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By Jeff Gissing | @jeff_gissing

If you’re curious about what the next five years holds for the Presbyterian Church (USA), look no further than Daniel Saperstein’s recent address “Marriage Equality in the PCUSA” delivered to the Covenant Network’s Regional Conference in Denver earlier this year. While we won’t know for sure that the strategy outlined in Saperstein’s address will be the one pursued by advocates for marriage redefinition, we can assume it will be at least one of a number of strategies employed to shape the debate on this critical issue.

Saperstein considers his proposal modest, a via media between the heterosexism of the right that refuses to allow gay couples to marry and the radicalism of the left that would splinter the denomination into a million pieces. Saperstein’s is a third way: “Instead, we should learn from the success of Amendment 10-A by focusing on amendments that appeal to our historic middle way of creating space for difference while not mandating specific actions.” In other words, each should do what is right in his own eyes. This, at least in the Biblical witness, has generally not worked out well for the People of God.

As Saperstein sees it, liberals in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have used three approaches for creating Constitutional space for same sex marriages. It should be noted that Saperstein’s address focuses on political solutions, perhaps assuming that the bus of theological and interpretive consensus has long left the church.

First, liberals attempted a frontal attack. This involved numerous overtures to amend the constitutional definition of marriage contained in W-4.9001, which recognizes marriage as between a man and a woman.

Second, they have attempted to secure new Authoritative Interpretations (AIs) of W-4.9001, which would “supplant the current set of AIs to permit the performance of same sex weddings.” This approach is less direct, but more insulting. It is, if you will, the “when they said marriage is between a man and woman, they didn’t really mean it” approach.

Interestingly, these attempts often demur to civil law and claim that since, in the context of a wedding, ministers act as “agents of both the church and the state,” where there is a conflict of laws, the minister ought to be able to—for pastoral reasons, of course—choose to give primacy to the civil law.

Lastly, there have been several attempts that “appealed to the history of discretion in the in the provision of pastoral care in the church.” This is the option that masquerades as a decision to “make no decision about marriage,” but in reality is effectively the same as amending the Constitution or issuing a new AI. Saperstein acknowledges that the first and second options are unlikely succeed at the present moment. As much as any other reason, he posits, “[M]any presbyteries do not have the stomach for a showdown on the definition of marriage.” Unfortunately, I think he’s right.

Lest Presbyterians get queasy in discussing such a “third rail” topic as same sex marriage, Saperstein offers a political path of least resistance. That solution is to advocate for the Assembly to “affirm the definition [of marriage] as NORMATIVE but not BINDING” (capitals in the original text).

Perhaps the most compelling reason, at least for liberals, to choose this way is that it allows liberals to, “leave unchallenged the theological assumptions of the right regarding natural law, gender complementarity, and creation while creating space for accommodation of other relationships within the broad scope of divine grace and compassion” (emphasis mine). The “theological assumptions” to which Saperstein alludes do, after all, have a long established pedigree within the Christian church. To challenge them head on places the liberal caucus in the position of advocating the revision of almost the entire history of Christian reflection on human sexuality and marriage. That history, while certainly not perfect, should be formative in our church’s present engagement with shifting culture mores on this matter.

Such evasive strategies have been front and center in the tactics employed by revisionists to corrode the church’s teachings. Why question whether or not a belief in the virgin birth of our Lord is an “essential of the reformed faith” when you can simply claim that this simple phrase attempts to capture a mystery so great that definition fails?

Why even alter the definition of marriage in W-4.9001? This is too overt. It is not sufficiently subtle to make it past the scowling countenance of heterosexists across the denomination.

Instead, amend W-4.015a on the rights of the pastor as worship leader by adding the following provision:

Teaching elders, and ruling elders commissioned to pastoral service shall have the freedom to exercise discretion regarding the conduct of worship as pastoral care except where explicitly proscribed in this Constitution. The exercise of this freedom may not infringe on the session’s responsibility to control the use of church facilities and to authorize the celebration of the sacraments, or the presbytery’s responsibility to validate and oversee the ministry of the Word and sacrament.

This carefully worded provision is explicitly designed to overturn the existing AIs and functionally amend the Constitution while appearing, in its plain sense, to do no such things—precisely as 10-A did. Saperstein notes, “Do you see the words ‘same-sex’ or even ‘marriage’ in this overture?” No and those words were not in 10-A either. He continues, “It is not about that, although it would create space in most presbyteries to allow same-sex marriages to be performed under the protections it guarantees.” This provision is about pastoral discretion in the same way that poll taxes and literacy tests were about assessing taxes and testing the ability to read.

Functionally, this provision could potentially require case-by-case review of the appropriateness of every pastoral duty a minister undertook. If Presbyterians “don’t have the stomach” for a fight over gay marriage, they assuredly have no desire to spend presbytery meetings reviewing and ratifying every marriage a minister member is to perform.

It seems clear to me that ideology has been moved to the back burner of the liberal agenda or, at the very least, been placed immediately behind political expediency. This, perhaps, explains one of the key reasons evangelicals have been steadily losing ground in the Presbyterian Church (USA). In their very heart, evangelicals are idealistic. We are not prone to compromise what we believe to be clearly and unambiguously taught in Scripture and supported by the weight of evidence in the Christian tradition.

Unlike Saperstein evangelicals are unwilling to say, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Perhaps we should be since with every passing General Assembly our agenda is changing from renewal to rearguard action. In the next five years, the Presbyterian Church (USA) will effectively change its Constitution and probably not even realize it—thanks to the Machiavelli of the PC(USA).