Doug Nave
Covenant Network of Presbyterians Regional Conference
First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York
May 11, 2013

Marriage is in trouble.  Although recent statistics show a bit of improvement, almost half of all marriages in the U.S. still end in divorce.  Nearly half of young adults cohabitate before marriage, for growing periods of time, and it appears that they are increasingly doing so as an alternative to marriage.[1]  Couples in Europe also are abandoning marriage in droves; the marriage rate has declined by 36%, while the divorce rate has roughly doubled, in recent years.[2]  And if that weren’t bad enough, the people who seem to want to get married the most – gay and lesbian people – are those who the church seems to think will discredit marriage, enough to demoralize the declining numbers of straight people who still want to be married themselves.

So we debate, and litigate, and vote, and have conferences like this one – all meant to figure out what went wrong and how to make it right.  The trouble with all of this, it seems to me, is that it looks very much like the blind men and the elephant.  You know the story:  six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. The blind man who felt a leg said the elephant is like a pillar; the one who felt the tail said the elephant is like a rope; the one who felt the ear said the elephant is like a fan; and so forth.  They could not agree, because none of them really understood what they were dealing with.

I have to digress for a moment, and note a variant of this story that tells how six blind elephants decided what a man is like.  The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, “Men are flat.”  After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.

But back to marriage.  The first problem with all of our debates is that we’re like the blind men and don’t really understand what it is we’re talking about.  The second problem is that we don’t really know what we want to do with it.  The church has grabbed the trunk and concluded that the elephant is too small to hold everyone, while it seems that some gay and lesbian people want to climb on board because they have no idea how big it really is.  Many straight people stand behind it, have seen what a mess it can make, and simply want it to go away.

As a modest first step in taming the elephant, I’d like to spend a few minutes this afternoon discussing what marriage really is, what the church actually does in a marriage ceremony, what it should do, and why.  Then we will turn briefly to some very practical considerations about what the law of the Presbyterian Church permits its pastors and sessions to do now.  I will finish with a few remarks that try to move us back from the legal nitty-gritty to the bigger picture.


It would be helpful, at the outset, to understand what marriage actually is, and how it has been understood in our tradition.

For much of human history (including the biblical era) marriage was essentially a property arrangement.  The husband owned his wife (often many wives) and insisted on monogamy (with each) in order to ensure that he actually sired the persons who inherited his property.  Marriage also was considered important, obviously, because it produced offspring who could help hunt for food, till the fields, and defend against hostile tribes.  This property-based perspective on marriage continued largely unchanged for millennia.

Matters gradually changed as Christian doctrine developed.  Paul and other New Testament writers took a rather jaded view, that marriage is essentially a pragmatic accommodation to human frailty.  A number of New Testament texts emphasize that women are to be subservient to their husbands, and that marriage should be avoided unless a person is so driven to have sex only marriage can provide a respectable outlet.

The Christian community began to develop a higher view of marriage around the fifth century.  That’s when Augustine suggested that marriage might actually be a sacrament – that is, a sign of the indissoluble union between Christ and his church, and a means of grace for the participants.  The Roman Catholic Church eventually adopted this view in the twelfth century – seven hundred years later.  (And we think things move slowly in the Presbyterian Church!)  However, despite its high-minded theology, the church also kept what we might consider a rather mean view of marriage.  It taught that sexual activity is a necessary evil, and that the primary goods of marriage are procreation and the taming of concupiscence.  Love held very little sway in the scheme of things.

Debate raged around the church, in these centuries, about whether marriage should really be considered a sacrament at all, as it involves the evils of sex.  Interestingly for us today, while the church throughout this period taught that sexual activity is essentially bad, that did not stop the church from performing weddings.

Matters changed in the Protestant Reformation, particularly with John Calvin.  He taught that marriage is a covenant, and that the essence of the marital bond is love and companionship.

