Same Gender Marriage Rationales: An Overview

Many Presbyteries contributed Rationales in their concurrance with Overtures in support of same gender marriage.  These documents were approved at the associated Presbytery Assembly meetings and sent to the General Assembly.  This situation provides an excellent opportunity to review the arguments by which same gender marriage supporters chose to advance their cause. Presbyteries from across the entire United States are represented, thus providing a broad view into the PCUSA.

I have focused the analysis on two Overtures, those being:

  1. On Amending W-4.9000, Marriage (Ammending Marriage)
  2. On Issuing an Authoritative Interpretation of W-4.9000 to Affirm Pastoral Discretion in Performing Marriage Ceremonies (Authoritative Interpretation)

These are the two Overtures that the Presbytery of Chicago approved at the February 8, 2014 Assembly Meeting at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.  Numerous Commissioners spoke from the floor for and against these Overtures.

On the pro-side, all but one speaker focused on the issue’s emotional aspect, often in very personal terms. One speaker speculated that the only reason to oppose these Overtures is because you don’t like homosexuals. The only Biblical argument made was that the parable of the Good Samaritan means that we should approve of same-gender marriage (Jesus was erroneously quoted as ending this parable with the admonition to ‘do the right thing’).

Those in opposition focused on (1) the lack of Biblical or Confessional reflection / justification, (2) questioning why Christians’ beliefs are being led by secular culture and (3) concerns about this position’s impact on or relationships with other Christian communities and other religions.

Both same-gender marriage Overtures to the PCUSA General Assembly were overwhelmingly passed. I voted against passage of both Overtures.

Subsequently, the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)  (June 14 to 21, 2014 in Detroit, MI) approved both of these Overtures.


My first impression after reading these Rationales from Presbyteries across the PCUSA was how sparse and thin were the references to Jesus, Christ, God, Scripture(s), Bible and Confession(s). The dual issues that arise are first, is it true, and, if so, how to best measure and communicate the result. These issues are difficult to address due to the sheer size of the record. It turns out that between the Authoritative Interpretation and Amending Marriage Overtures, there are approximately 24,000 words in the set of concurring Rationales.

Fortunately, there are tools available on the Internet that are specifically designed to analyze this type of information. I have utilized one of these tools that counts the number of occurrences of each word in a text section.  The following table shows the results.

Rationale Word Counts

Rationale Word Counts

Although these quantitative results support my initial impression, deeper analysis is required to assess the situation. I therefore have reviewed each Rationale individually to determine if it includes specific references to Jesus, Christ, Bible, Scripture(s) or Confession(s), with the results shown in the following figure.

Word Use Results for Presbytery Rationales

Word Use Results for Presbytery Rationales

Even the previous word usage analysis did not prepare me for the shock of this result. Here we have Presbyteries throughout the PCUSA researching, writing, debating, editing and voting on Rationales to support a fundamental redefinition of Christian marriage. This work occurred over timespans measured in at least months, drawing on the knowledge of ordained pastors and elders. It was then placed before whole Presbytery Assemblies, also made up of ordained pastors and elders, for debate and decision, with the possibility of editorial change.

And what do we find?

  • The Presbyteries of East Iowa, Heartland and Twin Cities Area passed Rationales on the Amending Marriage Overture without once using the words Jesus, Christ, Bible, Scripture(s) or Confession(s).
  • For Rationales supporting the Authoritative Interpretation the situation is even worse, with the Presbyteries of Albany, Cayuga-Syracuse, Genesee Valley, National Capital, New York City and Southern New England all failing to use all of these same terms even once.
  • The Presbyteries of Albany, the Heartland and National Capital contributed supporting Rationales for both Amending Marriage and Authoritative Interpretation, somehow managing to not mention Jesus or Christ even once in either one.
  • The Presbyteries of National Capital, New York City and Redwoods contributed supporting Rationales for both Amending Marriage and Authoritative Interpretation, somehow managing to not mention the Bible or Scriptures(s) even once in either one.
  • Across all 30 Rationales
    • Jesus and/or Christ was used in barely over half (53%)
    • Bible and/or Scripture(s) was used by less than half (47%)
    • Confession(s) was used by only one in six (16.7%).

