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ADJUSTMENT: Participants sing the final hymn at Opening Worship at the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA).
Michael Whitman
ADJUSTMENT: Participants sing the final hymn at Opening Worship at the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA).

Historic leave-taking

News

Issue: "Fighting fatalism," July 12, 2014

DETROIT—The Presbyterian Church (USA)—in a move long expected but nonetheless momentous for the 1.8-million-member denomination, the nation’s sixth largest—approved full endorsement of same-sex marriage with passage of two overtures on June 19.

First, the commissioners voted to approve an Authoritative Interpretation of the constitution, giving PCUSA pastors discretion to conduct same-sex ceremonies in states where the practice is legal. The results were not close: 371 (61 percent) to 238 (39 percent). This action goes into effect immediately.

Next, the assembly approved an amendment to the Book of Order, changing the definition of marriage from “a woman and a man” to “two people.” This vote was even more lopsided: 429 (71 percent) to 175 (29 percent). The amendment now goes out to the denomination’s 172 presbyteries for ratification, a process that normally takes a year.

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Coming after a long period of debate on the floor of the Assembly and an even longer period of debate within the denomination, the historic nature of the vote was not lost on participants and observers alike. 

During the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s and 1930s, Princeton Seminary professor J. Gresham Machen wrote in his book Christianity and Liberalism: “We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.”

As Donald Fortson, professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary wrote in response to the General Assembly’s June decision, “These words penned almost a century ago are a fitting summation of what transpired last week.” 

Machen’s warnings against liberalism culminated in his suspension from Presbyterian ministry in 1936, which led to the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He led the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. Later turning points came with the PCUSA’s “Confession of 1967,” which said, “The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. … The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding.”

Alarmed by the new view of Scripture, the Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC) formed to sound a warning, and—refused advertising space in denominational periodicals—bought full-page ads in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, protesting the “obscure language” making it “possible to rationalize almost any point of view the reader seeks to establish.”

After the vote in Detroit, the PLC board published a “letter of repudiation,” calling the PCUSA decision “an abomination.” They urged Presbyterians to voice dissent and refuse to financially support the denomination. “We have arrived at the place where the original members of the Lay Committee warned about,” current PLC president Carmen Fowler LaBerge said. “The PCUSA has set itself as an authority above the Scriptures in determining for herself what is and what is not sin. She has sided with those who want the liberty to live as they so choose and in so doing, she has set herself in opposition to the revealed will of the Holy God.”

The PCUSA has lost over 500 congregations since 2007. The decision in Detroit is likely to escalate the rate of exits, leaving the General Assembly perhaps devoid of conservative voices to oppose further flights from orthodoxy.

Laymen and political leaders took note too. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., spoke against the same-sex marriage endorsement as “a lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church (USA)” in a June 24 speech on the House floor. 

“I feel increasingly alienated from this rich faith tradition, which includes John Witherspoon, the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence,” Wolf noted. “It has long been clear that our culture is in the throes of a seismic shift on this issue,” he said, “But perhaps most troubling is that increasingly this is happening within the church itself, which has historically served a bulwark against the cultural whims of the day.”

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