Church Divided By Change in Gay Marriage Doctrine

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First Presbyterian Church. Photo by Page Graham.

Since its inception by the Puritans, what is now known as the Presbyterian Church (USA) has usually found itself to be a sacred house divided, and events in San Antonio only perpetuate that divide.

In the 19th century, the Church was torn in two by the issue of slavery. In recent years, LGBTQ rights have been the focus of discontent. Most recently, gay marriage has become the key divisive issue. Despite official denials, that very issue is the likely cause now for a legal battle initiated by First Presbyterian Church (FPC), located in downtown San Antonio at 4th and Alamo streets.

What has been accepted nationally by the Church, in sum, is not being accepted in San Antonio.

In 2014, the Louisville-based Presbyterian Church (USA) changed its official doctrine to define marriage as a covenant between “two people,” as opposed to the long-standing doctrine that marriage was a covenant between one man and one woman.

Gay marriages are now permitted in their churches in states where it is legal. Last March, Mission Presbytery (a structure similar in nature to a Catholic diocese) – of which FPC is a member – also amended their Book of Order, adopting the more contemporary doctrine.

Not surprisingly, this fundamental shift has not been without dissent among congregations and church leaders, especially in the more conservative Southern states and cities. San Antonio has been no exception.

First Presbyterian Church. Photo by Page Graham.

First Presbyterian Church. Photo by Page Graham.

In open letters to the FPC congregation, it has been made clear that First Presbyterian Church leaders oppose this doctrinal shift. In addition, most of the congregation opposes sanctioned gay marriage ceremonies.

A survey of First Presbyterian members was undertaken by Galloway Research last November, asking whether the church should remain in the PC(USA). Gay marriage was not explicitly stated as the wedge issue, but everyone knew that to be the case.

In an open letter, congregation leaders Tripp Stuart and Kirk DeKoch stated, “On January 12, 2015, the Church Relations Committee presented the results of the congregational survey to the Session. The survey results reflected that 59% of our members favored leaving the denomination; 22% favored staying in the denomination; and 19% were undecided.”

Furthermore, the church has decided to maintain previous doctrine. The open letter states, “In anticipation of the passage of the change to the Book of Order, the Session of First Presbyterian Church adopted a Wedding Policy at its February 9, 2015 meeting, which reaffirms and restates the views of this church that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

A historical marker tells the history of the church. Photo by Page Graham.

A historical marker tells the history of the church. Photo by Page Graham.

This isn’t the first challenge to PC(USA) authority, which has seen numerous defections over the years. During the Civil War era, the denomination was divided over the issue of slavery. Most Southern churches left to form their own denomination, now known as Presbyterian Church America (PCA). More recently, other denominations, including Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) have been formed because of dissent over other church doctrine.

Since it has been the subject of defections, Mission Presbytery formulated a Gracious Separation policy for churches that decide to leave. Ultimately, the Presbytery allows the church to leave and retain its property, but the following process must be met by departing churches:

  • A financial review of financial records for the last year by a public accountant. (As of March 2015, the church is declaring a $78,922 operating loss in its magazine.)
  • Three appraisals of the property.
  • A tithe of all assets, equal to the percentage of the congregation who voted not to disaffiliate, but no less than 10%, to be paid within 60 months.
  • If the amount owed to Mission Presbytery is not paid, all assets revert to the presbytery.
  • All other outstanding debts must be paid before the congregation leaves.
First Presbyterian Church property comprises two city blocks. Its ownership is in dispute. Image courtesy Google Maps.

First Presbyterian Church property comprises two city blocks. Its ownership is in dispute. Image courtesy Google Maps.

Although FPC officials publicly deny any link to gay marriage or leaving the denomination, a decision was made by FPC leaders to bring the legal process into the fray. A temporary restraining order was sought and issued by state district court Judge John Gabriel this week against Mission Presbytery in the matter of ownership of FPC property. Essentially, FPC is asserting ownership over the property it occupies.

However, Mission Presbytery has a “trust clause” concerning ownership of property, according to Ruben Armendariz, acting head of staff and associate executive presbyter, Mission Presbytery.

According to Armendariz, the General Council of Mission Presbytery held an emergency meeting last Sunday to formulate a response to the injunction. There is a May 26 deadline for a response from Mission Presbytery to be provided to the court.

