Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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Two Views of Marriage

For Christians, marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship.

The church’s historic understanding of marriage may be the foremost doctrine under fire at the 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Redefining marriage is the next logical step in the normalization of sexual relationships outside the marriage of man and woman. With the 2011 deletion of the requirement that ordained PC(USA) officers exercise either “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness,” the way is now open to broaden the denomination’s definition of “the covenant of marriage.”

At least nine overtures, with many concurrences, propose to change that definition to embrace same-sex couples. Some overtures would accomplish this revision by amending the Book of Order to replace every reference to “a man and a woman” marrying with new language speaking of “two people” marrying. To take effect, these amendments would have to be ratified by a majority of the presbyteries.

Other overtures would achieve a similar result through an “authoritative interpretation” of the PC(USA) constitution adopted by majority vote of a single General Assembly. This interpretation would grant “pastoral discretion” to Presbyterian teaching elders to officiate at any wedding in which the couple held a civil marriage license. The effect would be to convey the church’s blessing upon same-sex marriages in any state that recognized such marriages under civil law. As more states approve same-sex marriage, it would become the norm in the PC(USA) too.

None of these revisionist overtures addresses the several passages in the Book of Confessions teaching that marriage is “a union between one man and one woman, designed of God to last as long as they both shall live” (Westminster Confession, 6.133). But one overture (12048) notes and reaffirms these confessional teachings, as well as the biblical texts that stand behind them. This traditionalist overture offers an “authoritative interpretation” stating that “this definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship is binding upon teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders authorized to perform Christian marriages.” It insists, “The church’s definition of marriage may be changed only through amendment of both W-4.9001 [in the Book of Order] and the confessional passages upon which it is based.”

Thus it appears that two very different views of marriage will clash at the June 30-July 7 assembly in Pittsburgh. These views were framed by the 2010 General Assembly. Unable to decide between two reports on marriage—one from a Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage, the other from a minority of that committee—the assembly sent out both reports for Presbyterians to study.

A comparison of the two reports may help church members weigh the two views of marriage in light of the proposals coming to the 2012 assembly. The following set of study questions aims to elucidate that comparison. The two reports are available online at Overtures to the 2012 General Assembly are available at

1. View of Scripture.

The committee report says: “In matters of faith and practice, the church turns to Scripture to hear the testimony of the Holy Spirit, acknowledging that it comes to us in human words, conditioned by the times in which they were written, times different from our own. Guided by literary and historical understanding, we study Scripture, so that we might follow the Word of God incarnate in our changing world.” (p. 3)

The committee presents biblical passages mainly as reflecting the opinions of the human authors or the prevailing practices of their cultures. For example, it asserts, “The Old Testament assumes an ancient Semitic understanding of marriage as the basis for the family, the fundamental unit of Hebrew society” (p. 3). The committee does not raise the possibility that God might have intended marriage to be the basis for the family. In narrating the history of marriage, the committee emphasizes the variability of the institution.

“There is no consistent biblical model for marriage,” according to the revisionist Overture 12-009. “Nowhere does the Bible expressly define marriage as between one man and one woman. Neither does the Bible serve us well as a how-to manual on modern marriage.” Overture 12-040, likewise revisionist, argues: “The biblical tradition does not present one single model of marriage. Biblical testimony and clear commandments concerning marriage are outdated…(unless we want to resurrect polygamy in tribal society or the even more obscure institution of levirate marriage [in which a man marries his brother’s widow]).”

The minority report says, “In matters of faith and practice, the church turns to Scripture to hear the testimony of the Holy Spirit, so that we might follow the Word of God incarnate in our changing world. A review of Scripture, the confessions, and the history of marriage in the church presents a consistent view of the most foundational aspect of the nature of marriage: that it unites a man and a woman.” (p. 26)

The minority explains, “Genesis 2:18-24 tells how God gives humanity the gift of marriage,” including “[c]omplementary completeness for man and woman.” It adds, “In addressing a question on divorce, Jesus defines marriage (Mt. 19:4-6; Mk. 10:6-9). In this definition, Jesus wipes away generations of misused tradition (divorce, polygamy) and brings humankind back to God’s design in Gen. 2:24” (p. 27).

Questions: Read Genesis 2:18-25 and Matthew 19:3-6, as well as other passages such as 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5:21-27. Do you agree that there is no biblical definition of marriage? Or does Jesus indeed define marriage for his followers? Are the biblical commandments relating to marriage outdated and of no use to modern people? What about polygamy? Was it ever commanded in the Old Testament? Do New Testament prohibitions of polygamy (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:2) settle the question, or does the Bible advise us to “resurrect polygamy”?

