GA: Civil and Religious Marriage

This is another post about the upcoming General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA.


There is an overture headed to General Assembly’s Civil Unions and Marriage Committee that would seek to pull clergy out of civil marriage altogether. I am sympathetic to Lehigh Presbytery’s intention. I stopped signing state marriage licenses a few years ago. You can read more about that here.

Here’s part of the language from the overture:

“Teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders (CRE) are not agents of the state but of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders shall not preside over a legal civil marriage. The role of those representing Christ and his church is to bless covenant partnerships as they are called to bless, and to refrain from blessing as they are called to refrain. As representatives of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) they may participate in the establishment of a legal civil marriage insofar as conscience dictates providing that the state’s representative presides over the civil requirements and is present to sign the official documents.”

You can read the whole overture (and all other business before GA) at PC-BIZ.

Even though I don’t currently sign civil marriage licenses, and would seem a likely advocate,  I am opposed to this overture.

If our authority is Jesus Christ, as we state in the opening sentences of the Book of Order, and we, the church, are to be the body of Christ, then I don’t think a blanket prohibition against civil marriage is the way to go.

My decision not to sign licenses was a personal one, made as a pastoral care response when I could not marry a couple from my congregation for both civil (Idaho) and religious (PCUSA) prohibitions.

It involved much prayer and conversation and discernment about how to best uphold my vows to be obedient to the church and to be pastor to the congregation I serve.

Being prohibited by the Book of Order, having the choice taken away from me, would not have allowed that discernment.

Here’s some of the language from the Book of Order that guides me in this:

F-1.0301 The Church Is the Body of Christ
The Church is the body of Christ. Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body. The Church strives to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world  (1 Cor. 12:27–28):
The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things.
The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.
The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.


I appreciate the present-tense struggle of what Christ is doing for the church today. To me, I hear that we need to be flexible enough to change direction when the Spirit calls us to new paths. We are always becoming God’s “new creation”. I appreciate the reminder to work for reconciliation.

Changing the Book of Order to prohibit all clergy from signing civil licenses would diminish our ability to work for reconciliation and to fully live into our call to be the body of Christ.

Also, as I have uncoupled civil and religious marriage, I’ve recognized the rest of the world doesn’t always see the distinction. Ministers have acted as agents of the state in the act of marriage for so long that we don’t remember a time when that wasn’t the norm. And I’ve discovered even people who a strongly against the co-mingling of Church and State often have no problem with ministers signing civil marriage licenses.

So, even if this might be the right decision for individuals to make, I don’t think it makes good policy and I don’t think it would be understood by most people.

Back in the late 1700’s, American Presbyterians affirmed this statement, which still guides our work and witness:

F-3.0101 God Is Lord of the Conscience
a. That “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” (quote from Westminster Confession of Faith 6.109)
b. Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others.

One seeming benefit of this overture is that pastors on both sides of the marriage debate can find relief of conscience. Pastors who support same gender marriage but who live in states where it is illegal or unconstitutional can pull out of participating in unjust laws. Pastors who oppose same gender marriage and live in states where it is legal can do the same.

But the better way to solve this, without compromising Christ’s authority over the church or compromising an individual pastor’s ability to faithfully obey Christ, would be to approve an Authoritative Interpretation (called “AI”) and to approve one of the overtures changing the language in the Book of Order to make room for same gender marriage.

You can read more about the Authoritative Interpretation here.

There are same gender marriages over which I would not preside. There have been heterosexual marriages over which I have not presided. A pastor’s discretion over marriage is key.

So we need to change the language in the Book of Order so it is not an impediment to a pastor’s discretion and discernment.

Ultimately, the PCUSA needs to figure out how we can live together as a denomination, recognizing we hold very different views about marriage. Some people have already decided they cannot live with us and have left the denomination to join more conservative churches.

But what about the rest of us? For those of us who have decided our faith in Jesus Christ is strong enough to unite us, and our witness as Presbyterians, is important enough to continue, despite our differences–how do we leave room for each other?

The overture from Lehigh, prohibiting pastors from signing civil licenses, while well intentioned, is not the way to go.

Instead, I pray an amendment and an AI will make space for all, and will leave our freedom of conscience in tact.

2 thoughts on “GA: Civil and Religious Marriage

  1. most thoughtful – the most recent two GA’s I have attended and the one before those I saw on streaming video so I have a great appreciation for the work there and especially for the preparation(s) in advance. From my perspective, your writing is very helpful. I am the spouse of clergy (who was ordained 1980 June 15 in New Jersey, Newark Presbytery.


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