news, the EPC took time from its busy schedule to allow Former GA Moderator Bill Dudley to pray for the church and in the nation in light of the news.
The EPC’s statement read:
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church grieves today’s ruling of the Supreme Court, which illustrates the continued disregard for the biblical, traditional, Judeo-Christian values upon which the foundation of our nation was established. As a church, we continue to rest our faith in the sovereign God and the authority of His Holy Word. We pray faithfully for our nation and our leaders as so commanded by Scripture.
We bear no malice toward those with a same-sex attraction; in fact, we love them with the love of Christ. However, as a church we must adhere to the biblical definition of marriage, rather than a cultural one.
We recognize that civil governments adopt policies that do not align with biblical values. However, those policies must never require that people of faith abandon the clear teaching of Scripture, forfeit the right to proclaim those truths, or change their beliefs or practices.
The Presbyterian Church in America
L. Roy Taylor, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America, issued a statement on the court’s ruling on Saturday.
The PCA, he said, “believes that from creation God ordained the marriage covenant to be a bond only between one man and one woman. That understanding is what the Church has always believed, taught, and confessed. It is based upon the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and is clearly stated in the doctrinal standards of the PCA.”
In both of its doctrinal standards – The Westminster Confession of Faith and its Book of Order – the PCA affirms biblical marriage as being between one man and one woman.
Taylor’s full statement reads:
The Supreme Court of the United States has issued a 5-4 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. The Office of the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has received numerous inquiries regarding the position of the PCA on this issue. The PCA, like other evangelical, conservative, orthodox, and traditional Christians from many denominations, believes that from creation God ordained the marriage covenant to be a bond only between one man and one woman. That understanding is what the Church has always believed, taught, and confessed. It is based upon the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and is clearly stated in the doctrinal standards of the PCA.
Over the last 2,000 years, changing cultures and secular legal perspectives have differed on significant occasions from that of Christians and the Church because the Church bases her ethical and moral positions on timeless truths divinely revealed in the Bible. The Ancient and Undivided Church disagreed with abortion and infanticide, practices that were acceptable in Roman culture and legal under Roman law. In 1973 the Supreme Court of the United States legalized abortion. Though abortion became legal, we cannot regard it to be moral. Though same-sex marriage is now legal, the PCA, like many others, does not regard it to be in keeping with God’s intentions for marriage. We hope that the recent Supreme Court ruling does not become the occasion for limiting the religious and free-speech rights of believers and churches who, like others for thousands of years, sincerely believe in traditional marriage.
ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
In an email to all of its churches, Dana Allin, synod executive of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians said that “In ECO, we affirm that marriage is a gift from God between one man and one woman. We affirm that sexuality is also a gift, which is to be expressed within this covenant of marriage. Scripture, our Essential Tenets, and confessions all speak with one unified voice on the subject of marriage.”
He said “We are not yet sure of the ramifications of the Supreme Court decision,” for ECO. Discussions are being held with other denominations that “maintain the orthodox Christian faith,” and that as information becomes available it will be shared with ECO presbyteries.
In response to the question, “How do we respond?,” Allin said “Preach and live the gospel. Whenever church finds itself at odds with culture, we have the opportunity to thrive in new ways as we live out the gospel in a conflicted context. Let us be people who live the model of Jesus by being welcoming and transforming for all people, in all aspects of our lives. Each of us has places in our lives that need to come under the Lordship of Jesus and the transforming power of the Spirit. Can we be people that welcome and love one another wherever we are, and yet love one another enough to work for mutual transformation? I think we can, and I think that as we do, the gospel will flourish! Let’s pray together to that end.”
Of the divided witness of these four Presbyterian denominations LaBerge concluded, “The mind of Christ is not divided on this nor any other matter. It does grieve me that the witness of Presbyterians is so divided. Such division only serves to further degrade the perception of unbelievers as they consider Christianity and her Christ.
“As you read the four statements of the four denominations it could not be more clear that the PCUSA is guided not by the Bible nor the Confessions but by ‘society’s views’ which ‘have continued to change in recent years,’ and by ‘the spirit in the wind of where people are attempting to move society.’ Alignment with the prevailing spirit of the world is not, and has never been, the calling of the Church.”