Although recent decisions on the part of FPC leadership may reflect the will of the current congregation, it doesn’t necessarily mesh with those who are moving into the fast-growing neighborhoods around it.

“Millennials reject a Church that to us seems outdated, overly political, anti-homosexual, anti-science, doubtless, power and cash obsessed and generally hypocritical,” stated Fr. William Eavenson, Jr. lead pastor for student ministry at The Mission Chattanooga in Tennessee, in a previous Rivard Report article.

Needless to say, this is a nasty and complex fight. It is a battle over church doctrine, which permits gay marriage ceremonies – but it does not force anyone to actually perform them. Piling on with the issue of money and property ownership only adds to the ugliness. Ultimately, there will be no real winners or losers, but a lot of dirty laundry that has been hung out for all to see.


*Featured/top image: First Presbyterian Church. Photo by Page Graham.

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27 thoughts on “Church Divided By Change in Gay Marriage Doctrine

  1. As a gay man I would never even consider getting married in any kind of church or religious institution. I do not want to be associated with the blood all religions have on their hands.

  2. A couple of corrections. Presbyterianism in the United States traces it’s roots to John Calvin and the Swiss Reformation though Scotland and the reformer, John Knox not the Puritans. The Puritans were English congregationalists working to purify the Church of England.

    The southern church formed during the Civil War became the PCUS not the PCA. The PCA split off in 1973 over the issue of women’s ordination.

    This current fight is less about gay marriage and more about the overall theological drift of the PCUSA. As a denomination, it looks less and less like a church in the tradition of Calvin and Knox and more like the religious wing of the Democratic party.

  3. I became aware of a lawsuit yesterday, but details have not been revealed. COM generally meets there, but has been moved to San Pedro, so there is no whiff of impropriety. I’ve asked if the Stated Clerk could give us a report within bounds of confidentiality. Seems to me that should not be a problem since the suit is a civil not ecclesiastical one.

  4. As a fellow Presbyterian, and as a parent whose kids were cared for by their excellent early childhood center, this article makes me very sad.

    The boundary of Mission Presbytery stretches from Austin to San Antonio to the Valley. I was filled with joy when we voted to ratify last year’s General Assembly measure. This was not merely a decision forced upon us, but one that was willingly accepted.

    As a ruling elder, I have attended various Mission Presbytery meetings. I noticed a disturbing trend a few years ago, as First Pres seemed to be laying the groundwork for leaving the denomination. The focus of their debates seemed to foreshadow a future decision. Whether it was arguing over the meaning of ‘quorum’ or arguing against the wishes of a valley church that was closing (the property was being returned to Presbytery), they always seemed to take a view beneficial to them vs. the denomination.

    It saddens me that some of their members have chosen to ignore the overall theme of last year’s General Assembly – “we are stronger together.” Rather than even trying to build consensus within their own congregation, First Pres is choosing to press forward (I would say, “backward”) with a lawsuit.

    First Presbyterian is choosing division over love, which is very unfortunate, and ultimately… unwinnable.

    • Rob,

      Actually, First Presbyterian Church’s claim to its property is quite winnable. There’s been a flurry of legal activity in Texas concerning local control vs denominational control recently. Beginning with the Episcopal Diocese in Ft Worth. The entire diocese is leaving the Episcopal Church. Their case went to the Texas Supreme Court which came down firmly on the “neutral principles” side vs deference to ecclesiastical authorities. That case is remanded to the district court for rehearing, but it’s fairly clear the new TX Supreme Court ruling favors the diocese.

      First Presbyterian Houston just won a district court ruling declaring it owns its property. As with all law, it depends on the facts of the case. If a church’s deed clearly states the congregation owns the property, and if the church’s incorporation documents in Texas do, also, the local congregation is most of the way there. So long as a higher ecclesiastical body didn’t provide the money to start the church or build the building.
      There is no such thing as an “implied trust” in property law–in Texas, at least.

      And finally, First Pres San Antonio did own its own property from its inception until 1983, when the northern and southern recombined and accepted the northern denomination’s “implied trust” ownership of property by the denomination. With a 7-year period for church’s to opt out and declare local ownership. Which a number did–including First Pres in Mission Texas.

