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.