2. God’s Design in Creation?

The committee report does not contain a clear summary statement of God’s will for human sexuality. The committee does not quote or discuss Jesus’ statement that “the one who them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (Matt. 19:4-5). Nor does it quote or discuss the passages in Genesis 1 and 2 to which Jesus was referring. There is no notion of humans having been created and designed to follow a particular pattern of sexual relationship.

The minority report states: “In Genesis, God says it is not good for man to be alone. A woman is made who completes Adam and the two of them become one flesh…. God’s gracious intent for our sexuality is that we would find the one who completes us. Our bodies are carefully designed by the Creator to belong to the one created for us before the foundation of the world was laid. Any sexual activity outside of marriage violates this beautiful intention of God…. We should see celibacy as a gift as Paul did and support and encourage single people.”

Questions: Is God the author of marriage? Did he institute it in creation? Did he have a purpose for marriage? If so, what is that purpose or purposes? Can we say that behaviors violating God’s purposes are wrong?

3. Does Marriage Have Anything to Do With Sex?

The committee report does not mention any connection between marriage and sexual relations. The revisionist Overture 12-020 claims: “Marriage is beyond gender. It refers to the commitment of two people to live beside each other with a love expressed as tenderness and justice.” In weddings, it says, we “recognize the love of two hearts declaring themselves to be a home to each other, before God, with gratitude.” It is not clear whether these “two hearts” are having sexual relations, or whether it makes any difference if they are.

The minority report notes how Jesus in Matthew 19/Mark 10 connects God’s creation of humans as male and female (Genesis 1) to his institution of marriage in Genesis 2. It stresses how the two complementary sexes “become one flesh” physically and in every other way. Marriage is “traditionally consummated by male-female intercourse,” the minority observes, and it “form[s] a family, often with the expectation of children resulting from their sexual union” (pp. 31-32).

The minority remarks that this pattern of marriage holds true not only within the Christian community, but also for humankind throughout history. It cites a definition of marriage offered by social science scholar David Blankenhorn: “In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived both as a personal relationship and as an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from the union are— and are understood by society to be—emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both parents” (p. 35).

The minority notes that same-sex partners do not fit within this biblical and traditional understanding of marriage. A “sexual relationship [is] presumed” in such cases, it says, but the “acts [are] not specified” in the same way. Any children in a same-sex household have at least one “biological parent outside the household” and must be separated from that parent (pp. 31-32).

Questions: Is marriage just a relationship between any persons who declare their love for one another? If so, why can’t friends in a “platonic” relationship be married? Why can’t brothers and sisters marry? If feelings of emotional attachment are the only prerequisite for marriage, why limit the number of persons in a marriage to two? Or, on the other hand, is it possible that marriage has something to do with bringing together the two created sexes? Does the union of male and female bodies as “one flesh” consummate a marriage in a way that no other act could? Is the fact that every child has precisely one biological father and one biological mother connected in any way to the fact that marriage has traditionally united precisely one man and one woman?

4. Is Marriage the Norm for Sexual Expression?

The committee report places no clear boundaries on sexual expression. In answer to the question “What is the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community?” the committee states, “The members of the PC(USA) cannot agree” (p. 13). In the absence of agreement, the committee declines to set any boundary between relationships to be encouraged or discouraged. “[I]t is inappropriate for us to seek to define ‘the place’ for any of our sisters and brothers in Christ’s church,” the committee says (p. 15).

The minority report states forthrightly: “It is the intent of this report to represent the church’s biblical, historic, and confessional position that, among all varieties of sexual relationships, only marriage between a man and a woman is ordained by God and blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 20). It counsels: “Therefore, friendships, whether of same or opposite gender, which do not violate God’s boundaries of sexual expression as defined in Scripture, the confessions and the Book of Order can be honored and encouraged. However, those relationships, whether same or opposite gendered, that although committed and caring, which are outside of God’s design of sexual expression, cannot be encouraged or blessed” (p. 25).

Questions: Can we find any indication in Scripture that any sexual relationship outside the marriage of man and woman is ordained by God or blessed by Christ? If God does not ordain or bless a relationship, is the church at liberty to celebrate and encourage that relationship? What is the church’s standard for appropriate sexual expression? If it is not marriage, what else could be the standard? Does the fact that church members disagree on a standard imply that the biblical standard no longer exists or applies? Does the act of setting a standard mean that those who fall short of the standard in one area have no place in the church? Or do we recognize that all fall short, in one way or another, and all are invited to take a place among the company of the redeemed?

