The Marriage Pledge, authored by Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz and unveiled by First Things editor R. R. Reno, argues that the time has come for Christian pastors to rend themselves away from civil marriage. The Pledge argues that the fact that many states are now allowing same sex couples to “marry” means that pastors can no longer participate in state sanctioned ceremonies. Christian marriage and civil marriage are so radically different that pastors can no longer play a role in forming civil unions. While Christian couples are still advised by the Pledge to get civil marriage certificates, the pastors who sign the Pledge are committing themselves to no longer act as “agents of the state” and therefore they will no longer sign civil marriage forms.
The goal is for the church to act as a public institution precisely by refusing to play Caesar’s marriage games. The church, through her pastors’ boycott of civil marriage forms, will witness against Caesar’s tyrannical, unnatural, and ultimately futile attempt to redefine the God-ordained institution of marriage.
I want to provide a counterpoint to the pledge, albeit a context specific counterpoint. Everyone party to the discussion over the Pledge agrees that same sex “marriages” are not marriages at all because God created marriage in such a way that male/female complementarity is integral to the institution. The state does not have the power or authority to redesign the way God made the world; a civil law can no more create a same sex “marriage” than a civil law can repeal the force of gravity. Marriage is what God says it is, not what Caesar says it is.
The main question before us is what shape our challenge to Caesar ought to take in our current context. If we end up in a situation where pastors are being forced by the state to perform same sex unions, I could see a declaration like the Pledge being a possible response (though not the only possible response!) since we simply aren’t going to do that, come what may.
But in my own context I do not think signing the pledge at this point would be prudent. In fact, my inclination right now, as a pastor in the state of Alabama, is to actually do the exact opposite of the Pledge, namely, give as much support as I possibly can to civil marriage as it exists in this state. Here is what our state constitution currently says about marriage and same sex unions:
“Amendment 774: Sanctity of Marriage Amendment.
(a) This amendment shall be known and may be cited as the Sanctity of Marriage Amendment.
(b) Marriage is inherently a unique relationship between a man and a woman. As a matter of public policy, this state has a special interest in encouraging, supporting, and protecting this unique relationship in order to promote, among other goals, the stability and welfare of society and its children. A marriage contracted between individuals of the same sex is invalid in this state.
(c) Marriage is a sacred covenant, solemnized between a man and a woman, which, when the legal capacity and consent of both parties is present, establishes their relationship as husband and wife, and which is recognized by the state as a civil contract.
(d) No marriage license shall be issued in the State of Alabama to parties of the same sex.
(e) The State of Alabama shall not recognize as valid any marriage of parties of the same sex that occurred or was alleged to have occurred as a result of the law of any jurisdiction regardless of whether a marriage license was issued.
(f) The State of Alabama shall not recognize as valid any common law marriage of parties of the same sex.
(g) A union replicating marriage of or between persons of the same sex in the State of Alabama or in any other jurisdiction shall be considered and treated in all respects as having no legal force or effect in this state and shall not be recognized by this state as a marriage or other union replicating marriage.”
I can get fully behind that law, and intend to do so as long as it is on the books. While the Pledge states that “To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage,” it’s very hard for me to see how that is the case under current Alabama laws. Indeed, if I withdraw my support of our present law by refusing to sign marriage forms, it seems I am actually sending precisely the wrong message to the state about my beliefs on marriage as a pastor.
What about the marriage form itself in Alabama? It has blanks for the “groom” and “bride” (certainly those terms are as gender specific as we could hope for!) and asks the officiant to fill in his title. Nothing on the form or in Alabama law suggests that a minister of the gospel who performs a wedding ceremony is acting as an “agent of the state,” as the Pledge indicates. The form indicates that the pastor’s signature is to “certify that the above named persons [groom and bride] were married” on the date indicated.
In signing the marriage certificate, a pastor is not acting as an agent of the state so much as he is witnessing to the state what has happened by the persons labeled “groom” and “bride” on the license. Any pastor who signs the Pledge in Alabama should be aware of the fact that refusal on the part of a religious officiant to submit a marriage certificate to the appropriate probate judge is a misdemeanor.