The concept of covenant resonates deeply with Scripture, which tells the story of God’s covenantal faithfulness and steadfast love for the people of Israel.  The prophets in ancient Israel often used marriage metaphors to describe the relationship between God and the Chosen People.  This central theme, of God’s faithfulness, finally culminates for all humankind in the redemptive life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

This is the model that the Protestant churches chose for their understanding of marriage – steadfast love, fidelity, and sacrifice.  Calvin’s views won a large following; ever since, covenant and companionship have remained the dominant conception of marriage in our theology.  The idea that marriage is a covenant, providing for a lifetime of companionship, also paved the way for the Protestants’ later-developed belief that sexuality is good and that contraception is permissible.

And what of love – romantic passion and all that?  Historians tell us that people did not really begin to marry for love until the late 1700s, and that a belief that love is the fundamental basis for marriage did not win widespread acceptance until the last 100 years or so.  Today we accept without thinking that marriage is meant to serve the emotional and practical needs of a couple who ground their vows in strong affection for each other.  But that is a very new idea – almost as radical, perhaps, as the notion that gay and lesbian people might get married.


The belief that marriage is a covenant, established between two people who love each other, has implications for what the church does in a wedding.

•           First, the couple themselves decide whether or not they should be married – not the church.  Most pastors will counsel a couple, and a pastor who doubts the wisdom of a marriage may decline to perform it.  However, the couple remain free to decide whether or not they will marry, so long as they fulfill the legal requirements established by the state.

•           Second, if a wedding is done, the minister does not “marry” the couple – rather, the couple establish the marriage themselves, in their exchange of vows.  The pastor invokes God’s blessing on the couple, the congregation witnesses the vows, and both pastor and congregation undertake to support the couple in their new life together.  The minister also typically acts as an agent of the state, declaring that a couple that have obtained the necessary license under state law are married.  But the marriage is actually established when the spouses-to-be exchange their vows with each other.

In short, the church plays a somewhat minor role, celebrating and supporting the marriage, but not actually authorizing or creating it.  This is nothing new; in fact, it is consistent with most of our history.[3]

In ancient Israel, at the time of Christ, marriages were negotiated between families and celebrated in a community feast that lasted roughly a week.  Nothing was done in the temple or synagogue; no priest or rabbi officiated.  It was a family affair.

The church had no official role in the establishment of marriages for roughly the next 800 years.  Christians married pursuant to secular laws and traditions, usually in a family ceremony and without any special church involvement.  Clergy were sometimes invited by powerful families to bless the couple, but they were essentially guests rather than officiants, and the blessing was more of a favor than a rite.

The predominant rule in this period, when the Roman Empire peaked and then went into decline, was that marriage was established by private consent, either of the spouses themselves or of their parents.  A second tradition emerged as Germanic tribes began to expand from northern Europe.  They believed that a marriage was established only when the husband and wife had their first sexual intercourse.  The Roman Catholic Church, throughout this 800 or so years, accepted the existence of marriages under both systems.

The church began to assert more control over marriage around 1000 AD, when Europe had entered the Dark Ages and no central government was strong enough to govern very effectively.  People increasingly looked to local church authorities to resolve practical matrimonial disputes – when a child must accept an unwanted spouse arranged by the parents, when a marriage could be abandoned, when children were legitimate, and who was entitled to inherit property.  As the secular authorities faltered in answering such questions, bishops in various places began to assume some degree of control over the establishment and dissolution of marriages.  However, the church apparently found it difficult to choose between the Roman and Germanic traditions.  It therefore adopted both, and made ratification and consummation (consent and sex) the church’s two main prerequisites for marriage.  Thus the church generally came to define “marriage” according to secular rules, not Scripture.

The first recorded marriage ceremony that is identifiably “Christian” was introduced only in the eleventh century, when it was decreed that all weddings must be held in a church building before a priest.  This decree was driven essentially by practical, rather than religious, concerns:  people needed to know with certainty when a marriage had been established.  And the Roman Catholic Church finally established a standard wedding ritual only in the late 1500s.