5. What the Confessions Say About Marriage

The committee report does not survey or summarize the confessional teachings on marriage. It mentions the confessions mainly as expressions of diverse past attitudes rather than guides for present practice. The key section on “the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships” does not refer to any confessional passages on marriage. Nor does any of the revisionist overtures mention any of those passages.

The minority report states, “In our [PC(USA)] confessions, marriage is consistently defined as a lifelong covenant between God, a man and a woman, and the community of faith” (p. 20). It cites teachings on marriage in five confessions: the Heidelberg Catechism (4.108), the Second Helvetic Confession (5.246), the Westminster Confession (6.131-139), the Larger Catechism (7.248-249), and the Confession of 1967 (9.47).

The minority highlights Westminster’s beautiful definition of marriage: “Christian marriage is an institution ordained of God, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, established and sanctified for the happiness and welfare of mankind, into which spiritual and physical union one man and one woman enter, cherishing a mutual esteem and love, bearing with each other’s infirmities and weaknesses, comforting each other in trouble, providing in honesty and industry for each other and for their household, praying for each other, and living together the length of their days as heirs of the grace of life (6.131)” (p. 27).

The minority quotes at length the Confession of 1967’s discussion of how “[t]he relationship between man and woman [in marriage] exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind.” The confession also warns against the “[a]narchy in sexual relationships” that results when people are alienated from God and God’s ways (p. 26).

Questions: Read the confessional passages cited above. Are they consistent with the Scriptures that we have studied? Do the confessions sketch a fairly consistent picture of Christian marriage? Do they portray marriage as just an emotional bond between “two hearts,” or is it much more than that? Under this confessional teaching, is marriage built upon God’s design in creation? Is the union of the two sexes an essential feature of that design? Is there any suggestion in the confessions that the church might bless a sexual relationship other than the marriage of man and woman? Is “anarchy” indeed the result when the church starts to affirm and encourage non-marital sexual relations?

6. The Book of Order on Marriage

The Book of Order, the second part of the PC(USA) constitution, states: “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians, marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. In a service of Christian marriage, a lifelong commitment is made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.” (W-4.9001)

The committee report quotes this passage once, deep in the body of the text (p. 8), but not in its introduction, its conclusions, or the crucial section on “What Is the Place of Covenanted Same-Gender Partnerships in the Christian Community?” It does not appear that the Book of Order—or the confessions, or the Scriptures— determines the committee’s answer to that question. It looks instead to public opinion: “The members of the PC(USA) cannot agree” on how to handle same-sex partnerships (p. 13), and therefore the committee has no answer either.

Revisionist overtures like 12-009, 020, and 040 propose to desex W-4.9001, replacing its repeated references to “a man and a woman,” “a woman and a man,” with generic references to “two people.”

The minority report cites this Book of Order passage as “Our Starting Place” in its introduction (p. 21). It also refers repeatedly to W-4.9001 in its conclusions, showing how it fits together with the confessions in laying down a consistent constitutional doctrine of marriage. The minority stresses common points such as: that God is the author of marriage, that marriage is intended to be lifelong, that God gave marriage as a blessing to all humankind, that the parties to a marriage are one man and one woman, and that marriage is both a civil contract and a covenant before God.

Questions: Is the Book of Order passage consistent with the confessional statements on marriage? Does it confirm or challenge the belief that God is the author of marriage? Does the repetition of “a man and a woman,” “a woman and a man” suggest that the union of the two sexes is an essential or an accidental feature of marriage? Would changing these phrases to “two people” be a major or a minor shift in how the church understands marriage? According to this passage, is marriage an exclusively Christian institution? Is it an entirely secular matter in which the church has no interest? If the church does have a role in marriage, how would you describe that role?

7. Definition or Description?

The revisionist Overture 12-028 claims, “There is nothing in the text of W-4.9000 that makes the ‘man and woman’ description mandatory and the other details not mandatory.” Overture 12-010 says, “In the absence of mandatory language in the Book of Order that would prohibit a service of Christian marriage for any two people who are legally permitted to marry, the assembly should give such assurance [that such marriages may be celebrated in the church] in the form of the proposed authoritative interpretation.”

