One of the reasons: the Reformed Church in America’s wavering approach to same-sex marriages.The URC believes marriage is limited to a man and a woman. But denominations toeing the line on traditional marriage face a new problem: the growing number of pastors performing same-sex ceremonies despite rules and the ambivalent responses from denominational leadership.According to URC pastor Kevin DeYoung, his congregation has wrestled for three years with the decision to leave the RCA. The RCA has been debating sexual ethics for much longer. Since the late 1970s, the denomination has been affirming that marriage is between a man and a woman. In 2005, the General Synod took action against a pastor who performed a wedding ceremony for his daughter and her partner, deposing him as a Professor of Theology and suspending him as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.

And in 2012, the General Synod approved their strongest statement yet in favor of traditional marriage, calling homosexual behavior “a sin according to the Holy Scriptures” and making performing same-sex marriages “a disciplinable offense.”

But those actions were short-lived. The pastor was reinstated by his classis in 2011, and the 2012 statement was softened by the 2013 Synod, which left the language calling homosexual behavior sinful but acknowledged that they had “usurped the constitutional authority reserved for the classes.”

And when asked to repeal the ordination of RCA’s first openly gay clergy, the 2013 Synod passed the case back to the regional synod, which has since upheld the 2011 ordination.

“Statements from the General Synod should have some weight to them, especially if they’re stated over and over again,” DeYoung said. “But that’s not been the way they’ve been handled. Now it’s clear that there’s no teeth to them or authority behind them. Individual classes will do what they want to do.”

Familiar Situation

It’s a situation that sounds familiar to Bill Arnold, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary and lifelong member of the United Methodist Church (UMC).

The 2012 UMC General Conference held that same-sex practices are incompatible with Christian teaching. The United Methodist position has remained unchanged since 1972. What has changed is the behavior of pastors and bishops, Arnold said. Pastors are conducting homosexual weddings, and bishops have begun to refuse to bring them to trial, he said.

“Essentially we have different factions in the church living out their convictions in ways that result in miniature denominations,” he said. “It’s a fragmentation of our church.”

And with the General Conference meeting only every four years, there’s no mechanism to deal with crises that arise in the meantime, he said.

“We essentially deteriorate into a screaming match,” Arnold said. “My friend says we’re more like a bad Jerry Springer act than a church.”

The conflict has been amplified by the rapidly changing opinions of the American public. In 2001, 57 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage and 35 percent were in favor, according to Pew Research Center. Twelve years later, 43 percent were opposed and 50 percent were in favor.

And while white evangelical Protestants are most likely to oppose gay marriage—only 23 percent approved in 2013—that figure has risen 10 percentage points from the 13 percent that favored same-sex marriage in 2001.

Same Limbo

Though different in structure from American denominations, the Church of England is also in limbo over the same subject, said Rod Thomas, vicar of St. Matthew’s Church in southern England.

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SARAH EEKHOFF ZYLSTRA

SARAH EEKHOFF ZYLSTRA

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