General Assembly backgrounder: civil unions and marriage

Changing definition of marriage, revoking or issuing new constitutional interpretation on the agenda in Detroit

May 29, 2014


The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ― June 14-21 in Detroit ― will once again consider the definition and constitutional interpretation of marriage.

At issue is W-4.9001 of the denomination’s Book of Order, or constitution, which 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.”

The 2010 General Assembly, in approving the final report of its Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage, posed the over-arching question: “How do we extend the grace of God to all, calling all persons to repentance, transformation, and discipleship — regardless of sexual orientation — so that all will experience God’s gracious intention for humanity?”

Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court in 2013 struck down Section Three of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), essentially extending federal marriage benefits to gay couples legally married in their states, regardless of where they choose to reside.

Nineteen states currently have legal same-sex marriage: eight by court decision, eight by state legislative action and three by popular vote.

In this increasingly complex context, the 2012 General Assembly voted to neither reaffirm or change the PC(USA)’s definition of marriage, but asked the whole church to engage in a two-year period of “serious study and discernment” regarding Christian marriage.

Seven overtures (resolutions) on the subject will be considered in Detroit:

  • 10-01, from Lehigh Presbytery, would amend the constitution by changing “marriage” to “Blessing of Christian Covenant” and leave legal marriage to civil authorities rather than ministers. 
  • 10-02, from Cascades Presbytery (with 19 concurrences from other presbyteries), would amend the constitution by changing the definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people.”
  • 10-03 from Heartland Presbytery and10-04 from East Iowa Presbytery would issue a new authoritative interpretation of the constitution affirming pastoral discretion to perform same-sex marriage in jurisdictions where they are legal.
  • 10-05, from Midwest Hanmi Presbytery, would preserve the traditional definition of marriage but would add a clause to W-4.9001to allow presbyteries and sessions “to define marriage as a civil contract between two persons within the boundary of state law.”
  • 10-06, from New Castle Presbytery, would rescind an authoritative interpretation of the constitution by the 1991 General Assembly that stated that “if a session considered a same-sex ceremony to be the equivalent of marriage it would not be sanctioned…” and barred sessions from allowing their facilities to be used for such ceremonies.
  • 10-07, from Eastern Korean Presbytery, calls for creation of a task force to “identify common ground and reconcilable differences” around the issue of same-sex marriage and report back to the 2018 General Assembly.

Matters related to same-sex marriage will be considered by Assembly Committee 10 — Civil Union and Marriage Issues. Jerry L. Van Marter of Presbyterian News Service will be covering Committee 10 for the General Assembly Communication Center.

  1. I am struggling here, by what biblical authority is the General Assembly using to allow for same sex weddings?

    by Dean Kenady

    June 21, 2014

  2. The PCUSA church i was raised in taught from the scripture. if we ignore the scripture to fit whats socially accepted we may as well start building idols. i wont be any part of it. hate the sin, love the sinner. you cant change the definition of sin but we must love and pray for the sinners. we all have sin but we cant change its definition.

    by Steve Van Hook

    June 21, 2014

  3. Advocacy of LGBT issues brought before the GA seem never ending. Most often they have been rejected and those advocating them don't stop until they get the answer they want. It never occurs to them that God has already spoken through his Word and his church, they just don't like His answer. But the moment one of these major issues is decided in their favor they throw up their hands in praise declaring God has spoken...It is now time to move on and heal. "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change..." James 1:17 Affirmation of homosexuality is against the declarative good of God's creation. In other words, it is ultimately a clinched fist in the face of open act of rebellion defended by a fatal conceit. Will the PCUSA be ruled by human law and experience or the rule of God and his Word? The former has brought no end of grief but the latter has given us truth and reconciliation with God in Jesus Christ.

    by James

    June 17, 2014

  4. I am a Teaching Elder who, on the recommendation of the GA two years ago, studied these issues in regards, not to personal opinion or pre-conceived ideas, but based on scripture and the appropriate study we are taught to level at it in seminary, using historical tools, as well as Greek/Hebrew tools. The link below is my journey (studied at church and reformatted for the web) with this issue. It isn't terribly long, but it tries to be exhaustive and faithful to our reformed, always reforming beliefs.

    by Optimistic Chad

    June 17, 2014

  5. I will praise the church if same sex marriage is approved!

    by Diane

    June 17, 2014

  6. I am also 100% opposed to the same sex :marriage" issue. I feel we are changing GOD's word to suit Man's inmoral lifestyle.

    by Connie Sipp

    June 17, 2014

  7. Praise the Lord, I have finally found a church where I wholeheartedly agree with all its the theology and practice. Unfortunately it is a church of one.

    by Steve Newton

    June 16, 2014

  8. Our polity understands our identity as a church as reformed and always being reformed. Whatever the vote at this GA, we are, as the body of Christ, interpreting the will of God through the presence of the Holy Spirit. If the vote to open marriage to all of God's people passes is not "succumbing . . . to secularists," it is our work of being the church lived out honestly and prayerfully. To leave the church because you don't agree with how the body has moved is an un-Presbyterian ideal, limiting the power and love of God, and the power of God's reconciliation, to begin with.

    by Jackson Hollis

    June 14, 2014

  9. I don't recall any mention in the Constitution of the PCUSA that the US Supreme Court is given authority over either the theology or the polity of the Presbyterian Church — and the Constitution of the US absolutely forbids it. So how did the US Supreme Court become a part of this argument in the church? Why does the Special Committee believe that the grace of God needs to be extended? Is it not broad enough as it is offered by God Himself? How did the church become so ungrateful for His gifts that we would demand more of Him than He has given?

    by Mark Trullinger

    June 11, 2014

  10. Jesus invited everyone to the table.

    by L. Norman

    June 9, 2014

  11. In Matthew 19: 4-6 Jesus endorses marriage - between a man and a woman. The Bible itself consistently weighs against any kind of sexual behaviors outside of marriage including homosexuality, fornication, adultery, bestiality, etc. Before God established His chosen people, virtually every kind of sexual behavior was 'culturally accepted'. The primary fall-out of unbounded sexual behaviors was the destruction/marginalization of the family and the 'property only' status of women. If the PC (USA) succumbs to the nonsense peddled by the secularists, they will accelerate their "going out of business" sale. RIP

    by Bruce Woods

    June 1, 2014

  12. I am 100% opposed to same sex "marriage" in the Church. I can't believe that it is even considered. Why would we even think about changing something that the Bible thinks is a sin just to conform to the lowering of morals by society.

    by Lee

    May 31, 2014

  13. I will leave the church, if this is passed. Allen Park,Mi PCUSA

    by James M. Ford

    May 29, 2014