Same-Sex Marriage: The Church’s Next Big Thing – Brian Ellison

Read the essay by Tricia Dykers Koenig, “A Pastoral Emergency”

Read the essay by Dr. Mark Achtemeier, “The Plan B God”

Read the essay by Tara Spuhler McCabe, “Discipline in Faith, Discipline of Self, Discipline with Church”

Read the essay by David Maxwell, “My Big Fat Gay Wedding”

The Covenant Network of Presbyterians [], since its founding, has focused on a twin mission for the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): To work for the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people in the church; and to work for the unity of the church. Though these two parts of our mission may sometimes seem in tension—changing the church’s ordination standards was a controversial step—we have always believed that both were essential for either to have meaning; that is, a church that excludes some of God’s children can not truly be said to be united, while there is no point in including anyone in a church that is itself a testimony to brokenness and separation.

With the passage in 2011 of Amendment 10-A (the new and historically grounded ordination standards now found at G-2.0104b. in the Book of Order), the church—and the Covenant Network—entered a new phase of life. Certainly, all can agree, there is much work left to do in helping the church live into this opportunity to ordain all those whom God calls. But this new day left other questions: Besides the now removed constitutional language, what else is serving as a barrier to a fully welcoming church? And how can we best devote our time and energy in the years ahead?

There are probably many answers to those questions. But one answer stands out above the others: Same-sex marriage is emerging as both the civil rights issue of our day and the next test of the church’s commitment to justice and hospitality in the model of Jesus Christ.

Consider the signs of the times. A majority of Americans now believe same-sex marriage should be legal and recognized by state governments, with all the rights and privileges as opposite-gender couples. At the last election day, all four states with marriage equality measures on their ballots voted to affirm gay and lesbian couples.  And last month, the president’s inaugural address, in an historic first, evoked Stonewall alongside Selma and Seneca Falls as a stop on the nation’s long journey to equality. There, in America’s great quadrennial celebration of democracy, he said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), however, has not spoken such a clear gospel word. The Book of Order, in passages reaffirmed at the 1983 reunion and rooted in language adopted much earlier, when gay marriage was hardly on anyone’s radar, stubbornly maintains that “Marriage is a civil contract between a man and a woman,” even though the statement is flatly inaccurate in nine states and the District of Columbia. It proceeds to limit its definition of covenantal love to a woman and a man, without articulating why it must be exclusively so. The widely used liturgy for a “Service of Christian Marriage” in the Book of Common Worship likewise reflects its 1993 publication date, waxing poetic about the purpose and blessing of marriage in exclusively heterosexual terms.

Repeated efforts at successive General Assemblies to bring greater openness have been unsuccessful. Supporters have sought various solutions. Some sought an authoritative ruling that the 1983 language should not be held as binding on teaching elders and sessions in today’s changed legal and social environment, protecting them from disciplinary charges in cases where they sought to be faithful pastors to their gay members seeking to be married. Others sought to change the outdated language altogether, replacing talk of “a woman and a man” with “two people” regardless of gender.  Still others sought both, or variations thereof. In both 2010 and 2012, these substantive responses were spurned in favor of continued “study,” widely seen as a tactic delaying an inevitable just outcome, and in both cases adopted after long, tiresome debates in the course of long, tiresome days of deliberation. Even in 2012, those debates still included unseemly references to bestiality and polygamy and further reinforced how far the church has to go.

Which brings us to today. The world and the church are in a new place. Every month, pastors call my office asking for guidance: What do I do when I get asked to perform a same-sex marriage? How can I call myself a faithful pastor when I refuse to perform this most basic pastoral function—blessing, in the presence of the faith community, a sacred commitment between two people to love each other in faith and faithfulness and so, together, to live the life of discipleship? What must I risk to serve as Christ served?  It is a dilemma, we believe, that pastors should not have to face. It is a false choice forced by our outdated Constitution, not by the demands of the gospel—indeed, the gospel demands that the conflict be resolved in a new way.

This year, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians will devote itself to a major focus on same-sex marriage in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Just as the church, over the years, wrestled with the biblical, theological and polity issues around ordination, we must now confront what we believe about marriage with the same depth and erudition.  And this year, leading up to the General Assembly in 2014, seems to represent the ideal confluence of events and conversations to bring about transformation in the church.

This week here at, we want to lay some groundwork for that conversation. Tomorrow, my colleague Tricia Dykers Koenig will offer a thorough review of how the church’s policies have developed—through General Assembly decisions and judicial rulings—to their present place. She’ll illustrate some of the logical fallacies of the status quo and talk about the very real way it undermines our welcome of all people.

On Wednesday, we’ll present excerpts of an address by Mark Achtemeier, who formerly taught biblical studies at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. A self-identified evangelical, Dr. Achtemeier was a member of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church. Their report in 2006 was instrumental in changing the tone of conversations around ordination. His participation in that task force was significant not only for the task force’s work but for him: He came to believe that the church’s policies needed to change. In these lectures, delivered at Covenant Network regional conferences last fall, Dr. Achtemeier makes a biblical case for same-sex marriage—suggesting not only that familiar passages should not preclude two people of the same-sex from  marrying, but also that the overarching message of the gospel and our interpretive tradition actually supports our allowing it.

