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The 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be remembered for its approval of same-sex marriage, but its most lasting effect may be the decisive victory of proceduralism—the displacement of substantive consideration by parliamentary process in the service of prevalent opinion. The church’s reliance on legislative procedures produces, but decisions do not necessarily signify agreement. Presbyterians are divided on a number of important matters, but proceduralism overrides differences by simplifying issues, hastening legislative decisions, and producing winners and losers.

Marriage and the Church’s Constitution

The last two decades have marked a dramatic shift in American public opinion about the place in American society of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. Many polls show a growing majority of Americans approves of same-sex marriage, and so it comes as no surprise that the Presbyterian General Assembly does as well.

What is (mildly) surprising is the two-fold way the General Assembly acted—first by an authoritative interpretation of the church’s constitutional definition of marriage as between “a woman and a man,” and second by a proposed amendment to alter the constitutional definition. The PCUSA constitution is composed of two parts: The Book of Confessions (eleven historic and contemporary creeds, confessions, and catechisms) and the Book of Order (rules and guidance concerning governance, worship, and discipline). Oddly, the current Book of Order defines marriage as “a civil contract between a woman and a man” before going on to state that, “For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship . . . a lifelong commitment made by a woman and a man to each other, publically witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.” In the PCUSA constitution, marriage as a generic, civil contract precedes and encompasses what marriage means for Christians.

The General Assembly adopted an authoritative interpretation of existing constitutional language concerning marriage between a man and a woman by providing in part that “when a couple requests the involvement of the church in solemnizing their marriage as permitted by the laws of the civil jurisdiction in which the marriage is to take place, teaching elders have . . . the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform.” In this way, the lengthy authoritative interpretation, which now has the force of church law, declares that “a man and a woman” is to be understood as “a couple,” thus making church “involvement” in same-sex marriages possible in states where it is now legal. The constitution’s definition of marriage as a civil contract gives the interpretation a loose legitimacy, for when civil contracts concerning marriage change, the church’s identification of marriage as a civil contract is open to change as well.

The Assembly also recommended an amendment to the constitution, subject to approval by a majority of the church’s 172 presbyteries. The proposed amendment deletes the newly interpreted stipulation that marriage is between a man and a woman [now meaning “couple”], replacing it with “Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” The proposed amendment gives a nod to “traditionalists” who continue to believe that marriage is to be understood as a union of a man and a woman, by specifying that ministers and church sessions cannot be compelled to perform or authorize a marriage service if they believe it is “contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.”

Legislative processes at Presbyterian general assemblies are complex, making possible the dual approach of authoritative interpretation and constitutional amendment. Authoritative interpretation immediately authorizes ministers to perform and sessions to approve same-sex marriages in states where it is legal, while the Assembly simultaneously proposed permanent authorization through constitutional amendment. Even in the unlikely event that the proposed amendment fails to achieve approval by a majority of presbyteries, the authoritative interpretation’s re-definition of marriage will remain. (Ironically, opponents of same-sex marriages may prefer the amendment to the interpretation because it provides more explicit protections for ministers and congregations that will not perform them.)

Lost in the struggle over “marriage equality” is Presbyterian incoherence about what marriage itself is. The old Book of Order language—“a civil contract between a woman and a man”—accompanied only by prescriptions about how weddings should be performed, effectively tied the church to the state. Apart from unelaborated references to “covenant” and “discipleship” the Book of Order has had little to say about the deep meaning of marriage.

Perhaps that is why the Presbyterian campaign for same-sex marriage ignored the catastrophic breakdown of marriage itself in American society. More and more couples consider marriage unnecessary, undesirable, or unenduring, while the dramatic increases in children born to and reared by single mothers is now prevalent across all demographics. Romantic love has long been the primary cultural reason for marriage, both inside and outside the church, but once “making love” was replaced by “having sex,” marriage became a mere “lifestyle choice.” Same-sex marriage is likely to be as optional and unstable as marriage between a man and a woman, yet the Presbyterian Church took no notice, and simply decided to make a threatened ritual available to same-sex couples.

Nearly forgotten in the Assembly’s deliberations was the first part of the church’s constitution, The Book of Confessions. Marriage is explicitly addressed in the sixteenth century Second Helvetic Confession, twentieth century amendments to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Confession of 1967; all assume that marriage is only between a man and a woman. The church’s confessions are not intended to be mere museum pieces, artifacts of what people used to believe long ago and far away. The Book of Order itself states that in its confessions “the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do,” and requires that all ordered ministers vow to be “instructed, led, and guided” by the confessions, and to “receive and adopt” their essential tenets. The disjunction between The Book of Confessions’ understanding of marriage and proposed authoritative interpretations and amendments to the Book of Order was quickly dismissed, however, by parliamentary rulings that the first part of the constitution is only advisory, and so the Assembly was free to interpret and amend the constitution’s second, binding part.

Incongruously, the General Assembly also voted overwhelmingly to recommend amending The Book of Confessions by adding the Belhar Confession. Belhar emerged from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and has provided Reformed churches worldwide with a powerful statement of the ecclesial commitment to racial inclusion, justice, and church unity. Commissioners were vocal in their conviction that the adoption of Belhar would declare to Presbyterians and to the world “who and what [the PCUSA] is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do.”