The implications of these results are staggering. What we have in the PCUSA are whole Presbyteries, composed of dozens if not hundreds of ordained pastors and elders, for whom the most central concepts in orthodox Christian thought simply don’t come to mind when discussing the fundamental redefinition of Christian marriage.

 

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Redefining Christian Marriage

He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from 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’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Matthew 19:4-6 (RSV)


The 2010 victory allowing ordination of practicing homosexuals was just the beginning. Over the years 2011, 2012 and 2013 over 500,000 existing members made the decision to exit the PCUSA. Obviously, their reasons varied. However, there is no doubt that a major motivation was loss of confidence in the denomination as a viable vehicle for the proclamation of a reformed, orthodox Christian understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With the exit of so many that were in opposition to the PCUSA’s direction, those in favor were empowered to push it forward further and faster.

Thus, at the 2014 General Assembly, the PCUSA approved same gender marriage. As reported by the denomination:

The Assembly approved sending out for presbytery approval a constitutional amendment to W-4.9001 of the PC(USA)’s Book of Order that would change the constitutional definition of marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “between two people, traditionally between a man and a woman.”

The vote on the authoritative interpretation – which takes effect immediately – was 371-238 or 61 percent to 39 percent.

The vote on the proposed constitutional amendment – which goes to the denomination’s 172 presbyteries for ratification – was 429-175 or 71 percent to 29 percent. A majority of the presbyteries must vote approval of the measure for it to take effect.

pcusa-approves-same-gender-marriage

To supporters, this action was a long overdue victory for social justice and human dignity. That is, the traditional definition of marriage as only between one man and one woman was an affront to, and overt discrimination against, homosexuals.

To those in opposition the action was an explicit repudiation of God’s Word and the Confessions. That is, the GA had elevated selected ideas from secular society above God’s Word and our Confessions.

For many members this issue is vexing and confusing. They listen to the debates and hear what appear to be valid points on both sides. They believe in the ultimate authority of God’s Word and desire an ever more just society. And, they are weary of the decades long debate over this set of cultural issues. Perhaps, some reason, the best path forward is simply to fall in line with the current cultural direction.

There is one element of this debate that in many cases may be decisive – that being the contention of same gender marriage supporters that, at worst, the Bible takes a broad view of marriage’s definition, and, at best, clearly supports the extension of marriage to cover homosexual couples. Was this the case, the primary argument of those in opposition would be gravely compromised.

Therefore, the writers of the Overture Rationales supporting same gender marriage had a wonderful opportunity to not only advance their cause, but also to heal the wounds caused by this divisive debate. They had every advantage to make a powerful Biblical case – years of experience from debate and discussion, months of time to write the text, the resources of whole Presbyteries (pastors, elders and in some cases seminaries) and scholarship from around the world.

For those church members who were desperate to move on, a powerful Biblical case would cause many to accept this change. For those who were in determined opposition, some might decide to leave, but others might decide that there is enough justification to allow them to stay. The benefits were overwhelming.

Thus, the center of my analysis will be on how the Rationale writers in support of same gender marriage responded to this opportunity.


There is a final point that must be made absolutely clear. In the following posts I will be very critical of arguments in favor of same-gender marriage. I am in fellowship with Christian brothers and sisters who support same-gender marriage. I worship, explore God’s Word and the Christian life, serve on church committees with them and generally enjoy their wisdom and encouragement. They lead activities in Christian mission and fellowship that leave me both humbled and invigorated.

Though we do not agree on this issue, I know that they listen to my point of view with respect and provide thoughtful responses. It would be a tragedy if my comments were misunderstood to be rejection of all who disagree with me on this particular issue.

