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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Marriage Amendment and Mutual Forbearance

It’s only a matter of time.

Anyone who’s been monitoring the count of presbyteries voting on Constitutional Amendment 14-F, allowing same-sex marriage in Presbyterian churches, can see the tally's been running nearly two-to-one in favor. It’s almost a mathematical certainty that, in the coming weeks, we’ll hear the news that the required minimum of 86 ratifying presbyteries has been reached. The Directory for Worship will have been amended, to define marriage as “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 full text of the amended section can be found below.)

“So, what happens then?” That’s the question on the minds of many Presbyterians.

For more than 40 years, Presbyterians have been debating the question of full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. That theological struggle has been going on for longer than I’ve been in ministry. With each year that’s gone by, the number of Presbyterians favoring full inclusion has gradually been increasing, a slowly rising tide.

Three years ago, a majority of presbyteries agreed with the General Assembly, voting to remove the constitutional bar to ordination for those who do not “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

A year ago, the Assembly voted to recommend changing the definition of marriage from being “between a man and a woman” to being “between two people” (although noting that the two parties have traditionally been a man and a woman).

In large part, the rising tide of change has been generationally-driven. Pollsters tell us huge majorities of 30-and-under Christians do not view same-sex relationships as inherently sinful — and that most of them have little interest in any church that teaches differently. As younger people have been elected as commissioners to presbyteries, and as a corresponding number of older leaders have aged out, the shift has gradually taken place. There’s an old saying that “the church is always just one generation away from extinction.” From a purely demographic standpoint, it’s hard to see how any church that favors moral convictions more common to retirees than to younger and mid-life adults can survive for long.

Although there’s sometimes a tendency for those on the conservative side of the debate to dismiss the convictions of their opponents as unbiblical, anyone who takes an objective look at the arguments pro and con will see that it’s not a matter of biblical fidelity, but rather of differing biblical interpretations. Advocates of same-sex marriage truly do not love their Bibles any less than those who oppose it. They just understand the scriptures differently.

The new language doesn’t force any Presbyterians to change their views. It is permissive, not mandatory, speaking of what “may be appropriate” rather than what must happen. More than that, it offers explicit protection for any teaching elder (minister) or congregation who fears being forced to approve a same-sex marriage ceremony: “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.” Individual conscience is protected.

Well, what about those who feel offended that they must live under a Book of Order that even tolerates same-sex marriage? 

The answer to that is that the Book of Order is not a confession of faith. Those ordained to ordered ministry in the Presbyterian Church don’t swear allegiance to the Book of Order (they don’t even do that for individual passages from the Book of Confessions: in the ordination questions, they promise not to subscribe to individual confessions word-for-word, but rather to “be instructed and led” by the entire collection of confessional documents). What they do promise, in the ordination questions, is to “be governed by our church’s polity” and to “abide by its discipline.”

There’s a subtle — but important —  difference between affirming a constitutional document and agreeing to be governed by it. After the marriage amendment takes effect — with its explicit guarantee that no one in ordered ministry will be forced to participate in a same-sex ceremony — there will be nothing in the Book of Order to force pastors or session members to affirm or do anything against their consciences, when it comes to same-sex marriage ceremonies.

There is, however, something of great importance the Book of Order does expect every Presbyterian leader to do: and this has certainly not changed. This obligation, expressed in our Historic Principles of Church Order for over 200 years, is to strive to exercise “mutual forbearance” towards fellow presbyters whose viewpoints differ from our own (F-3.0105).

And what is mutual forbearance? It’s a biblical concept — although it’s a little hard to locate in most English translations, because the word “forbearance” is something of an antique.  Scrupulous readers of the Authorized (“King James”) Version will recognize it in Ephesians 4:2. In the face of persistent church conflict, Paul’s prescription for good health in the body of Christ is “forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The New Revised Standard Version renders it “bearing with one another in love.”

The essential feature of the biblical concept of mutual forbearance is the presence of a third party in the relationship: God. Whether the opposing parties are facing off across a kitchen table or a Session conference table, two individuals in conflict have little chance of permanently resolving their differences unless they first acknowledge their mutual reliance on a higher authority. Such is the message of the Ephesians passage as it recommends “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Note that unity in the relationship does not come from the parties themselves. It is unity of the Spirit. Further, the peace that reigns over the two opponents is not something that appears automatically, requiring little effort. The scripture speaks of the “bond” of peace: literally, a chain or fetter. A lifelong commitment to living and working with one another, despite our differences, means sacrificing something of the freedom we would otherwise have, were we not accountable to another.

It’s not unlike living through change as a family. Change does not typically happen, in families, in slow and incremental ways. It happens by leaps and bounds, often driven by the passions of the younger generations, to which the older members eventually learn to accommodate. The younger generations, for their part, come to accept the likelihood that they will never fully convince their elders.

What happens, then? Does the family splinter, its unity destroyed?

Sadly, in some cases this is what happens. Most observers, though, would describe that as a failed family. Its members have failed to do the one thing they were expected to do: to stick together through thick and thin.

What keeps any family healthy and strong is mutual forbearance. It must be intentional, and it must happen on both sides. We bear with each other because we love one another in Christ. That’s the bottom line.

So, what will happen after the new constitutional language becomes the law of the church? My hope is that together we will enter a new period of mutual forbearance, coming to appreciate the theological and practical value of this historical — and deeply biblical — principle of Presbyterianism.

(The description of mutual forbearance is adapted from my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Principles of Presbyterian Polity, that is under contract with Westminster/John Knox Press.)

Amendment 14-F. Marriage
On Amending W-4.9000

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.

Photo credits: Rodrigo Valladares, Stephen Eastop, from freeimages.com