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 " 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."


The most visible pro-gay-ordination faction is the "More Light Presbyterians" ( 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" (, a coalition formed in 1993, and "The Presbyterian Layman" (, 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.


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