No, those with whom I am contending have added a heavy dose of postmodern philosophy to their understanding of Christianity. I have previously identified this faction as “postmodern Christians” and it is to this party that my following criticisms primarily apply.

Postmodern Christianity: A Primer

My experience investigating the General Assembly’s approval of same gender marriage has confirmed the presence of postmodern Christianity as a power to be reckoned with in the PCUSA.  This issue will be the focus of the next two month’s posts.  The discussion will be organized into three sequential phases:

  1. Review and comment on the means utilized to advance the same gender marriage position at the 2014 PCUSA General Assembly
  2. An analysis of the apparent ends sought by postmodern Christians based on analysis of their utilized means
  3. Discussion of the theological crisis that has been a key enabler of postmodern Christianity’s development and success

Finally, note that the issue of same gender marriage is by no means settled in the PCUSA. Presbyteries are currently in the process of debate and voting on inclusion of this modification of marriage’s definition in our Book of Order (The authoritative interpretation of W-4.9000).


The following background information on postmodernism and postmodern Christianity is from HONORING CHRIST IN OUR RELATIONSHIPS.  Thus, the references can be found on this page.  My conclusion from “Honoring Christ” was that the influence of postmodern Christianity best explained the means utilized and ends sought in this Overture.

Postmodernism

The Encyclopedia Britannica’s [3] top-level definition is as follows.

“Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.”

Specific sentences in the accompanying short article have a strong correlation to issues at the center of this inquiry, including:

  • “the rejection of an objective natural reality—is sometimes expressed by saying that there is no such thing as Truth.”
  • “For postmodernists, reason and logic too are merely conceptual constructs and are therefore valid only within the established intellectual traditions in which they are used.”
  • “postmodernists claim that language is semantically self-contained, or self-referential: the meaning of a word is not a static thing in the world or even an idea in the mind but rather a range of contrasts and differences with the meanings of other words.”
  • “Postmodernists deny that there are aspects of reality that are objective; that there are statements about reality that are objectively true or false; that it is possible to have knowledge of such statements (objective knowledge); that it is possible for human beings to know some things with certainty; and that there are objective, or absolute, moral values.”
  • “Thus postmodernists regard their theoretical position as uniquely inclusive and democratic, because it allows them to recognize the unjust hegemony of Enlightenment discourses over the equally valid perspectives of nonelite groups.”

Additional highly correlated statements can be found in the much longer article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [4]:

  • “In this regard, the modern paradigm of progress as new moves under established rules gives way to the postmodern paradigm of inventing new rules and changing the game.”
  • “Justice, then, would not be a definable rule, but an ability to move and judge among rules in their heterogeneity and multiplicity. In this respect, it would be more akin to the production of art than a moral judgment in Kant’s sense.”
  • “The Nietzschean sense of overcoming modernity is “to dissolve modernity through a radicalization of its own innate tendencies,” says Vattimo (Vattimo 1988, 166). These include the production of “the new” as a value and the drive for critical overcoming in the sense of appropriating foundations and origins.”

The above postmodern concepts are generalized by the Encyclopedia Britannica as “the straightforward denial of the general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment.”

Postmodernism and Christianity

What happens when Christianity and postmodernism are merged? On its face this appears to be an absurd combination, requiring a faith based on the absolute Word of God be combined with a philosophy that denies the possibility of truth and the objective meaning of language. However, this merging has indeed occurred, with radical consequences. The best summation of these consequences found to date is in a Masters of Theology thesis [5].

