The Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) is the largest branch of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. It is headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, has 2.5 million members and 11,200 congregations, and 21,000 ordained ministers. Like all Presbyterians it follows Reformed Theology and uses a Presbyterian form of church government. John Calvin refined protestant thought during the Protestant Reformation to develop Reformed Theology, which was brought to Scotland by John Knox. The first presbytery in the US was organized in Philadelphia in 1683 by Rev. Francis MacKemie; and since then the Presbyterian Church has split into many smaller branches.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) was created by the reunification of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS), the so-called "southern branch," and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), the so-called "northern branch in 1983, which had been separated since the Civil War.

Positions on Social Issues

Abortion/Problem Pregnancies:
The General Assembly (central governing body) agrees that there are no biblical texts that speak expressly to the topic of abortion, but feels that the bible is filled with “messages that advocate respect for the woman and child before and after birth”. Areas of general agreement:

  • Church members with differing views on the subject should all be welcomed and heard.
  • The issue of abortion and problematic pregnancies covers so many different situations that it is impossible to address them all.
  • The church affirms the ability and responsibility of women together with the Holy Spirit, Scriptures, and their community, to make moral choices in connection to problem pregnancies.
  • All efforts should be made to reduce problem pregnancies and the number of abortions.
  • Termination of a pregnancy can be morally justifiable especially in the case of rape, incest, risk to the health (including mental) of mother or child, or risk of severe physical or mental deformity
  • Abortion should not be used as birth control, for gender selection only or solely to obtain fetal parts for transplantation.
  • There should be no law completely banning abortion, or removing funding for abortions for woman who cannot afford them otherwise.
  • It is important that a woman should have true choice regardless of her social situation, and it is important to the Christian Community address poverty, unjust societal realities, sexism, racism, and inadequate supportive relationships that may render a woman virtually powerless to choose freely.
Capital Punishment:
The PCUSA is opposed to the death penalty as being un-Christian and “an expression of vengeance which contradicts the justice of God on the cross."

Homosexuality:
While the church supports giving equal legal rights to homosexuals in society, the repealing of laws governing private sexual behavior between consenting adults and other discriminatory legislation or practices, and includes language welcoming homosexuals into the church and condemning homophobia, the church does not allow same sex marriages, and is still in the process of removing language from the Book of Order which prevents gays and lesbians from being ordained as elders, deacons or ministers. The language requires church officers to practice "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness," was criticized by many not just because it prevented the ordination of homosexuals, but also because it would place the private lives of the officials under investigation. The 213th General Assembly voted to remove the language, and it now going to be sent to the presbyteries for approval.

For more information check out the PCUSA webpage: www.pcusa.org, and the Book of Orders

The Presbyterian Church (USA) and Homosexuality

Present Policy

As SophiesCat notes in its excellent writeup, the present debate in this Presbyterian denomination is not over general church membership, it is about whether homosexuals may be ordained to the clergy or to lay ministry. However, the statement that the church "...is still in the process of removing language...which prevents gays and lesbians from being ordained..." is misleading; the trend, overall, where it matters, seems to be against doing so. More on this later.

Aside from biblical references (whose validity is being questioned by some contemporary Christians), there are two documents which relate to the ordination of homosexuals in the PCUSA. The first is in the Book of Order (the church's constitution), from a section detailing the "Offices of Ministry". (Emphasis added.)

G-6.0106 Gifts and Requirements
a. To those called to exercise special functions in the church--deacons, elders, and ministers of the Word and Sacrament--God gives suitable gifts for their various duties. In addition to possessing the necessary gifts and abilities, natural and acquired, those who undertake particular ministries should be persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship, and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world. They must have the approval of God's people and the concurring judgment of a governing body of the church.
b. Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
Part B is known colloquially as the "fidelity & chastity amendment," and was adopted by the General Assembly in 1996. For the sake of quibbling, we should note that this requirement does not actually forbid the ordination of homosexuals (that is, those who are attracted to people of their own gender); it forbids the ordination of (among others) those who by habit engage in homosexual intercourse.

Prior to 1996, ordination of homosexuals was still effectively prohibited by an "authoritative opinion issued in 1978 stating essentially the same policy: "persons who are unrepentant of homosexual practice are not eligible for ordination."

Factions

The most visible pro-gay-ordination faction is the "More Light Presbyterians" (www.mlp.org). From a statement on their web site: "More Light Presbyterians envisions that Christian sexual ethics marked by covenantal fidelity shall be the standard for all Presbyterians, irrespective of sexual orientation."

The most visible anti-gay-ordination factions are "The Presbyterian Coalition" (www.presbycoalition.org), a coalition formed in 1993, and "The Presbyterian Layman" (www.layman.org), a magazine promoting conservative issues in the church. They claim that both tradition and reasonable Biblical interpretation prohibit such a policy.

As one would expect, presbyteries in highly urban areas tend to support homosexual ordination, while more rural presbyteries tend to oppose it. It's exactly the same effect as in American politics: the big cities voted for Al Gore. I intend no insinuation about Mr. Gore's sexuality.

Rumble!

The "fidelity & chastity" amendment has had a rocky life since its adoption in 1996. After being adopted by the General Assembly, it was ratified 97-74 by the presbyteries. In 1998, the year after it had been finally approved, the General Assembly voted to remove it, but the presbyteries voted 114-57 to keep it in.

The 2001 General Assembly again voted to remove it (317-208), and to remove the 1978 authoritative interpretation, thus reopening the possibility of gay ordination. Additionally, it voted to add a sentence to section G-6.0106a of the Book of Order as follows: "suitability to hold office is determined by the governing body where the examination for ordination or installation takes place, guided by scriptural and constitutional standards, under the authority and Lordship of Jesus Christ"--effectively ceding denominational authority to the mores of each presbytery.

Preliminary surveys and scuttlebutt suggest that these measures will again be defeated by the presbyteries, which are overall consistently more conservative than General Assembly.

Where To?

Although debates remain relatively civil, it's difficult to forsee any easy resolution of this issue, in which, arguably, the underlying issue is the limits of biblical criticism and interpretation. It seems likely to me that at this point, if either faction wins a truly decisive victory, the other will leave the denomination...perhaps to the relief of both.

Sources / More Reading

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