The Protestant Reformation marked the beginning of a decline in church control of marriage.  The Reformers rejected the Roman Catholic claim of authority to declare when a valid marriage exists.  They returned to the more traditional view, that the requirements for marriage are established by the state.  Likewise, the Reformers believed that a marriage is actually created by the persons who join each other in matrimony.

Marriage was a focus of church life in the Protestant communions for several centuries, even with these more limited perspectives.  However, by the end of the 1800s, most countries had adopted laws enabling people to establish marriages before the civil magistrate, without any involvement of the church.

So what are we to take from this brief history?  Simply this:  for most of its history, the church has not claimed the power to decide who could be married or to establish the marriage itself.  The Roman Catholic Church eventually adopted views that placed it squarely in control of matrimony, but that view was rejected by the Protestant Reformers – including the Presbyterians.  Recognizing this may lessen some of the pressure we feel in trying to decide whether the church should permit people to be married or not – in our historic practice and theology, that is not a decision that the church makes when it celebrates a marriage.  Likewise, a faithful recognition of what the church does do in a wedding may help us to be more generous in deciding what it should do.

A well-known story from Scripture suggests how the church might find its best and truest role in marriage:

There was a wedding in Cana, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples had also been invited.  The wine gave out, and the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Now standing there were six stone water jars . . . each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.  He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”  When the steward tasted the water it had become wine. . . .  The steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”  (John 2:2-10).

This is a story many of us loved as children (I remember asking my father how he could square his longstanding opposition to drink with a story about Jesus the Brewer).  It  shows Jesus at a traditional wedding feast, doing what the church does today – witnessing and celebrating a couple’s commitment to each other.  The story doesn’t tell us how he felt about the drunkenness of the guests – and surely there must have been some of that, if all of the wine was gone.  Nor does it tell us how Jesus felt about the family’s shortfall in planning – that is, their failure to meet society’s expectations.  What it does tell us is that Jesus graciously helped the family avoid what could have been awkward or embarrassing.  He generously entered into the spirit of things, and helped the couple and their parents capture all the joy of the occasion.

Lengthy commentaries have been written about this story, and we unfortunately don’t have time to explore its riches as deeply as we might.  However, two points merit our special attention here.  First, we are told that Jesus had some doubts about what his participation in the wedding might mean for the church’s witness – he told his mother that his hour had not yet come.  But he overcame those doubts, setting aside concerns about “propriety” in a gracious desire to help others be happy and start life together on the right foot.  And this was not niggardly or reluctant participation.  The story tells us that Jesus was extravagantly generous, providing perhaps 180 gallons of the very best wine to be had.

It seems to me that this story might give guidance to the church as it struggles with whether or not it will celebrate same-sex marriages.  The church does not authorize or establish these marriages – it is like Jesus, a guest whom the couple have honored with an invitation to come and share in their moment together.  Will the church be gracious, contributing to the joy of the families and offering the best it can?  Or will it be censorious and withdrawn, insensitive to an awkward situation and unwilling to do what it can to promote a happy future for the couple?  Will the church ask itself, in other words, what would Jesus do?


Some believe that the church can’t celebrate same-sex marriages because, in doing so, it would be approving relations that violate God’s fundamental design for humanity.

This objection is more than a bit selective.  When we bless heterosexual marriages, we do so knowing that sometimes the spouses will sin – given human frailty, that is a virtual certainty.  Moreover, we don’t deny marriage to heterosexual couples simply because they intend to live in ways that some of us might believe are wrong – for example, because they plan to dedicate their lives to becoming fabulously wealthy, or have decided not to have children they are capable of having.  When we single out gay and lesbian persons, and make their sexuality an issue, we run perilously close to hypocrisy.