  • “The rejection of metanarratives, which appear to suggest that orthodox Christian philosophy and epistemology appears to be under threat (Adams 1998: 522). The traditional coherent presentation of the orthodox system of belief, developed through the centuries, based on deductive reasoning and the interaction of the Bible, have to give way to relativistic theology (Guarino 1993: 37-40). Relativistic theology appears to be the theology of liberation and numerous socio-political systems. The core Christian message is no longer normative; instead, truth is subjective and relevant only to the culture and society of the day (Grenz 2001: 40).”
  • “Foundationalism seems to be replaced by nihilism (Nietzsche 1968:1). Christian foundation such as scripture, creeds and confessions, and ecclesiastical traditions appear to be no longer meaningful. Biblical text cannot be understood with certainty since the “postmodern condition” concerning the theory and practice of interpretation is “incredulity towards meaning” (Lyotard1984: xxiii). In this respect, Lyotard claimed that the model of knowledge, as a progressive development of consensus, is also outmoded.”
  • “Absolutism seems to be replaced by relativism. Christian morality and theology are relative to the people who embrace them (Carson 2005: 31-32). Hence the rise of moral and theological plurality, assuming that no one perspective has the dominant position in church, and no single unique outlook on reality accounts for the world we live in.”
  • “The concept of truth, including biblical truth, seems to have no correspondence to objective reality (Moreland 2004: np). Hence, the search for truth appears to be a vain exercise and the reader should be content with individual/personal interpretation. Systematic theology should be replaced by “edifying” theology, which aims at a continuing conversation between the reader and scriptures, rather than discovering truth.”

Additional information on this topic can be found at this site.

This finishes the necessary prerequisite information for our exploration of same gender marriage in the PCUSA.

My Terms for Remaining

It’s obvious that I am deeply troubled by, and in opposition to the current direction of the PCUSA. As the previous data shows, many members have made the painful decision to sever fellowship with the denomination. Many who have departed would say that the PCUSA has so violated orthodox Reformed Christian doctrines that their consciences demand separation. Although I will not second-guess these decisions, I am not convinced that exit is the best choice.

Some who stay seek to carve out islands on which they can quietly live out their orthodox faith surrounded by a sea of postmodernist heterodoxy. However, if you were living on an island where the water level rose steadily, is it sustainable to keep repeating, “There’s nothing to worry about because I have this shrinking patch of dry land?”

So, if I refuse to exit but reject remaining in silence, then on what terms do I intend to remain? As is so often the case, these terms are identified with power and precision in one of our precious Confessions, in this case the Larger Catechism’s commentary on the Ninth Commandment, which discusses our responsibility not simply to avoid untruth, but also to not enable falsehood by our silence:

“The sins forbidden in the Ninth Commandment are … concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others …” [7.255]

Therefore, throughout January and February my posts will explore the postmodern Christian belief system within context of the same-gender marriage issue.  Those who hold these views constantly and aggressively press their arguments towards their chosen ends. My Christian conscience demands that their ideas be countered by the best that I can produce within the context of Christian charity and honesty.

These are the terms under which I will remain in the PCUSA. Perhaps, in God’s sovereign providence this will contribute to reversing the water’s rise, or, will build up the island of orthodoxy even as the water continues to rise. Whatever the result, I must speak out so long as God grants me voice.


O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent?

   Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?

He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,

   and speaks truth from his heart;

who does not slander with his tongue,

   and does no evil to his friend,

   nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;

in whose eyes a reprobate is despised,

   but who honors those who fear the Lord;

who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

who does not put out his money at interest,

   and does not take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be moved.

Psalm 15 (RSV)

The PCUSA’s Continuous Decline

Before beginning this blog’s main line it is necessary to make a detour into the consequences of our denomination’s domination by what has become postmodern Christianity.  The PCUSA’s leadership has attempted to paper over the denomination’s continuous membership decline through information cherry picking, misdirection and happy talk for decades.  By this post’s conclusion I hope that the true nature of our situation will have been conveyed.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is commonly referred to by the acronym PCUSA (the official denominational acronym is PC(USA)), was founded in 1983. The founding event was the reunification of the two largest Presbyterian denominations in the United States – the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), which were the southern and northern branches that split as a consequence of the Civil War.

