During open hearings on Monday, the 220th General Assembly Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee heard from advocates and opponents of proposed changes to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s definition of marriage.
The proposals before the committee follow four general themes:
- an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) affirming the existing language in the Book of Order that defines marriage as “a civil contract between a woman and a man”
- amendments to clarify that marriage is only between a woman and a man
- an AI that permits—not requires—teaching elders to perform same-gender marriages in states where they are legal
- amendments to the Book of Order that define marriage as between “two people”
Martha Leatherman, a ruling elder from Mission Presbytery, spoke against changing the language to “two people.”
“God knows what is best and He has made it clear to us in Scripture,” she said, adding that marriage is not meant to make us merely happy—it’s meant to make us holy.
Teaching elder Rebecca Strader (Presbytery of Northern New England) lives in Vermont, where same-gender marriage is legal.
“The sky has not fallen. In fact, we have a very healthy society,” she said, imploring the committee to approve an AI that would allow pastors to perform same-gender marriages where legal.
Speakers on both sides of the debate highlighted the ways the committee’s work could send a message.
Teaching elder Terry Alexander (Presbytery of Western North Carolina) did not address a specific proposal but urged the committee: “Help us be a leader in this cause for justice, not drag our feet and come up last.”
Roger Korsten, teaching elder in the Presbytery of the Western Reserve, spoke against changing the definition of marriage and issuing an AI that would allow pastors to perform same-gender marriages where legal.
“You send this to the floor, you send a message to churches,” he said, adding that more churches will leave the denomination if the General Assembly approves such measures.
The committee also heard from several overture advocates, who lobbied for various proposals on behalf of their presbyteries.
A group of advocates in favor of maintaining the current definition of marriage stated that the church must cling to Scripture and the confessions above all other voices. The PC(USA)’s relationships with international and ecumenical partners will suffer if it changes its definition of marriage, and many congregations will leave the denomination, the group argued.
Another group advocated for an AI that would allow pastors to perform same-gender marriages in states where those marriages are legal. Scripture reveals no consistent model of marriage, the group said. At the end of the day, an AI would honor all viewpoints regarding same-gender marriage, allowing the church to live in peace.