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Differing stances on civil union and marriage quickly appear in public hearing

June 16, 2014

John Mattison addresses the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee at the 221st General Assembly (2014) in Detroit, MI on Monday, June 16, 2014.

John Mattison addresses the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee at the 221st General Assembly (2014) in Detroit, MI on Monday, June 16, 2014. —Michael Whitman

It only took a couple of minutes before diametrically opposed positions were laid out Monday before the Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues of the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

“The Book of Genesis establishes a majority pattern of marriage between a man and a woman,” but there are other patterns in the Bible as well, “and the witness of the entire Bible” is to a more expansive pattern of loving relationships, said theologian and Teaching Elder Mark Achtemeier of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, who has recently written a book supporting same-gender marriage.

The next speaker – Teaching Elder Robert Austell of the Presbytery of Charlotte – countered that he “has been wrestling with Scripture for 25 years and can find no justification for any other biblical relationship than between a man and a woman.”

Thus the battle lines were drawn that will play out in discussion and debate this week in Detroit.

The Assembly is once again considering a proposed constitutional amendment that would redefine marriage in W-4.9001 as between “two people” rather than between “a man and a woman.”

The Assembly is also considering Authoritative Interpretations of the Constitution ― a power granted only to the General Assembly or its Permanent Judicial Commission ― that would “affirm pastoral discretion” in performing marriage ceremonies.

When the issue first came to the General Assembly in 2008, only two states had legalized same-gender marriage. Currently 19 states plus the District of Columbia sanction such ceremonies.

An overture from Lehigh Presbytery would cease the practice of Presbyterian ministers acting as agents of the government in performing marriages of any kind, separating the legal sanctioning of marriage from the church’s blessing of them.

Libby Davis of Redwoods Presbytery, said her husband, a Presbyterian pastor, “would love to perform the marriage of our lesbian daughter-in-law without ecclesiastical repercussions. We wait for you to make this happen, to obey what their conscience tells them Jesus wants them to do.”

Dan Hinson, who said he works for a local organization called Reconciliation Ministries, said the church should be helping individuals “overcome unwanted sexual attractions.” Hinson, who said he has been married for 28 years with five children after overcoming his, said, “I would have missed out on so many gifts as a faithful husband and father” if he had not turned from homosexuality.

George Jordan, a lifelong Presbyterian from Maryland, said “Same-sex marriage is legal in Maryland but not in the church I grew up in ― I don’t understand.”

Lowell Avery of Western New York Presbytery pleaded with the committee not to foster conflict within the church. “Every healthy group experiences conflict, but without trust, conflict is deadly and destructive,” he said. “Churches in most places speak with one voice on this issue ― changing the definition of marriage would create conflict because it would destroy trust.”

For Teaching Elder Barbara Gaddis of the Presbytery of East Iowa, the church’s current prohibition of same-gender marriage is an evangelism issue. “Same-sex marriage is legal in Iowa, and a United Church of Christ pastor in our ministerial association in Ames told the rest of us: ‘Send your gay couples to me.’ Evangelism? NOT!”

Dave Markwalder of Presbytery of Pueblo argued against redefining marriage on constitutional grounds. “Changing the Book of Order alone will create internal conflict with the Book of Confessions. Any definition of marriage should recognize the confessional nature of that definition.”

Teaching Elder Jerry Saunders of Bowling Green, Ohio, was more concerned with pastoral concerns. “Our congregation includes two lesbian mothers with three little girls ― they embody I Corinthians 13 though they cannot be married in the church,” he said. “These growing little girls will soon be asking why the church won’t consider their moms married ― please allow me to provide pastoral care to them.”

“The church is weary of this debate so go ahead and pass [the same-gender marriage] proposals,” said Teaching Elder Jeff Winter of Presbytery of Tampa Bay, a longtime foe of same-gender marriage. “But remember that you are going against Scripture and the [PC(USA)’s] membership loss will triple.”

The committee spent the rest of Monday discussing various related questions and then the evening in discussion. It is scheduled to begin considering the various proposals on Tuesday and tentatively scheduled to report its recommendations to the full Assembly Thursday morning.