In fact, there is a lot of research showing that many married couples have sex with decreasing frequency as they become more familiar to each other and other bonds and interests come to the fore.  If the church wants to persuade gay and lesbian people to stop having sex, perhaps the surest way is to encourage them to get married!

But there is a more fundamental point.  After 30 years of painful division and debate, the church has reaffirmed its historic conviction that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” and that we owe each other mutual forbearance in matters of disagreement that do not go to the very core of the faith.[4]  The GAPJC recently declared that there is “a vast diversity of interpretation of scripture and the confessions regarding human sexuality” and that “[s]uch thoughtful disagreement among reasonable and faithful Presbyterians is itself an important and faithful part of the Reformed tradition.”[5]  As it considers the prospect of same-sex marriage, the church must acknowledge that faithful Presbyterians differ in their understanding of what Scripture permits or requires, and that pastors and congregations should be free to follow their own, biblically-led consciences in this area.

There clearly is room for good-faith disagreement about what Scripture might teach us here.  In fact, the Bible holds up a wide variety of sexual ethics:

•           David and Solomon, heroes of the Old Testament, both had multiple wives and concubines – and there are strong indications that David also had a passionate affair with Jonathan that almost certainly was as loving as any couple ever had.

•           The Song of Solomon celebrates the late-night liaisons of a young, unmarried couple who evade their families to spend time together – and they weren’t playing backgammon.

•           The story of Ruth celebrates a woman who was married but in a passionate relationship with another woman.

•           Jesus appears to have endorsed marriage in one place (Mark 10:2-9) and told his followers to reject their spouses and families in another (Luke 14:26).

•           Paul and the other writers of the epistles variously condemn marriage, accord it grudging respect, or hold it up as a positive good.

In short, you know one thing about people who say that the Bible’s sexual ethics are clear:  they haven’t read the Bible.[6]

Moreover, we have recognized that we cannot read discrete verses – whatever they might appear to say – in a vacuum.  Rather, we must read all of Scripture in light of the redemptive message of the Gospel, and with an understanding of the text’s historical context.  Thus the church has adopted various positions, in light of its growing discernment, that are very difficult to square with selected “proof texts.”  For example:

•           We permit the use of birth control, and celebrate the marriages of people who are incapable of having children, despite the command in Genesis 1:29 that humankind is to “be fruitful and multiply.”

•           We amended the Westminster Confession in the 1950s to permit divorce and remarriage, even though Scripture appears to condemn this (Mark 10:2-9).

We’re all familiar with the five or six “proof texts” that opponents of same-sex relationships typically cite – and we all know how these verses can be interpreted more hospitably.  Rather than dwelling again on those, let’s focus on a text that comes up especially often in debates about marriage:  the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2.  Some believe that these stories require that marriage be limited to the union of a man and a woman.  Genesis 1 tells us that “God created humankind in his image . . . male and female he created them . . . and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Gen. 1:27-28).  Genesis 2 tells us that “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

Clearly there is a design here – but that design need not exclude same-sex relationships.  These texts may well address the preponderance of (heterosexual) humanity without addressing people with a same-sex orientation at all.

An analogy might help to make the point.  Suppose someone says that “Cars are built to run on the highway.”  That statement reflects what happens most of the time – it is true, as far as it goes.  However, that doesn’t mean that all cars are meant to run on the highway.  Some cars are built to run on race tracks, and others are specially equipped for off-road use.  The car companies usually produce a small number of each model to preserve in museums.  The statement that “cars are built to run on the highway” is true for perhaps 95% of cars, but not for all of them.

Simple experience and observation tell us that just as not all cars are built to run on the highway, most people are heterosexual – and some are not.  Heterosexual people are an understandable focus in Genesis 1 and 2 because these stories were intended to relate truths about the origin of creation (not sexual ethics) and they were told in terms that most people would readily understand.  However, these stories do not exclude the possibility of other stories, about other people, who are equally part of God’s created order.

