The Significance of an Authoritative Interpretation on Marriage

By Tricia Dykers Koenig

‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ – Matthew 7:7-11

The United Methodist Church made news recently when one of its ministers, Frank Schaefer, was tried in ecclesiastical court because of his choice to conduct the service of worship solemnizing the marriage of his son to another man.  When Rev. Schaefer was found guilty of violating the UMC Book of Discipline and refused to promise he would discriminate against same gender couples in the future, he was defrocked.

A child rightly expects the good gift of love and support from a parent.  Regardless of one’s views on homosexuality, “is there anyone among you” who does not understand the wrenching dilemma facing a father forced to choose between violating a church rule and rejecting the heartfelt request of his child?  The spectacle of some Christians insisting that a father give a stone or a snake to his gay child does not bring honor to the Church of Jesus Christ.

Countless parents have had their longstanding assumptions about homosexuality challenged by the reality of their own children’s lives.  And of course, same gender couples who have no relative in the clergy are just as much as part of the church family as those who are do.  Many Presbyterian ministers are facing the dilemma of being required to choose between a church rule and the well-being of persons they have vowed to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

It has been claimed that an authoritative interpretation of W-4.9000, the marriage section in the Directory for Worship, is an attempt to amend the Book of Order without votes from the presbyteries.  On the contrary, an authoritative interpretation does not aim to amend what the Book of Order says about marriage – there are other overtures that would do that.  An authoritative interpretation simply states that decisions made about pastoral care and worship that do not conform in every detail to the words of W-4.9000 do not necessarily constitute an offense subjecting a minister to discipline.

The requested Authoritative Interpretation follows the reasoning of the dissenting members of the GAPJC in the Spahr 2 decision (Disciplinary Case 220-08, February 2012),  who argued that the Book of Order section on marriage “cannot serve effectively as a judicial criterion.”*

The section on marriage in the Directory for Worship is an attempt to express theological and practical principles to meet differing real-world situations, rather than a set of strict rules;  it was written when the possibility of same gender marriage was not contemplated.  The directory’s Preface explicitly establishes that “this directory also uses language about worship which is simply descriptive.”  

And even some of the provisions with “shall” language are not considered mandatory in practice.  For example:

  • “The man and the woman shall declare their intention to enter into Christian marriage,” yet the section acknowledges that one partner might not be Christian – if the minister fails to elicit from both partners words declaring their marriage “Christian,” has the minister committed an offense? 
  • “In the name of the triune God the teaching elder shall declare publicly that the woman and the man are now joined in marriage.”  If in deference, for example, to a Jewish partner and family, the minister fails to invoke the Trinity, has the minister committed an offense?  If not, what makes “the woman and the man” a requirement and “the name of the triune God” optional? 
  • “Music suitable for the marriage service directs attention to God and expresses the faith of the church.”  Is it an offense to permit Wagner’s Bridal Chorus or a mother’s request for “Sunrise, Sunset”?  

The rule that it is an offense to conduct a marriage for a same gender couple was created by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission.  [Read the history here.]  In response to the pastoral needs of the church, it is entirely appropriate for the General Assembly to issue a different authoritative interpretation – not to amend what the Book of Order says about marriage, but to remove the supposed offense for giving God’s children bread and fish.


*Excerpt from one of the dissenting opinions in Spahr 2:

We respectfully dissent from this Decision [that declared that Janie Spahr had violated the Book of Order by conducting services that were and are legal marriages].

The majority judges this case primarily in relation to the decisions in Spahr (2008) and Southard (2011) in a conviction that, behind its judicial interpretation, there is in the Constitution an explicit basis against officiating in a same-sex marriage. In fact, this conviction rests upon an assumption rather than explicit constitutional rule. It is grounded principally upon one section, even one sentence, in the Directory of Worship, that is claimed to have clear and obvious legal status. The Commission assumes here and in earlier cases that W-4.9001 presents a legal basis for denying the permissibility and validity of same-sex marriage because it presents a “definition” of marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. This assumption is flawed. This provision in the Directory of Worship cannot serve effectively as a judicial criterion.

There are several reasons why W-4.9001 is incapable of bearing the legal significance and weight that the Commission has placed upon it. First, this paragraph emerged decades ago, in a very different time and context. In its language and descriptions, it reflects conventions of a time when same-sex unions presented little, if any, cultural concern or attention… Secondly, W-4.9001 is an introductory narrative for a distinctive, introductory section on marriage, outlining its biblical and theological characteristics as background to provisions of pastoral practice and nurture…To claim that this paragraph is primarily and intentionally legal in nature forces an artificial warp upon its evident narrative purpose. As a fourfold theological outline of Christian marriage in narrative form, in no way is it clear or obvious that it proposes regulatory imperative or legal intention. Certainly, it does not have the kind of language or format that the church has come to expect in definitive juridical statements, the kind of “shall” language that is common to our order in providing regulatory lines for boundaries of action or proscribed behavior.

This is all to say that, in cases such as this one, a determination of offense requires clear demonstration of a violation against Scripture or the Constitution, in which the terms of a mandate are unambiguous and expressly stated. In this case and in the other recent cases, it is strikingly significant to note the absence of arguments upon perceived biblical warrants or directly applicable mandates in our Constitution and the presence of mere definitional bases.

In this case and the other recent decisions, [our] principal concern is that this Commission has forged a standard upon an extremely fragile provision, employing a strained interpretation that does not provide the necessary legal foundation for resolution of our dilemma or foster pastoral guidance in the life of the church. By relying so heavily on W-4.9001, the Commission has ruled upon convention rather than law. The definitive clarity that the church deserves and expects in this continuing and vexatious dispute awaits deeper foundational judgment as well as more precise legislation.


  1. http://Jim%20Caraher says

    Ms. Dykers Koenig:

    As I’ve commented recently on this website, I hope that Covenant Network succeeds with its AI initiative at GA in June. That will resolve the issue in the short run and give pastors the leeway to serve gay couples. However I sympathize with those who complain that the AI will have the practical effect of the GA declaring that the Book of Order doesn’t mean what it says. PC(USA) Presbyterians across the spectrum have to recognize that’s the consequence of trying to function together without a minimal core of shared theological and moral conviction. The only way to stay together is to resort to a patchwork of expediency.

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