  1. My fiancée and I live in pa, have been in a committed relationship for 17 years. I was brought of Presbyterian and have served as elder and deacon for two terms each. My wife to be has served as deacon. With marriage now being legal in Pa we have set a date to be married in the fall. The caterer, the music, the venue and friends from far away all can make our date. Our only question now is who will marry us. We go to a church in new hope - one of the "gay" mecas in the us but we can't be married by our own pastor. Such a sad realization. We are thinking about a unitarian minister because they are able to. It really is a quandary. We hope you all will discern Gods will to accept and love all. How interesting that our church took its time on minorities being able to be ministers, women being ministers and even issues on mixed race couples. The last I got to experience and it was uncomfortable as being gay in our church. God bless you all as you do the work of our church.

    by Susan Vigilante

    June 17, 2014

  2. The wasted energy the PCUSA has spent on this issue and continues to spend will unfortunately be the nail its coffin. This escapade of biblical interpretation and misplaced discernment is just one more example of the church adapting to the culture - rather than the culture (as corrupt and bankrupt it has become) adapting to the church. The true biblical model of intended relationships in marriage is rapidly eroding in this country. That's the bad news. The good news is that God is still in charge regardless of who marries who. Any given pastor or church may endorse a same sex union. But do you really think our Creator God would honor and bless a marriage union never intended by its natural and creative design? It's now time for The Church and its true believers to put aside divisive issues (as in this issue) - be called out of the world as "peculiar people" and be the "royal priesthood" to a world gone mad!

    by Randall Dill

    June 17, 2014

  3. God's Word may not change but we have obviously changed in many ways that differ from the times of Christ. Do you believe women should be silent in church? Paul said they should be; it's in the Bible. Should we have slaves? Paul didn't object to people having slaves; it's in the Bible. "It's in the Bible" should be the start of a discussion, not the end of it, because none of us, no matter how literally we take the Bible, actually follow everything in it.

    by James Mitchell

    June 17, 2014

  4. I hope we can focus more on discuss and discern which has strengthened the church and move away from the decisive tactic of debate and defeat.

    by Robert Allen

    June 17, 2014

  5. The problem the marriage issue lies in the fact that when we change our constitution (words of man) some continue under the delusion that the problem can be solved. It is time to remember that God's words do not change, no matter what puny man might say. My question is this: When will be turn to God for His guidance in place of man for yet another dose of chaos?

    by Peter Vogel

    June 17, 2014

  6. As Presbyterians we believe the Bible is God's word,inspired by the Holy Spirit, reported by prophets and others and which we are to live daily. The question comes down to do we follow EVERTHING written in the Bible or do we get to cherry pick what we want? Th Bible prohibits remarriage after divorce. Hmmm. How would THAT go over? You find so many diferent interpretations of Scripture and here we are again arguing over the minute and missing the big picture.The Bible is about God, His relationship to us, how we are to treat Him and how we are to treat each other. In that context who marries whom is a silly thing to focus on... How you treat the person you are married to is far more significant.

    by Sandee Swansiger

    June 17, 2014

  7. Nancy Dolan, I wholeheartedly agree with you, "This is the process of discernment, not war." Sadly, as a commissioner at the last GA I can tell you that it is an accurate description as multiple groups have private rooms reserved to meet with commissioners and advise strategies. They are often referred to as "War Rooms." The PCUSA needs to repent from allowing this process to become so divisive and seek the guidance of the Spirit wholeheartedly.

    by David Moon-Wainwright

    June 17, 2014

  8. I wonder if this isn't an evangelism question. My cousin was raised a Methodist, but is forced to attend a Unitarian church with her partner - that is where they are welcome. Are we missing God's directive to open our hearts and minds and congregations to his all of his children??

    by Marcia Wolter

    June 17, 2014

  9. Thank you for your summaries and updates. I would respectfully request that we avoid language such as "battle lines" (paragraph four) which serves to inflame the discourse. This is the process of discernment, not war.

    by Nancy Dolan

    June 17, 2014

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