The church’s Mission Responsibility through Investment Committee (MRTI) brought to the General Assembly a recommendation that the PCUSA divest all holdings in Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions because they “profit from non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine.” MRTI’s rationale for the recommendation made it clear that divestment is but one form of consistent Presbyterian disapproval of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, its settlements policy, the separation barrier, roadblocks, and demolitions.

Numerous Presbyterian ministers and congregations opposed divestment even though they too disagree with Israel’s policies, including settlements, the separation barrier, and attendant treatment of Palestinians. They contend that General Assembly’s action to divest its holdings in the three companies would be interpreted as “divestment from Israel,” would harm Presbyterian-Jewish relations, and would do nothing to affect Israel state policy or aid movement toward a peaceful settlement. The Assembly voted 310-303 to divest, a seven vote margin (the 2012 Assembly voted not to divest by a three vote margin!).

The PCUSA has long been committed to socially responsible investment of its considerable financial resources, including the refusal to invest in hundreds of companies deriving revenue from alcohol, tobacco, and gambling. Over the years, MRTI has recommended divestment and/or proscription of holdings from forty-one major producers of weapons and equipment for military use, the largest global tobacco companies, for-profit prisons, and companies that manufacture land mines and handguns. Most, if not all of MRTI’s previous recommendations were general in scope, specifying categories of manufactured products, and were readily adopted by the General Assembly.

The divestment proposals before this General Assembly were different, aiming not at broad product lines, but explicitly at the sale of specific products to the government of Israel. Divestment from Caterpillar was not recommended because it manufactures farm and construction equipment, but because some Caterpillar products are used in the construction of settlements and roads, and in the demolition of Palestinian buildings. Divestment from Hewlett-Packard was not based on its production of information technology, but on the use of some HP products by the Israeli navy in its blockade of Gaza. Divestment from Motorola Solutions was not based on its manufacture of communications systems and cell phones but on its sale of products to the Israeli government.

It is not surprising, then, that the divestment proposals, together with supporting overtures from several presbyteries, were interpreted by many Presbyterians and Jews, as well as news media, as “divestment from Israel.” This impression was strengthened by the presence on the Assembly agenda of at least ten proposals regarding the political situation in Israel/Palestine, including proposals to review GA policy in support of a two-state solution (adopted) and to require that educational and liturgical materials contain disclaimers that “the biblical land of Israel” and the modern political state of Israel” are not the same (not adopted). Representatives from American Jewish organizations were present at the General Assembly, joining many Presbyterians in pressing the case that divestment would harm relationships between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Jewish community, and would jeopardize many long-standing local church-synagogue partnerships.

The issue before the commissioners was complex, encompassing judgments about Israel’s policies regarding Palestine, Israel’s need for safety and security, the plight of Palestinians, the volatility of Arab state opposition to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, Presbyterian-Jewish relationships in the United States, and the wisdom and effectiveness of divestment as a policy to express political judgments. All of this was reduced to the stark proposal to vote yes or no on divestment from three companies. In the end, there was no agreement in the church, only a decision . . . by a seven vote margin. And yet, reliance on generic parliamentary procedure in addressing important, complicated, contentious moral issues in the church now presents a narrow decision as the church’s agreement.

A second divestment proposal was before the General Assembly, calling for the immediate implementation of a process of phased divestment from “the fossil fuel industry,” based on “a profound concern about the destructive effects of climate change on all God’s creation.” The proposal was intended to bypass the MRTI process by initiating divestment immediately. An Assembly committee recommended that the proposal be referred to MRTI for inclusion in its more deliberative process . . . by a 30-29 vote.

Calls for divestment as the way to express moral indignation are likely to multiply in coming years. The General Assembly’s use of divestment to address the specific political issue of Israel/Palestine, and the broad call for “fossil fuel divestment,” provide precedents that may encourage similar proposals in the future, some of which will attempt to bypass the normal process in which divestment is the last option in a process of corporate engagement. Placing divestment proposals before the General Assembly as proposed legislation, to be voted yes or no, excludes wider theological and social discussion, and minimizes consideration of ancillary consequences. Whether the decision is to divest or not to divest, the possibility of wide agreement on the divestment strategy itself is circumvented.

Legislative Excess

The PCUSA is now experiencing its fourth schism in seventy-five years. The disagreements that produced these denominational splits were not caused by proceduralism, but they were exacerbated by it. This year’s dramatic General Assembly decisions are likely to lead to the departures of more congregations, ministers, and members. But even without further fragmentation, additional damage has been done to the fabric of common faith and life.

Ecclesial agreement on contentious cultural issues is difficult to achieve, of course. It is virtually impossible to achieve when the church deals with complex issues on cultural and societal grounds, employing generic parliamentary means of decision-making. It is true enough that, in the end, churches must make decisions, and that, for Presbyterians, decisions will be made by democratic processes. But the church should work to develop chastened democratic procedures, shaped by the nature of Christian community, including a patient desire to forebear one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:2-3). Among the needed reforms is provision for protracted theological and moral study in congregations, presbyteries, and general assemblies before central issues of Christian faith and life are to be voted on in a general assembly.

There is more to be said, and there is no self-evident, simple solution to the evident problems of Presbyterian proceduralism. Even so, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) must begin the hard work of finding solutions, or consign itself to congregational indifference and continuing schism as winners and losers go their own ways.

Joseph D. Small served as director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology and Worship from 1989 to 2011.

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