Andrew Sullivan has written that the general design for a productive earth does not preclude the activity of a generous God who also plants wildflowers among the wheat.[7]  And so it is:  to say that fields are meant for wheat does not mean that wildflowers are any less a part of the created order, or any less beautiful and worthy of celebration.

There is one text in the Genesis accounts of creation that we cannot overlook.  Genesis 2:18, alone in both accounts, tells us what God said in evaluating all that had been created:  “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  If we are to consider the Genesis accounts in assessing the validity of same-sex marriage, surely this text must carry significant weight.

Likewise, if humankind is meant for relationship, then surely the church should support people in their efforts to create that.  Clergy bless armies, whose primary goal is to help people kill people.  Clergy bless our legislatures, which may produce unjust policies arising out of manipulation and horse-trading.  Why can’t clergy bless two people who are simply trying to love each other?


Perhaps the church can find in itself the simple grace and generosity to celebrate with those who unite in same-sex marriages.  But even if it cannot do that, there are other reasons why the church should want to celebrate these marriages.

We are all familiar with the story of the adulteress whom the angry crowd brought to Jesus, ready to stone her for her sins (John 8:1-11).  Jesus challenged the crowd, declaring that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone, and the crowd dispersed.  Then Jesus told the woman to “go and sin no more.”  It’s a splendid story, but I don’t think the account that comes down to us is complete.  One wonders what happened next.  The woman was now homeless, cast out by her family and townspeople, bereft of support.  And when Jesus told her to “go and sin no more,” I imagine her immediate response must have been, “Go where?”

It’s a question the church must take seriously, when it tells gay and lesbian people that they must not pursue a committed relationship.  Where, exactly, does the church think they will go?  Scripture warns repeatedly about the dangers of singleness for people who do not have the gift of celibacy, and there is no more reason to think that all gay and lesbian people have that than to think that all heterosexual people do.  Perhaps, in withholding recognition of marriage, the church is simply driving people into egregious ways of living, and withholding opportunities for them to grow in the sanctification that comes through a committed lifetime partnership.

As important as what happens to gay and lesbian people is what happens to the institution of marriage when the church withholds its support.  Traditional understandings of marriage are under extraordinary pressure these days.  If the church wants to help shape the contemporary discussion about marriage values, it must recognize the relationships in which those values might be expressed.  Otherwise the church simply has no place at the table, and little voice in the values that might emerge.

Let’s talk briefly about two things that the church traditionally has regarded as fundamental to marriage – monogamy and permanence – and how those are viewed today.

A traditional hallmark of marriage is monogamy; the church has taught that the intimacy and unity of marriage require that the spouses have sex only with each other.  That seems a rather sensible view, but it is coming under increasing fire – not only from gay and lesbian people, but from heterosexual people as well.[8]

Some gay couples, in particular, place little value on monogamy, and vest true importance in the emotional exclusivity that will protect their lifetime bond.  They deliberately negotiate rules that permit sexual activity with others but ensure that such activity will not threaten their couple.  In doing so, they seem to have moved beyond the “pegs-and-holes” mentality of so much church debate, to a more mature focus on the emotional commitments that really make relationships work.  The soundness of such arrangements might be questioned and studies show that, in practice, many couples find non-monogamy to be very challenging.  However, this kind of arrangement is viewed by many in the gay community – by no means all – as an acceptable option.

Engaging with a community that has such a broad range of ethical options can involve unique challenges, much as work in foreign missions can do.  In its last official statement about the theology of marriage, the Presbyterian Church stated that it sometimes might be appropriate to relax its insistence on fundamental sexual ethics where doing otherwise might make Christian outreach impossible.[9]  But that is not the only option.  If the church truly engages the gay and lesbian community with the promises and challenges in more traditional understandings of marriage, that might prove to be transformative in the sexual ethics and lives of those whom the church touches.  That in fact is a prospect that worries some who oppose gay marriage because it threatens to make promiscuity less acceptable (for both those who choose to marry and those who don’t).