      I’m going to assume the leadership of FPC SA is totally aware of everything I’ve said, on top of the legal issues, and is on a course to bullet proof its property ownership before doing anything else.

      Tome Walters
      Ruling Elder
      FPS Seguin

      • I feel I need to clarify my statement. What I meant by “ultimately unwinnable”, is that while First Pres may indeed win in the legal sense, they are losing focus on the Mission of the Church. We should be a welcoming people giving hope to all. When we fail to do this, we become irrelevant in the world… and we have “lost”.

        First Pres has done so many great things in the past, that it amazes me that the idea of love between two people feels so threatening to them that they would take this risk.

  5. I used to be sad to the point of tears over churches wanting to leave PCUSA. Now, I look @ it as a metaphor of a bad marriage & believe those who want to leave need to be able to do so with graciousness & good will. However, some of those churches refuse to leave in that manner & want to “hide” the assets & fight to the death over custody. To mix metaphors they
    are taking the schoolyard behavior as big bullies into the realm of using their considerable assets to get their way. Gay marriage is NOT the issue & church doctrine isn’t either, since the church session CAN refuse the use of space & the Pastor CAN refuse to officiate.

  6. A few facts are wrong here. The denomination that split off during the Civil War was not PCA, but the PCUS. That denomination merged with the UPCUSA in 1983 and together they formed the PC(USA) discussed here. The PCA, which this article false claims left over the issue of slavery, actually broke off from PCUS in 1973, over a century after the Civil War. Since that denomination is thriving and is fairly vocally opposed to racism, I imagine its members would not be too pleased that this article has mislabeled them.

    I realize that those outside of the Presbyterian Churches probably don’t care about our internal squabbles, but if you see fit to write about them, it might be best to show us the basic respect of getting your facts right.

    • Presbyterian Church history is inordinately complex due to the many squabbles its various factions have had over the years. The historical information was included to provide context to the current situation. In fact, the Presbyterian Church has more than enough history to fill one or more college courses.

      If some of the facts are incorrect, please accept my apologies and my appreciation for your setting the record straight.

  7. Very sad that our denomination which was known for tolerance and intellectual pursuit is falling apart over issues of intolerance and judgement. Maybe First Pres is too concerned with appearance and physical plant to have time to minister to its people or even realize who its people are?

  8. I’m thankful that there are enough people around who understand God’s word and will choose to abide by it. As far as the PC(USA) is concerned, good riddance!

    • Unfortunately, most people are following superstition and ignorance of man’s misguided attempt to interpret God’s word. Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and everything about how wrong divorce is. The old testament only says having sex with idolic sex workers is wrong if you want to be a rabbi, as equally eating shrimp, wearing clothes of mixed fibers (cotton/poly), and women going outside when they have their period. Unfortunately we hear nothing of the real important things. Soon these aging churches will die away.

      • Ignorance is assuming that Jesus, a Torah-observant Jew, would sanction any sexual relationship outside of “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,
        and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?
        So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

        • I don’t understand this obsession with gender and sex. This passage (from Ephesians) seems to me to focused on the importance of PERMANENT, loving relationships, and therefore is more about condemning divorce than anything else.

          I can remember when a major criticism of “the gay lifestyle” was the assumed promiscuity of it. To me, marriage is the opposite of promiscuity; it is about loving commitment, and should be nurtured and encouraged for everyone. Having experienced the benefits of having a wonderful wife for 20+ years, I see it as hurtful to deny others the same privilege.

          Jesus himself said that “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Under that standard, most congregations include many “adulterers” who endure little, if any discrimination. What is the big difference? I don’t see one. The real issue isn’t about sex; it is about commitment. If people of whatever gender want to form a loving family, we should celebrate and support it.

          One last note: I have been a Presbyterian PC (USA) Elder for thirty years. Acceptance of gay leadership in our denomination is a fairly recent development. There were many years that many PC (USA) congregatiocns strongly disagreed with the disenfranchisement of and discrimination against our gay sisters and brothers. We are still here. I hope that the good folks at First Pres will stay, too. It is all about commitment.

