“Proponents of redefining marriage already have declared that they regard this doctrinal revision as “the civil rights issue of our generation.” They see the denial of marriage to same-sex couples as an unconscionable form of discrimination that can have no rational justification. In their eyes, opponents of same-sex marriage are today’s equivalent of racist bigots who in an earlier generation refused to allow African Americans into their churches.”
The 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was characterized by radical actions clothed in calming rhetoric. The assembly voted to make the PCUSA by far the largest U.S. denomination to divest stocks in protest against Israel. Yet the assembly commissioners added language reaffirming “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation,” professing continued commitment to “interfaith dialog and partnerships” with the Jewish community, and insisting that “this action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”
Jewish leaders were not diverted by the soft words. They focused on the action of divestment, which they regarded as an offensive targeting of Israel alone. Rabbi Noah Marans of the American Jewish Committee charged that the PCUSA assembly was in fact “align[ing] with the international BDS movement” and “facilitating the delegitimization of Israel.”
Similarly, the Detroit assembly took a momentous step in voting to redefine marriage, the oldest and most basic institution of human society. Yet even as they extended the denomination’s blessings to same-sex marriages, PCUSA leaders hastened to allay the worries of traditionalists. They cited phrases in the new “authoritative interpretation” and the proposed Book of Order amendment that promise protection for pastors who refuse to perform same-sex marriages.
In a comment on a recent Layman article, assurances came from the Rev. Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, the lead organization advocating same-sex marriage in the PCUSA.
“I can tell you with full integrity that I have heard no one – not one supporter of these proposals – suggest that they would force, coerce or pressure a minister to perform a marriage they thought unwise,” Ellison wrote. “No one has suggested that choosing not to perform a wedding, as an exercise of pastoral discretion, would be a disciplinary offense. No one who sought these changes has suggested it would be appropriate to exclude a teaching elder from presbytery membership on those grounds.”
But closer examination reveals that there is no effective protection against the most likely forms of pressure. PCUSA evangelicals would be wise if, like the Jewish leaders, they were not overly impressed by soothing words. They should instead focus on the assembly’s actions and the probable consequences.
The language in the authoritative interpretation and the amendment sounds solid. General Assembly commissioners added a phrase to the proposed amendment, apparently to mollify those whose conscience forbids participation in same-sex marriages: “Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.” Similarly, the authoritative interpretation provides, “In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.”