The traditionalist Overture 12-048 argues to the contrary: “This definition is far more than a neutral description of social reality—what marriage may have been in a particular society at a particular point in history. It is a normative description of what marriage is intended to be, according to God’s design. This passage in the Directory for Worship reflects distinctive Reformed teaching that stood and stands in conscious contrast to other extant understandings of marriage. Contrary to Roman Catholics, the Reformers insisted that marriage should be a civil contract under the jurisdiction of civil courts, rather than a sacrament under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts. Contrary to some radical Anabaptists, the Reformers maintained that marriage could only be between one husband and one wife—not multiple wives. In opposition to those who might view marriage as a narrowly Christian phenomenon, the Reformers saw marriage as a gift of God’s common grace revealed in every society. In opposition to those who might reduce marriage to a merely human contract, they esteemed it also as a covenant before God. In opposition to those who might regard marriage as simply a private bond between two individuals, the Reformers saw it as a social institution lived out in the community that witnessed the vows. Likewise, the repetition of the phrase ‘a man and a woman,’ ‘a woman and a man’ in W-4.9001 reflects the understanding that the ‘one flesh’ union of the two created sexes is an essential feature of marriage as God designed it.”

Questions: Is the language of W-4.9001 merely descriptive, acknowledging that marriage in the past has been a civil contract between a man and a woman? Or is it normative, setting forth God’s will for marriage? If the latter, isn’t God’s will mandatory for the church and its ministers?

8. Authoritative Interpretations on Marriage

In its historical section, the committee report notes a series of authoritative interpretations of the PC(USA) constitution, dating back to 1991, by the General Assembly and its Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC). The committee indicates that the GAPJC “has declared that any same-sex ceremony ‘considered to be the equivalent of a marriage ceremony…would not be sanctioned under the Book of Order.’ As such, it has instructed ministers of the Word and Sacrament not to ‘state, imply, or represent that a same-sex ceremony is a marriage,’ and has instructed sessions against the use of church facilities in any same-sex ceremony deemed to be the equivalent of a marriage. In Benton, et al. v. Presbytery of Hudson River (2000) the GAPJC did allow for individual ministers and sessions to conduct a same-sex ceremony that ‘celebrates a loving, caring and committed relationship’ that does not ‘confer a new status’ but ‘blesses an existing relationship.’ These services are not to be confused with Christian marriage or civil marriage, ‘do not constitute a marriage ceremony,’ and ‘should not be construed as an endorsement of homosexual conjugal practice proscribed by the General Assembly.’” (p. 7)

The minority report deals with the authoritative interpretations not only in its historical section but also in its conclusions. It includes a phrase from a 2008 GAPJC decision that was omitted from the committee report: that “under W-4.9001 a same-sex ceremony is not and cannot be a marriage” (p. 24).

Questions: Are these authoritative interpretations consistent with the passages in the Scriptures, the confessions, and the Book of Order that we have studied? Why does the GAPJC maintain that “a same-sex ceremony is not and cannot be a marriage”? If a same-sex ceremony is not a marriage, does not change the status of the partners, and does not constitute an endorsement of homosexual conjugal practice, what is being celebrated in such a ceremony?

9. Is Conscience Bound by Biblical and Confessional Teachings?

The committee report offers a covenant under which those subscribing pledge to “[h]onor who we are as Presbyterians by respecting the fallible discernment of the body, bearing in mind that individual conscience, held captive to the word of God, cannot be thus bound” (p. 14).

The minority report includes a similar covenant (p. 25), but without the clause about how conscience “cannot be thus bound.” Elsewhere, the minority notes: “So our consciences are not free in every respect, but rather we are called to bring them into captivity to God’s Word. It is only when confronted with demands that are ‘contrary to his Word, or beside it,’ that we may claim freedom of conscience.” (p. 23) And it quotes the Book of Order: “[I]n becoming a candidate or officer of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek or hold office in that body.” (p. 24, from G-6.0108)

Questions: Do church officers empowered to solemnize marriages have complete freedom of conscience? Or are their consciences bound in some ways?

10. Two Equal Positions?

The committee report presents two positions as equally valid within the church: “Still, some believe acceptance of same-gender partnerships to be tantamount to approving homosexual practice, which they find at odds with Scripture and our confessions. Others have no difficulty accepting same-gender partnerships, pointing to biblical principles of love and justice.” (p. 13)

The minority report acknowledges two (or more) positions in the church, but insists: “The fact that equal sisters and brothers in Christ have differing convictions does not imply that all those convictions have equal standing in the church. The historic principles maintain that ‘no opinion can be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood on a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are….’” (p. 23)

Questions: Do these two positions hold equal standing in the church? Or is one more consistent with the Scriptures as the church understands them in its confessions? Is it possible that both positions could be equally true? Or must we choose one or the other?

