On the last Sunday in April, the roughly 450 members of University Reformed Church (URC) in East Lansing, Michigan, voted overwhelmingly to leave their denomination. 

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.

Anglican teaching holds that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman. This teaching was reiterated after same-sex marriages became legal in the United Kingdom in March. But a commissioned report released in November said that “there can be circumstances where a priest . . . should be free to mark the formation of a permanent same-sex relationship in a public service” and called for denomination-wide conversations about human sexuality.

The bishops’ response to the report acknowledged the “very significant change in social attitudes to sexuality in the United Kingdom in recent years” and said that the way forward will be in part be “seeking good disagreement.” Just last week Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the new gay marriage law is “right and proper, it’s the law of the land, and that’s great.” 

Conservatives see the writing on the wall, Thomas said.

“If the House if Bishops says ‘Don’t do it,’ and the clergy do it, will those clergy be disciplined?” he said. “The issue is whether individual bishops will have the strength of conviction to do anything about this.”

Coming up with a “good disagreement” is an enormously complicated thing, he said. “How you could create two sets of communion within one institutional framework? It is very difficult to imagine.”

Political Nightmare

So far, it seems no one has been able to imagine a good way forward.

One option would be for the UMC to make a firm decision and let those who can’t live with it walk away, Arnold said.

“That’s difficult because some would take it as a winner-take-all debate,” Arnold said. “It would be a political nightmare.” But there is precedent: The councils of church leaders in Jerusalem and in Nicaea didn’t revisit their decisions after they were made, he said.

And having the same debate every four years is “killing us,” he said. As a result, people on both sides of the issue are leaving the church in droves, he said. “The so-called progressives are leaving because they see no hope, and they go to another church where they can live into their theology. The conservatives or traditionalists walk away because they don’t see our church resolving this in a way that’s healthy or theologically appropriate.”

The RCA has been losing members, too. The denomination is not facing an imminent split, unless the RCA approves of homosexual behavior and marriage at the denominational level, but will instead continue to leak membership, DeYoung said. “I know of several churches that have filed or will likely soon file to leave the RCA.”

While parishes can’t leave the Church of England, they can declare themselves in “impaired communion,” declining to welcome the bishop into their church or to contribute financially to the wider diocese, Thomas said.

And even though the Church of England has hundreds of years of history pulling for it, the disagreement over homosexuality may be enough to pull it apart, Thomas said. Previous conflicts, like the tussle over women in leadership, were considered by many to be second-order issues, or issues that involved church order but not sin and salvation. But sexuality is a first-order issue involving the definition of sin, he said.

“We have to approach this issue theologically and recognize the church is the Lord Jesus Christ’s church and nobody else’s,” he said. “Therefore, if we’re not being faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ, than the mere fact that we have a cherished institution is neither here nor there.”

However, the church’s long history will be enough for people to make strong efforts to find some sort of institutional solution to their differences, he said.

Recipe for Disaster

The same can’t be said of the younger denominations in the United States.

“It’s an unwitting decision to think that we don’t need to be held together by shared theology and a shared understanding of the gospel, but by relationships, shared institutions, and a general sense that we all want to do good in the world,” DeYoung said.

Losing unity over the gospel is a recipe for disaster, and numbers will slowly decline as churches head to more conservative denominations, he said. Most of the RCA churches now filing to leave, including URC, are heading for the Presbyterian Church in America.

It’s part of the “reshuffling of the deck” among American congregations, DeYoung said.

“This big sorting that’s happening in the mainline is also going to happen in evangelical churches, colleges, seminaries, and parachurch organizations,” he said. “You’ll find a stronger, more doctrinally robust evangelical church, even though it may be smaller than it once was.”