Should Pastors Disengage Civil and Christian Marriage?

The Rev. Katie Hotze-Wilton signs a marriage license at a same-sex wedding ceremony at City Hall in St. Louis, Missouri, November 5, 2014. Missouri's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, a St. Louis circuit judge ruled Wednesday, adding momentum to efforts in states across the country to legalize gay nuptials.
The Rev. Katie Hotze-Wilton signs a marriage license at a same-sex wedding ceremony at City Hall in St. Louis, Missouri, November 5, 2014. Missouri's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, a St. Louis circuit judge ruled Wednesday, adding momentum to efforts in states across the country to legalize gay nuptials. | (Photo: Reuters/Whitney Curtis)

First Things, a conservative Christian website, published a pledge that pastors can sign saying they will disengage from civil marriage. At the time of this writing 332 pastors have signed the pledge.

There are some praiseworthy items within this pledge, the first being how pastors must bear a clear witness.

"This is a perilous time. Divorce and co-­habitation have weakened marriage. We have been too complacent in our responses to these trends. Now marriage is being fundamentally redefined, and we are ­being tested yet again. If we fail to take clear action, we risk falsifying God's Word."

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They also affirm the biblical definition of marriage.

"The new definition of marriage no longer coincides with the Christian understanding of marriage between a man and woman. Our biblical faith is committed to upholding, celebrating, and furthering this understanding, which is stated many times within the Scriptures and has been repeatedly restated in our wedding ceremonies, church laws, and doctrinal standards for centuries."

They sound a warning that warrants some scrutiny – "To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage."

Does it? I'm not so sure. On one hand it has the potential of doing that as religious liberty erodes. We already in Idaho have the case of a husband and wife who are ordained ministers being pressured to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony even though it is contrary to they believe. If we follow the path of Europe and Canada we will continue to see an erosion of religious freedom in response to increasing gay rights.

On the other hand, while same sex marriage advocates have experienced several victories in the courtroom conflicting circuit court rulings could force the Supreme Court's hand and they may have to rule on this. Momentum seems to be building for this.

Even if the Supreme Court overturns circuit court decisions that doesn't mean pressure won't come at the state level. The Court has, thus far, seemed to act to protect religious speech and conscience.

So even if same-sex marriage won in all 50 states that doesn't mean pastors would be forced to perform same-sex marriages.

The pledge continues:

"Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church's life."

Another thing even if pastors do this it may not stop overzealous civil rights commissions from saying to pastors they have to perform religious ceremonies as well. Who is to say they will stop at civil marriages?

It seems to me to be a call to find a way to disengage from the same-sex marriage debate, and I believe it is too early to do that. There may be a time, perhaps even in the near future, where a pledge like this is appropriate, but not right now. There is nothing inherent with a civil marriage license that says a pastor agrees or condones a different definition of marriage.

John Stonestreet makes a good point responding to this pledge – we risk disengaging from culture.

"By backing out of the civil marriage business, we risk reinforcing the growing opinion that our views on marriage are valid only to us and belong only in the private, religious recesses of our culture. We also risk perpetuating the very troubling myth that marriage is something that government defines, instead of something it recognizes. If we are still in the business, we can remind them. If not, we can't."

So true! Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, also made some excellent points:

"When a congregation certifies a biblically married couple to be also civilly married, the congregation is not affirming the state's definition of marriage. Instead, the Church is witnessing to the state's role in recognizing marriage as something that stands before and is foundational to society. We are bearing witness to the fact that these unions are the business of the larger society in ways other unions aren't.

We are witnessing that the state has no business in recreating marriage, but the state does have a responsibility to safeguard children, by holding mothers and fathers to their vows to each other and to the next generation.

In this sense, we are acting much as Jesus did when he was asked about the payment of the temple tax. Jesus believed himself and his disciples to be heirs of the kingdom and thus free from this obligation. Nonetheless, he paid the half-shekel "so as not to give offense to them" (Matt. 17:27).

If the state ever attempts to force us to call marriage that which is not marriage in our churches and ceremonies, let's obey God, even if that means we sing our wedding hymns in the prison block. But, for now, by registering Gospel-qualified unions as civil marriages and not officiating at unions that are not Gospel-qualified, we call the government to its responsibility even as we call attention to its limits.

We gladly render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but the image imprinted on the marriage union isn't the union of Caesar and his court, but of Christ and his Church."

This position advocated by First Things is one that is getting some traction in the Church. Lifeway Research found that 1 in 4 pastors believe that clergy should not be involved civil licenses for marriage. They also found that one-half of Americans believe that religious wedding ceremonies should not be connected to a state's definition or recognition of marriage. Considering how many states now allow for same-sex marriage perhaps we should be more concerned with the 41% who believe that they should.

As I said before there may be a time for this, but not yet.

 What say you? Agree or Disagree? Take our reader poll!

About the Author: Shane Vander Hart is the founder and editor-in-chief of Caffeinated Thoughts. He is also the President of 4:15 Communications, LLC, a social media & communications consulting/management firm. He is a communications director for American Principles Project's Preserve Innocence Initiative. Prior to this Shane spent 20 years in youth ministry serving in church, parachurch, and school settings.

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