          • Discrimination against sinful acts is itself an act of rescue. Jesus not only identified the genesis and context of marriage; He became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. Our new identity is Christ, not sin.
            Would it have been OK for the Corinthian man and his stepmother to be in a sexual relationship if they were committed to each other? “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”
            We cannot follow Jesus and celebrate sin at the same time.
            Our sin nailed Jesus to the cross.
            And, yes, that includes breaking our marriage contract, greed, gossip, gluttony, cowardice, etc.
            Are these a cause for celebration, or of mourning?
            Could being committed to them make them alright in the eyes of God?
            Please reconsider your position for God’s sake, and for the sake of children who are sexually created and have a right to their own mother and their own father.
            It is easy to oil the “squeaking wheel”, but please come to the aid of children who are now being called “haters” because they want their own mother and father.

  9. Thank you for your willingness to run, and research, a timely, important – albeit complicated and controversial – commentary on the struggles within one of our city’s oldest, beloved, congregations; common challenges within the Christian faith’s diverse communities; and with significant implications for faith’s “incarnation” in changing human institutions and ecclesiastical/political processes.
    I’d rather have your extensive history and context-setting reporting, and run the risks of a few minor mistakes, than live with the superficial-skimming or rhetorical-bombast of too much that passes for journalism today.
    One of the ‘correctors’ accurately, to a point, reminded us that it was not the PCA, but rather the PCUS that split off in 1861, to protest the abolition of slavery. What was not also said was that the PCA’s 1973 split was explicitly to prohibit the ordination of women to leadership roles in their new Presbyterian denomination: denying women’s sense of “God’s call,” and denigrating their gifts, skills and commitments.
    Yes, we – all of us, even Presbyterians – are changing. Yes, I’m convinced, God is, as Isaiah eloquently invited us to discover and trust, also “doing a new thing”: “Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it…?” Isaiah 43. 19; “The Message”.
    But now I’ve engaged in dueling proof-texts, too; and, as a recently retired Presbyterian – patiently, proudly, gratefully PC(USA) – pastor, I’d rather spend my energy and spirit respecting our differences, building our abundant communities and working together for justice and the common good.

  10. And this is why good folks are stepping away from organized religion in droves. Egotism, greed and exclusion rather than love, understanding and acceptance. What would Jesus say? “SMH”

  11. As has been noted, this is a complex and confusing issue and history. One thing that should be clarified is that not all Presbyterian congregations in San Antonio feel the same way or hold the same theogocal position as First Presbyterian. Just as with other denominations, there is a range of faithful expression within the Presbyterian tradition. There are several Presbyterian Congregations who are welcoming to LGBT folks, and count them as active and faithful members. Madison Square Presbyterian Church, also in downtown San Antonio and not far from First Presbyterian has long been an advocate for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the work and life of the church.

  12. Is it just and right that a governing body claims as its own property what has been built, with God’s help, through the sacrifice of church members over 169 years? Is it right that they claim this trust in a way doesn’t hold water in Texas civil law?

    I believe the reasons for FPC leaning toward leaving PC(USA) are greater than the marriage issue – including fundamental differences on the authority of scripture and views about who Jesus is. But even if it came down to just the marriage issue, that’s not an inconsequential thing. We need to discern the will of God through what we see in scripture, with love, honesty and courage.

    For those of you on the outside looking in, I hope you’ll also know that FPC is an incredibly generous, loving congregation. Our members and our funds are at work in the community in ways that we hope are redeeming lives.

  13. I would agree that it is about more than marriage. It is about the authority of scripture, it is about the person and work of Christ, it is about far left issues in the denomination, it is about the squandering of denominational resources. It is unfortunate that a church wanting to leave has to seek an injuction against Presbytery. However that decision did not happen in a vacuum. There have been too many cases where Presbytery showed up in the middle of the night, changed the locks, and fired the pastor and the session just for wanting to exercise their God given right to associate with another denomination.

  14. Interesting that the pro-gay marriage churches aren’t filled with Millennials. Maybe people aren’t actually looking for a church that just mimics the culture? And “everyone knew that to be the case” is just shoddy reporting.

  15. There is at least one Presbyterian church in San Antonio (and I know that there is at least one more) that does not agree with First Presbyterian Church regarding same-gender marriage. At Madison Square Presbyterian Church, we celebrate and rejoice at our denomination’s recent change in the definition of marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “between two people.” In our view, this change is not just morally justified but also biblically based.

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