My point in raising this is not to suggest who is right (or wrong); it is simply to ask whether the church has anything to contribute to the conversation.  Are we “just good friends,” as theologian Elizabeth Stuart put it a few years ago?  Do we believe that we should replace the church’s “idol” of marriage with an “all-embracing model of friendship” because “acts of physical intimacy have no inherent meaning” and “passion no longer has need of formalized boundaries”?[10]  Or does the church have a different vision about what self-giving in marriage might entail?  Is monogamy important?  If the church is unwilling to acknowledge and celebrate loving, same-sex marriages, it is simply making itself irrelevant to the conversation, withholding its guidance from many who might otherwise welcome and benefit from its insights.

Or let’s consider permanence, another traditional hallmark of marriage.  With roughly 50% of all marriages ending in divorce, that is not the widely respected requirement it once was, but most people still want marriage to last.

Dorothy Tennov, in an influential book, coined a word that has become part of psychologists’ standard understanding of love.  That word is “limerance” – the initial period of enchantment (even obsession) when someone is first falling in love.  Dr. Tennov writes that limerance rarely lasts very long; it is sometimes prolonged if a couple encounters great obstacles or uncertainty, but most of the time it lasts only about two years.  Dewey-eyed adoration turns into steely-eyed appraisal and, if the couple is lucky, the declining enchantment of the early days is replaced by a deeper, more sustainable commitment.[11]  But what do a couple do if they believe all the popular stories, that giddy enchantment and ecstasy should last a lifetime?

I think we know that the answer may well lie in marriage – the making of a commitment, supported by the community, that enables a couple to grow together in a maturing and sustainable bond, despite the inevitable flaws they will discover in each other, the challenges they may face, or the attractions they might find elsewhere.

Alain de Botton, a popular philosopher of daily life, has suggested that we would all be better off if we adopted marriage vows that actually reflect what a lifetime together might well be like.  His proposed vows go like this:

“I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone.  I promise to make you the sole repository of my regrets, rather than to distribute them widely through multiple affairs. . . .  I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to.”[12]

This isn’t terribly new.  Benjamin Franklin likewise counseled people to “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, and half shut afterward.”

What do we do with such counsel?  We laugh, because we recognize the element of truth in it.  But we know that marriage provides an indispensable aid to life together.  Jo McGowan has written that:

“Marriage is one of those peculiar things (like God!) which make immense demands on us while simultaneously giving us the strength to meet those demands. . . .  There are times when love fails, and in those times, many people just take a deep breath and stay married because they are married.  And when they come through to the other side, their marriages are stronger and more firmly rooted in love.”[13]

So the church should care about same-sex marriage – and not simply in a censorious, exclusionary way, but in a supportive and celebratory one – because in marriage a couple can seek the guidance of the church and find the resources needed to model their lives around the covenantal fidelity that is so central to all of Christian faith.  What could be more worthwhile than that?  What could be more gracious and generous and loving?  What, indeed, could be more Christ-like?


The Presbyterian Church recently has engaged in a serious and sustained debate about whether its pastors may perform same-sex marriage ceremonies and, relatedly, whether sessions can permit such ceremonies in their church buildings.  Our rules are unclear.

I think it is most helpful to start with a recognition that the rules we have come from Section W-4.9001 of the Directory of Worship, which defines what “marriage” is.  Lacking many specific rules about what is and is not permitted, the church courts have placed heavy reliance on this definition.  Their decisions are only somewhat helpful, because the courts have issued numerous opinions that contradict each other.

The church does seem to be clear about one thing:  Our Directory of Worship has a specific definition of “Christian marriage,” and it is important to avoid any confusion about the status of a same-sex relationship in the eyes of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Under Section W-4.9001, a “Christian marriage” may be formed only between “a man and a woman.”

What does this mean for the pastor and session when a same-sex couple want to unite in the church?

