The Presbyterian Church's Rules on Marriages

Presbyterians ensure that weddings are done decently and in order.
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The Presbyterian family of churches is broad, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.) as a whole has recently dealt with changes to its rules around marriage. These rules affect who authorizes a marriage service, who can officiate, the role of civil marriages and even whether same sex marriages are allowed.

1 Authorizing a Wedding

Usually, a wedding service occurs in the normal place of worship but as a special service just for the purpose of the wedding. As a service occurring within the church, it is under the direction of the minister or teacher elder and the supervision of the session or church board. Within guidelines found in the Directory for Worship, which is part of the church's Book of Order, the minister and session can decide what will and will not be allowed. The session's supervision also means that the minister is not free to conduct weddings in the sanctuary without permission.

2 Officiating at a Wedding

The person officiating at a wedding needs to be authorized to do so by the state in which the marriage occurs. Most states look to the church to decide who those people should be. The Presbyterian norm is that the presider or officiant should be a minister who is an ordained teaching elder. With the rise of smaller churches who are being served by commissioned ruling elders, in places where the state will allow, it has become common to authorize these commissioned ruling elders to to officiate at marriage ceremonies.

3 Civil Marriage

The Presbyterian Church fully recognizes marriages where the wedding did not occur within the church. The church recognizes that "the woman and the man are already married to one another." While not necessary, there is also a process by which "a church wedding" can follow a "civil wedding." In this case the service of worship recognizes the civil marriage and follows an abbreviated pattern from the normal wedding service. Additionally, language is changed to reflect that the couple is already married and are solemnizing it within the church.

4 Same Sex Marriage

Same sex marriage has been an area of long debate within the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church's definition of Christian marriage is that it is "between a woman and a man" -- a fact repeated three times in the definition. In 2012, the General Assembly, which is the highest body in the Church, voted in a close vote to keep this language while beginning a two-year study on marriage. As such, a Presbyterian minister may not marry a couple who are of the same gender, but since 2000 a minister may bless a same sex union if it is not a marriage. This issue continues to shift and is a source of division among Presbyterians.

Based in New York City, Christopher L. Smith has been writing since the 1998 publication of "Honest Talk About Serious Mental Illness." Smith brings professional experience in education, religion/spirituality and mental health, including as a licensed marriage and family therapist. Among Smith's graduate degrees is a M.Div. from Yale.