Article Mar 20, 2015

Presbyterians and the evolving definition of marriage

The headlines since March 17 have been crystal clear: Presbyterians approve same-sex marriage. By a majority vote of its presbyteries (regional bodies), the Presbyterian Church USA  (PCUSA) ratified an amendment to its constitution sent down last summer by its General Assembly that allows ministers to perform and churches to be used for same-sex weddings. In immediate response, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) affirmed its support for traditional marriage in hopes of avoiding the kind of confusion that often results when people hear the word “Presbyterian.”

Which Presbyterians did what?

The Presbyterian Church USA, based in Louisville, Ky., considers itself the “true” church when it comes to Presbyterians. They see all other Presbyterians as imposters and wannabes. If it sounds arrogant, it is. It is the PCUSA that boasts seminaries in Princeton, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Atlanta (Columbia), Louisville, San Francisco, Austin and Dubuque. Candidates who attend seminaries like Reformed (RTS) are often barred from ordination in the PCUSA until they do at least a year at an “official” seminary.

It is the PCUSA that boasts a multi-billion dollar endowment, the income from which funds much of its social witness agenda at the United Nations, in Washington DC and at the World and National Council of Churches. It is the PCUSA that is often in the news for its left-leading political advocacy. It is the PCUSA that considers the ordination of women an essential, allows for the ordination of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, and now allows for same-sex marriages by its pastors and in its churches.

Parsing out the Presbyterians from one another is a little bit like parsing out Baptists. There are no longer “Southern” Presbyterians (although some remember the PCUS) but in addition to the PCUSA there are the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), Reformed Presbyterians (RP), Associate Reformed Presbyterians (ARP), Cumberland Presbyterians. The list goes on and on. Each follows a Presbyterian (elder based) form of government, and each claims to follow Reformed theology. But that’s where the dividing lines are drawn.

The vast majority of Presbyterian denominations worldwide use The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as their primary confessional document. The WCF helps define the doctrine of “Reformed” theology.

The PCUSA, however, has a catalogue called The Book of Confessions—eleven different confessional documents that will be supplemented this year by a twelfth, Belhar. With so many confessions it’s hard to know what to believe, which is precisely the point. When the PCUSA adopted a catalogue of confessions, it did away with a mutually agreed upon list of essential tenets of the Reformed faith. So, whatever an individual embraces as essential is essential for them. That is the standard of theology for ordination in the PCUSA.  

“Reformed and always being reformed, according to the Word of God” has morphed into “reformed and always reforming.” Reformed theology as an identifiable corpus of doctrine becomes a self-determined evolution of thought and practice that is subject to every wind of doctrine, people’s trickery and their deceitful scheming.  

Always reforming

Reformation of thought and deed according to the Word of God has yielded to a spirit of reforming the church to conformity with the felt needs and desires of people. A perverted theology of “justice” and “love” literally out-voted the call to holiness, righteousness, submission and obedience to the revealed will of God.

The passage of the amendment also creates a clear conflict between the way marriage is consistently defined throughout the Confessions (“one man and one woman”) and the other part of the denomination’s constitution called The Book of Order (“two people”). The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Gradye Parsons, has noted the tension and said that “the tension will exist until it doesn’t.” People in the PCUSA are just going to have to learn to live with the shades of grey now present in their constitution.

So what?

The decision to repudiate the Word of God will have percussive effects for the PCUSA.

1. The first effect is a further confusion in terms of witness in the world. The vote demonstrates a complete accommodation to the prevailing winds of our culture. Any prophetic voice that the denomination may have once had to speak truth and call people to repentance is now lost. All she can do now is echo the voices of the world for she has abandoned the clarion call to bear faithful witness to God who has clearly spoken on this matter.

2. The second effect will be the migration of more members and congregations out of the PCUSA into the EPC, ECO, PCA and other faithful expressions of the Body of Christ in the world. Hundreds of churches and millions of members have left the PCUSA in the past 50 years. The denomination experienced a 10 percent decline in the past two years alone. The decision to redefine marriage will not help stem that tide and may accelerate the pace of departures.

3. The third effect will be global. The PCUSA boasts a huge number of relationships with global mission partners. Many of those international denominations will likely sever ties with what they see as an apostate denomination. They will need reassurance from others in the Presbyterian family of denominations that there are faithful Presbyterians in the U.S. who desire continued ministry and partnership with them.

What now?

We mourn, we call for repentance, we work for reform, and we pray for revival.

The length of the battle should not deter us. God will not be mocked, and those who substitute their own felt desires for God’s unchangeable Truth will not be found guiltless before a holy God. The Presbyterian Lay Committee will continue to call for repentance and reform: repentance of those who have clearly erred and reform of the PCUSA according to the Word of God.

Those who want to be equipped to stand against the ever-rising tide of cultural accommodation are invited to visit where you will find resources to facilitate faithful Christian witness in an unfaithful time.