LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Christian Examiner) – The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) has formally approved recognition of gay marriage in its denomination, continuing the group's leftward drift away from biblical Christianity.
Leaders of the 1.8 million-member denomination voted to approve changes to its doctrinal statement on marriage in its Book of Order at its 221st General Assembly last year. That decision, however, required the vote of the presbyteries nationwide.
According to a vote tally provided by the PCUSA, 86 presbyteries voted in favor of updating the PCUSA's statement on marriage. Forty-one presbyteries voted against the change.
In a video statement from the Office of the General Assembly, a denominational spokesman said the approval of the new language "allows Teaching Elders wider discretion in whose weddings they may conduct and Sessions wider discretion in whose weddings it may host. That discretion could include same gender marriages in states where that is permitted."
"It is important to note that the determination of what couple a Teaching Elder will marry has and will continue to be with that Teaching Elder. Likewise, the determination by a Session as to whose weddings a congregation will host remains solely with the Session. There is nothing in the amendment to compel any Teaching Elder to conduct a wedding against his or her judgment, nor a Session to host one against its judgment," the spokesman also said.
The spokesman also said church members should exercise "forbearance" with those with whom they disagree, as well as show respect and care for others as they live out "this chapter of our common life."
Until this year, the PCUSA's statement on marriage in its Book of Order said marriage is "a civil contract between a man and a woman" and a "covenant through which a man and a women are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship."
The new statement on marriage, however, removes references to marriage as a form of discipleship and exclusively as a covenant between a man and a woman. It now reads 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 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."
Importantly, the new statement on marriage in the PCUSA's Book of Order also relaxes teachings on pre-marital counseling, in which the church wishes to assure that at least one person in the marriage is a Christian. It also removes instructions for a minister to exhort the husband and wife with biblical references to marriage during the marriage ceremony.
The PCUSA approved the ordination of openly-gay ministers in 2011 after a long debate within successive General Assemblies. The action further fractured the denomination, which has been hemorrhaging members for more than a decade as a result of its stance on homosexuality and gay marriage.
In 2005, the PCUSA reported its membership rolls at 2.3 million. That number dropped to 2.1 million by 2008 and 1.9 million by 2011 when the group began allowing the ordination of homosexuals.
The denomination is also suffering financially. Revenues supporting its programs have declined by $200 million since 2009. If the downward trend continues, the PCUSA could be spending more than it takes in by 2016. More than 400 churches have already disbanded or left the denomination for more conservative homes.
The move of the PCUSA to allow same-sex marriage follows the trend of other mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church in the USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church, both of which allow individual churches to decide whether or not to conduct gay marriages. Both also saw a significant decline in membership after the decision to recognize same-sex marriage.