The PCUSA and Marriage

posted Jun 26, 2014, 1:07 PM by David Hawkins


As many of you already know, and many of you will read in the coming weeks, the General Assembly (GA) (the biennial National Gathering of PC(USA) representatives from all over the US) has voted on a few controversial issues at their meeting a couple of weeks ago. The biggest one concerns the way Pastors (also called, “Teaching Elders”) are able to participate in same sex marriage ceremonies, and what prerogatives are held by Sessions (church governing boards) regarding same.

The GA has issued an Authoritative Interpretation (AI), which is exactly what it sounds like regarding what Pastors and Sessions can and cannot do. This AI goes into effect immediately, and can only be changed by a future GA vote.

The GA has also voted on a change to the Constitution of the PC(USA) regarding the wording and definition of Marriage in our Book of Order (BOO), and has recommended the change to the Presbyteries (regional governing bodies) for approval (similar to our US system of ratifying a change to the US Constitution).

Over the next year or so, Presbyteries will be voting on the change in language for the book of order. If more than 87 of the 172 Presbyteries vote in favor, AND the GA that meets in two years votes in the same way, the language will be changed.

To summarize: The GA has issued an Authoritative Interpretation which affects the way in which Pastors and Session decide to handle (or not!) same sex marriages in states where it is legal. This change goes into effect immediately.

It has also recommended a change to the Language of our Constitution regarding the definition of marriage. This change will not be implemented unless a majority of Presbyteries and the next GA vote to approve it, a process that takes around two years.

Some final thoughts before I offer for your consideration the Authoritative Interpretation and Changes to the Book of Order, along with a list of Frequently Asked Questions regarding both:

We live in Texas. Same sex marriage is not legal in Texas. I, as your pastor, may not perform a marriage between two members of the same sex in Texas. The church may not offer the building for such a ceremony. If I was invited to officiate at a same sex marriage ceremony in a state where same sex marriages are legal, I would first have to seek the approval of that Presbytery in which the wedding would be held in order to ‘work within their bounds.’ This is not a given, especially in a conservative Presbytery. In other words, the likelihood of me performing a same-sex wedding anywhere is low. The likelihood of me or any other Presbyterian Pastor performing a same sex marriage in Texas at least for next several years is zero.

Also, nothing in the AI or the changes in the BOO can compel me or the church to do anything which we might feel is contrary to the Word of God or the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The AI is especially intended to apply to those pastors who serve churches in places where same sex marriage is legal, and where same sex members of their congregations desire to be married. It carries no weight in states where same sex marriage is not legal.

With that said, here are the AI and the changes to the BOO:

Authoritative Interpretation of the Constitution

“Worship is a central element of the pastoral care of the people of God in which a teaching elder’s discernment of the leading of the Holy Spirit is indispensable. The necessity of ensuring the exercise of freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture in the planning and leadership of worship has deep roots in our Reformed tradition and theology.

“Because a service of marriage is one form of such worship, when a couple requests the involvement of the church in solemnizing their marriage as permitted by the laws of the civil jurisdiction in which the marriage is to take place, teaching elders have the pastoral responsibility to assess the capabilities, intentions, and readiness of the couple to be married, and the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform.

"Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, so long as it is approved by the Session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian worship. 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.”

Proposed New Language in the Book of Order (BOO)

“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. 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.”


(with thanks to Mike Cole and Lynne Hargrove at New Covenant Presbytery)

1. What does the Authoritative Interpretation change for Palo Duro Presbytery?

a. Since same gender marriage in Texas is not legal, there will not be any noticeable change experienced by our congregations or pastors. However, it will now be possible for a pastor member of Palo Duro Presbytery to perform a same gender marriage in a state in which it is legal.

2. Has the definition of marriage changed?

a. The General Assembly has proposed a change in language defining marriage as “a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and to support each other for the rest of their lives.”
b. It concludes with this important qualification: “Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform, or compel a session to authorize the use of property for, a marriage service that they believe contrary to the Word of God.”

3. If the presbyteries fail to adopt the overture changing the Directory for Worship, would that change the Authoritative Interpretation?

a. The Authoritative Interpretation is a final decision that can only be changed by a future General Assembly with a different Authoritative Interpretation.

4. What happens when a pastor and a Session disagree about a request for a same gender marriage?

a. The Session controls the church facilities. The pastor can exercise discretion in performing a marriage. If the Session determines that church facilities cannot be used for a same gender marriage, the pastor cannot perform such a marriage on church property.
b. If the Session determines the facilities can be used for a same gender marriage, they cannot force a pastor to perform such a marriage.

5. If the amendment to the Directory for Worship is approved, could a Teaching Elder residing in a state in which same gender marriage is illegal perform a same sex union in a state in which it is legal?

a. Yes. The Pastor would need to request permission of the presbytery within whose bounds the marriage would be performed. Additionally, the state may have requirements to be fulfilled.

6. Do Sessions still have the authority to permit or not permit same-gender marriage services in the church?

a. Yes, Sessions have full authority to permit or not permit same-gender marriage

7. If a preacher is willing to marry a couple, can the Session overrule the union?

a. The Session can choose not to permit a marriage to be performed on church property. In such a case, the pastor can still perform the marriage but not on church property.

8. Does the presbytery have any role or is this a matter for Sessions and pastors?

a. The service of marriage is a matter relevant only to Sessions and pastors.

9. Can Presbyteries blanket a refusal to allow same sex marriage within their bounds?

a. Since marriage is under the authority of the Session, a presbytery cannot restrict or mandate same sex marriage within its bounds.

10. What is permitted by the AI as of close of business Saturday?

a. PCUSA pastors are free to exercise their conscience in performing same-sex marriages in marriage equality states following the GA's adjournment on Saturday.

11. What is pending in the presbytery vote?

a. The amendment changing the language of the Directory for Worship which currently refers to marriage as being between a man and a woman still must be voted on by all 172 presbyteries. Unless this amendment passes, our constitution will be in conflict with itself, allowing same gender marriage but defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

12. Does this set up potential tension within a Presbytery which votes “no” and the local/church option is “yes?”

a. The vote by the presbytery would be only on the amendment to the Directory for Worship. Beyond that, the Session has the full authority to determine whether same sex marriages (or for that matter, any kind of marriages!) will be performed on the premises of the church. The pastor has the full authority to determine if he/she will perform a same sex marriage.

13. The AI seems to say that pastors can perform same sex marriages without any change to the constitution needed.

Why doesn't the AI render the proposed change to the constitution moot?

a. The amendment is a way to bring the constitution into agreement with itself on the issue of same gender marriage. While the Authoritative Interpretation allows Sessions and pastors to exercise their conscience, the constitution will refer to marriage as between a man and a woman unless the amendment passes.