On Thursday, we’ll let things get personal. Last summer, the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe was appointed and confirmed as Vice Moderator of the 220th General Assembly. Three days later, she resigned the office amid growing contention over her participation in the wedding of two women in the District of Columbia. In the months since, she has been part of a disciplinary process, culminating last week in her rebuke by National Capital Presbytery, a mutually-agreed outcome in which she and her prosecutors found common ground. For the first time, Tara will share her reflections on that process and its impact on her faith. She offers one case where dialogue on same-sex marriage really could move the church toward deeper unity.

Finally, on Friday, we’ll hear from one who never thought this would be a debate that would affect him. The Rev. David Maxwell never planned to get married. When a friend suggested it, and he and his longtime partner, another man, decided to take the plunge, he had little anticipation of it changing much in their relationship in his life. But even in the few weeks since the wedding, he has come to see he was wrong—marriage really does matter, and in ways he couldn’t have known without being able to experience it.

These posts are only, of course, a beginning. But like Selma and Seneca Falls, like the assemblies and presbyteries that first voted to ordain women or LGBT people  … every beginning matters. May the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) come to affirm the equality of all “the love we commit to one another.” And may this week’s reading here be a blessing to the church, that we might more fully display the oneness that is God’s gift and the inclusive fullness that is our destiny.

Brian D. Ellison is executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians []. He may be reached at or followed on Twitter @PTSBrian. The Covenant Network may also be followed @CovNetPres or liked on Facebook.

7 thoughts on “Same-Sex Marriage: The Church’s Next Big Thing – Brian Ellison

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  • February 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    I am so glad I am part of this Network now. It gives voice to my feelings. I am a “Proud Parent of a Gay Eagle Scout”. I was surprised at my emotion yesterday during church as I looked down from the balcony at the 20+ Scouts sitting below me. Statistically 2 or more of those guys could be gay. My prayers are with the Boy Scouts this week – and always with the Presbyterian Church!

  • February 4, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    My partner and I have been together for twenty-nine and a half years. We are in a domestic partnership registered in the state of NJ. WE are and have been very active in our respective churches and have deep, committed, personal relationships with God. From the beginning, we tried to center our relationship around God. We made our initial commitment to each other in God’s presence. Our 10th anniversary was celebrated with a ceremony of recommitment to each other and to God. A retired pastor from another state officiated (not in a church building). But for 29 years we have not had the support of the church. When a heterosexual couple has troubles or needs support, they can turn to their church family. But not a same-sex couple. We feel it was God who brought us together and God who has sustained us through twenty-nine and a half years of good times and very rough times. But the church has not been there for us. I believe it is time that the PC(USA) allow local congregations to recognize relationships that God has created and blessed.

    There are also a social justice issues related to this. Since the federal government does not recognize our relationship nor allow for same-sex marriage, there are major financial consequences. My partner is covered under my health benefits. This year I will be taxed on over $8,000 of income I will never see. My partner’s coverage is seen as over $8,000 in earned income to me. If my partner was not male and we were married this would not be seen as income and I would not be taxed on it. If we were married and I died before my partner died, my spouse would benefit from my Social Security benefits. Since my partner and I cannot marry, he cannot receive any benefits from my SS despite the number of years we have been together.

    We now live in a state that does not recognize our domestic partnership. If something happens to me and I end up in an emergency room, it is very possible that my partner will be denied admission to be with me. He also will very likely be denied the ability to speak for me in terms of my health care. (This has happened and in a couple cases the patient has died and the partner was not allowed by the hospital to be with the hospitalized partner prior to death.)

    I am grateful that PC(USA) has stated that it supports social justice for gays and lesbians. But how can its claim or its statements have any real weight when it does not recognize the same-sex relationships that some of these justice issues are related to?

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  • February 6, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    Presbyterian ministers must exercise their pastoral responsibilities within the constraints of Scripture and both books of the PCUSA Constitution – Book of Confessions and Book of Order. Each of these are limiting factors for those in Ordered ministry – there is no “pastoral waiver” to trump Scripture. Ministers are NOT free to their own judgment in areas where that judgment runs counter to the Word of God, and to the confessions which instruct us as Presbyterians on a Reformed perspective of the Scripture’s constraints. Those who cannot abide with the denomination’s determination might do best by “submitting to” or “withdrawing from”.

    While Mark Achtemeier is well-respected for his scholarship and keen understanding on many aspects of Reformed theology, he is out of the mainstream on the current concerns related to sexual morality. Only a very small portion of Christians reach the conclusions he and the Covenant Network have reached regarding same-gender and or bi-gender sexual relationships. The church today is confronted with a call to accomodate the culture’s perspective at the expense of the rule of faith and life proclaimed in Scripture as well as affirmed in the PC(USA) Constitution. The current cultural perspective that praises same-gender sexual relations has surfaced in previous times, and the church has in these times proclaimed that activity as sin, as it has about other aspects of sexual immorality. Today we face a drastic difference of the Scriptural position and thus a church divided over what is sinfull practice. The political/governmental issues of civil unions are best addressed in the politial arena.

  • February 7, 2013 at 5:06 am

    It’s really a good news for my family too cause my two brothers are Gay now they can have their rights as well.

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