The PCUSA had over 3.1 million members at its founding. The population of the United States in 1983 was approximately 234 million. Thus, over 1.3% of the nation’s population belonged to this new denomination. By 2013, PCUSA membership had declined to just over 1.7 million while the U.S. population had increased to almost 317 million. Thus, in 2013, only 0.56% of the U.S. population belonged to the PCUSA, which is more than a halving of its founding value.

The following figures show the PCUSA’s membership decline. The following links lead to resources used to generate PCUSA membership plots.

http://www.pcusa.org/resource/comparative-statistics-2009-table-1/

http://www.pcusa.org/resource/comparative-statistics-2012-table-1/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbyterian_Church_(U.S.A.)

PCUSA Total Membership

Figure 1: PCUSA Total Membership

The human eye has difficulty resolving what appear to be only small changes in a curve’s slope. Therefore the following figure has been included in order to highlight the nature of membership decline.

PCUSA Annual Membership Net Change

Figure 2: PCUSA Annual Membership Net Change

The above figure displays total net annual membership change. Between 1984 and 2006 the net membership loss varied within the 20,000 to 50,000 range. However, starting in 2007 annual membership losses have been uniformly greater than 50,000. In 2012 we lost almost 103,000 net members. In 2013 we lost an additional 89,000 members, the second worst loss in PCUSA history. This data tells the unmistakable story of consistent, significant membership loss over the entire time of the PCUSA’s existence, and, of an unprecedented, catastrophic loss over the recent three years.

There is one more level of detail necessary to understand what’s happening to membership. The PCUSA publishes membership details, including the number of gains and losses on an annual basis. The difference between these numbers is the net change shown in the previous figure. However, seeing the gain/loss numbers, as shown below, adds new insight to membership dynamics.

Figure 3.Annual PCUSA Membership Gain & Loss

Figure 3: Annual PCUSA Membership Gain & Loss

Three undisputable statements of fact based on this figure are:

  1. Membership gains (green line) have declined every year between 1998 and 2012
  2. In 2012 membership gain was less than one-half of the 1998 level
  3. In 2012 almost one-in-ten existing members (red line) decided to exit

We hear the constant refrain from our denominational leadership that the radical changes made to our theology and policies are intended to make the church “more relevant.” However, looking at Figure 3, note that the PCUSA has delivered increasing irrelevance to both those inside and outside of the denomination. One is left wondering to just whom our leadership is so aggressively working to become more relevant.

Finally, the PCUSA’s experience is by no means unique. The following figure shows plots of annual membership change percentage for four denominations, the United Church of Christ (UCC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA), the PCUSA and the Assemblies of God (AG).

The three mainline denominations (i.e., UCC, ECLA and PCUSA) have experienced consistent (and sometimes catastrophic) membership decline for decades. The Assemblies of God, has experienced consistent membership growth over the same period, which falsifies the oft repeated claim by our denominational leaders that decline is inevitable in these times.

Figure 4:Annual Percent Membership Change for Four Denominations

Figure 4: Annual Percent Membership Change for Four Denominations

The ECLA approved a resolution to allow gays and lesbians in same-sex relationships to be ordained in August of 2009. The following two years, 2010 and 2011, saw ECLA membership decline by 6.3% and 5.2%, respectively. The UCC approved a resolution allowing same-gender marriage in 2005. Even in this historically liberal church, the following years had membership declines in excess of the norm prior to 2005.

The above information tells the unmistakable story of continuous, and recently, catastrophic membership decline in the PCUSA.  One would think that this issue would be front and center for our denominational leadership.  But this is not the case.  Rather, this situation is ignored.  Following is a screen shot (PCBiz) of the key areas addressed by our denomination at the 221st General Assembly (2014) .