11. Local Option on Marriage?

The committee report encourages local presbyteries and session to “provide resources” regarding use of church facilities and participation of ministers in marriages and same-sex union ceremonies. It says such resources should be “consonant with the [PC(USA)] constitution,” but does not specify what the constitution might require (p. 1).

The minority report does not suggest that each presbytery and session write its own policy on marriage. The assumption is that the PC(USA) already has adequate standards in its constitution. “As we work through our disagreements, we recognize that church teaching and church policy are still set by the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)…. Since decisions relating to marriage are made by ministers and sessions, it is well to review the obligations of those officers. All church officers vow to ‘be instructed and led by those confessions as [they] lead the people of God.’ They also pledge to ‘be governed by our church’s polity’ and ‘abide by its discipline’ (Book of Order, W-4.4003).” (p. 24)

Questions: Do local presbyteries and sessions have the option to adopt marriage policies at variance with the PC(USA) constitution? If the constitution says a relationship is not a marriage, is a teaching elder at liberty to call it a marriage?

12. Mutual Forbearance or Mutual Accountability?

In answer to the question “What is the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community?” the committee report responds, “The members of the PC(USA) cannot agree” (p. 13).

The committee report contends: “We must seek a way to live together as the body of Christ, not through peaceable uniformity, but by exercising mutual tolerance and forbearance in those areas where people of good faith differ” (p. 14). The committee implies that church teaching on marriage and the proper boundaries of sexual expression is one such area. It rejects “coercive means of achieving uniformity” as “ultimately unhelpful” (pp. 14-15).

The minority report quotes the same Book of Order passage on “mutual forbearance” regarding “matters and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ” (G-1.0305). But the minority also quotes the adjoining passage: “On the other hand, where Scripture does determine a question, ‘it is incumbent upon these officers, and upon the whole Church, in whose name they act, to censure and cast out the erroneous and scandalous, observing, in all cases, the rules contained in the Word of God’ (G-1.0304).” The minority remarks, “The issue before us is whether this question of covenanted same-gender partnerships is determined by the Word of God or not.” It adds, “Members of the special committee may not agree on civil unions and Christian marriage; however, the constitution has authoritative provisions that bear on these questions. Until such time as the church’s understanding of marriage is changed in the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order, those provisions remain in force.” (pp. 23-24)

Questions: Is the question of covenanted same-sex partnerships a “matter … with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ”? Is it determined by Scripture? How far should church members and officers go in extending mutual forbearance? At what point should they expect mutual accountability to authoritative provisions in the PC(USA) constitution?

13. Marriage as Pastoral Care?

The revisionist Overture 12-010 declares, “Teaching elders and sessions need the General Assembly’s assurance of their pastoral discretion to provide the care that their members require.” The overture offers an authoritative interpretation permitting same-sex marriages to “prevent deep grief to church members who might otherwise be denied the pastoral care of the church.”

Questions: Is a wedding service principally an act of pastoral care, comparable to private counseling or visiting a sick person in the hospital? Or is at act of public worship in which the congregation praises God for the gift of marriage, the people hear God’s Word regarding marriage, and a couple commits themselves to live out that Word in their lives? (See W-3.3503.) Would it be true pastoral care to tell a couple that they are married if, according to Scripture, their relationship is not a marriage? Does a teaching elder deny pastoral care when she says the relationship is not a marriage, while promising every kind of prayer and counseling with the individuals involved?

14. Is It Discrimination to Say Some Relationships Aren’t Marriage?

The revisionist Overture 12-056 reports, “Same gender couples are coming to our churches with state-issued marriage licenses in hand, asking us to give them an equal level of respect and pastoral care as we give to the opposite gender couples in our congregations.” The overture suggests that refusing to perform a same-sex marriage constitutes a denial of the Book of Order affirmation that “[m]arriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family.”

Overture 12-016 complains, “Where same-gender marriage is recognized under the law, it is neither fair nor pastoral to exclude members of a congregation by declining to perform their marriage on the grounds of gender alone.”