1.         First, church law makes clear that the pastor can lead a service of worship to celebrate what everyone acknowledges is a same-sex union.  The GAPJC has held that such services can extend appropriate pastoral care in recognizing, supporting and celebrating an important transition in life.[14]

2.         That said, it is clear that the pastor cannot lawfully perform such a ceremony in a manner that might mislead the couple or the congregation into thinking that a “Christian marriage” is being formed in the eyes of the Presbyterian Church.  Confusion must be avoided.  How is that best done?

Most importantly, I counsel pastors to include a clear statement, at the beginning of the service or perhaps in the bulletin, that says something to the effect that “Though we wish it were otherwise, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not regard the relationship we celebrate today as a marriage.  However, we will seek God’s blessing on this couple, and support them in their life journey together, just as we bless and support all couples who are married in this church.”

It seems difficult, given such a clear statement, for anyone to say that the ceremony caused any confusion about what the PC(USA)’s position is.  At the same time, we try to make this clear with enough grace and generosity that it is not hurtful to the couple being united.

Other things also might help reduce the risk of a challenge, if the parties want to be on the safe side.  In particular, confusion about the church’s position can be minimized if the pastor and the couple develop a liturgy that doesn’t sound a lot like a traditional marriage service.  This is a place where our vaunted creativity as gay and lesbian people can be put to good use.

A pastor who officiates at a wedding often does so not only as a religious leader but also as an agent of the state, with authority to declare that the couple is married under the civil law.  What a pastor can do in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage is a bit controversial.

I believe that a pastor is permitted to officiate at same-sex wedding ceremonies in those states.  The church recognizes that marriages are authorized by the state – not the church – and in declaring the existence of a civil marriage the pastor is simply stating a fact.  If the pastor could not do so, we would be back in the age of Galileo, insisting that Christian faith requires the denial of an obvious truth.  Again, however, the pastor must make clear that the PC(USA) does not recognize the relationship that is being formed as a “Christian marriage.”

This is a debatable view – there are some who believe that church law prohibits a pastor from participating as an agent of the state at any same-sex marriages, even where state law permits them, and regardless of the clarity with which Presbyterian doctrine is stated.  However, the church’s law in this area is based on the definition of “marriage” in our Directory of Worship, and that definition simply doesn’t address the possibility of same-sex marriage where state law allows it.

To the extent it says anything that might relate directly to same-sex relationships, the Directory of Worship declares that “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family.”[15]  That declaration appears to permit same-sex marriages, not to exclude them.  If it doesn’t do that, then W-4.9001 is simply silent about state-sanctioned same-sex marriages, and longstanding Presbyterian polity leaves to individual pastors and sessions how they might best extend pastoral care to their members.

A few guidelines should be followed if the pastor is celebrating a same-sex marriage in a state that allows them:

1.         First, the pastor should pronounce the relationship that is being celebrated as a “marriage” – not a “Christian marriage.”[16]  That is not to reflect on the character of the couple’s relationship, but is simply to avoid creating any confusion about the Presbyterian Church’s position regarding same-sex unions generally.

2.         Second, and in a similar vein, the pastor should not declare a couple married “in the name of the triune God” (as the Directory of Worship provides).  Rather, the pastor should declare the couple married “under the laws of the State of New York” (or wherever the ceremony is being held).

3.         Third, confusion may be avoided if the pastor and couple have developed a liturgy that does not closely follow the traditional marriage service.

4.         Finally, it may be helpful if the pastor notes in the church’s wedding register that what has been performed is a “civil marriage.”

These are just suggestions, and there are continuing efforts at General Assembly to obtain greater clarity in this area.  One hopes that soon the need for such cautions will disappear – discernment across the church is growing, just as it is in society at large.  In the meantime, the critical point to remember is that these steps are not taken to disparage the couple that is uniting in a same-sex marriage.  They are simply the church’s effort to witness clearly to its doctrinal convictions as a church.[17]  Such principled clarity now, while the church seeks new discernment, ultimately may enable the church to speak with greater clarity and conviction to everyone who needs to hear the more gracious and inclusive word that will surely come.


