The Right to Marry “in the Church”?

February 28, 2012

The third major area of concern for folks desiring to see the PCUSA allow its pastors to perform same-sex weddings is a mixed bag, but I will tackle it as I originally summarized it:

3.  The definition of marriage found at W-4.9001 denies homosexuals their rights as full members of the PCUSA. Judicial precedent barring gays from marriage injures individuals and interferes with the church’s dialogue about how to celebrate the lives of homosexual people.

The first question that arises is this one: with “full membership” in the PCUSA, does one secure the right to be married by a Presbyterian pastor? No, church membership and the expectation that one would be married by a teaching elder are not connected by anything official in the Book of Order. Pastors like me have married countless couples that are not members of the congregation. It is possible that a session might create such a rule, if they enjoy a high demand for ceremonies; but there is nothing in the Book of Order that confers the rite as a right automatically upon membership.

Even couples who are members of the local congregation are not guaranteed by right to be married in their home church. The pastor always retains the discretion, after pre-marital screening and/or counseling, to respectfully decline to conduct a wedding for pastoral reasons. I have been in this awkward position only twice in 25 years of ministry, but when faced with too many red flags, the best thing I could do was decline to do the wedding and urge the couple to get in-depth counseling in order to sort out the difficult issues that emerged.

The claim that a heterosexual prerequisite to marriage injures homosexual people is more a symptom of spontaneous contusion than it is the moral failure of the church to provide pastoral care. It is part of the vocabulary of same-sex marriage proponents to attribute violence to those who would deny them marriage. Nothing of the sort is intended or inflicted by me or any person I know who is opposed to gay marriage. Ah, but you might say injury is in the eye of the beholder, to which I would reply: then it must be self-inflicted injury, because by holding to a biblical view of sexual relationships I am not hitting you. Just this afternoon, walking down the cluttered aisle of a craft store, my arm hit some shelving jutting out from the wall. Nobody did that to me; I hardly did it to myself (certainly not consciously); but it happened as a natural consequence of not walking within the safe parameters of that aisle. Homosexual people should be far more concerned about the injuries they inflict upon themselves and partners due to unnatural physical contact that damages body tissue, promiscuity even when in a declared “monogamous” relationship, not to mention the hardening of heart that occurs when one habitually disobeys God and teaches others to do the same. One must be very careful which aisle one walks down.

The prophetic ministry of the church that calls all people to godliness, obedience, and sexual purity arises out of concern for the spiritual welfare of people who must face God at judgment. I know it is not a welcome comment to make, but it was not my idea. Jesus himself out of love for those to whom he ministered warned them of the judgment to come and gave them the opportunity to repent. If uttering such a message is injurious to my gay readers, then their issue is with God directly. Presbyterian ministers are called to minister the grace and truth of the gospel to all people and have agreed on the basics of how to do this, as described in part by W-4.9000.

The grace of the gospel is expressed in tender care in times of illness, a willingness to hang out and talk at teachable moments, the practical aid all people need at one time or another, in short, sharing humanity and aspiring to godliness as it is contoured for us in the Scriptures. The truth of the gospel outlined in previous paragraphs does not diminish the love with which it is shared. Pain and heartache that result from godly decisions is a special kind of suffering that goes with dying to self. Jesus took our injuries upon himself, and many a saint since has counted it a privilege to share in his sufferings. We offer pastoral care to one another when we weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice, sigh in perplexity, and gasp at the mystery of God’s sovereignty. We celebrate together when our Christ-likeness becomes visible and tangible in everyday life. This is pastoral care at its best. May we receive it in the spirit in which it is given.

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3 Responses to “The Right to Marry “in the Church”?”

  1. Truth Tolife Says:

    God defined marriage, not the Book of Order. (“Therefore a man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife …”) By the same token “judicial precedent” does not “bar” anyone from marrying. Gays have the same opportunity to marry as anyone else–if they conform thier desires and conduct to God’s commands and seek union with the opposite sex. Indeed, what is injurious to both individuals and the church is calling righteous that what God has called sin. While we should certainly celebrate life–indeed, even the lives of sinners, the church should not celebrate sinners as they wallow in sin and give blessing to thier conduct.

  2. Viola Larson Says:

    Mary,
    Thank you for being so clear. I know this is not an easy subject to write about. True love by a Christian means telling the truth both to the sinner and to the culture. In some decades not an easy task. True Christian love encircles the sinner with love and care which includes telling them that Christ wants to transform them to new creatures.

  3. Jim Berkley Says:

    Irony: The blog-supplied advertising video at the end of your post featured Ellen DeGeneres. I think they need to work on their ad-matching software!

    Great post. You said it rightly and you said it well.

    I get very tired with the whining about “violence,” when someone has merely disagreed in a polite and civil way–even a caring, thoughtful way. Sometimes, it seems, particular people act like a cheap characature of themselves, reinforcing the reason for the stereotype in the first place. The stereotype would at the outset seem unfair, were it not so spot-on accurate at times.

    Jim Berkley
    Roslyn, WA

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