Overture 12-009 objects, “One part of our current Presbyterian polity specifically excludes a group of people when it comes to worship: those people in loving, committed, Christian relationships who are also of the same gender and wish to marry.” The overture holds this limitation to be contrary to the words of Paul in Galatians 3:28: “… there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Questions: Is the affirmation that “[m]arriage is a gift God has given to all humankind” a guarantee that everyone will be called to marriage and able to find a suitable spouse? Or is it an affirmation that the entire society benefits when those called to marriage live out their vows? Does “an equal level of respect” for individuals imply that all sexual relationships into which they might enter must be treated as morally equivalent? Are individuals excluded from Christian worship when the church advises them that the relationship in which they are involved does not fit the criteria of Christian marriage? Is it unfair to say that all individuals have a limited pool of potential spouses: that the spouse must be of age and able to consent, a member of the opposite sex, not a close blood relative, and not already married? Do Paul’s words that “there is no longer male or female” mean that it no longer matters that God created humans male and female, or that the union of the two sexes no longer has any special value? Or does it mean that in Christ men and women, different though they are, enjoy equal dignity and access to God?

15. Must the Church Conform Its Doctrine to State Law and Social Trends?

The revisionist Overture 12-009 points to “an error in the Directory for Worship”—viz., “In six states … and the District of Columbia it is not factually true that ‘marriage is a civil contract between a man and a woman.’” Overture 12-040 aims to correct the discrepancy: “Civil authorities in several states make it legal for same gender couples to marry. The Book of Order should respect and reflect this change in society and make appropriate changes in its language.”

Overture 12-056 says, “It is clear in the second sentence of W-4.9001 [‘Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man’] that the PC(USA) recognizes the importance of the civil definition of marriage.” The overture maintains, on the basis of Romans 13:1-2, that “the scriptural direction seems to be towards being subject to the laws of the state as much as we are able.” Therefore, “in those jurisdictions that recognize samesex marriage the Book of Order must be understood to mean two persons who can be legally married.”

The traditionalist Overture 12-048 notes: “A 2011 GAPJC decision concerned a PC(USA) minister officiating at a ceremony between two women in Massachusetts, where their union was recognized as a marriage under civil law. The GAPJC ruled unanimously: ‘The question before this Commission, then, is whether the Massachusetts law defining this relationship as a legal marriage changes the impact of the definitions in W-4.9001. This Commission holds that it does not. While the PC(USA) is free to amend its definition of marriage, a change in state law does not amend the Book of Order. It is the responsibility of the church, following the processes provided in the Constitution for amendment, to define what the PC(USA) recognizes as a “Christian marriage.” Consequently, Spahr’s holding, “By the definition in W-4.9001, a same sex ceremony can never be a marriage,” remains in effect.’”

Questions: Is it an “error” that the Book of Order defines marriage as “a civil contract between a woman and a man”? Or is it a statement of God’s intention for marriage as we understand it in Scripture? Does “recognizing the importance of the civil definition of marriage” mean that Presbyterians delegate to the state the power to define marriage for the church? Does “being subject to the laws of the state” imply that the church must bring its doctrines into conformity with state laws? Or is the GAPJC right that “a change in the state law does not amend the Book of Order”?

16. What Would It Take to Change the Church’s Definition of Marriage?

Several revisionist overtures propose to change the church’s definition of marriage by amending W-4.9001 and related passages in the Book of Order. Other overtures would pursue the same objective by an authoritative interpretation of W-4.9001. None of them seeks to alter the confessional texts upon which W4.9001 is based.

The traditionalist Overture 12-048 insists: “Since the PC(USA)’s definition of marriage is expressed in both parts of its constitution, the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order, any attempt to change that definition would necessarily involve amendments to both parts. Changing one part without making corresponding changes in the other part would generate contradictions, confusion, and disorder that would ill serve the church. A change of any magnitude in the church’s doctrine of marriage should occur only through the rigorous process of confessional amendment, requiring careful deliberation at multiple General Assemblies and in every presbytery.”

Questions: Would an authoritative interpretation be sufficient to change the PC(USA) definition of marriage? Would amending the Book of Order alone be sufficient? Would an authoritative interpretation be the wise, proper, and just way to effect such a major change?


Alan F. H. Wisdom is a writer and an elder in the PC(USA), and a member of the Theology Matters Board of Directors.

Alan F. H. Wisdom
Alan F. H. Wisdom
Alan Wisdom, M.A., is a Director on the Board of Theology Matters and an Adjunct Fellow, Institute on Religion & Democracy, Fall Church, Virginia
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Is God Irrelevant?

Is something good because God approves or commands it? Or is it the other way around: does God approve or command things—actions, or rules of conduct, or personal characteristics—because they are good?


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