The nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination voted by a large margin Thursday to recognize same-sex marriage.
Delegates meeting in Detroit at the 221st General Assembly of the 1.8 million–member Presbyterian Church (USA) voted 371-238 to allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages wherever legal, and 429-175 to amend the definition of marriage in its constitution.
The order to pastors is effective when the assembly adjourns, while the constitutional changes require approval from a majority of 172 regional presbyteries, which will vote on the change over the next year. The amendment says marriage can be the union of “two people,” not just “a man and a woman.”
Alex McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians, an LGBT activist group, called Thursday’s action “an answer to many prayers.”
Thursday’s vote wasn’t surprising. Since a 2011 vote to ordain pastors in open homosexual relationships, 428 of the mainline denomination’s more than 10,000 churches left for other, more conservative Presbyterian denominations or dissolved. With the potential for further backlash, PCUSA officials issued a letter to pastors telling them to remember that God is in control and “to take seriously our charge to bestow … grace and love on one another.”
The Presbyterian Lay Committee, a conservative group within the PCUSA, denounced Thursday’s vote as “an abomination,” calling for a financial boycott of any PCUSA arm that fails to denounce the assembly’s actions. The assembly “committed an express repudiation of the Bible,” the committee stated. “God will not be mocked and those who substitute their own felt desires for God’s unchangeable Truth will not be found guiltless before a holy God.”
Outnumbered conservatives at the PCUSA General Assembly issued strong warnings as well. Bill Norton of the Presbytery de Cristo, which covers parts of Arizona and New Mexico, urged the assembly to delay any changes: “We are laying hands on something that is holy, that God has given us, so we need to be sure any changes we make are in accord with God’s will revealed in Scripture.”
But the Presbyterian Lay Committee said Scripture was missing throughout the process. The marriage amendment, for example, doesn’t mention the marriage-gospel metaphor in Ephesians 5. Rather, the denomination affirmed that the “sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.”
Pro-homosexuality activists proclaimed their view of the Bible to the media. Nathan Sobers, an elder with a PCUSA church in Seattle and a member of More Light Presbyterians, has been in a relationship with a man for 27 years. “The gospel is about fairness,” Sobers told USA Today. “His message was about love, about celebrating God’s love for everybody, not just for those who are like me, but for everybody.”
Conservative evangelicals responded to Sobers with Scripture. “Nothing in the New Testament is more clear than when Jesus stated that God’s intention for marriage from the beginning is that it would be one man and one woman for a lifetime,” said Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Also Thursday, 78 percent of the PCUSA General Assembly struck down a resolution condemning the killing of babies born alive during abortions, as occurred with notorious abortionist Kermit Gosnell. Initiated by the South Alabama presbytery, it called for inclusion of pro-life Presbyterians and an investigation into doctrinal and financial support of abortion. Dissenters cited pro-abortion stances, while others noted past affirmation of viable babies and reservations in commenting on criminal cases.