Every night when we go to bed, my partner and I snuggle together in an intimacy that has become so familiar it seems like second nature.  We’re older now than when we met, and sometimes we seem to be mired in routine. Sometimes we’ve had a hard day – minor arguments, small disappointments, a sense that our well is less refreshing than it used to be.  However much we love each other, and we do, fifteen years take their toll.

I know that many in the church, staunchly opposed to same-sex partnerships, think our relationship is dead as dust and wish it would simply blow away.  The church has not been much help to us very often – but the great teaching to which the church might aspire has been of help.  As I snuggle together with my partner, I think I hear somewhere in the back of my mind a bustle of activity and jangling of jars – the Master at work in the kitchen, generously celebrating our love with us and supporting us in our life together, still making water into wine.

Doug Nave

Doug Nave, a member of the Board of Directors of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, is an attorney who has argued numerous cases in Presbyterian Church courts for LGBT equality.



[1] US Dep’t of Health & Human Services, National Health Statistics Reports: First Premarital Cohabitation in the United States:  2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth (April 4, 2013), and First Marriages in the United States: Data from the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth (March 22, 2012).

[2] European Commission, Marriage and divorce statistics ( (07/05/2013)).

[3] Among helpful surveys of the history of marriage are Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking 2005); and Kieran Scott & Michael Warren, eds., Perspectives on Marriage: A Reader (Oxford Univ. 3rd ed. (2007)).

[4] Book of Order §§ F-3.0101, F-3.0105.

[5] Rem. Case 220-10, Parnell v. Presbytery of San Francisco (GAPJC slip op. April 29, 2012).

[6] For a general survey of the sexual ethics found in Scripture, see Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire (New York: HarperCollins 2011).

[7] Andrew Sullivan, Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality (New York: Knopf 1995).

[8] The wide range of perspectives from which monogamy has come under critique can be seen, e.g., in Elizabeth Brake, Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality and the Law (Oxford Univ. 2012); David P. Barash & Judith Eve Lipton, The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People (New York: W.H. Freeman 2001); and Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (New York: Free Press 1999).

[9] Marriage: A Theological Statement, PCUS, Minutes, Pt. 1, pp. 174-187 (1980), reprinted as Appendix 4 in PC(USA) Office of Theology & Worship, Christian Marriage in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): A Six-Week Study, p. 32.  These study materials are available online at

[10] Elizabeth Stuart, Just Good Friends: Toward a Lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships (London: Mowbray 1995).

[11] Dorothy Tennov, Love and Limerance: The Experience of Being in Love (New York: Stein & Day 1979).

[12] Alain de Botton, How To Think More About Sex (New York: Picador 2012).

[13] Jo McGowan, Marriage versus Living Together, in Scott & Warren, Perspectives on Marriage, pp. 97-101.  For another very good discussion, see Margaret Farley, Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing (New York: HarperCollins 1990).

[14] Rem. Case 212-11, Benton v. Presbytery of Hudson River, Minutes, Pt. 1, pp. 586-589 (2000) (citing Directory of Worship § W-6.3010).  The GAPJC affirmed this again in Disc. Case 218-12, Spahr v. PC(USA), Minutes, Pt. 1, pp. 330-336 (2008).

[15] Directory of Worship § W-4.9001 (emphasis added).

[16] Disc. Case 220-08, Southard v. PC(USA) (GAPJC slip op. Feb. 6, 2011).

[17] The importance that the church courts attach to potential misrepresentation of the church’s doctrine has been emphasized in several recent decisions.  See Disc. Case 220-08, Spahr v. PC(USA) (GAPJC slip op. Feb. 20, 2012); Disc. Case 221-02, PC(USA) v. McNeill (GAPJC slip op. Oct. 28, 2012).