The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been engaged in discussion and debate about sexuality and faithful sexual relationships across the last several decades; much of this debate has been focused on the morality of same-gender relationships. Men and women of deep faith and honest intelligence can and do differ on how they understand Scripture and hear the vibrant voice of the Holy Spirit on this subject. Decisions made by the denomination have sought to find ways to make space for members of the PC(USA) together to live out those differing views with integrity.
In 2010, the Committee on Church Orders and Ministry of the 219th General Assembly (2010) expressed for the church that “The PC(USA) has no consensus in the interpretation of Scripture on issues of same-sex practice” and made reference to “our long-standing Presbyterian commitment to freedom of conscience and mutual forbearance.”
Discussions about sexuality and faithful sexual relationships in the PC(USA) have coalesced around three specific areas: rights in civil society, ordination to the ordered ministries of the church and marriage.
Rights in Civil Society
As far back as 1978, the Presbyterian Church has called for civil rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation. In 1987, the 199th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) called for “the elimination … of laws governing the private sexual behavior between consenting adults [and the passage] of laws forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations. . ..”1 These commitments have been reaffirmed by several subsequent Assemblies.
In 2011, a majority of the presbyteries ratified a change to the Book of Order, now found in G-2.0104b, deleting previous language and adding the following regarding standards for ordination as teaching elder, ruling elder, or deacon in the PC(USA):
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (F-1.02). The council responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.2.0402; G-2.0607; G-3.0306) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of ordered ministry. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Councils shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates. (G-2.0104b)
The effects of the current language:
- In keeping with our historic principles of church order, each session and presbytery will continue to determine the suitability of individuals seeking ordination within its bounds.
- Persons in a same-gender relationship may be considered for ordination and/or installation as deacons, ruling elders, and teaching elders (ministers of the Word and Sacrament) within the PC(USA).
- Ordaining bodies (sessions and presbyteries) are permitted but not required to ordain lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender persons. Candidates for ordination and/or installation must be considered as individuals on a case-by-case basis; it is not permissible to establish a policy that excludes a category of persons in the abstract.
In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Order, instructions for marriage are found particularly in the “Directory for Worship.” Responsibility for decisions about whether and where to have a marriage service is granted to teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders, and to sessions. Pastors are responsible for deciding whether they will or will not officiate at a marriage service. Sessions are responsible for deciding whether the church’s property may be used for a marriage service.
In 2014, the 221st General Assembly voted to amend the section of the Directory for Worship on marriage services. The amendment was approved by a majority of presbyteries and became effective in June, 2015. The Directory’s section on marriage is now as follows:
“Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.
“In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the rights and obligations of the married couple in society. In the Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and acknowledges.
“If they meet the requirements of the civil jurisdiction in which they intend to marry, a couple may request that a service of Christian marriage be conducted by a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who is authorized, though not required, to act as an agent of the civil jurisdiction in recording the marriage contract. A couple requesting a service of Christian marriage shall receive instruction from the teaching elder, who may agree to the couple’s request only if, in the judgment of the teaching elder, the couple demonstrate sufficient understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and commitment to living their lives together according to its values. In making this decision, the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church property for a marriage service.
“The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under the direction of the teaching elder and the supervision of the session (W-1.4004–.4006). In a service of marriage, the couple marry each other by exchanging mutual promises. The teaching elder witnesses the couple’s promises and pronounces God’s blessing upon their union. The community of faith pledges to support the couple in upholding their promises; prayers may be offered for the couple, for the communities that support them, and for all who seek to live in faithfulness.
“A service of worship recognizing a civil marriage and confirming it in the community of faith may be appropriate when requested by the couple. The service will be similar to the marriage service except that the statements made shall reflect the fact that the couple is already married to one another according to the laws of the civil jurisdiction.”
“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.” (W-4.9000)
The effects of the current language:
- In keeping with our historic principles of church order and freedom of conscience, pastors and sessions will continue to be empowered to make decisions about their own participation and the use of a church’s property.
- Pastors are permitted but not required to officiate at any wedding, including same-sex weddings, based either on conscience or the pastor’s discernment of the couple’s readiness to take on the responsibilities of marriage.
- Sessions are permitted but not required to authorize use of the church’s property for a wedding, including same-sex weddings, for reasons of conscience or other reasons.
By its actions the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has decided that strongly differing convictions about sexuality and faithful sexual relationship are granted equal standing within this denomination, honoring the historic principles of freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture, and mutual forbearance. Permission is granted, but practices are not to be required.
The PC(USA) is continuing to live out the experience of members of the General Assembly’s Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church, which they shared in their report to the 217th General Assembly (2006):
[We have found that]…perspectives on questions of sexuality, ordination, and same-gender covenantal relationship are rich and complex, and our fellow task force members who hold these views are sincere, faithful, and guided by Scripture. . .. (lines 602-604)