Perhaps signers of the Pledge in Alabama are happy to be engaging in an act of civil disobedience by not submitting the form, but if the rationale is that submitting the form somehow supports same-sex marriage, it’s hard to see the coherency of that action, given that Alabama law so clearly excludes same-sex marriage. Since Scripture directly commands us to submit to the powers God has ordained to rule over us, this act of civil disobedience does not seem justified to me.
It seems to me that the Pledge has not followed its own logic far enough. If the Pledge’s key premise is correct, namely that participation in a civil ceremony is a tacit endorsement of Caesar’s redefinition of marriage, why doesn’t that apply to the laity as well? Don’t they also have a responsibility to witness against Caesar’s folly? And if so, shouldn’t the laity drop out of civil marriage as well?
If the laity do get civil certificates, following the Pledge’s counsel, doesn’t that effectively weaken the very witness against homosexual unions the Pledge is supposed to call for? Caesar might not even notice that Christian pastors are no longer signing marriage certificates since there would be no net drop in the number of certificates submitted to the state. Does the state really care all that much whether a couple has their certificate signed by a pastor rather than a justice of the peace, so long as the state still gets its revenue and its record of the wedding?
On the other hand if the laity join pastors in boycotting civil marriage, now redefined to include homosexual couples, we have a new set of problems. Why, after all, does the Pledge assume that Christian couples should still seek out a civil marriage recognized by the state? Is it because the authors of the Pledge believe that the terms of marriage need civil enforcement, which the church (even in her most public form) cannot provide? Consider: If a Christian couple doesn’t get a civil marriage because they don’t want to participate in the state’s corrupted version of marriage, and the marriage later goes awry, how will the divorce settlement be handled?
To carry the point even further, if Christians drop out of civil marriage, won’t it also mean giving up a number of other social goods and civil benefits presently associated with civil marriage, such as Social Security benefits, health insurance, income tax deductions, hospital visitation rights, and so forth? Are we ready to go that far and pay that kind of price to avoid participating in the state’s corrupted version of marriage? It seems to me that if the Pledge takes its own logic seriously – that civil marriage is so distorted by its inclusion of same sex unions that civil marriage is no longer really marriage as Christians understand it – then believers need to count the cost and drop out of it altogether, no matter how difficult. But is that really workable right now? Even the Pledge’s authors don’t seem to think so.
All of this raises an important question: How do we know when a civil institution has degenerated far enough from biblical and creational norms that Christians can no longer participate in it? The line we need to draw in the sand is clear: Are we being forced to sin? If so, we must obey God rather than men. If not, our default to should be to obey Caesar.
Right now, Caesar does not force pastors to officiate same sex unions. Right now, Caesar does not require Christians to recognize the legitimacy of homosexual practice. Right now, Caesar’s unbiblical approach to grounds for divorce does not require any of us to violate biblical standards. Right now, Caesar is not forcing us to sin, even in those places where Caesar has already redefined civil marriage to include relationships that Christians would call abominable. In a fallen world, God’s people often find themselves participating in systems and structures that are far from ideal, and while navigating these situations requires great wisdom, we should not automatically seek to escape them.
In the end, I want to ask: What course of action on the part of pastors is going to speak more loudly to the state: No longer signing marriage forms (while Christian couples still submit the forms anyway)? Or telling the state we will not officiate at same sex unions when they try to force us to do so? I think if we want our message to Caesar to be loud and clear we need to wait until Caesar tries to force our hand. Premature withdrawal from civil marriage might actually mute our public voice in the long run by causing us to miss a much more direct opportunity to witness against same-sex marriage. If Caesar tries to force participation in same-sex marriage on us, we will have the perfect occasion for a showdown, in which we can take a very public (and costly!) stand for God’s truth in the eyes of everyone.
The most compelling witness we can give to our culture (including the state) regarding the truth about marriage is to live faithfully and joyfully in our own marriages. Pastors need to do all they can to ensure God’s standards for marriage, sex, and divorce are adhered to in their congregations, using the resources of the Word, sacraments, shepherding, and discipline to bring about a greater level of conformity to God’s design amongst believers. And the church, as the bride of Christ, needs to cry out to her divine Bridegroom to deliver us all from the foolishness and darkness of the sexual revolution as it comes full circle.
Pastor Rich Lusk is Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama. A longer version of this essay is available here.