Presbyterian Church (USA)  Explorer screen shot

Presbyterian Church (USA) Explorer screen shot

The only area that might address our membership decline is “[14] Congregational Vitality.”  However, the following screen shot of the specific items addressed shows no indication that catastrophic membership loss was considered.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 5.45.46 AM

[14] Congregational Vitality Items at the 221st General Assembly

 There is no real accountability for our denominational leadership as they, over decades, set priorities and pursue purposes that drive existing members out and continually bring fewer new members in.  The first necessary step for accountability to occur is knowledge about what is actually happening to membership.

My Sojourn into a Foreign Land

She bore a son, and he called his name Gershom; for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.”  Exodus 2:22 (RSV)


To my astonishment, it was my service as a Commissioner from my local church to the Presbytery of Chicago (PCUSA) that led to my current state of cultural disorientation.  Over the past 25 years I have served as Deacon, Elder, Christian Education committee member and Pastoral Nominating Committee member (among others) at local Presbyterian churches.  These service experiences have varied from wonderful to terrible.  In a mainline denomination such as the PSUSA I have fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ whose theological perspectives range from progressive to evangelical to fundamentalist.  Although I sometimes find myself in strong disagreement with these church members, I certainly don’t find reason to question the fundamentals of their Christian faith.  It is in the Presbytery of Chicago that I have been directly exposed to a combination of philosophy, ideology and religion that appears to be in opposition to my understanding of orthodox, Reformed Christianity.

Protestantism has been wracked by debates and schisms between progressive, evangelical and fundamentalist theological viewpoints. These modern conflicts have already done great damage to the standing of Protestant Christianity. However, members of the PCUSA, regardless of their theological perspective, had generally accepted that accommodation of diverse viewpoints is an important value – both as a means to pursue God’s truth and to maintain unity in a complex, individualistic society.

It is the addition of postmodernist philosophy to Christian thought that has immensely increased the level of irresponsibility and destructiveness to this situation. Postmodernist philosophy has influenced all of Western Christianity. However, in the PCUSA, denominational elites appear to have been the most strongly influenced. This is highly consequential, as this group has assumed a position of dominance in PCUSA governance. I will call their belief system “postmodern Christianity.”

I first discovered the existence of “postmodern Christianity” in 2012, when, as a new Presbytery Commissioner, I investigated the troubling Overture titled “On Committing Ourselves to Respectful Dialogue with Those who Hold Differing Convictions—From the Presbytery of Chicago.”  The results of this investigation can be found in the page titled HONORING CHRIST IN OUR RELATIONSHIPS.  My experience investigating the issue of same-gender marriage in the PCUSA has confirmed the presence, power and persistence of this heterodox brand of Christianity.  My early posts to this blog will primarily focus on same-gender marriage in the PCUSA with an emphasis on the impact of “postmodern Christianity.”

Many of the individuals and organizations that I include in postmodern Christianity are seeking to be kind, generous, loving and honest. They truly believe that they are “doing good” in all that they propose and achieve. Thus, it is not their motives that I am primarily calling into question. Rather, I am pointing out that this group has bought into fundamental errors regarding the nature of truth; God’s character, purpose and Word; Christian theology; and human abilities and prospects as moral actors, among others. As has been often demonstrated in history, good motives applied to the promotion of flawed ideas leads to negative, and sometimes disastrous consequences.

While I had been exposed to small doses of postmodern Christianity throughout my engagement with the local church, it was not until I became a Presbytery Commissioner that the full extent and consequence of this belief system became apparent. That is, though postmodern Christianity permeates the church, the depth and power of its influence was difficult to recognize within the mix of practical, personal issues and relationships that dominate the local church.

My conscious entry into the “foreign land” of postmodern Christianity occurred when I arrived on the floor of the Presbytery of Chicago (PoC). However, it’s clear that some of the perplexities I have experienced in the PCUSA also had their root in postmodern Christianity.

Although this blog will not be limited to an exploration of postmodern Christianity, this topic will dominate my meditations for some time.  This is the case because the consequences of this belief system are currently very powerful and real within the PCUSA.