By Christian Stempert
A committee session at PCUSA’s General Assembly (Photo credit: OneNewsNow)
The Committee on Civil Unions and Marriage of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 220th General Assembly convened this morning to hear testimony on a number of overtures. Presbyteries that submitted proposals on the issue of marriage chose to request three different things from the Assembly: to re-affirm the traditional definition of marriage, to provide an Authoritative Interpretation that would allow ministers to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies at their discretion, and a constitutional amendment that would redefine marriage as between “two people” rather than “a man and a woman.”
Before the testimonies began, Committee Moderator Rev. Aimee Moiso of the San Jose Presbytery gave the committee members a series of questions to think over as they considered what they were about to hear. “What of this is life-giving to me? What in this debate threatens me? Who do I disagree with? What is the source of authority? What is irritating to me?” There were several others as well, though there was a conspicuous lack of emphasis on the catechisms, confessions, and Scriptures that Presbyterians have trusted and relied on for centuries – in effect, the very things that are distinctive about being Presbyterian.
The leadership team of the committee assigned an order to the men and women who had registered to speak before the committee and allotted them a time of 90 seconds. Those in favor of acknowledging same-sex marriage gave example after example of same-sex couples that they knew in committed relationships, and how their denial of their “right to marry” effectively made them “second-class citizens” within the Presbyterian Church, even after their relationships had been acknowledged by the civil authorities. One Vermont minister argued that a committed relationship between two same-sex individuals is not only good for them because it makes them happier, but is good for society as a whole because many couples choose to adopt, and thus take a child out of America’s overcrowded foster care system.
One man insisted that failing to recognize the “sacrament of marriage” for same-sex couples is a denial of their full access for worship. As a Presbyterian, you would think he would know that marriage is not, in fact, a sacrament. In the Reformed tradition, the only two sacraments they recognize are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, both of which the PCUSA allows homosexuals to take part in.
Another woman got up and appealed to the church’s mission to evangelize and bring the Gospel to the world. “If we’re trying to grow the church,” she said, “we can’t be sending people off to get married at the United Church of Christ or the Unitarian congregation down the street.” A teenage girl quoted the Scriptures: “What does the Lord require of us? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). “And what is justice?” she asked. “Equality for all.” Another speaker read the Apostle Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” These two concrete Bible references were rare, and most of the supporting arguments from came from the abstract idea of “loving everyone” and “inclusiveness.”
On the other hand, those defending the traditional Christian understanding of marriage made abundant reference to the Scriptures. “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world,” said one woman, quoting the Apostle Paul, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2). Our concern should be “not how we define marriage, but how God defines it. Marriage is not meant for human happiness, but for human holiness.” Another man stood up and read from Genesis 2, where God says that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” Not a man will be united with his husband, he said, but to his wife.
One Pennsylvania minister read Paul’s words in First Corinthians:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” (emphasis mine)
“Paul continues,” he said, “‘such were some of you.’ Were, not are. These sins can be forgiven, but only if we are willing to repent.”
As the Committee members consider the overtures place before them and the people they heard today, the stark differences should be clear. The vast majority of the arguments in favor of altering the church’s definition of marriage were experiential and emotional, not based on the Bible. On the other hand, almost every single person who spoke in defense of the traditional Christian understanding of marriage concretely referenced the Bible as the single most important way of discerning God’s will on the matter. As faithful Christians, and as voting members at an assembly of the Christian church, I hope that this bears some significant for the men and women on this committee.